'You' and the poetics of slow violence

Reading Jose Antonio Villarán's 'Open Pit: A Story About Morococha and Extractivism in the Américas'

'Open Pit' book cover.

Open Pit was published by Counterpath Press in 2022. The Spanish Tajo Abierto will be published in June 2023 by Álbum del Universo Bakterial in Lima, Peru.

“I want to be there with you and i’m not”

Jose Antonio Villarán’s Open Pit asks how to write a catastrophe whose immanence is dissipated across space and time. Tracking the poet’s research on transnational extractivism in the Peruvian mining town of Morococha, Open Pit essays a poetics of Rob Nixon’s “slow violence,” catastrophes (being products of human choices) which play out across scales that defy a pinpointed “there.” Writing in Davis, CA, to a young son in Philadelphia about research in Morococha, Peru, Villarán sets a network of places as actants, grafted onto variable patterns of placement on the page, carving tracks of space for the words of people interviewed in Morococha, descriptive language on the products of research, and autobiographical first- and second-person verse.

Villarán’s theme is an extension of the documentary question of how to write violence without being “there,” but in a historical moment and at a scale when there is no singular “there.” An essential tool becomes the use of the second-person “you” predominantly in relation to a young son, Miquel, who the reader is told cannot yet read the text and who becomes, over the course of the book, the older brother to the poet’s daughter who dies a newborn. The “you” becomes a means of sliding between simultaneities: “you came unexpected / and we loved you / since before you were born // la oficina del alcalde es una mina.” The poet’s subjective position is the basket of a day holding together “you came unexpected” and “The mayor’s office is a mine.” But beyond making sense of geographically removed simultaneous realities, the “you” becomes a tool for the documentary poet to work language relative to the future deferral of consequences of social and environmental violence, positioning the poetic voice in relation to that future. 

In the face of an uneven, “inconsistent reality,” a performative, epic-like opening shuffles actants together within the space of the book in an opening poem called “Topographical Map (Actants).” Among the actants are “the parent writer,” “the people,” “capital,” “the extra-human,” “government” and “the actant that’s not one of the actants that forms part of the body of the open pit,” resounding with recent examples of theatrical form and framing in Rodrigo Toscano’s Collapsible Poetics Theater (2008) and Hugo García Manríquez’s introduction of the actants at the opening of Lo Común (2018). Beyond these stated actants, in Open Pit “you” becomes a role that is off-stage and outside of the frame, which is nonetheless the vanishing point which builds the scene. The father-poet cannot be with “you” full-time; like the other actants, “you” becomes a mask and a category of performance, whose full presence is a continuous loss. The fact that the poetic voice cannot be where “you” are spatially or temporally becomes a crucial device in creating a poetics of delayed effect. “You” cannot yet read the text that is addressed only to them, as the text documents a violence that is only intelligible across generations: “is there a test to determine if we have been exposed to uranium? / is there a test to determine if we have been exposed to lead? / absorption / genotoxicity / oral exposure / dermal exposure / other routes of exposure.” The reader becomes an onlooker without being an addressee in a landscape of legibility that is delayed and askew. 

Villarán writes in a documentary poetic lineage marked by Muriel Rukeyser’s 1938 Book of the Dead, which also documents a mining catastrophe, a court case of silica poisoning among miners in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Rukeyser’s epic opens, “These are roads to take when you think of your country.” In the place of invoking a second-person muse, Rukeyser invokes a public that becomes the counterpart to the polyvocal public testimony (legal transcription, newspaper pieces) arranged on the page. The “you” posits a parallel between the poet’s research process and the reader’s, “These roads will take you into your own country.” In drawing a different but comparable parallel between poet and researcher, Villarán’s second person only once implicates a curious or complicit public in invoking the mining of metals for ubiquitous hardware: “Your computer is killing Morococha.” Like Rukeyser, Villarán draws on transcribed testimony of residents immediately affected by the mining catastrophe, and the acknowledgement thanks the people of Morococha in the second person — “I hope this book does justice to your generosity.” The voice recordings are lost, however, when the “phone screen cracked,” which in “A Question of Loss” is simultaneous with the loss of the newborn. Villarán splits a pronoun repeated by Rukeyser to mediate between this triad of the testimonies, the research process, and the address to a child.  

“I started these poems as a way to see you even before you arrived” opens Farid Matuk’s The Real Horse (2018), also composed by a poet of Peruvian (and Syrian) heritage living in the United States and writing to a child to be born within the long shadow of colonialism and disaster capitalism. The arrival of the “you” is contingent on the speaker and at the same time determines what is spoken and moreover what is seen. Villarán’s first reference to “you” remarks, “i can’t stop thinking about the fact that you can now perceive light.” Matuk’s opening epistolary address engages directly with the “you” as a nothing that has not yet arrived, and at once a frame within which the poet performs time and sight. Addressing the unborn daughter:

I’ve been reading about performance artist Tehching Hsieh; he was undocumented in the 1980s, like me. I was the age you are now when Hsieh came to this country to braid art into life by committing to the frame of the made thing.

The age of the “you” is a marker of time relative to Hsieh’s performances of nothing which become material registrations of time’s passage. The unborn child and the child who cannot yet read or see what is written only for her becomes herself “the frame of the made thing,” opening space for what the referent “you” does not yet contain. Julie Carr, one of the editors of Counterpath Press, which published Open Pit, writes this duality into the epistolary you: “And you— / my heaviness, my rearing-up, my having nothing / to say.” As in Derrida’s The Post Card, “you” is communication’s recipient to whom delivery or arrival is never guaranteed. In particular, the implied absence of the second person pulls tension with a child’s presence: “A child is what one should not be able to ‘send’ oneself. It never will be, never should be a sign, a letter, even a symbol.” By inserting the “you” of the child into the loom of contemporary catastrophes, Villarán, like Matuk, draws out this tear between “you” as made thing and nothing.

