SPEAKING OF THE UNSPOKEN PLACES IN POETRY
This talk will focus on the unspoken places in poetry, hidden or forgotten places and the people who inhabit them: prisons, psychiatric wards, unemployment lines, migrant labor camps, borderlands, battlefields, lost cities and rivers of the dead. The people in these places are not only subject matter, but poets themselves. They show us the torture chamber, but also the great houses where the torture is authorized; they show us the lynch mob, but also the home built by the ex-slave for his daughters. Many poets were imprisoned, exiled, censored or even assassinated during the last century because they spoke of unspoken places. Nevertheless, poets continue to speak of such places in terms of history and mythology, memory and redemption, advocacy and art. They make the invisible visible.
Speaking of the unspoken places means speaking of the people who live and die in those places. Sometimes, these places are unspoken because unspeakable things happened or happen there; sometimes, because the victims of the unspeakable have resisted their victimization and found a way to flourish there. These are places and people condemned to silence, and so the poet must speak. When the poet speaks of the unspoken places, certain questions arise: Who benefits from silence and forgetting? Who benefits from speaking and remembering? Walt Whitman's dictum come to mind: that the duty of the poet is "to cheer up slaves and horrify despots." Of course, speaking and remembering are necessary, but not sufficient; the poet must speak and remember well.
To speak of the unspoken places, the poet must evoke those places through a language grounded in the senses. The image is essential. The poet must have the art of metaphor. This is especially true where we speak of the history buried all around us.
The great poet of history's unspoken places in the 20th century is Pablo Neruda. On October 31, 1943, Neruda climbed on horseback through the Andes to the ruins of an Inca city called Macchu Picchu. Because of its remoteness, Macchu Picchu was never colonized by Spain; there is no Spanish architecture, or destruction of Inca architecture. The city was abandoned at an unknown date.
Neruda translator and critic John Felstiner describes Macchu Picchu this way: “The city itself gives you a feeling of physical improbability. Perched on a saddle between two pinnacles two thousand feet above the Urubamba (River), its walls, towers, stairways and roofless houses seem to be clinging organically onto the grassy ridge…"Wherever you go in the city you are moving up or down.” Yet, “As for the builders, no trace remains of their dwellings or those of the various artisans and farmers who supported such a community.”
Neruda wrote Heights of Macchu Picchu in September 1945, a long poem divided into twelve parts called Cantos. As might be expected, he praises the power of the city and the mountains, establishing a strong sense of place. However, in Canto X there is a radical turnabout. With the question, "Man, where was he?" Neruda confronts and accuses Macchu Picchu. He becomes aware of human suffering at this sacred place. In a tone of anguish, almost disbelieving, the poet asks: "Macchu Picchu, did you lift / stone upon stone on a groundwork of rags?" To build the city thousands of slaves must have labored for years to drag huge stones two thousand feet above the Urubamba without the use of the wheel. Neruda wrestles with the paradox that such magnificence is built upon such suffering. He demands of Macchu Picchu: "Give me back the slave you buried here!"
Bertolt Brecht put the question another way: "Who built the Seven Gates of Thebes?" The same question could be asked of the Egyptian pyramids or the Taj Mahal. The question raised by Neruda and Brecht teaches us that there is another way to see the monuments of the world: that which begins as a monument to kings becomes a monument to the builders. Most poets would write in praise of Macchu Picchu's splendor, and leave it at that. This is a different kind of communion, not mystic, but militant, not with God or nature, but with the poor, and with justice.
The poem takes one more turn in the twelfth and final Canto. Standing at the heights of Macchu Picchu, Neruda calls upon the dead to be reborn through him:
Look at me from the depths of the earth,
tiller of fields, weaver, reticent shepherd,
groom of totemic guanacos,
mason high on your treacherous scaffolding,
iceman of Andean tears,
jeweler with crushed fingers,
farmer anxious among his seedlings,
potter wasted among his clays—
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.
show me your blood and your furrow;
say to me: here I was scourged
because a gem was dull or because the earth
failed to give up in time its tithe of corn or stone.
Point out to me the rock on which you stumbled,
the wood they used to crucify your body.
Strike the old flints
to kindle ancient lamps, light up the whips
glued to your wounds throughout the centuries
and light the axes gleaming with your blood.
