The Mutilated Subject: The Performances of Raul Zurita, Diamela Eltit and Carlos Leppe

by on Sep.06, 2013


I am reading a book, Corpus Delecti, about performance art in Latin America, and I found Nelly Richards’ essay, “Performances of the Chilean avanzda” particularly useful. It is a study of Raul Zurita, Diamela Eltit (to whom Zurita dedicated Purgatorio), CADA the performance group they belonged to) and Carlos Leppe. Zurita’s poetry (and the accompanying stunts, various acts of auto-mutilation for example) has influenced my own thinking about art’s relationship to the body and to violence. And I thought this essay insightful so I’ll quote a bit from it:

“The body is the stage on which this division primarily leaves its mark. It is the meeting place of the individual (or one’s biography and unconscious) and the collective (or programming of hte roles of identity according to the norms of social discipline). That is why its utilizationas a support for art practice entails the dismantling of the ideological use of hte body as a vehicle for images or representation of the ritual of day-to-day living, as material bearer of the means of social reproduction and the models of sexual domination.”

“Whereas Leppe postulated the body as a game of appearances and reinvented its image by maneuvering its external signifiers, Zurita and Eltit promoted the body’s “concrete substance of pain” in acts of resignation and self-denial. Their various mortifications of the body signaled a type of subjectivity modeled on sacrifice or martyrdom. Raul Zurita burned hsi face (1975) or attmepted to blind himself (1980). Diamela Eltit cut and burned herself and then turned up at a brotherl where she read part of her novel (1980). By inflicting these emblems of the wounded body upon themselves, Zurita and Eltit appealed to pain as a way of approachign that borderline between individual and collective experience: their self-punishment merges with an “us” that is both redeemer and redeemed. The threshold of pain enabled the mutilated subject to enter areas of collective identification, sharing in one’s own flesh the same signs of social disadvantage as the the other unfortunates. Voluntary pain simply legitimates one’s incorporation into the community of those who have been harmed in some way – as if the self-inflicted marks of chastisement in the artist’s body and the marks of suffering in the national body, as if pain and its subject, could unite in the same scar.

There were two models of body art which influenced the Chilean art scene: the boy of Leppe, who stimulated the sexual categorization of identity in order to denounce it or interchange its signs, and the stigmatized body of Zurita and Eltit, who used pain in order to recapture the communal body of suffering. These bodies organized or even opposed two kinds of discourse regarding the ideological maneuvers that each favored or rejected: Leppe’s materialistic body, or the theater in which the fiction of hte body is dismantled, and the utopian body of Zurita and Eltit, whose sacrificial scars evoke the humanism… on which the metaphysics of identity depends…”
Obviously this is a small excerpt from an entire book, but I find it interesting to think about in terms of Mark Seltzer’s wound culture (which is according to him a sign of the pathological state of our capitalist country, in Zurita the wounded body is perhaps even more dire); Jacqueline Rose’s argument that the criticism of Plath for her holocaust imagery is really about an opposition to metaphor (you have to have been in the holocaust to write that corpse-body) (and in fact Zurita has – like Plath – been accused of megalomania etc); and in terms of all my other preoccupation with violence, the body and art.

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Valerie Mejer on Raul Zurita

by on Sep.03, 2013

Valerie Mejer (whose first book in English Action Books is going to publish this fall/winter) has written an evocative consideration of the great poet Raul Zurita’s work over on the Poetry Foundation’s blog:

At the end of the book Zurita’s father was as silent as the snowman, as silent as the snow that swallows the sounds that exist and those that shouldn’t. We could now say that that poet exists. His masterpieces behind him (Purgatory, Song For His Disappeared Love, Anteparadise and the amazing Zurita) prove this, but if you ask him, Zurita himself cares only about the page in white before him, it’s her that could or could not give him life. And at times the page shows up. And other times, she doesn’t. And I see with melancholy all those letters that repeat “it always starts from zero” and the letters that quote that line of Baudelaire’s: “God grant me the grace to write a couple of beautiful poems to help me feel that I’m not the worst of men, not even inferior to those I scorn.”

