A meeting with the Chilean poet Raul Zurita, who said disease felt beautiful to him
I wrote this letter for him, but never sent it.
- Total Shares
"Who would tell of the desert's loneliness."
- Raul Zurita
As he held my hand, no bridge of language between us to visit each other's countries, seas and deserts, I asked him if he would see me before he left for Santiago, Chile. A year had gone by since I first met him. He nodded. The poet and I first met in Kochi in 2016. I had walked through his “Sea of Pain”. I had written about it like many others. I had thought about Raul Zurita often. He said language fails in the face of death. I wanted to say language fails in the face of love.
"But no one can decide besides the poet what he will consider his responsibility," he had written. I wondered about his “Sea of Pain” often. Before the words of the poem appeared, one was required to get one's feet wet in the manmade sea, the depth of a receding sea that has left shells and bodies behind. That's how Syrian child Alan Kurdi's body was found washed up on a beach in Turkey. Even the sea can't take so many deaths. Even the sea needs to offload the grief it carries. Even the sea can't take it all.
That's how I first met him. In the town by the sea where he and I wandered aimlessly. On one morning, I saw him walk on the streets of this town. I waved and we smiled at each other. No language was necessary. He walked slowly. With Parkinson's, his movements were not controlled. We offered to hold his hand and walk by his side so he doesn't fall. He refused, with the smile. For a long time until he disappeared, I watched him walk slowly, his hands and feet trying hard to coordinate with his mind. I didn't feel sorry for him. I felt sad. I also felt jealous of the way he could write. I also felt awe.
He had once said his disease felt beautiful to him. I asked him when I met him a year later what he meant by that. He said it was a given. He had no choice but to go along with it. Maybe that's courage. Maybe that was fragmented freedom. I remembered that once he had held the pen for a long time in his hands as if the page was like an airstrip, a treacherous one. But then, when he finally began to write, the hands were steady, the words effortless, the memory sharp.
Zurita, the 67-year-old poet, has taken Dante's titles in his allegorical works of poetry. I haven't understood most of it. I believe poetry belongs to those who suffer, to those who can. That evening in Delhi when I met him again, he held the pen steady as he autographed his translated poems titled “Sea of Pain”. People queued up. He kept going.
I see the desert and the sea in his face. The cracks of the earth, the damages of the sun, the effect of everything so ruthless.
"But I always return to the desert, perhaps because its colors, unlike all the world’s other landscapes, in its infinite shades of ochers, of beige or brown, are the same colours of the human skin," he wrote.
When I finally went up to him, he looked up, smiled and took my hands in his and said "Kochi". It was the name of the town by the sea. In all languages, it would hold its own. Such names of cities and people render translations irrelevant.
Here was the poet who said his disease felt beautiful to him. He writes about Parkinson's in his poetry, which is so bleak and so powerful with longing for a homeland. Chile, he has said, is his country.
Zurita sat at the edge of a sofa on the second floor of India Habitat Centre while he was in Delhi this November for the launch of his book of selected poems, written from 1979 to 2016. I sat at his feet.
The poet of events as he survived and lived them, Zurita, one of the most significant poetic voices in the world, has used the sea and the desert as palimpsests over which many poems have been written, rewritten and remembered. The altered texts have chronicled the poet's reaction to the sea and the desert, the metaphors for poetry itself, a task so heavy, he is bent and broken with all that wandering in the desert, all that wading through the sea. And yet, he has hope.
I asked him if he would meet me and he kept his promise. Before he left for Santiago, he met me at the house of the Chilean ambassador. He looked fragile, weaker than when I saw him last year. I asked him many things. He told me about his first encounter with the sea. He had been a young boy of six and his sister was four years old and together they had gone to the beach; then, he said, he was astounded by the sea. His sister was scared.
"It was the immensity of the waves crashing in the sea that to me was a metaphor for the intensity of human feelings. My sister was scared but I was happy. Later, it meant the despair of hope," he said.