I come to speak for your dead mouths.
The translation is by Nathaniel Tarn. Here, according to critic René de Costa, the poet "calls out to the continent's dead, asking them to speak through him...Neruda will "speak with a voice of Biblical authority for all the people of the Américas." The key line is: "I come to speak for your dead mouths." Think of Whitman in #24 of “Song of Myself, proclaiming, "Through me many long dumb voices,” defending “the rights of them the others are down upon.” There is an epiphany: Neruda has become the advocate. In this declaration the poet discovers the synthesis between craft and commitment, poetry and politics. This is why he writes, and why he lives. As Felstiner puts it, in Canto XII Neruda wants the flesh and blood of the dead transfused into him, literally becoming one with suffering humanity.
Carl Sandburg is also a poet of buried history. A veteran of the Spanish American War, Sandburg recalls the battlefields of the world in “Grass:”
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work.
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
This is a deceptively simple poem. These few words capture the endless cycles of war made possible by historical amnesia. The proof of this amnesia is evident in the litany of the poem itself. We all recognize the names “Gettysburg” and “Waterloo.” The other names are less familiar to our contemporary ears. Verdun is a city in France, the site of a battle during the First World War that lasted for ten months. Total casualties: Over 900,000. Ypres is a city in Belgium, the site of three battles during the Great War. Austerlitz is a town in Czechoslovakia, the site of a major battle during the Napoleonic Wars. The poem then poses a question that resonates on multiple levels: “Where are we now?” The answer echoes back: Iraq.
This poem can be read as a response to Whitman’s question in “Song of Myself:” “What is the grass?” The voice of the grass here is so indifferent to the piles of bodies that it might as well be the voice of an uncaring God. There is no doubt, however, that the voice bears witness to a fundamental truth. Visit Gettysburg, as I have, and another truth of the poem reveals itself: the grass is beautiful. The grass covers all, and the place is once again idyllic, as if the generals choose their battlefields the same way you or I choose the perfect spot for a picnic. The grass becomes a metaphor for the seductiveness of forgetting.
Another poet who speaks of the unspoken places in history is Sterling Brown. An African-American poet who emerged in the years of the Harlem Renaissance, Brown was re-discovered and finally appreciated with the publication of his Collected Poems in 1980, edited by Michael Harper. He was a compelling narrative poet who sometimes used the blues form. His subject was the Black experience in the South. His books were out of print for decades; I discovered Sterling Brown on the flip side of a Langston Hughes recording. In particular, I recall Brown's chilling rendition of a poem called, "Old Lem," about the humilations of plantation life in the Jim Crow South, and the terror of lynching. This is not the lynching of "Strange Fruit," of Billie Holiday, who sang the song, or Abel Meeropol, who wrote it, as striking as that song might be. This is lynching in the language of one who knows, first-hand, of which he speaks.
Sterling Brown speaks in the voice of Old Lem. Not only is the voice persuasive, but the structure of the poem supports what the voice is saying. Brown makes use of anaphora--the word "they," referring to Southern whites—and the accumulation of numbers, repeatedly interrupting the speaker's attempts to tell the story. These devices convey a sense of great force brought to bear against Southern Blacks, a force moving in waves like the sea, and equally eternal. The repetition in the language also reinforces the idea that this mob violence recurred many times over generations in the South.
I had a buddy
Six foot of man
Muscled up perfect
Game to the heart
They don’t come by ones
Outworked and outfought
Any man or two men
They don’t come by twos
He spoke out of turn
At the commissary
They gave him a day
To git out the county
He didn’t take it.
He said ‘Come and git me.’
They came and got him
And they came by tens.
He stayed in the county—
He lays there dead.
They don’t come by ones
They don’t come by twos
But they come by tens.
This poem triggers a recollection of my pilgrimage to Biloxi, Mississippi. My father, Frank Espada, was passing through Biloxi in 1949 on a Christmas furlough from the Air Force when he was arrested and jailed for refusing to go to the back of the bus. Almost fifty years later, I discovered that the bus station and the jail had been demolished. Biloxi had become a casino town. Later, I wrote: "What I found in Biloxi was the splintering of history. I unearthed a fragment, jagged and inscrutable as a shard of pottery or bone. But this fragment--my father's story--is evidence of how actual human beings behaved in the face of an enormous crime: the orchestration of a racial caste system with its roots in slavery. The crime is so vast that the scattered fragments of its history are everywhere, and everywhere the graves are unmarked." This is why poems like Sandburg’s “Grass” and Brown’s "Old Lem" are necessary: so that the truth of a place cannot be obliterated simply by changing the face of the landscape.