“Whoever says You does not have something; he has nothing. But he stands in relation,” reflects Martin Buber in the classic text of the second person, I and Thou, tr. Walter Kaufmann. The open pit is a seeming vacancy at the center of the text into which falls language, poisoned lives, and the extractive research environment of academia itself. An implicit mother-earth metaphor could take the open pit as womblike site of both making and losing. In a tone self-described within the poetry as “so direct and obvious and devoid of artifice,” “we have that pit, it’s open, really open.” The open pit, like the “you,” becomes a node for exposure, both chemical exposure and the exposure of relation. This invariable relationality of the second person recalls Judith Butler cited in Citizen, “our very being exposes us to the address of another.” Open Pit likewise wonders about the viciousness of this exposure, how the “you’s” not-yet-being exposes address in the same way that the unextracted metals already have priced “futures.” The parallelism of orientation to a child’s future puts the poet in relation to the speakers of testimonies collected through interviews in Morococha. One interviewee asks, “¿qué va a ser de nuestro futuro, de nuestros hijos?” / “what are we going to do? what’s going to happen to our children?” The poet’s distance from the open pit at once exposes the cracks in drawing parallels as the “you” navigates between mutual implication in catastrophe and fundamental differences in privilege between the poet and the speaker in Morococha.

The second person also becomes a means of mediating the private and the public in these poetics, an extension of Rukeyser’s impulse. Bernadette Mayer’s The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters charts a full pregnancy of writing and the “you” acts as the door between the private and the public, placed as a jamb and vague enough to let the muffles through. Mayer writes, “I’ve got to tell you I often talk as if you were both me and you and a third person, another person too. I do this to subsume my desire to tell everything in confusion but as if it were public.” The “you” leads the reader-public to press an ear up close and notice the threshold. In the book’s correspondences, Mayer notes, “Now with all these you’s I still don’t mean you you know. The person I’m thinking about never appears or if she does or he does we stand behind the door whispering without answering.” The interspersing of interview citations from Morococha with plainly stated personal grappling with grief is a means by which Open Pit rhetorically blurs the cordon around the private.

Claudia Rankine’s “you” in Citizen is the most public of this documentary-poetic constellation and occasion for considering how “you” implicates the reader. The “you” is precarious, as an addressee who may or may not overlay the I that is hidden behind it, may or may not cover that “I” completely in accessing an experience common to the scenes of racism invoked. In Citizen, “I” is the only pronoun that holds fragments together; “you” demarcates spaces of racialized subjectivity which mark the book by their slipperiness. The “you” is at once an original storyteller of a scene of racism, no one in particular, and anyone at once, “Occasionally it is interesting to think about the outburst if you would just cry out— // To know what you'll sound like is worth noting—.” The reader’s active response to being addressed is the yelp that activates a relation. The “you” is an open platform, a remote performance that the reader might step into: “Because you are watching all this take place even as you participate in it.” In Open Pit, the “you” is likewise necessarily the reader, who (like the child) is always coming after the poet. 

The narrative arc of Open Pit is framed around the death of an unborn child, Ramona, recalling the second person in Joyelle McSweeney’s Toxicon and Arachne, and Maggie Smith’s “Dear” (“Dear you, you two—not-dears, / dears I was not to have—”). This poetic tradition also resonates specifically with recent works charting a pregnancy or its loss through the simultaneities of neoliberalism and global capitalism in poetry of economics. Amy Sara Carroll’s “Let Down” in Fannie + Freddie: The Sentimentality of Post-9/11 Pornography (2013) addresses a just-born child while likewise pitting bodily fluids against capital. In an epistolary account of breastfeeding backgrounded by a child’s line drawing, “we hear the blast of a burp as loud as a coal mine’s collapse — today the world is caving in, I prop it up with toothpicks, the curl of your first smile.” Open Pit moves into moments of canticle-like repetition translating globalized realities to a domestic conversation with a child ruled by juxtaposition, “what i’m trying to say to miquel is: / … birds die and their stomachs are filled with plastic / whales die and their stomachs are filled with plastic.” 

The effectualness of writing to make an account and create that which lasts through time in the face of these circumstances is precarious in Open Pit. Susan Briante writes in The Market Wonders (2016) in “October 15—The Dow Closes Up 10062,” “What if I write it all down, track it, if I consult tickers / and windows, measure blood flow, monitor the rise and fall / of my accounts, the tarnish of leaves, // will a veil tear, will a web sparkle dew-strung, a rope bridge / between the dead-living-unborn?” This yearn often appears to be the longing imbuing Open Pit, the glint of a language that can somehow outrun the extraction. Yet at every stage, the poet’s language and academic investigation similarly gets tripped up within a glitching system. In one of the most formally compelling poems, “The Public Hearing,” a score for actants begins, “i don’t want your one stop shops or virtual windows / i don’t want your your massive anti-mining protests” and hauntingly, haltingly devolves, “yyyou want wwwant yyour yyyyyou wwant yyyour yyou / wwant yyyour chchch yyou wwant yyour chchiilddren.” Through dynamic use of the second person, Villarán dialogues with a range of contemporary documentary poets engaging a “you” to mediate fraught relationships between processes that are intimate and public, catastrophes of slow violence with precarious futurity.