There is more to life than victims, of course--though, admittedly, not much more when you really break it down. But it's important, I think, for poets not only to acknowledge the dead but to also take stock of the living and point out a few things in this world that make existence tolerable. Sadly, not all poets have this goal. Many, in fact, dwell inordinately on the darker side of things.
Which leads me to a discussion of two poetry titles published by the University of Arizona Press: Valerie Martinez's World to World and Marcos McPeek Villatoro's On Tuesday, When the Homeless Disappeared. Both bards are quick to scoop up the fallen and hold them up to the light, conjuring up prayers so that the dead are not forgotten, so that the dead are pulled--to borrow from Martinez's poem "Invocation"--"out of the mind / out of the dream / out of reminiscence / out of figments / out of gladness / out of grief" and into the pure light of poetic language, into an afterlife of sorts. Obviously, Martínez and Villatoro feel that God is no longer up to the task.
Martínez writes spare, fractured lyric poems that, despite their morose subject matter, offer much pleasure. She responds to many tragedies, including the hurricane called "Mitch" that struck Central America in 1998 and killed 11,000, as well as the suicide bombings in Israel that followed six weeks of peace post-Sept. 11. There are some powerful moments, as in the latter poem (called "September, 2001"), in which Martínez addresses the dynamite-strapped bomber point-blank:
Who scatters the bones, bus stop, sun.
Torso wrapped tight. Trigger button.
How many. Heavy. Much.
You with the dark hair. You
With the conviction. You
With your paradisal maidens.
Come crashing in.
Less powerful are the ekphrases (poems that address works of art), such as "Odalisque," which attempts to capture the spiritual significance of portraits of fleshy women. Here, the language turns claustrophobic, insulated from the larger arena of tragedy that Martínez tackles head-on in other poems. Of course, this is perhaps the idea governing World to World (tragedy vs. art), yet I can't help but feel that ekphrasis is more of an exercise than a creative impulse.
Marcos McPeek Villatoro, on the other hand, is a novelist and radio journalist (NPR, Pacifica) with actual experience in matters of injustice, having lived in places like Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Naturally, his approach is more narrative, and he's got some harrowing stories, including the two-part "El Salvador, 1932-1981," which records the brutal account of a "witness":
Papá knew nothing of The Cleansing. He
Rushed into the room
To scoot us out the door.
We hid in the cornfield
Where mama kept a finger
In my baby brother's mouth.
Then the rattling, it began.
I first thought those were cornhusk dolls
Kicking over the tassles, leaping
At a full moon.
My family huddled between two rows.
I crawled to the edge to watch
The dolls become bodies and drop into a ditch.
Such poems are difficult to enjoy, but they are necessary, and Villatoro should be given credit.
However, guilt is a byproduct of witnessing injustice, and Villatoro feels guilty for living a privileged, comfortable existence in America.
Both poets seek (to borrow from Villatoro) "a self-abnegation / that is pure and clean as the sweat / on the axe handle," and in doing so, they sacrifice something in terms of individuality. By striving to provide a voice for the fallen and oppressed, they end up being like God Himself: remote, faceless, condescending.