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"The Political Uncanny": Raul Zurita's Purgatory

by on Mar.20, 2013

So I totally understand people who don’t want to go to the AWP for this or that reason, but the fact is that Raul Zurita gave a couple of readings this year as well as appeared on a panel on the translation of Latin American poetry, so I’m happy I went.


I’m teaching his book Purgatory (trans. Anna Deeny) in my creative writing classes, and I’m re-reading this amazing book. I think CD Wright does a great job in her Foreword. This morning, I am intrigued by this passage from her essay:

“Despite the savage despair he experienced while writing Purgatory, Zurita matched despair with ferocity, deploying his own formal inventiveness and skill to compose the poem that would stand as both a subwoofer attack on tyranny and a work of never-ending strangeness.”

So much of discussions about political poetry in the US is still bound up with the idea of efficacious simplicity and the idea that “strangeness” (ie Art) is apolitical, is decadently luxurious, without a point; that in order to be truly political we must turn away from strangeness. Wright sees the political dimension of “strangeness,” but the politics has to do with “match[in]” the desperate situation in some way with strangeness.

Zurita himself writes something similar in his preface:

“When faced with horror, we had to respond with art that was stronger and more vast than the pain and damage inflicted on us. I believe this is what I thought in 1975, a year and a half after the military coup. It was then that a few soldiers subjected me to one of those typical abuses in which they are experts. I recalled the well-known evangelical phrase: If someone strikes your right cheek, turn the other to him. So I burned my left cheek. Completely alone, I enclosed myself in a bathroom and burned it with a red-hot branding iron. Purgatory began with that laceration.”

Again, Zurita here “match[es]” the torture of the fascist soldiers with his art. He doesn’t merely turn the other cheek, he usurps their position as violators. I’m fascinated by this kind of “strange” “match[ing].”
(continue reading…)

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A Few Thoughts On Transvestite Violence, Saints and Hysterical Women in Raul Zurita and Lady Gaga

by on Oct.12, 2011

In my Poetry Writing Class yesterday we discussed Raul Zurita’s magnificent Purgatorio and we ended up analyzing it largely “through” Lady Gaga’s fascist/catholic pageant “Alejandro.” Also, over at Big Other, Tim Yelvington has a post up about the radical superficiality of Lady Gaga. So I thought I would take a few minutes to jot down a few thoughts about Zurita’s actions with CADA and his book Purgatory, as well as Lady Gaga and various kinds of pageants, acts of transvesticism, fascism, media, violence.

Zurita’s book begins with the phrase “my friends think/I’m a sick woman/because I burned my cheek.” This refers to an incident where Zurita responded to the Pinochet dictatorship’s torture of him and other Chileans by “turning the other cheek” as it says in the Bible. But instead of merely turning the other cheek, he burned it. That is to say, he in some way aligned himself with the violence of the Coup/Pinochet: Zurita’s art (which he says all came out of that act in some way) is a kind of fascistic art of violence. He does with art what Pinochet’s soldiers did to him, creates an excess out of the violence.

This is also an art of transvesticism: it turns him into a woman. Art is a medium for tranvesticism. Why a woman? Hysterical women turn the violence of patriarchy against themselves: with cigarette burns, with cuts, with anorexia. Back in the day, they used to call women like that saints…
(continue reading…)

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The Echo of the Face in Raúl Zurita and Fever Ray

by on Sep.30, 2011

Coincidentally, I’ve also been interfacing with our beloved Zurita.  Until someone sends me his 745-page opus published in Chile this year, or until he shows up at the local glassy poetry complex, I’m rereading INRI (trans. William Rowe, Marick Press).  The book–titled after the inscription on Jesus’ crucifix–begins with a preface recalling President Ricardo Lagos’ absurd acknowledgment in as late as 2001 of the bodies disappeared during Chile’s dictatorship.  Describing his shame in witnessing this on TV, Zurita writes:

No, it wasn’t ‘moral outrage’ or any other high-sounding phrase, it was something much more concrete and unspoken:  it was like a screech I couldn’t get away from, that I may never be able to pull myself away from.  The book was called INRI, and it came out of the image of a man who was uttering strange words on the TV.  I don’t know if what I am saying about the screech makes sense:  it was called innrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiii.

