New Deserts of Chile: Raúl Zurita’s Atacama Forms



During the seventeen years of the Pinochet dictatorship, thousands of Chileans were detained and, for many, executed and buried in the Atacama Desert. Daniel Borzutzky approaches this murderous history of the desert through the poetry of Raúl Zurita, whose words (at times, inscribed in the very land) honored those who died resisting the military rule. All translations from Spanish are by Daniel Borzutzky, unless otherwise indicated.

Borzutzky Funambulist 3
Where the Desert meets the Ocean in Pisagua. / Photo by Jeremy Richards (2017).

As I try to honor my invitation to write about deserts in Raúl Zurita’s poetry, I am overcome by excess. Everywhere in his oeuvre there are deserts. From his work written in the 1970s and 80s through his poetry of the last few years, the desert appears as pasture; mutable landscape in the sky or sea; receptacle for discarded bodies; prison and torture site; script on which he famously engraved into the earth the poem “Ni Pena, Ni Miedo” (“No Shame Nor Fear”), a poem so vast it can only be seen in its entirety from the sky; utopian ideal; locus of regeneration; nationalist fantasy; and fascist horror show.

In other words, the desert is the unwritable poem that is always being written. It is at once a site of brutal violence, and of desire, and art, and love. 

Zurita was born in 1950 in Chile and has spent his life there. He grew up in Santiago and moved to the port city of Valparaiso to study engineering, a degree he never completed. On September 11, 1973, he and many of his classmates were arrested on the day of the military coup. He spent six weeks in brutal conditions on a military ship overcrowded with prisoners. Since 1973, he has written, with an indefatigable focus, about the myriad ways the Pinochet dictatorship destroyed Chilean society, and how this destruction is interlaced with transhistorical and transnational systems of violence and economics. Remarkably, and at great personal danger, he did this work during the seventeen years of dictatorship, and into the endless and still ongoing “transition” from dictatorship to democracy.