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ANTEPARADISE: A Bilingual Edition by Raul Zurita; translated by Jack Schmitt (University of California: $25, hardcover; $12.95, paperback; 217 pp.)

December 07, 1986| W. S. Merwin | Merwin's most recent book of poetry is "Opening the Hand" (Atheneum). A new book of poems is scheduled for 1987 with Atheneum, and also a volume of translations from the work of the Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz, which will be published by North Point. and

Raul Zurita is a Chilean poet, born in Santiago in January, 1951. He studied civil engineering at the University of Federico Santa Maria, Valparaiso, and lives in Santiago. "Anteparadise" is his fourth book of poems, the first to be translated into English.

In his case, the bare facts tell more than usual. Zurita (his full name is Raul Zurita Canessa) completed his university studies at age 22 in 1973, the same year as the American-backed anti-Allende military coup, and he could scarcely escape being profoundly marked by the horrors of that cataclysm.

The grotesque reign of terror that followed the coup rendered immediate and intimate for Zurita the question that for others in the 20th Century has been evoked by the Nazi concentration camps; the question, namely, of what after Auschwitz could be the point of poetry, of literature, of any art at all.

For Zurita, it was the coup, indeed, that posed the question, but it could have been any one of the generalized, immeasurable atrocities that abound in the history of our time--Vietnam, Cambodia, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas, the continuing extermination of non-literate peoples in all parts of the world, and so on and on. There has been a tendency sometimes to refer to the "final solution" as though it had been unique and wholly different from any of these others. The clarity and scope of Zurita's vision are consequences, in part, of his having seen that, on the contrary, the Auschwitz question that was posed for him and his contemporaries by a local horror was in fact being posed daily around the globe. For the wholesale, officially instituted atrocities were and are of human perpetration, and these atrocities enlarge the Auschwitz question until it asks desperately for some new definition not only of the arts but also of the "humanity" that was once thought to need them, to be incomplete without them.

After Auschwitz, and presumably after each of these, the answer, for some, has no doubt remained a blank--a catatonic hopelessness. Certainly the daily news, and the leaders and policies of the political units of contemporary humanity, are not in themselves rich sources of hope.

Part of Zurita's large ambition is the presentation of a poetry that does not remain a blank, that does not, of course, answer the Auschwitz question but does respond to it, take it into account, deliberately speak from and to a world in which it is kept in mind. His is a courageous aspiration. For as we know, the question and its recurrent source have not prevented a latter-day outpouring of poetry and prose, which at one extreme has dissipated into the frivolous small-scale commodities of fashion, and at another into bespoke rant and propaganda.

It is not surprising that Zurita's poetry should seem to be a result of his having broken down certain of the conventional expectations of poetry (as his world and most of his assumptions must have been broken down by the coup) and reassembled them as a kind of kaleidoscope in which the images keep shifting, the expectations remain unresolved. This process itself is not fundamentally different from that underlying much of modern art, which after all arises from--or through--a deep recognition that the traditional order, perhaps the basis of order itself, is dissolving around us.

In Zurita's writing, it is not easy to identify the source of the powerful emotional reverberations of these images; to say, in other words, what it is that one recognizes and responds to. This difficulty is a tribute not to his theory or his program, however he may think of those, but, of course, to his gift itself.

He says, "At the time I began 'Anteparadise' I no longer believed much in tradition," but the great figures of modern Latin American poetry--Cesar Vallejo, Vicente Huidobro, Pablo Neruda, Nicanor Parra--are not so far in the background; they are not echoes but part of the very energy and texture of the language. A tradition, indeed.

Still, the feeling in the poems seems to be projected by the visual element, by the revolving, recurring, dissolving images themselves, more than by anything else. This, as well as the close link between poetry and painting in contemporary Chile, may be one reason why Zurita's enthusiastic admirers include figures from the world of the visual arts. (Robert Rauschenberg, to name one, has contributed an original photographic collage for the jacket.) Zurita's poems come off the page as though they were a series of paintings on another plane, oddly silent, disturbing, grotesque, beautiful, as things seen. And the book evolves through these images toward a brightening perspective that one can only hope represents something more than the author's deliberate schematic decision.

Zurita's ambition extends to his means as well, and again in ways reminiscent of the visual arts. In 1982, a poem, or a series of lines, appeared, in the original, over New York as skywriting. (Photographs of the skywriting appear in the book.) "I've employed," Zurita says, "new poetic forms, from the use of mathematics and logical systems to distortion, breaks from conventional diction" as well as his skywriting.

He has found besides, as far as his English manifestation goes, a sensitive, precise, dedicated translator in Jack Schmitt, who has lost remarkably little in bringing "Anteparadise" over from its original Spanish. The book's haunting dreams, its beaches and mountains and bodies, its Chile, have now entered our waking world.

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