Raúl Zurita’s Song for his Disappeared Love, originally published in Spanish in 1985, is a resounding response and a testament to humanity that etches out its survival by accepting life amid atrocity and depravation. Written under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, Zurita recounts his arrest and imprisonment during the 1973 military overthrow as General Pinochet came to power in Chile. In an interview conducted by the translator, Daniel Borzutzky, Zurita articulates his attempt for the book-length poem as a “[response] to the terror with a poetry that was just as powerful as the pain being delivered by the state.”
The formal structure of Song for his Disappeared Love captures the chaos of Pinochet’s overthrow. Some stanzas are grouped side by side into block paragraphs, forcing the eye to decide whether to read horizontally across the page or vertically down the rows. Others effectively use dashes to give the sense of short bursts of static and chaos, resulting in an unsettling reading experience. Yet, instead of opening the book with an image of violence or formal rupture that characterizes the rest of the book, Zurita begins with such simplicity that the clarity stuns,
I sang, sang of love, with my face soaked I sang of love and the boys made me smile. I sang louder, with passion, and dreams, and tears. I sang the song of the old concrete sheds. It was filled with hundreds of niches, one over the other. There is a country in each one; they're like boys, they're dead. Black countries, African and South American countries: they all lie there. With love I sang pain to the countries. Thousands of crosses spread across the field. His beloved sings with her entire being. She sings of love:
The concrete sheds become a recurrent image in the book, serving as the physical place that house the “niches.” Each “niche” is a space within the concrete shed assigned to a particular country. The countries that populate the niches are two-fold: those that tortured the poor and indigenous people, and those that were passively complicit in Pinochet’s violent coup. The poem questions the nature of responsibility, bringing to the forefront the reality that both action and/or inaction have direct effects on the lives of others.
Throughout the poem, Zurita examines and questions the binary opposition of life and death, often conflating the two into a sense of sameness. What does it mean to “live” when your liberty has been confiscated, when you are silenced either by fear or force? How “alive” are the oppressed when family has been kidnapped, beaten, abused, or murdered? How does one live a “life” when the very idea of what constitutes “life” is defined by a political ideology opposite our own? He writes:
It was the torture, the blows, that broke us into pieces. I was able to hear you but the light was fading. I looked for you amid the ruins, I spoke to you. Your remains looked at me and I embraced you. Everything ends. Nothing remains. But dead I love you and we love each other even if no one understands this.
The poem illustrates the unavoidably transient nature of existence, yet privileges “love” as a means to escape the fact “that everything ends.” “No one understands” because Zurita places a higher value on love than he does human existence. How does a person whose philosophy is rooted in love not become infested with hatred and the black bile of revenge? In the face of catastrophe and atrocity how does one maintain their sense of humanity?
- I looked for you in the darkness but the little beauties could see nothing beneath the - bandage on your eyes. - I saw the Virgin I saw Satan and Mr. K.
Zurita’s nightmare landscape challenges and perhaps seeks to subvert our ideas about humanity. In the above passage, a person is searching in the dark for someone whose eyes are covered in bandages, rendering them both into a complete state of darkness. Perhaps Sophocles wrote it best in Antigone, with the line, “Darkness into final darkness.” Teasing out the idea of inability and disorientation, Zurita then takes the reader out of the darkness through a vision of the “Virgin,” “Satan,” and “Mr. K.”, quickly moving from salvation to the horrific. The nightmare eventually turns into reality,
- What’s your name and what do you do they asked me. - Look you have a nice ass. What’s your name nice ass little bastard bitch, they - asked me. - But my love was stuck to the rocks, the sea and the mountains. - But my love I tell you, is caught on the rocks, in the sea and in the - mountains.
Zurita separates “love” from the physical being and expands it into something that can merge into landscape. The soldiers can interrogate the person, but the love remains removed from the scene of violence.
Song for His Disappeared Love gives a critical intervention to historical narrative, refusing to let a country’s suffering become buried in statistics and ignored in text books.
- Everything had been erased except those two damned sheds Now everyone is fallen except for us the fallen. Now the entire universe is you and I minus you and I.
The poem serves a means of defiance, and in this manner imports meaning back into the life and death of those “disappeared.” The poem gives language and song to those that have been abused and lost, gives purpose so that their deaths are not without meaning, but serve as a reminder of what happens when humans abandon their humanity, their responsibility, and their love of others for narrow-minded self-interest. Zurita flushes out this irresponsibility in the following lines,
- Oh love we burst. - - Oh love we burst. - - The South American generation sings folk songs, dances to rock, but everyone is - - dying blindfolded in the belly of the sheds.
As the poem continues, it begins to heighten the sense of violence by emulating the madness onto itself, “The countries are dead. One shed is called South America/ and the other North. I saw torture, I said as I opened my-/self…
The Internationale of the dead countries grew larger, ascend-/ing and I gave it my love. I gave it all my country love and I/added all my cries…/ …That’s how I bled the wound and as it gushed red the/ song to their disappeared love started. All the letters were open-/ing up like graves, the scream the country said no it didn’t hurt.”
Much like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the poem accepts the madness, the violence, the evil of men, and counter-acts it with a higher calling to love. From the wound, from the gushing blood comes the song of the “disappeared love.”
From this point, the poem shifts into its last section which is titled, “FROM SHEDS 12 AND 13.” This section works inward by starting with each niche and examining the modes of oppression,
Argentinean Niche. Shed 13, a ship beneath the country of Peru and above the country of Chile. From torture to torture, disap- pearance to extermination, a hole was left and it was like the aforementioned countries and the night had nowhere to fall and neither did the day.
As Zurita moves through Columbia, Venezuela, Guatemala, USA, Mexico, and others, the reader is forced to behold the massive extent of the oppression. This recognition is what makes the poem so effective; instead of drawing attention to specific topographies, the poem expands the reach, influence, and dominance that oppression has had to a global scale. By the time we reach Niche 28 the narrative has become a thing of darkness. “28. Oh don’t leave, he groans. Andean tomb of the countries. I’m/ going, away, everything dies. Everything sucking itself.” The poem however ends in a triumph of hailing and invocation, “Appear now!/ rise anew in the dead little countries.” What persists is poetry – poetry gives the generations that suffered a means of confronting a brutal history. It also gives voice and inspiration to future generations the strength to be alive, the strength to be human and to “rise anew.”
Please note that some of the formatting in this review will appear differently in Zurita’s book.