Elemental Tears in Zurita & Wojnarowicz

by on Dec.08, 2010

Zurita's poem in the Atacama desert ("Neither shame nor fear")

Zurita's poem in the Atacama desert ("Neither shame nor fear")

In 2001 the Chilean government finally recognizes the extermination/disappearance of thousands of citizens under Pinochet’s dictatorship. In 1987, after 41,027 Americans have died, Ronald Regan says “AIDS” for the first time.*

The censorship of Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” thus bleeds into my reading of Raúl Zurita’s Song for His Disappeared Love. A poem that erupts with grief like the Andean volcano into which bodies were dropped. The wounded body we find in Wojnarowicz—the vulnerable body of the outlaw—morphs and dissolves into natural elements both in and out of Zurita’s text:

“Oh, don’t leave, he groans. Andean tombs of the countries. I’m
going, away, everything dies. Everything dies sucking itself. There
were as many mountains as there now are clouds. Grey clouds.
Blacker and greyer rising in the sky, climbing and evaporating.
Those are the mountains. Holes in all the countries expanded
downwards and the torrent of their love was the rain. The moun-
tains rained, says my Andean darling, don’t go. Don’t go, she says.”

When the state refuses to recognize disappearances, we turn to the physical imprint of each body burned, buried, drowned. If the natural environment always permits and invites mourning, in the public gallery, in the state apparatus, mourning is highly regulated if not foreclosed.

Hence Wojnarowicz’s description in “Doing Time in a Disposable Body” of “water pouring from [one’s] face.” To restore grief to the public realm is to flood landscape, to become the sea. In Zurita, this flood of tears defies the very notion of statehood by crossing borders when the poem catalogs the suffering landscapes of other nations: “[f]rom the disappeared love the countries are also called.” In Wojnarowicz, the tide rises but ebbs. Diamanda Galás cries out with him, but it’s either too early or late for an AIDS memorial quilt—a healing narrative not unlike Zurita’s song. A fire in Wojnarowicz’s belly burns because he’s still, in his words, “disappearing but not fast enough.” We’re still taking his image off the wall.

*”How that information is used must be up to schools and parents, not government. But let’s be honest with ourselves, AIDS information cannot be what some call ‘value neutral.’ After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?”

13 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    That Reagan quote is amazing. There’s ‘value’ again like a coiled viper. AIDS information can’t be ‘value neutral’ so it must be value negative– sucking away values from the healthy ankle of the body politic. Analagous to Boehner’s spokesperson’s statement, wherein the American family can earn hard-earned money, but by implication the artist can only spend it. Spending, sucking, wasting, draining= Bataillean expenditure. And yet, like what Maggie Thatcher said re. the hunger strikers (“there is no such thing as political murder, there is only criminal murder,” etc.”) Reagan’s quote seems to actually condemn HIM– it’s his actions that were immoral, and it’s medicine and morality that both call for frankness, immediate response, early intervention, compassion, care, SPENDING.

  2. The Modesto Kid

    I had heard of the Zurita poem a year or so ago and not quite gotten its meaning — I just noticed that it is (or might be) a quotation from the book of Jeremiah — the NIV translation has “‘Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,’ says the LORD.”

  3. Lucas

    Yeah, seriously. Of course Regan’s subtext was the valueless nonreproductiveness of gays and their pointless promiscuity. There are many other shocking tidbits from the epidemic here: http://www.actupny.org/reports/reagan.html

    For example,

    “I told one of my students that the most memorable Reagan AIDS moment for me was at the 1986 centenary rededication of the Statue of Liberty. The Reagans were there sitting next to French President Francois Mitterand and his wife, Danielle. Bob Hope was on stage entertaining the all-star audience. In the middle of a series of one-liners Hope quipped, “I just heard that the Statue of Liberty has AIDS but she doesn’t know if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Fairy.” As the television camera panned the audience, the Mitterands looked appalled. The Reagans were laughing.”

  4. Lucas

    Modesto Kid,

    The aerial view from which we read the poem does make it seem like “shame” is a reference to “the fallen.” The poem is particularly enigmatic to me because “pena” can mean so many things: grief, pain, pity, as well as shame.

    And what about “fear”? Is it that in reference to the survivors?

    Also it’s inscribed into the earth–the only place truly sin pena ni miedo. And the nearby villagers come to the site everyday to reinscribe the letters and reenact grief.

  5. The Modesto Kid

    Seems to be (at least) two ways of reading it; my initial take is the Dictator oppressing Chileans without the shame which would be appropriate to his loathesome conduct, without fear — inscribed on the Atacama desert which is the site of a lot of historical pain and grief, like the massacre at Santa María de Iquique — and the Dictator is “the fallen” seeing as this is created after his fall. It’s such a short fragment, it’s really open to a lot of reading/readings.

  6. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hi Lucas and MK:
    When I look at this photograph of Zurita’s desert piece, it seems to me that that it is the _people_ who refuse shame and fear. Just like, in the context of the Reagan 80’s, AIDS victims had to refuse to be shamed into silence, refuse the fear and shame that would silence them and ensure their destruction. In the Pinochet context, by throwing their victims from airplanes into the desert, ocean, and mountains, the military and dictatorship tried to claim this national landscape and even the aerial perspective and thus the sky for itself. Zurita’s piece re-claims the landscape for the people, who continually maintain and reinscribe it. Going further, it would seem that when the landscape speaks, it speaks in the voice of the people. The landscape itself refuses to do the work of the dictatorship. The landscape itself refuses to be victimized by the military, refuses shame and fear.

  7. The Modesto Kid

    Thanks Joyelle — that is the alternate reading that I spent a little while trying to verbalize last night but ultimately gave up on. My question for you or Lucas or anyone else with the data is, what’s the date of this piece? I tried Googling but did not find much to indicate when it was actually created (and whether it is a fragment from a longer work?)

  8. Lucas


    Apparently the fragment is from La vida nueva, published in 1993. Haven’t read it yet, but the most recent thing of his i’ve read, In memoriam, was wonderful.

  9. The Modesto Kid

    BTW — you guys are in Indiana, do I have that straight? I just started reading the fantastic “Salt in the Sand: Memory, violence and the nation-state” by Lessie Jo Frazier, who teaches women’s studies and history at Bloomington.

  10. Johannes

    Conveniently Action Books, our press, just published a translation of Song for his Diappeared Love (Daniel Borzutzky translated it) this past year. The original was published in 1985 in Chile.


  11. Johannes

    I’ll have to check out that book. We’re a bit north of Bloomington, in South Bend.


  12. Lara Glenum

    Lucas, just wanted to say how much I’ve been enjoying your Wojnarowicz posts. And the Zurita: “Everything dies sucking itself.” Holy cow! Completely amazing.

  13. Lucas

    Glad you liked the posts, Lara. Zurita is a goddess.