Not all poems of unspoken places revolve around death or defeat. Acts of resistance are documented, even where that resistance is nothing more than the assertion of human dignity. If we know Old Lem, then we should also know Pomp Atwood, a former slave and the great-grandfather of poet Marilyn Nelson. In her collection of poems called The Homeplace--a family history in verse--Nelson recalls the house and life Pomp built for his family in Hickman, Kentucky at the turn of the century against extraordinary odds; Pomp could have been elected alderman but for the discouragement of the local Klan. The poem, "Daughters, 1900" takes the form of a villanelle.
Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch,
are bickering. The eldest has come home
With new truths she can hardly wait to teach.
She lectures them: the younger daughters search
ghe sky, elbow each others’ ribs, and groan.
Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch
and blue-sprigged dresses, like a stand of birch
saplings whose leaves are going yellow-brown
with new truths. They can hardly wait to teach…
The essence of a villanelle, of course, is repetition: two lines repeat six times apiece in a poem of only nineteen lines. Here, Marilyn Nelson utilizes one of those lines to produce a sense of place: "Five daughters in the slant light on the porch." We as readers are invited to sit on that porch. The "slant light" suggests a feeling of peace. The rhyme scheme is satisfying to the ear, evoking a neat domesticity. Amid all the good-natured bickering "Pomp lowers his paper for a while," triumphant. His house, if it still stands today, represents a different kind of monument.
Any survey of poems that speak of hidden or forgotten places must account for the poetry arising from the reality of incarceration. The empathy of Whitman for prisoners leads the way: “Not a man walks handcuffed to the jail, but I am handcuffed/ to him and walk by his side.” This poetry is especially relevant given the epidemic of incarceration in the United States today. The media tends to demonize those behind the walls--the comforting personification of criminality in a cage--but beyond the symbolism there is invisibility and silence. Poetry humanizes, giving the prisoner a face and a voice.
Nazim Hikmet of Turkey is considered a major poet of the last century. He spent seventeen years in prison for his political activity with the Communist Party. In May 1949, locked up in Bursa Prison, he wrote "Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison." The poem has an urgency that draws us in, but the poet also employs several strategies to keep us there. There is the strategy of address. As Ed Hirsch observes of this poem: "Consider yourself addressed if you're going to be spending time in prison for political reasons." For the rest of us, there is a feeling of eavesdropping. Instinctively, we lean closer to catch every word. There is another strategy at work: the poet springs at us from strange and surprising angles. There is no mention of the warden, guards, other inmates, bars on the windows, steel doors or the prison yard. Instead, this is a poem about the emotional landscape of the dissenter. The advice, by poem's end, is not only about surviving imprisonment, but about our own emotional landscapes, whatever they may be. Here's the end of the poem, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk.
And who knows,
the woman you love may stop loving you.
Don’t say it’s no big thing:
it’s like the snapping of a green branch
To the man inside.
To think of roses and gardens inside is bad,
to think of seas and mountains is good.
Read and write without rest,
and I also advise weaving
and making mirrors.
I mean, it’s not that you can’t pass
ten or fifteen years inside
as long as the jewel
on the left side of your chest doesn’t lose its luster!
Ed Hirsch says of Hikmet and his emotions: "He knows, for example, one can't afford to give in to desolation. He is against brooding about enclosed spaces, even beautiful ones like gardens, but supports dreaming of wild open spaces, like seas and mountains. He understands too well the temptations of sadness, the dangers of indifference, the healing power of laughter...So many modern and contemporary poets are terrified of deep feeling, of seeming undefended and 'sentimental'...We live in a cool age. But I invoke Hikmet precisely for his emotional excesses, for writing an oracular human-sized poetry, for his toughness and unblushing sentiment, for calling the heart a jewel that should never lose its luster."
