To speak or speak to what cannot be spoken

Los muertos

 What can be said?

Here is the text of the poem you just witnessed, "Los Muertos" by  María Rivera, originally published in an anthology titled Los muertos, a tenth-anniversary celebration of the independent press Mantarraya Ediciones, in which 22 writers offer perspectives on death given the particularly deadly sociopolitical context in which contemporary Mexico is enmired. Román Luján and I translated the poem into English collaboratively:

The Dead

There they come
the beheaded,
the handless,
the dismembered,
the women whose coccyx were smashed,
the men whose heads were crushed,
the little children crying
between dark walls
of minerals and sand.
There they come
those who sleep in buildings
that are clandestine graves:
they come with their eyes blindfolded,    
with their hands tied,
shot between the temples.
There they come, those who got lost somewhere in Tamaulipas,
brothers-in-law, sons-in-law, neighbors,
the woman they gang raped before they killed her,
the man who tried to make them stop and got a bullet instead,
the woman who was also raped, who escaped and told it, now comes
walking on Broadway,
comforting herself with the wail of ambulances,
hospital doors,
the light shining on the water of the Hudson.
There they come
the dead who left Usulután
La Paz,
La Unión,
La Libertad,
San Salvador,
San Juan Mixtepec,
El Progreso,
El Guante,
those who were bade goodbye at a karaoke party
and were found shot in Tecate.
Here comes the one who was forced to dig a grave for his brother,
the one they murdered after collecting four thousand dollars,
those who were kidnapped
with a woman they raped in front of her eight-year-old son
three times.

Where do they come from,
from which gangrene,
oh lymph,
the bloodthirsty,
the soulless,
the butcher

There they come
the dead—so lonely, so silent, so ours,
hooked one to the other under the enormous sky of the Anahuac Valley,
they walk,
they crawl,
with a bowl of horrors between their hands,
their terrifying tenderness.
They are called
the dead found in a ditch in Taxco
the dead found in remote spots in Chihuahua,
the dead found scattered among plots of land,
the dead found dumped in La Marquesa,
the dead found hanging from bridges,
the dead found headless in communal farmlands,
the dead found by the side of the road,
the dead found in abandoned cars,
the dead found in San Fernando,
the countless hacked to pieces and not yet found,
the legs, the arms, the heads, the femurs of dead people
dissolved in barrels.
They are called
remains, cadavers, deceased,
they are called
the dead whose mothers don’t get tired of waiting,
the dead whose children don’t get tired of waiting,
the dead whose wives don’t get tired of waiting,
picturing them among subways and gringos.
They are called
tiny sweater woven in a drawer of the soul,
tiny t-shirt for a three-month-old,
photograph of a toothless smile,
they are called mamita,
they are called
tiny kicks
in the womb
and the first cry,
they are called four children,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
and a widow (girl) who fell in love in elementary school,
they are called wanting to dance at parties
they are called reddening of flushed cheeks and sweaty palms,
they are called boys,
they are called wanting
to build a house,
to lay bricks,
to give my children something to eat,
they are called two dollars for cleaning beans,
houses, haciendas, offices,
they are called
cries of children on dirt floors,
light flying over birds,
flight of doves in the church,
they are called
kisses at the edge of the river
they are called
Gelder (17)
Daniel (22)
Filmar (24)
Ismael (15)
Augustín (20)
José (16)
Jacinta (21)
Inés (28)
Francisco (53)
among bushes,
in ranch gardens
hands tied,
in the gardens of houses with security systems,
in forgotten spots,
disintegrating silently,
they are called
secrets of hit men,
secrets of slaughter,
secrets of policemen,
they are called cry,
they are called fog,
they are called body,
they are called skin,
they are called warmth,
they are called kiss,
they are called hug,
they are called laughter,
they are called people,
they are called pleading,
they were called me,
they were called you,
they were called us,
they are called shame,
they are called cry.

