INRI
by Raúl Zurita (2003, 2009)
translated from the Spanish by William Howe (2009, 2018)
NYRB/Poets (2018)
137 pp

On September 11, 1973, the United States backed a military coup in Chile, the elected president Salvador Allende committed suicide, and General Augusto Pinochet, who had been promoted by Allende just a few weeks prior, assumed power. Thus commenced a horrific period during which the Pinochet’s government exiled, tortured, killed, and “disappeared” thousands of individuals.

The disappeared were, as the name suggests, people who simply disappeared during Pinochet’s tenure, particularly at the beginning. Those who knew and loved them had no idea of their fates. Were they still alive somewhere? If they were dead, where did their bodies end up? Though in the nearly fifty years since the tragedy some details have been uncovered, the fate of many of the disappeared remains a mystery. The disappeared, and the country that created and mourns them, are the subject of Raúl Zurita’s powerful poem INRI.

In the author’s note at the beginning of this volume I highly highly recommend, published recently by NYRB/Poets, Zurita discusses the catalyst for this long poem:

In January 2001, on TV, the President of Chile, Sr. Ricardo Lagos, acknowledged that the bodies of hundreds and hundreds of people who had been disappeared during the Pinochet dictatorship would never be found because they had been thrown out of airplanes into the sea and the mountains: into the Pacific Ocean and into the mouths of volcanoes.

Of course, three decades later people knew the disappeared weren’t coming back. They knew — even if they didn’t “know” — what happened to their friends and family. Still, there’s a difference between the two types of knowing:

But there was something about the acknowledgement, perhaps the formality of the act beside the magnitude of what was being acknowledged, or possibly the ridiculous pretense of solemnity in the face of sheer brutality, that made me feel ashamed in a way that nothing that had happened to me as an individual had made me feel ashamed. 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 words on the TV. I don’t know if what I am saying about that screech makes sense: It was called innrrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii.

So INRI is a screech, but what an eloquent screech. The poem itself is structured as a series of chapters, many focused on the landscape of Chile where the disappeared were discarded by the government. The poem works around and around, building its cries. It has a Biblical feel. INRI could be a form of Lamentations.

Here is how the poem begins, in a chapter on the sea:

Strange baits fall from the sky. Surprising baits
fall upon the sea. Down below the ocean, up
above unusual clouds on a clear day. Surprising
baits rain on the sea. There was a love raining,
there was a clear day that’s raining now on the
sea.

They are shadows, baits for fishes. A clear day is
raining, a love that was never said. Love, ah yes,
love, amazing baits are raining from the sky on
the shadow of fishes in the sea.

Clear days fall. Some strange baits with clear
day stuck to them, with loves that were never
said.

The sea, it says the sea. It says baits that rain and
clear days stuck to them, it says unfinished loves,
clear and unfinished days that rain for the fish in
the sea.

The rain of these bodies on the sea will continue throughout the poem, and Zurita continues to iterate what they mean, trying again and again to say something about them, the unfinished loves and unfinished days.

Here is another portion that focuses on the mountain cemetery, and all around it are other mementos of a larger graveyard:

Down below the mountain peak twists
slowly and bends. Hundreds of others further off do
the same: their sharp points, the rounded
mouths of the volcanoes. Behind there’s the sea,
above, the tombstone of the sky. Below, the
huge cemetery of white mountains that twist
like needles bending.

I don’t want to say too much more, mainly because the power of the poem lies in its building force. I could never adequately express it, and I think most of what I write will be misleading. Suffice it to say, then, that this is the best poem I’ve read in a long time. It had me reflecting on the atrocities Zurita has in mind, about the people who disappeared, about the survivors who have lived in the country where they are hidden, but loudly hidden. It’s beautiful and terrible and provocative.

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