Writers' Corner

Daniel Borzutzky

2014 Translation Projects

Translator's Statement

“The Country of Planks” is a section from a 700-page book named Zurita, published in Chile in 2011; each poem is titled with the name of a prison that operated during the 17-year dictatorship of Chilean General Augusto Pinochet. Zurita knew from firsthand experience what it was like to be imprisoned under the dictatorship. He was arrested on September 11, 1973, the morning of the coup d'etat. He had been a student at the time, at the Universidad Santa Maria in Valparaiso, Chile, where he was pursuing a degree in engineering, and after his arrest he spent the next six weeks on a prison-ship, deprived of communication with his family. In an interview I conducted with Zurita in 2009, he described the ship as holding 800 prisoners in a space that could only contain 100. The experience of the coup, Zurita has stated, has defined all that he would come to write. In this same interview he told me that during the years of the dictatorship he felt as if he needed to write “a poetry that was as powerful as the pain being delivered by the state.” And I believe that this powerfulness also applies to the writing that Zurita has produced after the coup, the writing that animates and reflects upon Chile's contentious transition from dictatorship to democracy. 

Included here is Zurita's poem to Chile Stadium, a sports facility in Santiago that was transformed by the dictatorship into a detention center. Chile Stadium has since been renamed Victor Jara Stadium, in homage to the great Chilean folk singer who was arrested on the day after the 1973 coup, and whose body was discovered tossed near a railroad track. Only a few months ago, at the end of 2012,  it was announced that a Chilean judge charged eight retired army officers with Victor Jara's murder in 1973. One of those officers currently lives in Florida. 

As in much of his poetry, Zurita's work here addresses the way that governments have often used nature to inspire a sense of national unity, and he is reclaiming it, or reconfiguring it to reflect what he takes to be the realities of a dying nation. Rather than being something that forms national identity, in Zurita's “The Country of Planks,” nature absorbs identities. The shame of the political has been absorbed by the natural. The blood and the bodies of the disappeared, now scattered throughout the landscape, have become part of the homeland, the Chilean soil. This is the rhetoric of Zurita's natural depictions as they are tied to national identities. It's a rhetoric of shame, of loss, of unspeakable and unquantifiable violence.

"CHILE STADIUM PRISON" from Zurita by Raul Zarita

[translated from the Spanish]

That one was not our country, our shadows
were screaming as they passed through
the open waters of the Pacific

They are the old chilean prisons we would scream watching
the country of planks rise between the foamy cliffs of
the Pacific long   completely riveted   cutting off our passage

And the sea stopped being the sea and the sky stopped
being the sky

And the peaks were the points of the riveted stakes

And the prairies blew slipping in between the strips
of wood and the wind was not the wind nor the air the air

Where all that had been now there were only wood-
bolted landscapes riveted one to the other like sawed
up mountains revealing above the palisades of the sky

And our cheeks looked like a crumbling sky

That's how our horizon collapsed and the landscapes were
only rubble between those partitions

To where the splitting ocean was screaming watching
the crumbling rubble of those scenes

 When we came in through the corridor of the open waters and

we saw the barracks made of crossed planks
stuck between the two cliffs of the Pacific and at the end the
broken stands of Chile stadium whitening under the snow like
a giant cordillera of sticks imprisoning the horizon

Excerpt in Spanish

Daniel Borzutzky

Daniel Borzutzky's books of poetry and fiction include In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy (Nightboat, forthcoming); The Book of Interfering Bodies (Nightboat, 2011); The Ecstasy of Capitulation (BlazeVox, 2007); and Arbitrary Tales (Ravenna Press, 2005).  His poetry translations include include Raúl Zurita's Song for his Disappeared Love  (Action Books, 2010); and Jaime Luis Huenún's Port Trakl (Action Books, 2008), among others.  His writing has been anthologized in Telephone Books Anthology of English-to-English Translations of Shakespeare Sonnets; La Alteración del Silencio: Poesía Norteamericana Reciente; Malditos Latinos Malditos Sudacas: Poesia Iberoamericana Made in USA; Seriously Funny: Poems About Love, God, War, Art, Sex, Madness, and Everything Else; A Best of Fence: The First Nine Years; and The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century. His writing has been translated into Spanish, French, Bulgarian, and Turkish. His work has been recognized by grants from the PEN American Center and the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Chicago and teaches at Wright College of the City Colleges of Chicago.

Photo by Sean Patrick Cain