Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Evie Shockley—Issue 65, April 2017)
Power and|of|in Poetry

Michael Leong
Some Observations on Power and Poetry

[When Evie Shockley had solicited a response to the intersection of “Power/Poetry”—in what she called “this moment of multiple insanities and untold possibilities”—I immediately grasped the importance and timeliness of the subject. Evie’s email came to me on August 8th, the day before the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. Paul O’Neal, the unarmed teenager, had just been shot in the back and killed by Chicago PD. I was, at the time, in Santiago, Chile, where I had been keeping an eye on the global headlines: politicized violence against minorities, the vilification of immigrants, rising nationalisms and xenophobia. In thinking about what to write for this section on “Power and|of|in Poetry,” I thought of some crucial poetry of the 1970s from both North and South America under the conviction that some of this work, which comes from different cultural traditions and historical contexts, can still speak to the tumultuousness of our present moment. Poetry is, after all, a migrant and time traveler.]

The story is, by now, familiar but worth remembering: the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita (1950 – )—now renowned for, among other works, his epic trilogy of Purgatory, Anteparadise, and The New Life—was arrested on the morning of September 11, 1973, “the first 9/11,” the day when Augusto Pinochet’s U.S.–backed military coup ousted the democratically elected Salvador Allende from power. Zurita, then a university student and socialist, was taken, along with hundreds of others, on the converted prison–ship Maipo, where he was detained and beaten. Soldiers confiscated his folder of poems on the suspicion that some of his strange–looking visual poems contained coded and subversive material. According to Zurita, “When they were convinced that they were poems, they threw them into the sea.” Nevertheless, Zurita’s poems survived: “I reconstructed them in my mind. I managed to remember every letter amidst that hell. Later, they made up part of Purgatory.”

We can say, then, that one of poetry’s essential powers is that it simply persists; it persists in the face of power. “You can’t defeat a dictatorship with poetry,” says Zurita. But, as W.H. Auden says, even though “poetry makes nothing happen,” “it survives / In the valley of its saying.”

Purgatory, published in 1979 as Purgatorio, registers in oblique but powerful ways the fear and terror of living under the dictatorship. In “Áreas verdes” [Green Areas], a curious pastoral allegory at the book’s core, Zurita describes “las vacas huyendo” [fleeing cows] and “las verdes áreas regidas por los vaqueros” [green areas ruled by cowboys]. The sheer persecution by the “vaqueros locos” [crazy cowboys] seems to transform the body of the pursued: “Ahora los vaqueros no saben qué hacer con esa vaca / pues sus manchas no son otra cosa / que la misma sombra de sus perseguidores” [Now the cowboys don’t know what to do with that cow / since its spots are nothing / but the very shadow of its persecutors]. Though originally written in 1971, before the coup, “Green Areas” anticipates—as if a sundial of futurity—the shadow of fascism, the inhumanity of corralling people like cattle. This is to say that the poem’s allegorical language of hunter and hunted is flexible enough to reach forward in time, to bear witness to future tragedy.

Poetry, such as Zurita’s, generates power from “speaking otherwise” (the word “allegory” derives from “allos, other + –ēgorein, to speak publicly”). “Other–speech” is especially crucial when one’s speaking is surveilled and censored by the powers that be, when one’s speaking—shattered and traumatized—requires reconstruction. In the preface to the 2009 translation of Purgatory published by the University of California Press, Zurita says, “I had to learn to speak again from total wreckage, almost from madness, so that I could still say something to someone. I think that Purgatory is evidence of that wreckage and of that learning.” If poetry survives in the valley of its saying, as Auden would have it, it also survives by transforming the saying, by putting the wreckage of saying under allegorical pressure so that it can persist and be transmitted.

Praised for its transvestism, the way it shuttles back and forth from male and female subject positions (“Me llamo Raquel,” begins one of its early sections), Purgatory speaks otherwise by taking up and inhabiting the speech of others: “Me amanezco / Se ha roto una columna // Soy una Santa digo” [I awake / a column has broken // I’m a saintly woman I say.] I would like to think that the broken column here is a figure for the ruins of the lyric “I,” from whose breakage other, necessary voices issue.

Elsewhere in Purgatory, Zurita channels the French medieval martyr burned at the stake, who famously—scandalously—heard voices:

Me han rapado la cabeza

me han puesto estos harapos de lana gris

—mamá sigue fumando

Yo soy Juana de Arco

[They’ve shaved my head

They’ve put these grey wool rags on me

—Mom keeps on smoking

I’m Joan of Arc].

