Sometimes Language Fails Us: ‘Poets for Ayotzinapa’— REVIEWED BY SARAH CLANCY
‘Where I’m from it’s normal to vanish.
One day, as you make your way to school or work,
somebody decides your freedom’s worth a damn.
After this, it’s normal never to be seen again.’
– Three Poems – Horacio Lozano Warpola
What would we ‘poets’ in Ireland write if 43 young people from villages and townlands in some rural area, Donegal say, or Offaly, vanished and were killed on one day in circumstances that were clearly violent and clearly involved our state? What would we be able to write that could in any way do justice to the horror of afterwards finding mass graves that contained not our missing young people but someone else’s loved ones, anonymised, their identities erased by the violence of their deaths? It would be almost impossible I think for us to find words for the anger that would consume us. We might choke on our words. ‘Poets for Ayotzinapa’ is a bi-lingual anthology of poetry that attempts an impossible task and predictably, if honourably, fails. It was published by Mexico City Lit as an artistic response to the vicious and tragic events that saw the disappearance and almost undoubtedly, the brutal murders, of 43 student protestors in Guerrero State in Mexico on September 26th last year. In order to review the poetry in the anthology and to do it some justice I am going to have to explain as best I can the dystopian and almost ludicrous context of the events that provoked it. I want to do that though without making it sound like a freak show. These events in Mexico involve real people who should not be reduced to symbols even, or especially, by poets.
Some disappearances are different to others:
The disappearances of 43 students occurred in a country where people disappear with great frequency (the estimated figure for people currently missing in Mexico is 25,000) and yet what happened these particular youths convulsed the country into anger and protest. The ‘lifting’ or kidnapping of these students was orchestrated with the active participation of elected officials and of various security forces employed by the state. They were last seen in the hands of the police. It is alleged that they handed them over to a paramilitary gang called Guerreros Unidos who are believed to have murdered them and disposed of the bodies.
Those familiar with Mexico will know that the murders of protesting students by state forces has a particular resonance, mimicking as it does the infamous events of Tlatlelolco in 1968 where an unconfirmed number of students and bystanders were murdered by state forces at a demonstration that occurred in the run-up to Mexico hosting the summer Olympic games. The Tlatlelolco massacre is in some ways a tangible, credible and still present justification for the almost universal sense of distrust for state institutions that prevails in Mexico. Whilst it is not an entirely accurate comparison, Tlatlelolco could be understood to occupy a place in Mexican public consciousness similar to that which the events of Bloody Sunday do in the north of Ireland. (In case anyone is reading this as remote from our experience remember -we have our own disappeared and our own mass graves)
The Ayotzinapa students who were taken alive last September were young men from impoverished rural areas in Guerrero State. Guerrero, which borders with Mexico state and contains the well known tourist playground of Acapulco, is nonetheless one of the most impoverished and lawless states in Mexico. In the rural areas there are levels of child malnutrition that equal those of Sudan in Sub-Saharan Africa and many indigenous people are forced to spend their lives as peripatetic migrant farm labourers on the industrial scale pesticide laden farms further north in wealthier states such as Sinaloa. The ‘Normal’ schools – the type of college that the missing students were enrolled in are teacher-training establishments where mostly rural youths attend. These youths are expected to return to their villages and commit themselves to improving the lives of those in their communities. The schools, unsurprisingly, are known for their promotion of radical leftist social justice activism among their students.
Some murders are different to others:
These murders, if that in fact is what they transpire to have been, happened too, in a country where ordinary killing seems not to be enough anymore. In contemporary Mexico a very conservative estimate puts the death toll from the double-headed drug wars/war on drugs at 60,000 in the last ten years. There are a dizzying array of protagonists involved in this violence as state agents and drug traffickers outdo each other to invent more and more grotesque and barbaric methods of torture and murder as if in fact death itself no longer satisfies their blood lust. To give an example of the extent of this horror – in the aftermath of the events of September 26th last year the national government’s much criticised ‘investigation team’ found not one but FOUR mass graves containing corpses that it said were those of the missing students from the Ayotzinapa Normal school. Forensic experts have proved that this was not the case, that whoever these anonymous people in these anonymous graves were, they were not the missing students. Eventually, bags containing body parts were found and through forensic testing, two of the missing 43 were confirmed dead through DNA sampling. And that is how the situation currently stands. Two students have been confirmed dead and 41 remain unaccounted for.
The Government’s Sweet Lie– by Krsna Sanchez
On the table was a sugar skull. Its candy jaw brilliant and
grainy. Red spirals unreeled around the empty sockets.
A glazed flower bedecked its nape. On its forehead was the
name Mexico written in tricolor letters.
“This is all we’ll find of the missing,” said the Attorney
General, emphatically, without a quiver.
During the protests that emerged in response to the student’s forced disappearances slogans such as ‘alive you took them, alive we want them back’ and ‘don’t forget it was the State’ became catch phrases. There was a collective refusal to accept the Government’s version of events. The families of the missing students refuse to accept that the students were dead, and carried images of them to protests, demonstrations and meetings across the vast country. They are still doing so and they and the tens of thousands of Mexicans who came out in support of them have refused to allow the young men to conveniently disappear.