As a “concrete and unspoken” event, the screech that Zurita intuits in the televisual image echoes beyond language as we ‘know’ it.  Both gasping void and stuttering, overwhelming flow, the screech is a religious, multisensory intensity that the book materializes when it offers passages in Braille to be touched rather than seen.  INRI thus disorients us into a blindness once brutally experienced by Chileans:  “There was also a detail, another fact about that crucifixion:  one of the reports tells how before killing their victims the military personnel gouged out their eyes with hooks…”

Because it handicaps itself, leading us through Chilean landscapes as if they were unrecognizable to the eye, Zurita’s poetry reminds me of the much-discussed appearance by Karin Dreijer Andersson, aka Fever Ray, at a Swedish awards show: (continue reading…)

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Raul Zurita's reading at Notre Dame

by on Feb.17, 2011

Here are three films of Raul Zurita and his translator Daniel Borzutzky reading at the University of Notre Dame earlier this month:

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Raúl Zurita Interview

by on Aug.27, 2010

Daniel Borzutzky has an interiew with the Great Chilean author Raul Zurita on the Poetry Foundation:

“That idea came about in the most desperate time of my life. I got the idea far before it happened, in 1975; it was at the time I burned my face and then I remembered that when I was a kid, a really young kid, I remembered having seen an airplane write the name of a soap in the sky. I didn’t know if it was a dream or if I had really seen it because it was an extremely old memory. . . . And so then it occurred to me that it would be beautiful to write in the sky. This was 1975 and I was totally desperate, but thinking about this helped me to stay OK. . . .I thought about this, and I was able to escape from the horrors of life.”

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"We took action!": ASCO and Zurita

by on Jan.03, 2013

Back in 2011 some time, I read this article in the NY Times about the Chicano art collective ASCO, who were active in LA mostly during the 1970s, making murals and fake movies as well as staging baroque happenings. I was immediately smitten by this nexus of activity and art. I was especially intrigued by the “no movies,” fake movie stills which reminded me of some of my favorite art: Jack Smith’s fake movie still (from before he started making movies) and Joseph Beuys’s photographs that supposedly document his art happening but really create a sense of an entire life as art.

Well, I was as always busy as hell and forgot about it, but then I remembered it yesterday and asked about it on Facebook, and somebody gave me a link to this awesome blog post on the blog East Long Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Line.

Among other things, it features this totally inspiring movie about the group:

This is such an inspiring movie.

Another inspiring movie is this witnessing of Montevidayo’s favorite poet Raul Zurita, sky-writing his poem “La Vida Nuevo” in the heavens above NYC.

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"Showbiz", Zurita, Drugs, and Conviviality: Some Thoughts on Brooks Johnson's Poetry Foundation Actions

by on Oct.02, 2011

It seems that the one thing that a lot of the commentators/actors in the thread about Brooks Johnson’s protests at the Poetry Foundation agree about is that the ensuing discussion is “stupid,” I think there’s been quite a bit of insightful things said (if sometimes unconsciously), suggesting that whatever the action accomplished or what it entailed (there seems to be quite a bit of disagreement about that), it did succeed in tapping into a “nerve” among poetry readers and writers.

Therefore the protest was a success on some level: it stirred up some discussion about the poetry foundation, it caused some people to write to the foundation and ask for it to drop its charges against Stephanie Dunn..

One might also say that it succeeded in making the poetry foundation into a stage; in theatricalizing the Poetry Foundation; in making Art out of space that is used to limit art to a conventional idea of poet. In so doing, it seems they created something exciting and interesting – if befuddling to many. (But then isn’t Art something that befuddles, disrupts common sense?)

