I met the great Chilean poet Raul Zurita. He was quiet and old, much older in appearance than age. He took his breakfasts alone in the hotel dining hall. He arrived early in the hotel lobby each time our group had to converge for the day’s activities. He sat by himself, smiled often, and said little. He shook when he walked. He struggled with seat belts. But on the night of his reading, when he recited his long poem “El Mar” (“The Sea”), he stood still on the stage and spoke with a voice firm and filled with conviction. I had never felt as moved by an author reading his poetry as I did when I listened to Zurita, an activist who was detained and tortured under the Pinochet dictatorship, and author of the monumental “La Vida Nueva” (“The New Life”), which, in 1982, was literally written by an airplane in the sky of New York City. “I began to feel at one point that in the face of the violence and horror that nature had something permanent. That it existed before and it will exist afterwards,” says Zurita, who has found and ally and irrepressible advocate against atrocity in nature–thus, the large-scale projects of writing poetry in the sky or bulldozing it in the desert or carving it on cliffs facing the sea. Of art, Zurita says that its only purpose “is to make life more humanly livable. In brief, we should keep on proposing Paradise, even if the evidence at hand might indicate that such a pursuit is folly.”
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I could hardly say a word to Zurita during the week I was in his company, which easily made me regret not learning Spanish in college. He was kind enough to approach me after my own reading; he smiled at me, applauded, and said “bravo.” On our last day in Hong Kong, by some stroke of luck, Adam and I found ourselves sharing the same car service to the airport with him. At the airport, as I helped Zurita wheel his luggage cart down the ridiculously steep slope of Terminal 1, he once again turned to me, smiled, and said, slowly, “I like your poetry very, very, very much.” To which I responded by crashing the cart against the railing to our right (the luggage was about to topple over and I couldn’t think of any other solution). We then disengaged the cart from the railing and slowly maneuvered our way to the check-in counters.
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