Some poetry anthologies are different to others:
‘Poets for Ayotzinapa’ is part of that refusal- it is a raw and jagged collection of poetry by 39 writers who have all engaged themselves in a refusal to let something go unsaid. It has an appearance and a feel of urgency about it; these are poems written, translated and published within one year of the events that provoked them. It is without a doubt contemporary poetry. The anthology stretches to 224 pages and so must have been a mammoth task for its editors and translators. For the most part these poems, like the events they deal with are not neat and crafted; they are uneven. It makes for uncomfortable reading. I could not find one poem which offered any solace other than that the faint hope provided by the fact that in the face of unimaginable horror, people are still speaking up and making and answering calls to action. Some of the poems are spectacularly and justifiably unpleasant:
‘the cows lick with their black tongues
the putrid smirks of the corpses,’
Tongue that says Nothing- by Arturo Loera
Words like putrid, flayed, rotting, viscera, scabs, entrails and of course blood and bones and skulls show up in almost every poem. Many of the writers stay right up close to the events keeping the reader’s nostrils full of the smell of charred and rotting flesh. The combined effect of reading poem after poem like this was nauseating for me, it reminded me of the ‘Nota Rojos’ – a type of tabloid newspaper that is widely ‘read’ in Mexico city and shows nothing but the butchered corpses of murder victims. In truth though, should we not be so sickened by mass graves and flayings? We should be sick to our gullets I think and so the anthology performs a necessary discomfiting function.
Whilst it is clear too that the corpses referred to in many of the poems are metaphors for Mexico itself I did find myself challenged a little when I felt that in some of the pieces the vital and active students with their infinite possibilities and differences had been reduced to their physical remains. I am not sure if this is avoidable in such a collection or after such events which in truth did involve mass graves, body parts and unidentified corpses. The act of speaking about or for anyone always carries with it the danger of reducing people to symbols of something rather than actual people but undoubtedly the writers of these poems have been directly affected by the events themselves and so are entitled, or in some ways are obliged to write about this even at risk of offending.
It was a relief to me, a respite of sorts to come across several poems in which the difficulty of writing and living in a country where such things take place was grappled with from a slightly greater distance such as the ones quoted below:
‘words beat themselves quiet
against a wadded gag
no turn of phrase can jink past’
Here, The Wind Turns by Carmen Zenil
inside this affronted body
there must remain a voice
Memoirs of a Lost Voice by Cristina Arreola Márquez
and most memorably in this opening stanza of Miguel Santos’s Forensic Meter
There are times when verse collapses
because the syllable
the inspiration’s mystery
Because the night freezes
and doesn’t fade into morning
Forensic Meter by Miguel Santos
One of the things that surprised me about Poets for Ayotzinapa is that although there are poems full to the brim of horror, despair, dis-ease and outrage, despite the collective loss suffered there is a notable lack of lament type poems with the exception of this reworking of an Irish medieval poem called ‘The Mothers’ Lament at the Slaughter of the Innocents’ by Dylan Brennan
and what is my heart
and a woman said:
…..my breasts are milkless
…..my eyes are damp
…..my skeleton is frail it rattles
and what I want is this:
…..I want you to kill me
…..to kill me now instead
and another woman said:
…..what am I without my child
…..and what is my heart
…..from this day till the last
…..a cold clot of blood’
and the memorable and affecting poem ‘The Emptinesses’ by Jocelyn Pantoja. It is perhaps fitting that the anthology for these as yet unfinished events is more filled with rage than sadness, maybe sadness is a luxury that only those with corpses to grieve for can indulge.
Poets for Ayotzinapa is a brave collection of poetry. In states where violence prevails it is never a small thing to speak out. For writers and artists, the precariousness of their own existences can mean that they themselves pay high prices for taking positions or for refusing to be silenced. Poets for Ayotzinapa reads like a collective howl. And whilst howling too long and too loudly can make a stone of the heart to mangle a poetic quote, there is no doubting the heart and heartbreak in this anthology. I have scarcely ever read an angrier collection of poetry. The editors and poets and translators in my opinion are to be commended, for their work in getting this anthology together and published- for adding the poets voices to the collective refusal to be silenced. When I said that at the outset that they had set themselves an impossible task and failed, I was referring to the inability of our various languages to fully explain or convey the senseless violence of these acts. Though I am not a fluent Spanish speaker I am convinced that it is a language better equipped than English to deal with grief, and strong emotion and so it occurs to me that these poems may in fact resonate more when read in Spanish. If that is the case then this anthology which has in English the capacity to shock, move, revolt and incense, could be even more powerful more impactful in Spanish. If that is the case I am perhaps relieved to have read it in English. It is impossible to know what effect something like this has in the long run, but it has always to be remembered that silence too has an effect. Whilst language often fails us, we are left mute without it.
They Came – by Edgar Lacolz
First they came for the dealers on the corner. But I didn’t
care, because I wasn’t a dealer. Then they came for their
kickbacks. And I did not speak out, because they didn’t ask
me for a kickback. Then they disappeared men, women and
children. And I didn’t care, because I didn’t know them.
Then they came to take power. I didn’t speak out, myself,
because I am not powerful. They’re still there right now,
but we are finally figuring out that we’ve always had it figured
out, and things can’t go on like this.