There they go
their breasts bitten,
their hands tied,
their bodies burnt,
their bones polished by desert sand.
They are called
dead women nobody knows nobody saw being killed,
they are called
women who go to bars at night alone,
they are called
working women who leave their homes at dawn,
they are called
burnt to ashes,
thrown away,
they are called carne, flesh,
they are called carne, meat.

with no flowers
with no gravestones,
with no age,
with no name,
with no tears,
they sleep in their cemetery:

it is called Temixco,
it is called Santa Ana,
it is called Mazatepec,
it is called Juárez
it is called Puente de Ixtla,
it is called San Fernando,
it is called Tlaltizapán,
it is called Samalayuca
it is called El Capulín,
it is called Reynosa,
it is called Nuevo Laredo,
it is called Guadalupe,
it is called Lomas de Poleo,
it is called México


What can be said?


ni una más

The above is one of dozens of images found by searching  "ni una más" on google image: this one is located on the excellent indymedia site desinformémonos (disinform ourselves), where you can also find a photo gallery of images from the anti-violence march from Cuernavaca to Ciudad Juárez last month.

I’ve been thinking about this commentary for weeks, planning for it, working closely with Román  on the translation he initiated and originally read at one of the Evenings of Various Wonder at my home. And now that I’m in the midst of writing sentences I hope to share with you, whoever you are reading this, I find myself with almost nothing to say.

What can be said? What does poetry have to say to the most intimate, embodied, close-range atrocities and to the most institutionalized, impersonal, structural brutalities? It’s not that I think the answer to these questions is “nothing”—¡on the contrary!—but rather that there isn’t a single thing to do or say to make these realities bearable, either on a personal individual specific level or an a collective sociopolitical (and also specific) level. Atrocity and brutality are not and will not be bearable. So it is the task of art-making, of conversation, of learning (in school and irregardless of school), of reading and writing and researching—of all the ordinary and extraordinary experiences that make up a day or a week or a month or a lifetime—to “say something” different than the violence we are forced to witness everywhere. To make manifest a different way of being in the world.

Even in the most adverse of circumstances where our humanity and dignity and agency is eroded (or sandblasted or bomb-blasted) on a daily, minute-by-minute basis, it is possible to act with honor, clarity, self-respect, solidarity with others. It took me a while to figure out why the hunger strike at Pelican Bay (which inmates in at least one-third of California prisons are actively supporting with solidarity strikes, and which I encourage you to support by signing this petition and making any kind of noise you know how) kept reminding me of María’s poem and vice versa, why I kept returning to the hunger strike in my mind and via my browser as I fine-tuned the translation in an email exchange with Román. Perhaps it is that these two actions (each made of many actions)—the writing and public activation of this poem, a hunger strike based on demands for humane treatment—are two moments on a broad-spectrum continuum of speaking truth to power, taking direct transformative action for justice. Perhaps it is some sense that crystalline electrifying articulation of belief is in the deepest sense poetry.

I actually think, however—in addition to the possibilities above—that the link in this train of thought between the Zócalo in Mexico City and the yards of high-security prisons in California and elsewhere is the idea of impunity, as illustrated by both the government-sponsored violence against civilians in Mexico and the government-sanctioned inhumane treatment of people ensnared in the prison industrial complex in the U.S. And one work that activates this link, for me, is the documentary “Presunto culpable” (“Presumed Guilty”), by Roberto Hernández and Geoffrey Smith, which follows the narrative of one person (of many) wrongly convicted and incarcerated in Mexico for a crime he did not commit. The film was censored shortly after its release, but is available on YouTube; though there have been multiple court decisions in favor of the filmmakers’ right to show the film, the case is still in litigation (though some press suggests otherwise).

(There is also an English-language trailer, slightly different from the Spanish-language version.)

Silence colludes with impunity, makes it invisible, the shackling scaffold of the status quo. What I have to say—perhaps what any of us has to say—is entirely inadequate to the matters at hand, irremediably and disappointingly not enough, never enough. And not saying it—whatever it is—is absolutely and undeniably not an option. Even when “what can be said?” is all there is to say, as when death is being addressed, there is nothing to do but to say it.