Sounding Zurita

Raúl Zurita and Anna Deeny read together beginning at 30 min.

Music, poetry, and performance moored my childhood. I was trained as a classical pianist and worked for some time in theater, while my mother is a Puerto Rican poet and educator who only performs her poetry from memory. Our daily family life was stitched together by the rhythms of rehearsal—my mom’s, my own, and my sister’s, who played the guitar. Each summer my parents sent my sister and me to Puerto Rico where my grandfather taught us songs derived from the Afro-Mexicans of Veracruz, the Afro-Puerto Ricans of Loiza, or San Juan’s criollos. Multiple musical traditions grew around two languages, traversed by nostalgia, political divisions, and cultural differences that were often in conflict.

When I prepare for a bilingual reading with the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, whose work I have the great privilege to translate into English, I find myself marking the text as if it were a musical score. These markings indicate how to sound a poem, whether I should increase the pitch at the end of a line (poets in English tend to lower the pitch), slow down, accelerate little by little, emphasize a caesura, accentuate a word, etcetera. These formal elements reflect my translation. For example, one of the particular characteristics of Zurita’s poetry is a grammatical flexibility that allows for the inclusion of what are generally considered excessive or unnecessary words, particularly in English. “That” is the best example as it can be used in multiple and contradictory ways. There’s a humble and human sense “that” communicates because it’s usually omitted if it’s not indispensable within the grammatical structure of a sentence. However, to include “that” when it might be omitted represents a lack of efficiency within language.

Language isn’t intended to be efficient; our emotions and contradictions, our banal capacity for cruelty or extraordinary impulse to love, are in no way efficient. However, the core value of capitalism is efficiency, and this value is imposed on our flesh, on our emotions, the raising of children, ideas regarding time and memory, consciousness and how we articulate what we consider knowledge. In sum, efficiency conditions our use of language. The detail of including and emphasizing “that,” along with other similar words, when they tend to be grammatically unwarranted, reflects one element of my reading of Zurita as a poet who rejects capitalism—that is, as a poet who bitterly survived the struggle between socialism and the opening up of Chile’s markets to neoliberalism. (This struggle culminated in the deposition of Salvador Allende through a coup d’état in 1973 led by Augusto Pinochet.) If we were to use economic terminology, we’d say that Zurita doesn’t limit his linguistic resources to increase the output of meaning, which is what we call the profit motive. An excess of “that” risks inefficiency; it signals squandering and waste. Here’s an example from “The Desert of Atacama VII,” a poem of Purgatorio initially published in 1979.

Para que mi facha comience a tocar tu facha y tu facha
a esa otra facha y así hasta que todo Chile no sea sino
una sola facha con los brazos abiertos:  una larga facha coronada de espinas

So that my form begins to touch your form and your form
that other form like that until all of Chile is nothing but
one form with open arms:   a long form crowned with thorns

Another more obvious characteristic of Zurita’s poetry involves the personification of landscapes, an effect achieved through the use of reflexive verbs. In Spanish, verbal reflexivity is represented through two letters, “se,” in words such as “extenderse” (extend itself, oneself or themselves), “iluminarse” (illuminate itself, oneself or themselves), and “doblarse” (bend over itself, oneself or themselves). In English, forming the reflexive verb with the reflexive pronoun takes at least six to ten letters that are usually placed after the verb. This is a significant number within the context of a poem, but Zurita’s grammatical flexibility allows for the adjustment. When it comes to a voiced reading, drawing attention to the reflexive pronouns instead of the verb, again, recalls the relationship between capitalism and excess. In this case, however, the excess is produced by the violent imposition of capitalism as the reflexive pronouns signal language and subjects bending back upon themselves, an unspeakable disregard, squandering and waste of human life. That is, allowing the reflexive pronoun to occupy more visual and aural volume, ironically, represents the silent Chilean landscapes. Zurita has often reminded us that those magnificent landscapes were the only ones that received the “disappeared,” “the only ones to show mercy to those bodies razed by an aberrant order,” which was the Chilean dictatorship. Thus, vocal emphasis helps shift human silence into the physicality of space. Again, from Purgatory:

Han visto extenderse estos pastos infinitos?

