Alexandra Lytton Regalado
Considering the long-standing debate about whether or not poetry should be about something, or just be something, there is an endless loop of questions: What is the point of poetry? What can it do? Should we expect it do something? Without raising picket signs and taking up megaphones, or referring to our pens as swords, how can we as poets approach subjects that are important and meaningful? The faintest whiff of an agenda is enough to put off any reader. When I write a poem, sincerity is my tuning fork. I believe poetry begins with what is unsettling; we should not begin the poem knowing the answers, rather we should attempt to, Rilke-style, “live the questions.” Here, I present three women poets from different countries and different generations who approach political poetry from different angles.
Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages (Copper Canyon Press, 2017) has a sheen to it; I close my eyes and think of hot metal, copper, bronze, rose gold. Faizullah stares hard, breathes through pain, hammers out experiences thin as a wire, so that at the end, her poems are electric with power.
Each poem is a reclaiming of her identity through the diamond-facets of memory, history, and current events braided with her own experiences. Born in Bangladesh and raised in Texas, Faizullah’s poems are punctuated with Iraqi words and include a few y’alls. Yes, there is humor; “Self-Portrait as Mango,” sets up a scene: “She says, Your English is great! How long have you been in our country? / I say, Suck on a mango, bitch, since that’s all you think I eat anyway.”
Faizullah’s poems take on large concerns: birth & death, religion & sex, body & spirit, desire & responsibility, old world/new world. These, she weaves with the personal: daily confrontations with prejudice & racism, an eating disorder, a childhood accident, and the tragedy of her sister’s death. Her poems range across Northern Iraq; Flint, Michigan; West Texas; Eastern Turkey, and at the center of Faizullah’s collection is a section portraying a widow’s story from the Bangladeshi village of Sohagpur destroyed in 1971 by the Pakistani army.
Oftentimes meditative and questioning, other times a barrage of images, dream scenes, and free association, her poems are always image-driven. Her voice is confident, prophetic at times, and there is a breathless quality to her poems like a spool of thread tumbling across the page; her lines are like sliding doors, like screens or stairs, a negotiation, a questioning always reaching towards reconciliation and acceptance.
The title poem, “Register of Eliminated Villages” references a 2002 episode of Frontline wherein Kanan Makiya refers to a hand-made book that records the destruction of 397 Kurdish villages. Faizullah begins, “Somewhere in this insomniac night / my life is beginning / without me.” The stanzas are made of staggered lines that come together like the teeth of a zipper. Already, we sense that she is urging us to consider the hinges, the history that comes before us. She goes on to describe the sunlit and flower-shriven fields of Northern Iraq:
The pastoral image gives way to ashes, ruin, death, and a stubbornness that resists death.
In that same stanza, the poet cuts to another scene, her own parents huddled in a cold room, and she is there, “curl[ed] inside her [mother]” while at the same time, in another dark room, she also curls beside “you” with her head pressed to “your smooth back” and mirrors her mother’s hand on her father’s spine.
To fall asleep again, her partner suggests she count to one thousand and so begins a clicking register, counting, tightening, marking off notches, the accelerated flashes of a warning, an approaching alarm, the detonation of a bomb. Because what can she count at that hour of the night?
The images of the exterminated villages, herself as fetus inside her mother, herself as woman during that sleepless night, flickering back and forth. Time is cut loose into a tangle of threads.
The meshed shape of the poem leads the speaker to the intricate movement of hands: “…Someone // must be counting hours / spent weaving lace the color / of moonlight for a girl’s / dowry.” Faizullah weighs that fragility and considers where she falls in that balance:
The speaker considers how she waited, smoking on the curb, for her parents to fall asleep so she could stage her own middle-of-the-night rebellions. Her history, her birth story is told in flashes, and the poem ends with her father thumbing through another book, the Qur’an, searching for answers in verse, the register of the future, for “the promise of [her] name.”
It was that sense of strength that drew me to Faizullah’s work—how these poems fully inhabit grief and allow a sense of peace to permeate the wounds. And what also intrigued me about Faizullah’s book is that I knew very little about Northern Iraq’s history or current events, but I was curious about how she would choose to relay this info. To what degree would she need to explain? How far back would she have to reach?
I knew nothing of those villages before I read Faizullah’s poems, but I sensed the emotion in the details she chose to describe and how she drew those events close to her, how she tied them to her family history and her private world. Because she chose to enmesh them with herself, I connected with a story that would have otherwise been another world, another place outside of myself. Her poem was a hand that pointed the way, and I spent the afternoon reading news reports and personal accounts of the region.
