The Echo of the Face in Raúl Zurita and Fever Ray

by on Sep.30, 2011

Coincidentally, I’ve also been interfacing with our beloved Zurita.  Until someone sends me his 745-page opus published in Chile this year, or until he shows up at the local glassy poetry complex, I’m rereading INRI (trans. William Rowe, Marick Press).  The book–titled after the inscription on Jesus’ crucifix–begins with a preface recalling President Ricardo Lagos’ absurd acknowledgment in as late as 2001 of the bodies disappeared during Chile’s dictatorship.  Describing his shame in witnessing this on TV, Zurita writes:

No, it wasn’t ‘moral outrage’ or any other high-sounding phrase, it was something much more concrete and unspoken:  it was like a screech I couldn’t get away from, that I may never be able to pull myself away from.  The book was called INRI, and it came out of the image of a man who was uttering strange words on the TV.  I don’t know if what I am saying about the screech makes sense:  it was called innrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiii.

As a “concrete and unspoken” event, the screech that Zurita intuits in the televisual image echoes beyond language as we ‘know’ it.  Both gasping void and stuttering, overwhelming flow, the screech is a religious, multisensory intensity that the book materializes when it offers passages in Braille to be touched rather than seen.  INRI thus disorients us into a blindness once brutally experienced by Chileans:  “There was also a detail, another fact about that crucifixion:  one of the reports tells how before killing their victims the military personnel gouged out their eyes with hooks…”

Because it handicaps itself, leading us through Chilean landscapes as if they were unrecognizable to the eye, Zurita’s poetry reminds me of the much-discussed appearance by Karin Dreijer Andersson, aka Fever Ray, at a Swedish awards show:

Fever Ray’s disfigured face not only mirrors Zurita’s own self-mutilation, whereby the poet threw ammonia on his eyes and burned his cheek in response to state-sanctioned torture; her appearance also strangely repurposes the screech of INRI for a glittery awards ceremony.  To consider the blogosphere consensus that the cosmetic effect was meant to address women’s acid scarification in predominantly Muslim countries, then, is to retrace this nonverbal utterance as repetition, reverberation, and return.  It is to notice how ferociously a sacred cry traverses identities.  Invoking the Chilean people and landscape, as well as Jesus Christ through the poet, the cry also channels Muslim women in a European woman’s white face.  If language is what makes us human, even the slippery ontology of species is broken down, and consumed, by an incomprehensible Fever Ray.  “Stones cry out” in INRI, but who or what is this being behind the microphone?

Cohering through a range of senses despite eluding language, the open-mouthed faces of Zurita and Fever Ray present a cut of difference, of bodily specificity, that nevertheless finds common ground.  Facing us and therefore each other, the poet and musician open thresholds of contact that are neither totally legible nor absolutely other.  Both artists at once ‘lose’ and ‘save’ face by making all-consuming art out of degradation.  Art fulfills its convivial potential when these faces irrationally compel us to live with them, to be like them insofar as we, too, become blind, mute, scarred, dead, alive, vulnerable (again and again) in unpredictable ways:

“In the same way that the stones speak, that the
earth speaks, I speak to you.  And the blindness
of my fingers speaks to you as they feel their way
over your skull, your nose, your eye sockets, and
the infinite sky has collapsed and speaks rising
out of the worm-infested sockets of your eyes.
And like a landscape of earth rising with the
earth our faces start to rise up out of our dead
faces and then, as the stones speak, as the earth
speaks, I speak to you, corpse of me, love of
me, bones of me, small round pupil of all the
love that rises and is the song of your eyes
looking at me.


I can see you!”

-Zurita, INRI, p. 119.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Lara Glenum

    >>”these faces irrationally compel us to live with them, to be like them insofar as we, too, become blind, mute, scarred, dead, alive, vulnerable (again and again) in unpredictable ways”

    Love this, Lucas. Love love love.

  2. Johannes

    I think the performance in the clip is so disturbing, unsettling, it’s strange to see the dudes in front row laugh; it kind of makes it even more disturbing.


  3. Johannes

    Also, the award is for “Dance of the Year.” Which is funny. And good. I like the way she dances.


  4. Lucas de Lima

    Thanks Lara!

    Johannes, I’d like to think it’s nervous laughter, but yeah, it does make the whole thing even more unsettling. I did just watch an interview with the Knife where they talk about the importance of being humorous as well as dark. Maybe there’s a trace of that here, like an all-too-real atrocious absurdity.

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