Arguably, the most significant poet to emerge from the U.S. prison system is Etheridge Knight. Wounded in the Korean War, he was treated with morphine and became addicted to it. He was ultimately convicted of armed robbery and spent six years in prison, where he began to write. He was mentored by Gwendolyn Brooks, and published Poems from Prison in 1968, which made his reputation. Etheridge Knight died of cancer in 1991. His most celebrated poem--probably the most celebrated poem about prison life ever written in this country--is called "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane."
Hard Rock is a rebel and a hero to his fellow inmates. They recall his legendary exploits, such as the time he smacked a guard with his dinner tray, and “the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock had once bit/ a screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.” The authorities finally send Hard Rock to a mental hospital, and he returns lobotomized, “his eyes empty like knot holes in a fence.” The poet goes on:
And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock
Exactly three minutes to tell you his first name,
We told ourselves that he had just wised up,
Was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long,
And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed.
He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do.
Of "Hard Rock," Yusef Komunyakaa writes: "Knight knows that people in such a psychological clench need heroes of mythic proportions to fight their real and imaginary battles. Hard Rock is one that they, and Knight, have claimed. He has a history of standing up to adversaries and symbols of authority, a figure of folkloric stature...This hero doesn't wear a white hat. He is crude, brute-looking, unsophisticated, but also noble. In order for him to belong to a group he must sacrifice himself; thus, he's misused by this fraternity of black victims. Also, one knows, like Hard Rock what the collective 'we' has been reduced to--that only savagery equals survival in such a hellhole. The situation has invented Hard Rock."
Etheridge Knight proves the proposition that the people who inhabit the unspoken places are not merely subjects, but poets themselves. They have moral and literary authority to speak. In fact, there is probably a higher percentage of poets among prison inmates than among college students. And they are serious. I once met a young man, introduced to me only as "Brandon" at a reading in a Boston juvenile detention center, who was so dedicated to his poetry that he would provoke brawls with the other inmates and be thrown into solitary confinement, where he could write in relative tranquility.
There is yet another perspective: those who work behind the walls have their point of view. Theodore Deppe served as a psychiatric nurse working with disturbed adolescents at a hospital in Willimantic, Connecticut. This poem is simply called, "Admission, Children's Unit."
She said her son set fire to his own room,
she’d found him fanning it with a comic, and what
should she have done? Her red hair
was pulled back in a braid, she tugged at its flames,
and what she’d done, it turns out, was hold her son
so her boyfriend could burn him with cigarettes.
The details didn’t, of course, come out at first,
but I sensed them. The boy’s refusal to take off his shirt.
His letting me, finally, lift it to his shoulders
and examine the six wounds, raised, ashy, second
or third degree, arranged in a cross.
I’d like to say all this happened when I first started
to work as a nurse, before I’d learned not to judge
the parents, but this was last week, the mother was crying,
I thought of handing her a box of tissues, and didn’t.
Sullen and wordless, the boy got up, brought his mother
the scented, blue Kleenex from my desk,
pressed his head into her side. Bunching
the bottom of her sweatshirt in both hands,
he anchored himself to her. Glared at me.
it took four of us to pry him from his mother’s arms.
We notice, first of all, the current of controlled anger that runs through the poem, channeled and directed creatively rather than spilling over and breaking through. Thus, the poem mirrors the controlled anger of the poet at the very moment that this encounter occurred. The poem succeeds, not simply because of the shocking tale it tells, but because the poem pivots like a skiier down a slope, building momentum and leaving our expectations sprawled in its wake. First comes the revelation of the burns in the shape of a cross; then the refusal of the nurse (that is, the poet) to hand over a box of tissues, in a small gesture of hostility; then the son bringing his mother the tissues, signaling his loyalty; then the final, devastating struggle. The victim does not want help, despises his protector, and fiercely loves a person who may ultimately kill him.
The poem raises a basic question: Why was it written? Unlike Neruda, Sandburg or Hikmet, Ted Deppe is not famous. He has published two slim collections of poetry with small presses in New England. He does not have a following. His audience is tiny. When he wrote this poem, he had no expectations that it would be published or read at all, or that the poem could possibly change the boy's situation for the better. Why does a psychiatric nurse write a poem?