As a young poet, I had a difficult time talking about my history because all I knew about my birth country, El Salvador, was from headlines, my parents’ memories and childhood photo albums of our summer visits. El Salvador underwent many changes in those twenty-plus years that I lived in the United States. Land Reform. Armed conflict. Earthquakes. Death squads. Night bombings in the capital. Perhaps, I was so absorbed in my own struggles that I didn’t look outside my self; perhaps, I felt I did not have the authority to write about those events. Back then, my erratic writing mirrored my personal life: binges of production/wandering lolls, clubbing/nursing hangovers, writing a poem/tearing it up. Everything in my life was fractured or disconnected. How could I get to the heart of what really mattered when I was afraid to write about issues that would likely result in confrontations? I was living with my parents and I didn’t want them to know about my personal life, I didn’t want strangers to know about my family life; those topics invited judgment and caused conflict. It was better to hide behind abstract metaphors and set my poems in Dalí-landscapes.
When I was about to finish my first MFA at Florida International University, the Irish poet Eavan Boland came to give a reading from her book In a Time of Violence. I related to Boland: she’d left Ireland at 5 and I’d left El Salvador at the age of 4. I spoke to her about my situation and Boland responded with a warm smile and kick to the chest: “The life you live has to go into the poem you write, or you will write someone else’s poem.” (I was pleased to discover an echo of this message in Boland’s interview with The Times, August 2018.)
In the United States I was not American. In El Salvador I was not Salvadoran. I hovered somewhere in between. Depending on the topic, I placed my toe down on one color of the map. In her memoir, Object Lessons, Boland describes: “I listened out for the references. I looked intently at the buildings. I read book after book and remembered names and actions. But I knew in my heart, I never forgot it, that I was not the same as other Irish children. Like a daughter in a legend, I had been somewhere else. I had eaten different foods. I had broken the spell of place and family. By that logic alone I could not return” (58). It wasn’t until years later that I began to understand that that in-between place was my home, that like Persephone, I would constantly move back and forth between springs and winters.
Boland employs this image of the “daughter in a legend” in her poem “The Pomegranate” which centers on the myth of Persephone and Ceres and explores the themes of motherhood and nationhood.
The speaker of the poem explains that “the best thing about the legend is / I can enter it anywhere. And have.” The speaker relates her days as a child in exile “in a city of fogs and strange consonants.” Later, the myth is applied to her own daughter and how she would “make any bargain to keep her.” In a controlled voice and self-contained line breaks, Boland describes Ceres’ quiet understanding: “Winter was in store for every leaf / On every tree on that road. / Was inescapable for each one we passed. / And for me.” The economy and precision of her imagery makes the realization all the more stunning.
The mother has a certain knowledge that could assuage her daughter’s troubles, but she opts to let her make her own choices. Boland takes on the subject of the ordinary survivals of femininity in the way that she describes the mother’s remembrances of her difficult childhood and the details of the “child asleep beside her teen magazines, / Her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.” The specificity of these images allows the reader to imagine how this transfer of identities applies to all women: “hers is the life mine will become, while mine is the life she has lost” (203).
Other voices form the layers upon which we go forming our own. One has to remember the past and build up around it. The speaker admits, “But what else / Can a mother give her daughter but such / Beautiful rifts in time?” The daughter has to come to her own understanding: “If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift. / The legend must be hers as well as mine.” Although she is talking about a mother and a daughter, the message is universal.
Boland finds power in the perception of the singular “I” and the precise truths of the subjective experience, where the “subtle claims of the ‘we’ could allow for half-truths to hide in the collective” (178). As Boland explains: “Without this, I felt that the argument of the political poem might be limited to the public event and the communal interpretation of it. That was not the poem I wanted to write; that was not even the poem I wanted to read” (187). I agree with her hesitation to speak for all, and that’s why I in the past I was so afraid to step into any territory marked “political” or “feminist”—but Boland’s perspective is that if we are truly writing out of our own experiences—as women, as citizens—then it is impossible not to touch on these subjects.
When I moved back to El Salvador my writing took a turn. I was forced to look outside myself, to go beyond my border. Everything I wrote sounded like existential whining compared to the actual struggles of Salvadoran women. You see, today in my country, when you drive past someone laid out on the grass of the median you think: 1) Is he napping midday? 2) Is he passed out drunk? 3) Is he dead? And all three possibilities are highly likely.