I think we can see the protest in terms of Lucas’s posts about Zurita and “conviviality”: that in getting drunk and naked, Stephanie Dunn created a kind of convivial vulnerability, a wound in the poetry foundation that perhaps echoed Zurita’s own practice of pouring acid in his own face:
(continue reading…)

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Pageantry and Atrocities: Possession vs. Witness in Zurita

by on Feb.11, 2011

Can I just make a very obvious point implicit in Joyelle’s pop quiz: There seems to be this pervasive idea that “experimental” poetry is something apolitical or “ironic” (I understand less and less what that word means), something that belongs to recent American poetry, something that is not really serious.

One of the ways Carolyn Forché maintains this distinction in her anthology Against Forgetting is by claiming that foreign writers write “poetry of witness,” merely witnessing such horror makes the writing strange (almost against the poet’s will). But, the ‘witness’ part is important– it’s not the atrocity but the witness, the emphasis on experience, that defines this genre and legitimizes and homogonizes the variations and intensities and fantasies and excesses of the writing itself.

Raul Zurita is such an interesting case because he could be made into an iconic “poet of witness” – having been tortured in a shed for weeks after the Pinochet coup and then having spent the subsequent two decades writing visionary, grotesque poetry and engaging in outrageous protest stunts (self-mutilation, airplanes, milk trucks).
(continue reading…)

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Necropastoral, the Abject, and Zurita

by on Feb.02, 2011

Raul Zurita will give an onsite, bilingual reading and answer questions at 12 PM on Friday, Feb 3, at the AWP in DC

Josh asked a good question in the comments field below, namely, in what ways the necropastoral converges with the abject, and how these dynamics play out in the historical example of Pinochet’s mass graves and the symbiotic (sym-necrotic?) literary mass graves of Zurita’s Song for His Disappeared Love and other works.

The necropastoral certainly shares many features with the abject, but what’s important about the necropastoral is that it is specifically ecological in its concern. It moves from Kristeva’s mapping of a figurative, pyschoanalytic landscape all oriented around the self to the literal landscape and the body as porous to that landscape and to the cultural landscape and to other bodies, living, dead, ghostly, human, inhuman, artificial; in some (but not all) ways it’s the model of the psychoanalytic i.e. interior landscape of the abject turned painfully inside out, and shedding the psychoanalytic content itself. That is, the self and its dramas are not so important in my thinking. There’s something more massy, assembled, necrotic, material, decomposing, and literally field-like about this way of thinking.
(continue reading…)

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Zurita is coming to the U.S.

by on Jan.27, 2011

Raúl Zurita, legendary Chilean poet whose book Song For His Disappeared Love was published (in translation by Daniel Borzutzky) by Action Books this past year, is coming to the US next week. On Monday, he will give a Q-and-A (3 pm McKenna Hall) and a reading (5 pm, McKenna Hall) at the University of Notre Dame. Next Friday at noon, he’s going to give an on-campus reading at the AWP, followed by a discussion with Joyelle McSweeney, Daniel Borzutzky and Monica de la Torre.

A while back Poetry Foundation published an amazing interview with Borzutzky and Zurita. Here’s an excerpt:

RZ: Yes, they threw them into the sea. Everywhere I went, I carried this file of poems. It was from my first book, Purgatorio, from the first part, and since the poems had some drawings on them, they [the military] thought they contained codes, and so I was beaten terribly, but they gave me back the poems, until a senior officer arrived and he took one look at them and instantly knew they were poems, and so he threw them into the water.
(continue reading…)

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Elemental Tears in Zurita & Wojnarowicz

by on Dec.08, 2010

Zurita's poem in the Atacama desert ("Neither shame nor fear")

Zurita's poem in the Atacama desert ("Neither shame nor fear")

In 2001 the Chilean government finally recognizes the extermination/disappearance of thousands of citizens under Pinochet’s dictatorship. In 1987, after 41,027 Americans have died, Ronald Regan says “AIDS” for the first time.*

The censorship of Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” thus bleeds into my reading of Raúl Zurita’s Song for His Disappeared Love. A poem that erupts with grief like the Andean volcano into which bodies were dropped. (continue reading…)

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