"Admission, Children's Unit" represents the idea that we speak of the unspoken places because we have to, regardless of consequences, that we are driven to create a record of human suffering without the luxury of measuring our impact on the world, which cannot be quantified. We do not write such poems because we necessarily believe that our side will win, and that conditions will change; we write them because there is an ethical compulsion to do so. To know that there is a cross burned into this boy's skin is to accept responsibility for that knowledge, to communicate that knowledge for the sake of those who do not know, and those who do. How could Ted Deppe know what he knows, and not tell what he knows?
We could ask the same of Roque Dalton. A poet and revolutionary from El Salvador, Dalton endured imprisonment and torture. He engineered several miraculous escapes; on one occasion, he was awaiting execution when an earthquake struck, collapsing the walls of the jail which held him and enabling his getaway. He was finally assassinated in 1975--by an extreme faction on his own side. Roque Dalton would have appreciated the irony. We see his grim sense of humor at work in the poem about the unspeakable called, "The Certainty," translated by Jack Hirschman.
Two torturers play a guessing game with their prisoner: “If you guess which one of us/ has a glass eye, you’ll be spared torture.” The prisoner gets it right—“His. His right eye is glass”—and the amazed guards want to know:
“But how did you guess?
All your buddies missed because the eye is American,
that is, perfect.” “Very simple,” said the prisoner,
feeling he was going to faint again, “it was the only eye that
looked at me without hatred.”
Of course they continued torturing him.
One certainty of this poem is that the poet never stops being a poet, even when writing about torture. Roque Dalton has the art of metaphor. The glass eye is a manifestation of U.S. foreign policy in El Salvador. The eye is apparently "perfect," and indeed the rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy invokes democratic principles as well as the desire for peace. But the eye is glass, a gleaming fraud. Ultimately the eye is blind. The United States once funded the Salvadoran military at a rate of more than one and a half million dollars per day; yet the taxpayers and the bureaucrats never saw the torture chamber.
The poem has the quality of a perverse fable, with a political moral. The guards pose a riddle; the prisoner answers correctly, and loses anyway. Perhaps Dalton's moral is this: Don't play the game with this regime. Name "hatred" for what it is. Dalton adopts a different survival strategy than Nazim Hikmet; he stays human through a dignity based on defiance.
A glimpse into the jail cell where torture takes place is relatively rare; rarer still is the glimpse into the doorway of the fine house where torture has been sanctioned. In "The Colonel," a poem about her experience in El Salvador, Carolyn Forché brings us through that doorway. This poem is a prime example of what Forché calls "the poetry of witness," influenced by the Latin American tradition of the "testimonio." (See Forché's anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness). Here Forché is acting as a poet-spy--and she gets caught, escalating the tension of the scene.
The poem begins with a statement of urgency: "What you have heard is true." Forché then establishes a sense of place in two ways. We see images of privilege, as expected: "rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell." But we also see images of the barriers protecting privilege: "Broken bottles were embedded in the walls to scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs." One of the poem's strengths is that it lifts the reader safely over those broken bottles. The poet becomes our guide to a secret place, where the euphemistic language of power articulates itself in such phrases as "how difficult it had become to govern," the rationalization for whatever happens in that other secret place, the jail cell of Roque Dalton.
But the guide is powerless when her host, the colonel, decides to demonstrate his ultimate authority at the dinner table:
The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this.
The sack of ears has great metaphorical power--a startling representation of silence imposed by brutality--but they are also real ears, and so the poet feels obligated to describe them. This turn in the poem is followed by one more dramatic development: the colonel, obviously a dangerous man, knows who the poet is and where her sympathies lie: "As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves." The implication here is that she or her "people" could be imperiled. The colonel's final declaration--"Something for your poetry, no?"--could be read as a dare, or as a statement that his power and privilege insulate him from the consquences of his actions. It doesn't matter what she writes. Of course, the colonel was wrong. The poem gained a good deal of attention in the United States and helped to raise awareness about repression in El Salvador. (The colonel himself is dead now.)
There are many Latino intellectuals and activists who insist that the border between México and the United States is a nation unto itself, with its own culture and history. If so, then this is truly an unspoken place, a shadow country. In 1987, the United States government attempted to prevent Demetria Martínez from speaking of this unspoken place.
Demetria Martínez is a Chicana poet, novelist and journalist from Albuquerque, New Mexico. During the 1980s she was active in the sanctuary movement, providing political asylum for refugees from Central America. In her capacity as a writer, she traveled in the company of two pregnant Salvadoran women as they crossed the border into the U.S. She wrote a poem called about the experience called "Nativity: For Two Salvadoran Women, 1986-1987.” In 1987, Demetria Martínez was indicted for allegedly smuggling "illegal aliens" across the border. She faced twenty five years in prison and more than a million dollars in fines. The poem was introduced as evidence against her, to show that she indeed traveled with the refugees (though the existence of the poem supported her contention that she was acting as a writer). She was acquitted on First Amendment grounds in 1988. However, her treatment may help to explain why so many unspoken places remain unspoken.
Demetria Martínez wrote "Nativity" to protest the criminalization of the immigrant, to argue in effect that the phrase "illegal immigrant" is an oxymoron in a nation of immigrants. In return, her dissent was criminalized, since the best way to circumvent the First Amendment and punish dissent is to call the dissenter a criminal and charge her with a crime.
The journalistic sensibility of the poem is clear: Note the elements of who, what, and where in the opening lines:
Your eyes, large as Canada, welcome
We meet in a Juárez train station
where you sat hours,
your offspring blooming in you
like cactus fruit,
dresses stained where breasts leak,
panties in purses tagged
“Hecho en El Salvador,”
your belts like equators,
mark north from south,
borders I cannot cross,
for I am an American reporter,
pen and notebook, the tools
of my tribe, distance us…
Yet, the poem transcends journalism as it mythologizes this place and people. The title itself mythologizes. Why "Nativity?" The children are due in December; the birth of these children represents hope for a people to survive; they will be born in the "manger" of this society.
By poem’s end, the poet-reporter watches a car taking the two Salvadoran women to their destiny, “a canoe hanging over the windshield/ like the beak of an eagle,/ babies turning in your wombs,/ summoned to Bélen to be born.” The last line of the poem relies on the double meaning of "Belén" in Spanish: both "Bethlehem" and "chaos." The children are therefore summoned to a mythological destiny, but also to a chaotic and dangerous world. The line echoes Yeats as well: "slouching towards Bethlehem to be born."
These immigrants cross the border into unspoken places: the fields and labor camps of this country. I worked for the Migrant Legal Action Program in 1983, doing outreach in Spanish among the migrant farmworkers of Maryland and Delaware, hidden away in labor camps far from so-called civilization. There were no unions, no doctors, no plumbing, no minimum wage. There were reports of "wino crews" that worked for alcohol, and debt peonage, the enslavement of farmworkers.
No one could read or write. An illiterate farmworker would customarily sign a legal complaint by copying his own signature from his social security card. From this world came the Chicano poet Gary Soto. A former farmworker in the San Joaquín Valley, Soto published a collection of poems in 1977 called The Elements of San Joaquín. It was as if Tom Joad had written The Grapes of Wrath. Soto virtually invented the genre of farmworker poetry. He is now considered an essential Latino poet. "A Red Palm" is a later. The poem establishes its central metaphors of dehumanization in the first two stanzas:
You’re in this dream of cotton plants.
You raise a hoe swing, and the first weeds
Fall with a sigh. You take another step,
Chop, and the sigh comes again,
Until you yourself are breathing that way
With each step, a sigh that will follow you into town.
That’s hours later. The sun is a red blister
Coming up in your palm. Your back is strong,
Young, not yet the broken chair
In an abandoned school of dry spiders.
Dust settles on your forehead, dirt
Smiles under each fingernail.
In this intricate poem, the person becomes the place, and the place becomes the person. The "weeds/ fall with a sigh," until "you yourself are breathing that way," "a sigh that will follow you into town." Later that night, "you walk with a sigh of cotton plants." The farmworker is both chopping and chopped. He dissolves into the cotton, no more human than the crop and the dirt, which "smiles under each fingernail," as human as he is. "The sun is a red blister" in the palm; by the end of the poem, the "red sun" is "the sore light you see when you first stir in bed," an image which implies that the farmworker and the sun will rise together for another day in the fields. The comparison of the blister and the sun is significant. In farmworker literature, the sun is a malevolent presence, not a harbinger of hope or a bringer of life.
The red palm is a brand, an identifying mark, reminiscent of the stigmata. All the farmworker owns is the labor of his hands. That labor buys rest from labor, but the respite is painfully brief. The lights are on: "That costs money, yellow light/ in the kitchen. That's thirty steps,/ You say to your hands." The hands twitch. There may be rest, but there is no peace.
Chicana poet Diana García was literally born in a migrant labor camp: Camp CPC, owned by the California Packing Corporation in the San Joaquín Valley. Like Etheridge Knight, García demonstrates that poets live in the unspoken places. She writes a physical, even visceral poetry, from the perspective of one who escaped, as those who survive the unspoken places often do. Note the flicker of imagination and hope in the reference to a beloved movie star—the seeds of poetry, perhaps.
When living was a labor camp called Montgomery
You joined the family each summer to sort dried figs.
From Santa María to Gilroy, Brawley to Stockton, you settled
in rows of red cabins hidden behind the orchards.
You recall how the red cabin stain came off on your fingers,
a stain you pressed to your cheeks so you looked like
Dolores del Río, the famous Mexican actress.
You catch the stench of rotting figs, of too-full outhouses.
The nose closes off. You feel how hot it was to sleep, two
to a mattress, the only other room a kitchen.
You thought your arms thickened long ago lugging trays of figs.
You thought you had peasant ankles. You thought you could die
and no one would know your smell.
Jack Agüeros is a Puerto Rican poet born in East Harlem in 1934. He writes sonnets of the street, demanding respect and attention for his subjects through the use of the sonnet form. Agüeros applies the form associated with Shakespeare to the denizens of the jail, the mental hospital, the subway tunnel, the boxing ring, the racetrack, or, in this case, the unemployment line. Here he speaks in the voice of Fulano Rodríguez. ("Fulano" is the Spanish equivalent of "John Doe," an Everyman.) The poet's sense of humor is apparent in the extravagant title: "Sonnet Substantially Like the Words of Fulano Rodríguez One Position Ahead of Me on the Unemployment Line."
It happens to me all the time—business
Goes up and down but I’m the yo-yo spun
Into the high speed trick called sleeping
Such as I am fast standing in this line now.
Maybe I am also a top; they too sleep
While standing, tightly twirling in place.
I wish I could step out and listen for
The sort of music that I must make.
But this is where the state celebrates its sport.
From cushioned chairs the agents turn your ample
Time against you through a box of lines.
Your string is both your leash and lash.
The faster you spin, the stiller you look.
There’s something to learn in that, but what?
The toy metaphors stand out: he is a "yo-yo," a "top," being toyed with, "spun," "twirling," manipulated by the state which "celebrates it sport." Standing in line, for the speaker, means being kept in his place; and indeed Puerto Ricans are at the end of the line, economically, politically and otherwise. He knows that he must be more than a statistic, a case number--"I wish I could step out and listen for / the sort of music that I must make"--but ultimately he is defined and dehumanized by the bureaucracy. The voice in the poem resonates precisely because of its dignity in a situation stripped of dignity, an intelligent voice testifying of intelligence wasted.
Agüeros makes use of the couplet to articulate a paradox and ask a tough question: "The faster you spin, the stiller you look. / There's something to learn in that, but what?" The poet is bewildered by the spectacle of movement without progress, degradation instead of employment. His strategy is daring: How many poems end with an open question?
Any place at all can be the province of poetry, no matter how unspoken. Even the bathroom. Marge Piercy is better known as a novelist, but she has also published more than a dozen volumes of poetry. Piercy is a social satirist, and here she turns her satirical eye to the pay toilet, a nearly extinct but nevertheless obnoxious form of entrepreneurial vision.