I was born in El Salvador, and my family moved to the United States when I was four years old. The violence of the civil war was escalating—there were bombings of power stations, kidnappings for ransom, and my parents finally decided to move us when they saw burned bodies strung up on trees along the main road into the capital. We went on to live a tranquil American childhood, returning to El Salvador only for summer vacations after the 12-year war had ceased. Back then, I wore two guises: In El Sal I was “la gringa,” and in Miami I was from “that little country that’s always in the news.”
But even now that I’ve been living in El Salvador for eighteen years, I’m still straddling those two worlds, and I can’t discern which one tugs more powerfully. The question is—how to be both? Displaced twice, I’m not just the “other,” I’m now the “other-other.” I’ve become a double agent. I’ll be forever shuttling between these two existences and their gradations, and the more time passes, the more penetrable that membrane becomes, a permeability that allows me to see things both as a stranger and a native at the same time.
Writing made me conscious of my gaze. How do I see this world? How do others see me seeing this world? “In poetry of witness,” Carolyn Forché wrote in a 2011 essay, “the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation…we are marked by it and become ourselves witnesses to what it has made present before us.”
It was never my intention to write poetry of witness, nor to focus on themes of social justice, nor to take a feminist stance. But when I returned to El Salvador, I instinctively veered to Salvadoran women because I needed guidance on how to manage the day to day. Friends, coworkers, in fact, everyone I came across: waitresses, cooks, manicurists, receptionists—all of them eagerly shared their experiences with me, and their stories ushered me into the culture. Their lives a how-to manual on how to survive El Salvador.
Their stories merged with my own experiences, and together they became the series of Lotería poems from my collection, Matria (Black Lawrence Press, 2017). For Salvadorans so much is left to chance. Who knows what will happen once you step out the front door? I re-imagined the traditional Mexican Lotería images and re-interpreted them into iconic Salvadoran female symbols. Lotería players have to guess the bingo figures in the form of a riddle, and in my poems things are not always what they seem to be. Cachiporristas lead the parade bands during national celebrations, but in my version I flip the card on her role as showgirl. Like my own dual identity, my Lotería cards are two-sided, tienen dos caras.
she raises her wand & they march in her wake:
Because I can’t take a photo through the bullet-proof glass
as our car eases to the corner that merges with the highway,
where a chop shop displays its wares of cars quartered
to fenders, grilles, rims, spoilers—I will have to remember
the man’s hooded eyes, as he watches from behind the wire
diamonds of chain-link, the whirling wrists of a teenage girl
in a majorette skirt fashioned out of half-inch-thick strips
of cut newsprint, the fringe swaying with her hips
as she twirls a baton of broken broomstick
in circles, wrist over wrist, and tosses it high as she
turns to catch it fanning behind her back; and the sun’s light
pressing on the square patch of a roadside garden
of black-eyed Susans, zinnias, and dahlias in plastic
gallon jugs and rusted tins, the halved car tire that serves
as a trench to keep out the leaf-cutter ants that could easily
strip the lime sapling bare in the course of one summer night.
I do not drive in El Salvador. My reality is that I have to be driven around in a bulletproof car and so I spend a lot of time in the backseat watching the landscape scroll by. There is an intersection that I cross every morning and afternoon, and I always pay special attention when we come to the corner because, although it is a marginal neighborhood with dirt-floor houses of corrugated zinc, there is a beautiful little garden, and I’m always hoping that I’ll be able to spy the woman that tends to it. I was stunned by what I saw that day: surrounded by the potted plants of the fenced-in garden was a young girl practicing her dance routine in an improvised costume. I scrambled to find my phone camera, but the car was pulling away from the curb, and I realized that I would not have the register of the photo to remember the sight of the girl. I turned to continue to look at the girl, and as we drove away, noting every detail, I realized that as I wanted the girl, needed to capture her image, there was also a man watching her from the other side of the road, also wanting her, and that in her own imagination she was also wanting something for herself.
And that’s when all those layers of want, those closed circles and interconnected loops, accordioned out and became clear to me. I was enclosed in my bulletproof car being driven by a man; the girl was enclosed in her garden but exposed to a man separated only by a chain-link fence. He was in a chop shop surrounded by stolen or crashed car parts, and he was likely in charge of selling those pieces or parceling them out. I was in a bulletproof car, a reality that has been imposed upon me for my own protection. She had created her own costume and was preparing for a performance in a garden where the plants were also potted in improvised containers. It was the final image of the lime sapling in a car-tire-trench to protect it from being denuded of leaves by the hoard of ants that brought it all together in all these circles of connection and disconnection.