One of poetry’s profound powers, then, is its incorporation of a plurality of identities, how it can, to cite T.S. Eliot’s nearly–appropriated phrase from Charles Dickens, “do the Police in different voices.”

Better yet, poetry can also give voice, pace Eliot, to the policed.


On April 28, 1973—five months before the coup in Santiago, Chile—Clifford Glover, a ten year old black boy, was shot in the back by a white plainclothes police office in Queens, NY. Audre Lorde (1934–1992) would famously draw on this incident in her 1975 poem entitled “Power.” Though indicted, the officer Thomas Shea was acquitted of murder by a jury of 11 white men and one black woman, who, as Lorde says, had been dragged “over the hot coals / of four centuries of white male approval / until she let go / the first real power she ever had.” Lorde heard the news of Shea’s acquittal, as she recounts, over the radio as she was driving “across town on Eighty–eighth Street” and “had to pull over”: “I took out my journal just to air some of my fury, to get it out of my fingertips.”

Lorde’s poem is, by turns, meta–rhetorical (“The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children”); lyrical (“I am trapped on a desert of raw gunshot wounds / and a dead child dragging his shattered black / face off the edge of my sleep / blood from his punctured cheeks and shoulders / is the only liquid for miles”); and documentary (“A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens / stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood / and a voice said ‘Die you little motherfucker’ and / there are tapes to prove it. At his trial / this policeman said in his own defense / ‘I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else / only the color’. And / there are tapes to prove that…”). But besides employing a variety of registers, Lorde’s poem registers various voices, culminating in the final stanza, which spectacularly veers across lines of genre, gender, and age. By the end, “Power” transforms into a dramatic monologue as it tracks the consciousness of a teenage boy:

I have not been able to touch the destruction

within me.

But unless I learn to use

the difference between poetry and rhetoric

my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold

or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire

and one day I will take my teenaged plug

and connect it to the nearest socket

raping an 85 year old white woman

who is somebody’s mother

and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed

a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time

“Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are.”

That last line—in an implicit and sardonic juxtaposition of a Greek chorus and a white jury—anticipates Shea’s defense lawyer’s claim that Shea, who was later fired, was needed in the line of duty “to protect us from the animals who roam the streets of New York.” Lorde uses poetry’s power of speaking otherwise to counter the stigmatizing othering of bigotry. Moreover, part of the power of “Power” inheres in its bold ventriloquism and exploration of multiple identities as it relentlessly analyzes the many possible points of contact between personal and institutional power.

In an interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde calls this type of writing “writing at the edge,” a process that necessitates “killing a piece of yourself, in the sense that you have to kill, end, destroy something familiar and dependable, so that something new can come.” The edge in question, I’d like to argue, is the stanza break between the ultimate and penultimate stanzas of “Power”: it is the clefting of the lyric “I” that allows another voice to enter and speak. This self–erasure, this auto–destruction to which Lorde refers is a way of opposing what Zurita calls “the extreme violence of power and the extreme violence of art.” Art’s violence is a counter–power, a live wire that can short–circuit 3/4 time.


Considered “the best–kept secret of Chilean poetry,” Juan Luis Martínez (1942–1993) was once Zurita’s brother–in–law (indeed, Martínez and Zurita shared the same typewriter when they lived together on the Chilean coast). Martínez amassed a monumental trilogy of found poetry—The New Novel (1977), Chilean Poetry (1978), and the posthumously published The Anonymous Poet (or the Eternal Present of Juan Luis Martínez) (2012)—that rivals Zurita’s trilogy of Purgatory, Anteparadise, and The New Life as an achievement of innovative poetry under the dictatorship.

While Zurita destroyed a “familiar and dependable” lyric voice to inhabit female personae, Martínez both doubled and cancelled himself in an effort to write “at the edge.” On the title pages of The New Novel and Chilean Poetry, Martínez crosses–out and brackets in parentheses his orthonym, Juan Luis Martínez, as well as his heteronym, Juan de Dios Martinez in an act of double erasure and qualification: “(Juan Luis Martínez)” and “(Juan de Dios Martinez).” The black lines redacting his two bylines might suggest the censorship of the authoritarian regime; but staging his own authorial erasure also puts Martínez in radical solidarity with the thousands of political prisoners who were disappeared (los desaparecidos) by the military police.

