THE COUNTRY OF PLANKS
Raúl Zurita

Action Books, 2015

Raúl Zurita’s newest collection, El País de Tablas, continues his long career of writing through the aftermath of the 1973 Chilean golpe de estado that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. But Zurita doesn’t mention Pinochet by name until the collection’s final page. The book refuses mere political complaint or narrative history, consumed instead with the difficult work of remembering that massive, human, cultural death:

There will be no synopses of your life, no
prayers, no tumuli, only the useless expense
of leaving between screams,
other men will beat other men and it will
be the same. You will reappear in the glaciers.

El País de Tablas is a tour-de-force of surreal, ecstatic grief—a dark, Whitmanian chant of expansive empathy:

                                                                    my compañero
shouts as he looks out at the fishing boats that are like cities
We are the catch reply the prisoners legs and arms mutilated
like mountains of fish twisting in the asphyxiated night

Performing a visionary mourning, each of the book’s first two sections recycles a small set of images that together compose the geography of a particular apocalypse. In the opening section, the title poem sings through the manmade horrors of wooden barracks and prisons; the second section, titled “The Country of Ice,” inhabits a kind of mythic ice age. The spatial logistics of the description are often difficult, and sometimes impossible, to resolve. But over time the poems teach us to release our need to make the visions cohere, and help us simply witness Zurita’s frenzied historical lament. So, later, if we can’t quite see exactly how

the sky was sinking into the barbed wire
of the night like a mute sea that nothing explains[,]

we have at least been prepared to feel the stricken urgency of its vision.

Daniel Borzutzky’s translation renders the prophetic intensity of the original in all its disorienting force. A close inspection of the mechanics of the translation turns up a few missteps, mostly in small connecting words; but this bilingual edition, in forcing the reader to turn the book over and upside down to read the English translation, distracts from such an inspection. Reading this book requires a physical act that disturbs the reading experience, an enactment of the hemispheric gap dividing North and South American writing, so that the design might teach us something about the value and politics of attempting the English translation at all.