As for me, I was born in a place of no mountains, no sea and no desert. We saw a river passing through my city, Patna. And by its side they burn the dead bodies. My uncle once told me the heart doesn't burn, so they throw it in the river. The bodies of children are not cremated in keeping with our religious belief, he said. They are surrendered to the river. The river carries the dead. When I grew up, I saw the mountains, the sea. And this November, I saw the mirage in the sands of the Little Rann of Kutch, a salt desert. I told the poet about my encounter with the desert. It wasn't much.
I wanted to see nothingness, to feel absolute emptiness but I was scared at the edge of the desert. Desolation is a mirage, too. You seek it and it eludes you. I remembered he wrote about the desert of Atacama.
"It's one of the biggest images - the desert is monotonous but it reflects our colours. It changes permanently. It is a laid back place but it is a dangerous place. It is real and full of mirages. You can get lost and die. To have the Pacific sea and the desert coming together, I don't know what it means but it is powerful collision," he said.
At 25, he had stumbled upon the Mahabharata and loved the unresolved character of the boy who was thrown in the river. In the final conflict, Karna had forgotten the spell. He went down the chariot and the arrow severed his head.
"I like him. He knew the fate that awaited him. It is like Achilles in Homer's Iliad," he said.
He spoke of the loneliness of Karna in the Mahabharata, the loneliness in death as he witnessed in Benaras with the pyres burning — they reminded him of the funeral games in Homer's Iliad; the loneliness of the desert, sea and the sky that is the grand metaphor of the state of poetry itself and he almost takes an Adornian position of looking at art as the medium for imagined freedom and echoes the philosopher that hope itself must be negative because of the current state of world.
Poetry is like the hand that plunges you and saves you, he said.
"Poetry has no powers. It cannot change the state of society. It can't stop the armies. The poetry at the same time is the symbol of this defeat. But without poetry, there is no hope. The task is to make the world a place of art. It is also the hope of not having hope.
It is that possibility which absolutely has no possibility.
It is also the hope of non-resignation.
What I am honestly trying to do is persist in dreaming with the hope of paradise on this earth.
"An artist has to rise to the circumstances and be stronger than that," he said to me.
Long ago he had been detained in a ship with many others. He was in his twenties and the poems he was carrying with him had been thrown into the sea by a soldier, like those who had died in the Chilean coup had been dumped into the sea. An erasure had been attempted by Pinochet. But, to the poet who would write “A Song for Disappeared Love” about the sea and deaths, memory and hallucinations became tools, metaphors. He spoke to the sea. He saw blood in the sea. He saw the sea as a tomb. It was about love, he said.
"We are always losing love," he said.
Many years later, he would recreate “Sea of Pain” in an old warehouse at Aspinwall in a small industrial town by the sea - the wastewater of Watery Hades. And there was no respite after crossing this limited sea.
At the other end, a poem awaited.
It was an ode to a faceless child drowned in the waters. The body of his three-year-old brother Alan Kurdi, a Kurdish refugee, had washed up on the shores of Turkey. The world gasped in horror and forgot the sight like it always does. But the poet remembered. Memory and forgetfulness are two states of mind. But then Zurita has always been interested in the death of the other.
In a poem he had written about the millions of faces with their mouths open, infinite hips, arms and legs sweeping again and again the beach as if they were painted ropes, the sea had been the holding piece, a reservoir of annihilation.
Maybe, I understood the installation and "Sea of Pain" when I first saw it in the limited way of a journalist with a notebook and a deadline. And for a year, I read his Sky Below, an anthology of his selected poems. I studied the references, conjured the sea and the cliffs, but the desert I could not. Simply because I had never seen one. And in November, I went to see the desert.
He had repeated the sea in a simple installation then. On the walls, the frail 67-year-old poet wrote: “Don’t you listen? Don’t you look? Don’t you hear me? Don’t you see me? Don’t you feel me?”
The poem at the end of the make-believe sea was ancient like the poet himself, with a face with a million cracks, each withholding pain he had suffered on his behalf and on behalf of others. I remembered he said it took him 66 years to think about it.
He wrote, "No one can mimic his final image moored face down at the water’s edge. No artist can provide that low blow. Ah, the world of art, the world of images, billions of images. The words of a poem at cleaner, more pure.”
Zurita was born in Santiago and studied engineering. His poems were his response to the coup and the deaths. The poet offers no answers in a post-truth world. He only offers hope. He is partly an anti-poet like Nicanor Parra of his homeland, Chile. But he also believes in the grand cure of love.
“Love is the only boundary you can put against death,” he said.
I remembered that.
And, later, love is the most important thing.
Can poetry save the world?
He said "no” but without it the world will end in 30 seconds. I remembered this, too.
I composed a letter to him on the flight back to my landlocked city. I never sent it to him.
The letter in my notes read:
"You say love is the boundary we put against death. You also wrote once long ago that everyone needs love.
You say the poem took you 30 seconds
But to think of it took you very, very long.
As long as 66 years.
You were born in Santiago in 1950 and you have suffered since.
They say you are suffering so much that once you wanted to pour acid in your eyes because you couldn't bear to see suffering. Why is the 'other' so important to you?
You always hold your pen steady.
Your fingers linger in space, thought and maybe love.
But as your write in your note, maybe nobody will ever understand this kind of love.
We were sitting by the sea. Blue against blue.
I asked you what is love. I asked you before, too. I am obsessed with love.
You looked at your wife and you smiled and said to her 'it's you'.
She blushed a bit. The pink against the twin blue spreads of such vastness that there was no end to it. Is there a horizon ever? Or is it all a vast manifestation of nothingness that we fail to see, grasp or even consider?
You collapsed my doubts about love.
Maybe love is just a little hope that we need to get by in this world. Of course you know all about it and you also know about nothingness.
What I didn't tell you then that every day I walked into the Sea of Pain and I searched every bit of my being for pain, for tears and for fears. And I didn't tell you then that I felt sad that I still couldn't feel the immensity that you carry in your being.
And that morning when you, old and withered and suffering for us and for yourself, sat down to untie your shoes to walk into your sea, I cried a little.
In that moment, I felt that the Sea Of Pain could be a sea of tears. But then, it would have sounded so dramatic. You see I am still a bit afraid of what others would say. The world is so dismissive these days.
A young girl who said she was poetess asked me if the water was dirty.
To which I said, how did that matter?
If the Sea of Pain could drown us then and there, we'd be released of the million guilts. But the sea was a metaphor. And we were real.
I read your poem until I could read no more about Galip Kurdi, the one who was invisible to us, who wasn't present in pictures.
Because maybe absence is more powerful than presence. And maybe presence lives in absence.
You have understood this.
You say you are Galip Kurdi's father. You lend dignity to the dead while young, urbane and shallow poets and intellectuals are worried about the hems of their dresses and their denouncement and affirmation of issues on social media.
Art doesn't mean abstraction. Artists are enablers of responses and when you write, I can see that you hold the pen as if it anchors you.
You wrote in Spanish, your mother tongue.
We decided to do away with niceties of translations because you said love doesn't need to be understood.
I have written this before and I will once again write because we write from our inventories. Sometimes a poem can take very, very long and sometimes love takes very, very long.
We, who have walked in the Sea of Pain, know that to cross the ocean will take very, very long.
But the oceans and poems and love need no translations.
They are there."
I never sent him this letter. It felt amateurish. But I sent him a picture of his our photo editor Bandeep Singh had taken, and the photo of an interpretation of his “Sea of Pain” with a young Lavni dancer from a Mumbai slum who sang of things left behind, of people and places left behind, and the gender he was trying to leave behind as he dressed in a blue sari and stood in the waters of this manmade sea, a manifestation of migration and its great sadness.
Next morning, there was an email from Zurita. He had written "con amor (with love)".
Some encounters make you smile. Maybe we will meet again. Maybe I will one day see the desert of Atacama and understand the lines:
“i. let's let the infinity of the Desert of Atacama pass
ii. Let's let the sterility of these deserts pass
So that from the spread-open legs of my mother a Prayer roses that intersects the infinity of the Desert of Atacama and my mother is then nothing but a meeting point on the road
iii. Then I myself will be a Prayer found on the road
iv. I myself will be the spread-open legs of my mother..."
Maybe then I can “look at our loneliness in the desert”.
And let the desert's absolute emptiness come to me. Amen.