1. Han visto extenderse esos pastos infinitos
donde las vacas huyendo desaparecen
reunidas   ingrávidas   delante de ellos?

Have you seen these infinite pastures extend themselves?

1. Have you seen those infinite pastures extend
themselves where the cows fleeing disappear
reunited     weightless     before them?

This is precisely what sound permits: attention to the physicality of language and bodies in space. Sound envelops us as the first sense inseparable from touch within our mother’s womb. Unlike the visual, from which we must separate in order to experience, sound as touch begins our life with others. And many have pointed out that “mother,” the word itself, derived from the Old English modor, has an Indo-European root shared by the Latin mater and the Greek meter. “Mother” is as much matter as meter, the temporal measure, memory, and score of sound.

By referring to such an etymology, I don’t intend to imagine this figure as unthinking material, but as the possibility of language other than law, other than nation, other than the centripetal pulls that level language into what John Locke had imagined as a unifying language of consent. The Italian poet and translator of Baudelaire, Antonio Prete, along with Seamus Heaney, spoke to this idea of mother tongues and idiolects as providing resonances, rhythms, and rhymes that challenge such consensual usage. They pulsate, as Julia Kristeva had noted, within standardized linguistic forms.

To this point, in her consideration of the human voice, Francine Masiello has observed that, “we learn to distinguish the sound of meaning, but we also register the pre-verbal sounds that have meaning outside of language. Rhythm,” she says “melody, tone … help us articulate meaning that goes beyond the word itself. This permits us to imagine a subjectivity in the voice of the other; it permits us to imagine a speaking body that is neither predictable or under the purview of the law.” Rhythm, melody and tone, timbre, inflection and pitch, presence the physical intimacy of a “speaking body” and sound the subject’s ultimate incommensurability. The voice ushers forth the particularities of a person pushing, working through, weaving, against a more consensual, stable, or imposed sense of meaning and pronunciation.


My sister and I, along with those millions who speak Spanish and many other languages as well as English dialects in the United States, grew up within public school systems that strongly advised against speaking Spanish within the home. The general consensus during the 1970s was that bilingualism bred social, economic, and political “divisions,” “self-interest,” “separatism,” “underachievement,” and, of course, “a lack of proficiency in English.”

Despite the school’s insistence, my mother told us that if we didn’t speak Spanish, she simply wouldn’t feed us. She made it clear that to sound that other language within the centripetal vortex of English was quite literally tied to our physical survival, the survival of our mouths and stomachs, of our minds and souls, of dialects, of idiolects, of what is most personal and other at the same time within us. Thus, the speaking voice, its intentional as well as unavoidable sound, out, loud, recalls our origins, a/m/other, a simultaneously aching and joyous intimacy, that remains “neither predictable or under the purview of the law.”


We might say that the details of sound go unnoticed during a reading. But if they aren’t perceived at a conscious level, I believe that they are perceived at an unconscious or physical level. This depends on the distinct and multiple sensibilities of a public. But as in any performance, the only thing you can be on stage is your own self, your own instrument with your particular limitations and resonances. But there together we represent the painful contradictions of our languages and of translation itself because translation is the genre that most recalls an immigrant’s sorrow. That is, the presence of multiple languages in one place or the movement of languages is due to the violence of conquest, wars, economic hardship, neoliberalism, hunger, and genocide.

Languages grow within you like the rhythms of distinct musical traditions that, on the one hand, we could say, happily coexist. But, on the other hand, in the name of Bach and Mozart’s god, Hatuey, the Taíno Cacique from the island of Ayití, was put to death. So when our bodies sound languages we can’t avoid history’s return because languages represent a contradiction and a conflict that is ultimately irresolvable. When translation sounds it must reflect as much the meaning of pain as the sound of it, which is the embodied presence, of that pain. Therein exists the force of a bilingual reading, a recital, and the recognition of our inconsolable histories.



Sections of this essay were published in the form of an interview by Kristen Dykstra in Jacket 2.

About Anna Deeny Morales

Anna Deeny is a critic and translator who has translated several collections of Raúl Zurita's poetry, including Purgatory, Dreams for Kurosawa, and Sky Below. Other translations include Floating Lanterns by Mercedes Roffé as well as her translations of Alejandra Pizarnik. She teaches at the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown.