“What is the use of writing poetry during a period of unrestrained fascism?”

disappeared madres

Over this past month I’ve been reading and re-reading an essay by the poet Marjorie Agosín titled “How to Speak with the Dead? A Poet’s Notebook” (Human Rights Quarterly 15 (1993)214-223).

In the essay Agosín raises complex questions on writing about victims and survivors of state terrorism. “Up to what point is it feasible to make poetry about the tortured body?” How do we ask someone what it means to be the mother of a disappeared or a political prisoner? “Why should I see them cry?”

Writer in a foreign land & the inability to represent pain

Though she was born in the U.S., Agosín was raised in Chile until her family returned to North America after Pinochet came to power.

While most authors by their nature are introspective, Agosín exhibits an unusual level of self-awareness about the limits of writing in representing and adequately portraying the suffering of those who experienced traumatic, violent social conflict.

She talks about Latin American writers, like herself (“We are and are not the disappeared”), who go into exile and “recover memory and nostalgia through the temporary and borrowed scenery of an imaginary landscape.” Distance may appear to offer objectivity but it also further distorts the writer’s own perspective. “They write as survivors.”

Fiction or Non-Fiction

One of the issues I’ve been struggling with is whether it’s better to read fiction or non-fiction about the disappeared and the last dictatorship. (Of course, a reader doesn’t have to choose and can read both, but a writer must choose.) Can fiction adequately represent the horrors? In what ways are fiction writers limited in their portrayal of these realities? Conversely, do writers of fiction have more latitude than writers of non-fiction when it comes to exploring these themes? Which fiction writers should take on this material? Should fictional accounts of these emotionally charged topics be limited to those who lived through the times, have some first-hand experiences? What are the dangers of appropriating the difficult lives of others for one’s own fictional world? Or is it merely the skill of the writer? Is the literary imagination of any writer open to convey, or at least, attempt to enter this dark world of loss and memory? Would those attempts seem false, contrived?

Would it not be better simply to read non-fiction accounts of these times? Are not the testimonials of survivors more moving than any fictional accounts?

Often, I thought that non-fiction provides a clearer insight, more true. Yet, non-fiction also has its flaws, the biases of its writers, even those purporting to be objective. (Just reading what is written in most foreign newspapers about Buenos Aires should be enough for most residents of this city to realize that non-fiction is not a depiction of the truth but simply one writer’s perspective.) We must read, examine, and absorb various accounts of any topic before reaching conclusions (and even then our thoughts may continue to shift and change). Perhaps it’s the process itself – reading, writing, reflecting – that is ultimately important, more so than our actual beliefs.

(And with that swirling vagueness perhaps I’ve just rambled, somersaulted, crashed into my own pseudointellectual pomposity).

Agosín points out that literature seems less real and is easier to read precisely because we realize that it is not real, fiction camouflages repression and torture. Agosín describes her own obsession with identifying and writing about the disappeared to the point where she felt like she lost objectivity. “Now I ask myself, with what right did I speak of them? Why did I appropriate their zones and the theme of pain? What model did I follow to speak about the dead?”

“The boldness and nudity of the poem”

That line is Agosín’s. Poetry, for her, is the only way that she can access these issues. She writes, “I believe that poetry, with its atemporal qualities, its symbolic language that identifies, yet at the same time negates, allows me to create a zone of ambivalence.”

Agosín goes on to describe what she considers her failed, “nightmarish”, attempt to write a book about René Eppelbaum, one of the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Agosín’s intentions were to write a political discourse, a history but she says, “My attempt at reproducing the pain of a woman whose three children had been disappeared by the State became an impossibility.” So, Agosín returned to poetry to write about a woman “who did not want to be history, but nevertheless was history.”

With unexpected candor Agosín states that her poem was received very negatively by Eppelbaum. Agosín says, “In making her human, I took away the Plaza and left her along with her dead.”

Many more questions

Agosín’s essays raises many more questions than it answers, much more than can be addressed in this post. In Buenos Aires the disappeared and the last dictatorship are never very far from the present. Occasionally, I hear a few people assert that the past should be left in the past and that it’s time to move forward, continue rebuilding the country. Regardless of one’s perspective, the questions always will remain, the past is part of the identity.

Towards the end of Agosín’s notebook examining how to speak with the dead is this paragraph:

“In my experience, I could only formulate questions without answers. Is there a coherent self that can write and speak of political repression? Or does the being that writes, due to the nature of the topic, remain a fragment, distanced from the course of history? Would it be possible for the literature of political violence to defy the political conscience of the society that allows violence? How to avoid the creation of myth around the individual without offending? What is the correct distance between the victims and she who writes about them? How does one speak of the fear? How to speak about being a testimonial writer without ever having been imprisoned.”