In a 1991 interview with Felix Guattari, Martínez said, “my main interest is the absolute dissolution of authorship—anonymity—and the ideal, if one can use that word, is to make a work, a work in which almost none of the lines belong to me.” Especially in light of the recent outrage over Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative” performance of Michael Brown’s autopsy report “The Body of Michael Brown” (2015)—Elisa Gabbert’s opinion that Goldsmith “merely exploits the text’s inherent power for the author’s own gain” and “echoes the same racist power structures that enabled Brown’s murder” is fairly representative—it is worth thinking back to prior neo–conceptualist practice in which dissolving authorship (as a poetic self–killing) is precisely tied to protesting against structures of power.

Fully achieved in The Anonymous Poet, Martínez’s anonymous, non–voice–based poetics was already well on display in The New Novel, a book which, according to Armando Uribe, “habla del atroz problema del poder” [speaks of the atrocious problem of power]. Uribe refers to The New Novel’s final section “Epigraph for a Condemned Book: Politics,” whose epigraph comes from Francis Picabia: “El padre y la madre no tienen el derecho de la muerte sobre sus hijos, pero la Patria, nuestra segunda madre, puede inmolarlos para la inmensa gloria de los hombres politicos” [The mother and father don’t have the right to kill their children, but the State, our second mother, can immolate them for the immense glory of politicians].

image of Figure 1

The Picabia quote is a scathing indictment of what Lorde might call political rhetoric, an indictment that would take further articulation in “La estructura del pensamiento politico” [The Structure of Political Thought], one of the most subversively satirical visual poems of Martínez’s hermetic first book. Appropriated from what looks like a children’s primer, the found poem incrementally narrates the growth of “one rat” to “Ten rats.” The phrase “Drat the rats!” that punctuates the bottom of the page is somewhat analogous to Lorde’s “What beasts they are.” Political thinking, according to Martínez, depends on the metaphorization of its opposition into animals, into a multiplying plague. According to Henry Kissinger and the Nixon administration, Chile was a “virus,” whose socialist “contagion” would “infect” the entire region. In this sense, “The Structure of Political Thought” is a kind of creative translation and critique of the so–called domino theory—the ideology that helped bring Pinochet into power.

At the beginning of The Anonymous Poet, Martínez would again take up the iconography of animals in the astounding diptych “Los durmientes del valley” [The Sleepers of the Valley]. The title alludes to Arthur Rimbaud’s 1870 sonnet “Le Dormeur du Val,” which famously describes a soldier from the Franco–Prussian War apparently sleeping on the grass by a stream; by the end of the first tercet we realize that “he’s cold” and, by the end of the second, we learn that “in his right side are two red holes.” With the charged subtitle “Lonquén, Chile,” Martínez translates this elegy into the context of Pinochet’s dictatorship to create a stunning memorial to the disappeared. In 1978, a mass grave was discovered at an abandoned limestone mine on the outskirts of Lonquén; the grave contained the remains of 15 people who disappeared after being arrested as political dissidents just after the coup in 1973. The discovery at Lonquén was the first forensic evidence to contradict the government’s claims that there were no detained–disappeared in Chile.

Somewhat reminiscent of Zurita’s sacrificial cows, the lambs on the verso side neatly form the rhyme scheme of a sonnet, as if they were annotating an empty, hollowed–out text. (Interestingly, the third word of Rimbaud’s sonnet is trou—“hole” or “hollow.”) According to poet and scholar Felipe Cussen, “En esas dos páginas enfrentadas, pues, se oponen dos formas de dar sepultura: los cuerpos sin identidad ordenados en fila versus la disposición caótica de los cadáveres en una fosa común.” [On these two facing pages, then, two forms of burial oppose one another: the unidentified bodies arranged in a row versus the chaotic configuration of the corpses in a common grave.] The poem on the recto side might refer to the fact that after the bodies were discovered at Lonquén, they were stolen by La Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional, the Chilean secret police, and buried in a common grave in the Isla de Maipo municipal cemetery. They were not returned to their families and given a proper burial until 2010. Understood in this context, the blank sonnet on the verso might be a monument of absence—not unlike the voids of Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s 9/11 memorial Reflecting Absence—a reminder that the victim’s bodies have been denied appropriate mourning and commemoration.

But perhaps the array of figures on the right is not that of a mass grave but a gesturing towards pre–Columbian petroglyphs. According to Cecilia Vicuña’s 1973 artist book Sabor a Mi, which Chain Links rereleased in 2011, “The neolithic rock paintings of atacama are a forgotten language waiting for wanderers to be born and come and read into them. / you don’t need interpretations, all you need is a hole in your hearts.” Perhaps Martínez’s emptied text is a hole or hollow beyond hermeneutics. In any case, his pictographic language teaches us that poetry has the power to speak up for those oppressed by power without barely a word.

image of Figure 2