The majorette was practicing to lead a parade for national independence day and so she embodies a patriotic symbol, a role that clearly underlines the way we associate women with nationhood: they can serve as decorative figures, but they can never truly be leaders. This is common knowledge: for the crowd standing under cover from the sun in the shadow of the waving Salvadoran flag, the biggest attraction is not the boom and brass of the band, not the marching or swaying banners; they stand at the sidelines because they want to see the cachiporritstas dance in their tall boots and shiny sequined skirts.
It was a gift poem that came all at once in a single, breathless sentence that I wrote in one sitting. That poem then became the tuning fork for all of the other poems in my manuscript. The compression of images, its tone, the leaps and turns. For a long time I’d been writing about El Salvador, but I just couldn’t seem to get the perspective right, and that’s what that failed photograph resulted in. So, I understood that the way that I frame images and sequence them (as one would a film) would also work for the structure of my poems. It was enough to focus on a singular instance, and this would provide the platform to talk about larger issues. This poem also resulted in my photo essay @through_the_bulletproof_glass, a project I continue to update on Instagram. These photos became a way of documenting my country, taking conscious decisions of when to release the shutter, of the things that lure my eye, and why I want to draw the reader’s gaze to those images.
Previous to this poem, I’d been responding to the violence of the country, but I struggled to communicate the horror of these facts: Less than 40% of families are nuclear units, and in 2016, there were a reported 11,198 underage pregnancies, and of those 1,171 were girls between the ages of 10 and 14. Only 11% of these girls attend school after they give birth, and 1 in 10 of those pregnancies is the result of domestic violence. Along with Nicaragua, Honduras and 23 other countries, El Salvador has an absolute ban on abortion in all cases even if the mother’s life is in danger.
It is 2018, and our little country continues to be infamous for its violence, for years now holding the top slot of most murderous country in the world. With 81.2 murders per 100,000 people in 2016, El Salvador is the deadliest place in the world that’s not a war zone. More than 5,200 people were killed here in 2016.
The plight of Salvadorans is not limited to our borders. Some 200,000 Salvadorans that emigrated, seeking safety after the 2001 earthquakes, are now in limbo since the Department of Homeland Security eliminated the Temporary Protected Status that gave them provisional U.S. residency. Now they have until Sept. 9, 2019, to leave the United States, obtain a green card, or be deported. Throughout the United States ICE is targeting neighborhoods and schools and demanding IDs, separating families, and instilling widespread panic among migrant communities.
But what is the purpose of all these numbers, dates, and facts, what the news reports and doesn’t report? I’m starting to question my need to bookend or footnote a poem with so much data. I don’t include my research in the poems, but when I’m standing before an audience, why do I feel compelled to highlight these facts? Is that when activism enters the poetry arena? After the poem has been written, and once it is being read and shared? What I know is that I need to have these things clear: What do I bring to the table? What about this info moves me, registers and connects me to El Salvador’s situation? Why should I want to call attention to it?
Without moving towards pamphleteering, or driving home an agenda, can we write about how these events intersect with our world? How to give voice to the people we care about, people living these crises, especially when we are living in safety, far away from those terrifying events?
Prize-winning Salvadoran-Nicaraguan poet Claribel Alegría spoke to Carolyn Forché in a decades-old interview published in the Index on Censorship 2/84 about the impact of exile on her work:
Certain things—the odour of jasmine on my terrace or the two paragraph news item in the newspaper—can revive the memory of my country, or perhaps I should say my countries—but all too frequently I feel that words are growing sterile, that I am reconstructing and extrapolating a memory, an empty evocation of the themes I prefer to deal with. The sights and sounds and smells, the faces of lost friends, the shorthand expressions by which we immediately understand each other… all of these things, I sometimes fear, are fading, becoming more and more difficult to summon up. I’m on a life raft in a placid sea. I have survived the shipwreck, the slow floundering of half a dozen countries, but I look around and ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ Then the guilt surges up.
I know about survivor’s guilt; I recognize that I was able to drive away in a bulletproof car while the young girl dancing in her garden in a majorette costume stays exposed. I note Tarfia Faizullah’s assertion: “But I don’t have // the right to count hours, / girls, dowries.” It is a delicate artistry: to recognize the thin membrane that separates us and to seam together our experiences as human beings.
In her 93 years of production, Alegría unwaveringly called out for justice and liberty in each of her 40 books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She stated, “In the region from which I come, Central America, we love poetry, and at times we use it to denounce what is happening around us. There are many fine testimonial poems. The poet, especially where I’m from, cannot and should not remain in an ivory tower.”1 Her poems, image-heavy and written with a stripped down lyric cadence, focus on testimony. For example, Alegría’s “Flowers from the Volcano” depicts the 1932 indigenous uprising she witnessed in El Salvador.
