ARC Fellows: Jesse Nathan

Coexisting with the Brutality of History

By Jesse Nathan, 2021/22 Poetry & the Senses Fellow

(Faculty Fellow/English)

The Argentinian writer Jorge Borges, blind, dared to say that anything that happens to an artist that does not destroy them is a gift. I don’t know if the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita would agree that his, for instance, extreme suffering at the hands of one of the world’s ugliest regimes, led by the CIA-backed Agosto Pinochet, was a gift. I don’t think it was a gift that drove Zurita to try to blind himself in the midst of it, when he was no longer interested in seeing what was unfolding. For seeing, in a certain sense, can cease to become anything so noble as witness or resistance, can maybe feel—I am guessing—like further torment or, worse, an act of complicity. This feeling may be one reason Zurita’s oeuvre, some of which was gathered in English a few years ago in Sky Below: Selected Works, often gives us a voice—as rendered brilliantly by Anna Deeny Morales—impatient with description. Not at all opposed to it, master of it in quick bursts, but not keen to dwell in that mode, driven instead by the urgency you experience in dreams, never far from the rawness of existential panic, drawn on by a nervy and radically desperate beauty. Here’s an untitled sampling from Inri, a book that takes its name from the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. Zurita’s description of a landscape blossoms impossibly like an heroic simile, a baroque flowering that breaks suddenly back into Kurosawa-like dream-narrative: 

[…] In the foreground the white
breaker rises and falls. The small cities are white
on the paths at night. They look like luminous 
flakes that appear for a moment and then nothing.
Someone heard them, and now they’re thousands
of white faces, with teeth slightly reddened and the 
hollows of their eyes empty. My love letters. Then

I cross small towns at night. I cross furs mottled 
with blood. Both are slight […]

Sometimes Zurita’s poetry consists of pictographs, sometimes formulas like math problems of the spirit—“Areas N = The Hunger of My Heart”—or subpointed sequences, like “The Beaches of Chile” series. Not a direct description of the beaches, but an account of the suffering in and around that stark beauty, the psychic account of the experience of a particular place in a particular time, which yet has a feeling of myth to it: “i. Soaked in tears he threw his vestments to the water / ii. Naked you’d have seen him huddled coiled upon himself    shaking    with his hands covered over the swarm at his wounds.” Zurita once years ago (there are pictures in Sky Below) had some of his poetry written by airplane in the firmament over New York City, a gesture that signals his ambition, his anti-provincialism, and maybe his ironical and worldly understanding of where certain kinds of power gather—he didn’t write these lines over Valparaiso or Santiago, where he was born. It was a ritual signaling his willingness to suspend the orthodoxies of even the page itself. 

Which is to say, his relationship to limits—limits of all kinds—suggests his genius, for he seems to sense that limits (such as the edges of language, the edges of a life) are and are not real and final, even limits imposed arbitrarily and terribly, like dictatorship or dying. Coexistence with such a reality—our reality, that is—is a tricky business, and Zurita’s poetry offers one way, or the record of one man’s way, of mapping it without losing your mind or your will or your way. A way to face even the realities you can’t see. This is a poet who writes a little fable not so much of, but in the shadow of, the political nightmare of a collapsing social order. Not so hard for Americans to imagine anymore. A poet whose lines are sliced unnaturally, often breaking jaggedly in Spanish at the logistical helper-word “que,” and at the “the” in the English version. In one of his poems about the human face—and so many of Zurita’s poems seem to gesture at, or openly make a subject of that irreducible stamp of our subjectivity—the lines are replete with a characteristic mythic compression, that vividness impatient with emplotment and extensive description, vividness which nonetheless claims a time and place: 

With my face blood-soaked I called at his door:
Could you help me—I said—I’ve got some 
friends out here
“Go away—he replied—before I kick the
shit out of you”
Come on—I reminded him—sir you know they
also turned Jesus back.
“You’re not Jesus—he answered—get or I’ll
break your face. I’m not your father”
Please—I insisted—they’re your sons …
“Fine—he said calming down—take them to 
the promised land”
Okay, but where is that place?—I asked—
Then, as if it were a star that spoke, he
“Far off, in those lost cordilleras of Chile”,

Jesse Nathan‘s poems appear in the Paris ReviewKenyon ReviewThe NationFENCEThe Yale ReviewHarvard Review, and American Poetry Review. His translations of Alfonsina Storni and Brenda Solís-Fong in Mantis and Poetry International. Nathan was born in Berkeley, where he lived until he was ten; he spent the second half of his childhood on a wheat farm in rural Kansas. Nathan moved to San Francisco after college, in part to take a position at McSweeney’s. His work has been supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ashbery Home School, Bread Loaf, and the Community of Writers. He lives now in Oakland and is a lecturer in the English Department at UC Berkeley.

Note: Over the course of the fall semester, each 2021-22 ARC Fellow will submit a short blog post relating to the theme coexistence. We hope you will enjoy these short readings! Poetry and the Senses creates meaningful opportunities for engagement, research, and collaboration. This multi-year initiative explores the relevance and urgency of lyrical making and storytelling in times of political crisis, and the value of engaging the senses as an act of care, mindfulness, and resistance. To learn more about the program, click here.