In the first line of her poem, “To the Pay Toilet,” Marge Piercy announces:
“You strop my anger.” Once again we see that speaking of the unspoken places is often a matter of channeling anger creatively. Her wrath is triggered by a mercantile zeal which not only exploits the most desperate physical needs, but which draws class distinctions among those who simply have to use the bathroom. If you have never seen a poem about a pay toilet before, it may be due to the reluctance of most poets in this country to deal with matters of social class. In the words of critic Thomas Disch: "Class distinctions are the great dividing line in American poetry, all the more divisive for being, officially, invisible." This poem is also noteworthy for its emphatic conclusion, which points out one of the great advantages of being dead:
Where twenty pay toilets line up glinty clean
and at the end of the row one free toilet
oozes from under its crooked door,
while a row of weary women carrying packages and babies
wait and wait and wait to do
what only the dead find unnecessary.
The next two poems are about rivers, which provide ample metaphors for history, memory, mythology and redemption. The rivers are unspoken places, perhaps because we refuse to hear the voices rising from these rivers.
The first is by Claribel Alegría, a poet born in Nicaragua and raised in El Salvador. "The Rivers" has a dreamlike, surreal quality. The recurrent image of the rivers carrying away the dead is not the product of magical realism. There was a massacre at the Sumpul River where the Salvadoran military machine-gunned peasants fleeing across the river into Honduras. This incident is never mentioned in the poem; instead, the Sumpul Massacre is the poet's point of departure for a deeper exploration of rivers. As translated by her husband, Bud Flakoll:
the rivers are coffins
cradling their dead
between their wide banks
the dead sail down
and the sea receives them
and they revive.
In the rivers "boiling with corpses" the poet has found a metaphor to depict the collective memory of El Salvador after years of savage repression. This accounts for the grief and compassion of the rivers; they “cradle” their dead. If the rivers are obliged to bear the dead in a mass funeral procession, they will become magnificent coffins, "crystalline flasks." But this is not an elegy. In a surprising turn, the rivers bring the dead to the sea, where "they revive." In the waters of communal memory there exists the possibility of redemption and healing. There is desecration, but there is also purification. This poem recalls a haunting work by Peruvian poet César Vallejo called "Masses," where a fighter killed in the Spanish Civil War returns to life after all the people on the earth gather around him.
Langston Hughes published "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1921, at the age of nineteen. Biographer Arnold Rampersad says that the poem came to Hughes as he was riding a train that crossed the Mississippi over a long bridge. In the poet's words: "I began to think what that river, the old Mississippi, had meant to Negroes in the past--how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in bondage. Then I remembered reading how Abraham Lincoln had made a trip down the Mississippi on a raft, and how he had seen slavery at its worst, and had decided within himself that it should be removed from American life. Then I began to think of other rivers in our past--the Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa--and the thought came back to me: 'I've known rivers,' and I put it down on the back of an envelope I had in my pocket..." Fifteen minutes later, one of the most important poems of the African-American tradition was born. This is it.
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Hughes, like Neruda, like Sandburg, was a disciple of Whitman, evidenced here by that sweeping vision. But the vision belongs to Hughes--he, too, sings America. Rampersad says: "The death wish, benign but suffusing, of its images of rivers older than human blood, of souls grown deep as these rivers, gives way steadily to an altering, ennobling vision whose final effect gleams in the evocation of the Mississippi's 'muddy bosom' turning at last 'all golden in the sunset.' Personal anguish has been alchemized by the poet into a gracious meditation on race, whose despised ('muddy') culture and history, irradiated by the poet's vision, changes within the poem from mud into gold."
I come full circle back to Biloxi, Mississippi, where my father was jailed for not going to the back of the bus. I wrote a poem using this family history as a point of departure. Ultimately, the poem is about speaking the unspoken places, making the invisible visible, resisting silence and historical amnesia. I’ll read the last two stanzas. It’s called “Sleeping on the Bus.”
How we forget Biloxi, Mississippi, a decade before,
where no witnesses spoke to cameras,
how a brown man in military uniform
wwas pulled from the bus by police
When he sneered at the custom of the back seat,
how the magistrate proclaimed a week in jail
and went back to bed with a shot of whiskey,
how the brownskinned soldier could not sleep
as he listened for the prowling of his jailers,
the muttering and cardplaying of the hangmen
they might become.
His name is not in the index;
he did not tell his family for years.
How he told me, and still I forget.
How we doze upright on buses,
how the night overtakes us
in the babble of headphones,
how the singing and clapping
of another generation
fade like distant radio
as we ride, forehead
heavy on the window,
how we sleep, how we sleep.