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Poetry as a sanctuary for lost spirits

By Marjorie Agosín
Translated by Cola Franzen, Mary G. Berg and
Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman
Human Rights Series, Vol. 11
White Pine Press, 224 pages, $15, paperback


“One is born with human rights, thus one is sacredly connected to all living things,” writes Marjorie Agosín, the Chilean-American author and activist, in the preface to this bilingual collection of 80 poems celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Agosín’s sense of sacred connection inspires compassion for victims of political oppression. It strengthens a sense of solidarity with peaceful struggles against violence and injustice. Desecration of human dignity in Latin America -- and everywhere -- ignites her moral outrage. “When human rights are violated,” she says, “so is the sacredness of the world.”

The author’s passionate concern for the Other and her devotion to life as a res sacra, a sacred reality, link her directly with the humane tradition of Chile’s poet-activists in this century, including the great Nobel laureates Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda.

It was Mistral (1889-1957) who led the first movements for child welfare, women’s rights and new laws to protect the indigenous peoples of Chile during the first half of this century. Her boldly honest poems observed the desolation of poverty, evoked the loving courage of families, and commemorated the spiritual beauties of motherhood and nature. Agosín’s poetry of the 1980s and ’90s remembers “those voices muzzled in dark and silent torture chambers, especially the women and children who were forbidden to sing and denied the opportunity to grow ... ”

Neruda opposed several right-wing regimes in defense of the working class poor and was forced into exile until the brief flowering of democracy under Salvador Allende. Agosín’s family escaped to the United States before Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military coup culminated in the assassinations of Allende and members of his government.

“Although I came of age in a foreign country speaking a foreign language,” writes Agosín of her exile, “I witnessed from afar the brutality of the Pinochet dictatorship that mutilated an entire generation.”

Agosín’s poetic vision becomes a sanctuary for lost spirits. “The disappeared women slipped in among my dreams,” she says, and “more than anything else they would ask me not to forget them.” Some poems evolve beyond memorials into psychic incarnations: “I am the disappeared woman/in a country grown dark/silenced by the/wrathful cubbyholes/of those with no memory.” A voice warns: “Don’t conspire with oblivion/tear down the walls of silence/I want to be the appeared woman/from among the labyrinths/come back, return/name myself./Call my name.”

The most tender lyrics embrace the surviving women who “search, inquire and weep,” as they try to reconnect the dismembered bodies. “Look,/these are photographs/of my children;/this one here has an arm/I don’t know if it’s my son’s/but I think it might be/that this is his sweet little arm.”

However, since “we Chileans/are good about forgetting,” Agosín calls out those who practice the art of denial: “You who vainly/made your tongue/a map of forgetfulness;/you who vainly/keep silent before/the memory of hollow stars.”

Hollow, indeed, those stars sewn into the fabric of the Holocaust. In “El Salvador,” she writes:

You don’t want to think
about a garden of the dead
because that would be like returning
to Auschwitz.
As you can see,
history returns
in the memory of
the living,
who are the guardians
of the dead.

There are but a few references to the perpetrators of these atrocities in the poems because Agosín’s poetry is life-affirming and healing. She does not indulge the popular obsessions with absolute power and pornographic sadism or examine the pathology of evil. Her preface speaks the simple truth: “Some of my Chilean countrymen have betrayed not only their dreams of democracy but also their souls. The former dictator is a senator for life, an assassin is portrayed as a venerable grandfather and torturers walk freely in the streets of Santiago without fear or remorse.”

In several poems about the “eternal ceremony of torture,” we experience a depth of feeling that only poetry can invoke. “The pain, savage and exact, without guile,/explores over the sands of the body,/glows, speeded over the burning/traces of a thousand bonfires./Someone toys with the misery/of this prostrate body,/of this solitude between/the howling/legs.”

Most of these dark chamber scenes are projected from the viewpoint of the blindfolded victims, who are the seers of an inward vision. This is from “Pupils”:

Light overflowing and melodious
breaches the corridors of
my sealed pupils.
I conjure up greens, the generous
open sea, noble in its
sublime depths.

Primal imagery flows from the cycles of nature in this stream of life from a poem titled “What Lies in the Depth of Your Eyes”:

In the depths of your eyes,
the sea, rivers transformed into
into the roundness of living children.
In the depths of your eyes
while darkness courses over their contours,
and blindfold is a dubious maimed nurse,
you are there,
because you are made of light
because you are a butterfly luminous/
in the mirrors.

This collection includes recent poems in an opening section and two award-winning books, Circles of Madness (1992) and Zones of Pain (1988), reprinted for this edition. There is a clear thematic resonance throughout and an inventive range of poetic forms. Agosín’s poems have been anthologized widely under various rubrics -- Chilean, Latin American, Latina, feminist, human rights -- and her 10 books of poetry have been published in the United States, usually in bilingual editions, which means she has reached a wide readership.

Zones of Pain, lucidly translated by Cola Franzen, has become a classic in the realm of human rights literature. Most of the 31 poems run from 12 to 40 lines and reveal a mastery of the personae lyric, in which Agosín becomes the instrument for another’s song.

Circles of Madness, translated by Celeste Kosopulos-Cooperman, is a sequence of 34 lyrics and prose poems. It pays tribute to the courageous mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Between 1976 and 1983, these women gathered every week to represent their loved ones who had been kidnapped, tortured and murdered by that country’s military regime.

The recent news of Pinochet’s legal battle to maintain diplomatic immunity from charges brought by Spain for genocide, torture and terrorism against 94 international victims of his government may strike some as comically surreal or, at least, ironic. But for the families of the 4,300 Chileans who disappeared during Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship (1973-1990), anything less than justice would deepen their wound.

There is no doubt where Agosín stands, as her only poem about Pinochet, called “The President,” makes clear.

Nothing interrupts his movement.
He diligently marches among the shadows of
the dead.
The general doesn’t hear the criesBR> The general doesn’t stop before
the dancing ears on the pavement.
Nothing stains his white suit.

Because human rights are abused daily on a global scale, Agosín’s tone is ever vigilant and deadly serious; because this tragedy is so heartbreaking, her poems throb with pain. She will not debate the niceties of ethical discourse or analyze the politics of diplomatic immunity, but simply cry out against the injustice. She is too humane to rationalize one moment of the horror and too sensitive to look away from the suffering.

Robert Bonazzi is the author of Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me (Orbis Books) and the editor of Encounters with the Other by John Howard Griffin (Latitudes Books), both published in 1997.

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998