Other poems such as “Little Cambray Tamales” take the guise of a recipe, using a women’s traditional area of expertise, the domestic, to comment on the history and politics of El Salvador.
Alegría called her memory a “cemetery of her dead” because she considered herself a conduit for the voices of her lost loved ones, her friends, her compatriotas of countries riven by war. In that same interview, Alegría spoke to Forché about writing political poems:
The impulse to write a political poem is a gut reaction of rage, frustration, impotence, and, I think, sorrow. They are difficult to write, artistically dangerous because one always runs the risk of becoming no more than a pamphleteer, a propagandist. I rarely plan to write any certain kind of poetry; I write about what most deeply moves me.
Eavan Boland echoes her focus on the personal, everyday life experiences:
If you don’t put the life you live into the poems you write, the simple truth is you are going to end up writing someone else’s poem. I didn’t want to do that. I knew that there was no real respect for the subject matter I had. But I didn’t feel victimised by that. I felt that to have a devalued subject matter is what a lot of people sometimes have. I was there with two very small children, with neighbours who were living those lives as well; I felt there was a visionary aspect to those lives. It seemed to me completely wrong and contrarian to think that shouldn’t be in poetry.2
And Tarfia Faizullah’s take on a question she considers has no conclusive answer:
Do politics and poetry have an intrinsically linked relationship, or is that question ultimately unanswerable, and is that why we keep circling back to it? It seems like what really distinguish the two is content rather than context, as both are potentially private or public formats of perception and expression. In that way, both try to confront the perils and possibilities of attempting to encapsulate individual human perceptions. Both poetry and politics inherently negotiate the relationship between interior and exterior worlds through language, and both attempt to use language as a means to achieve clarity of perception—poetry seems primarily invested in perception of the self, whereas politics, perhaps, is more engaged with the shared perceptions of others.3
Drawing from these three poets that come from different times, different places, Claribel Alegría from my grandmother’s generation, Eavan Boland from my mother’s generation, and Tarfia Faizullah from my own, I will continue to study and write about the intersections of the personal and the political.
Now, I invite you: as you ride in the passenger seat of a car, taxi, metrorail, or train, try to focus on the landscape and people; observe the ordinary things you drive past every day. Are there patterns? Does something strike out as different? Take conscious photos. Take random photos. Don’t worry if the speed blurs or if there are splotches of light—those effects might reflect in the way you describe the image later. What you tilt your lens toward is a decision, the angle you choose. What about that image is unresolved? What about it makes you feel unsettled? As the shutter clicks open and shut, take into account what is going on in your own life. What is going on in the lives of those around you? Write about those intersections, zoom in and out of time and place, focus on the way those experiences converge and diverge.
1. Claribel Alegría, “In Remembrance: The Sword of Poetry (1924-2018),” translated by David Draper Clark, World Literature Today, January 26, 2018.
2. Marjorie Brennan, “‘Poetry has always changed with the changing world’: Eavan Boland keen for poetry to move with digital age,” Irish Examiner, August 14, 2018.
3. Tarfia Faizullah, “2017 Poetry Month: An Interview with Tarfia Faizullah,” interviewed by Jonathan Hobratsch, Huffington Post, April 14, 2017.
“La Cachiporrista” by Alexandra Lytton Regalado, from Matria (Black Lawrence Press), copyright ©2017. The poem originally appeared in Narrative Magazine. Reprinted by permission of Alexandra Lytton Regalado.
Photo credits: Claribel Alegría’s photo courtesy of Curbstone Press. Eavan Boland photo by Christine Krikliwy, 1994, found on the The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Tarfia Faizullah’s photo by Jamaal May.
Alexandra Lytton Regalado
Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s poetry collection, Matria, is the winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2017). Matria was listed as one of the “Favorite Poetry Collections of 2017” at Literary Hub, it was a finalist in two categories for the 2017 Foreword INDIES Award and featured in NBC News, Chicago Review of Books, and Entropy. Her poems, stories, and non-fiction have appeared inThe Best American Poetry 2018,Narrative, Gulf Coast, The Notre Dame Review, and Creative Nonfiction among others. Co-founder of Kalina press, Alexandra is author, editor, and/or translator of more than ten Central American-themed books including Vanishing Points: Contemporary Salvadoran Prose (2017). She is the winner of the 2015 Coniston Poetry Prize and she was the recipient of the third Letras Latinas / PINTURA PALABRA DC Ekphrastic residencies. Her ongoing photo-essay project about El Salvador, through_the_bulletproof_glass, is on Instagram. For more info visit: www.alexandralyttonregalado.com.