Chilean writer and Duke Professor Ariel Dorfman’s new collection of poems, In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land: New and Collected Poemsfrom Two languages, explores the human costs of political terror, which range from irreconcilable loss to the guilt and anomie of survivors.
The poems in this collection were drawn from several sources, chief of which is Last Waltz in Santiago, a previously published volume of poems memorializing those “missing” following the 1973 military coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power. Also included is a set of previously unpublished, densely expressive, first-person poems, and works drawn from Kerry Kennedy Cuomo’s Speak Truth to Power project.
That last group is perhaps one of the main reasons for republishing the Last Waltz poems, since many of them were used in Dorfman’s contribution to Kennedy Cuomo’s project: the play Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark. Its Kennedy Center production, (featuring Sigourney Weaver, John Malkovich, and Alex Baldwin), was presented in a PBS special in October 2000.
In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land, however, is more than a companion piece or retrospective. Dorfman, born in Argentina in 1942 to Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants, is bilingual and at different times has written primarily in either Spanish, the language used at home by his parents, or the English language of his childhood’s adopted countries, pre-university schooling and exile. This collection is the first bilingual edition of the poems. It offers a structure which, Dorfman says in his preface, “offers my two languages, my Spanish and my English, my two loves, the chance to breath side by side on paper as they breath side by side in my mind and in my life.”
But, as the author revealed in his 1998 memoir, Heading South, Looking North, the two languages did not always sit so easily together. As Dorfman moved back and forth between Argentina, New York, Santiago, Berkeley and beyond, he also shifted cultural identity and language, rejecting one and then the other. He did so, choosing at first “to refuse the multiple, complex person I would someday become, this man who is shared by two equal languages and who has come to believe that to tolerate differences and indeed embody them personally and collectively might be our only salvation as a species.”
Hence, the bilingual edition reflects a reconciliation, begun in his memoir, of the complex allegiances of his life.
The work is all the more significant because of the historical specificity of these allegiances. Brought up as a red diaper baby in New York in the late 40’s and early 50’s, Dorfman was both charmed by the effervescence of Americana and directly exposed to its darker side during the McCarthy era when his parents were forced to emigrate to Chile. He found a home and people there, eventually working from 1971 to 1973 for Salvador Allende’s elected socialist government, only to lose that home to a CIA-supported military coup that saw Allende’s torture and death, along with many of Dorfman’s colleagues and friends. Yet, after teaching stints at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Amsterdam, Dorfman found himself again in the United States, where he has made a home and become a grand-parent.
It is these differences that Dorfman admits, differences between North and South, between youthful political activist and an elder who has survived terror and somehow lived into a farther life, differences of language and affiliation, of desire. The bilingual edition reaches towards a reconciliation of all this, but also towards a reconciliation of peoples, historical violences and social possibilities. It is thus, in this larger sense, a work of peace and justice relevant to our time.
Any reconciliation of violence, however, must first pass through grief and remembrance. Dorfman’s art is to convey us to these through a complex series of images and voices that, by their diversity and humility, avoid the traps of the easy slogan or the polemic complaint. There is a dazzling array here: the mashed, desperate syntax of “Red Tape”, and the Goyaesque quick-poem sketch of an execution in “Sunstone”:
They put the prisoner
against the wall.
A soldier ties his hands.
His fingers touch him–strong,
gentle, saying goodbye.
–Forgive me, compañero–
says the voice in a whisper.
The echo of his voice
those fingers on his arm
fill his body with light
I tell you his body fills with light
and he almost does not hear
the sounds of the shots.
There are also poems in which Dorfman evokes the voice of a parent or friend of one who has “disappeared,” as in “She’s Losing Her Baby Teeth Now”:
who’s that who’s that man
with Uncle Roberto?
oh, honey, that’s your father
why doesn’t daddy ever come
to see me?
because he can’t
is daddy dead?
is that why
he never comes home?
and if I tell her that daddy
and if I tell her that daddy
so I tell her the only thing
that isn’t a lie:
daddy never comes home
because he can’t.
Such poems are juxtaposed with those in the book which the author calls “Poems I was Never Going to Show Anyone.” They reveal Dorfman’s own struggles with the grief of surviving the ruin of his hopes and his friends. Here, the tone and syntax is more complex, self-punishing. In these first stanzas of “There is No Wind to Ease the Flowers,” Dorfman says,
One day the blood in the pollen will put me to sleep.
the syllables of blood in the pollen will slowly put me to sleep.
The companeros will come, they will say: and this one,
what happened to him, he used to be so strong.
It’s so simple and so terrible and so me:
I was alone like a pond that irrigates the field,
a pond that gives water and breathes stars,
that no rivers come to,
where no children come
This desperate query comes from “Drowning”:
What do you want from me?
That I should gorge myself
on a river of broken horses
inside a wave over a wave
curving along a mad road?
But what in the hell do you want?
That I should poison this last lonely
taste of oranges left to me?
That I should surrender
the only color I can still see?
Although the language of these poems lacks the directness and clarity of the Last Waltz poems, we see in them connections to a larger post-modern discourse on absence, brokenness, and identity. They are connections embodied in Dorfman’s exile, but only as the most recent version of a first sense of having fallen, in the poet’s words, “like every child who was ever born…falling into solitude and nothingness, headlong and headfirst.”
It is also here that Dorfman reaches beyond the directly political and specifically historical context of the witness poems. He does so to reflect more broadly on human themes of longing and the possibilities of recovering meaning after loss. In the conclusion to “Habeas Corpus,” Dorfman reflects:
there must be something like gravitational
a law of human attraction,
the force of all the others operating close by,
invisible hands that mold you in the darkness,
someone who dies for you,
who is born for me a little at a time
like the sun in love with its planet,
something that makes me
begin this interrupted
no suitcase, no clothes,
that I still don’t quite believe exists.
In this variety of voice and tone, Dorfman engages in the difficult work of making art that “tells the truth” about political violence.
Witness is always difficult because of the ways in which the past seems to slip away. In Dorfman’s autobiographical tropes, we encounter the ways past selves seem to vanish, the ways we become lost to ourselves as we age. But this amnesia is also cultural, specific to an era drowned in a surfeit of information, specific to a culture which sees any representation as a “sell.” In such a context, art which bears witness to violence risks becoming flotsam among countless other competing images.
This is no slight problem: In a sense, it is central to Dorfman’s political concerns. After all, we live in a culture of multiple and complex amnesias. It should stop us in our tracks to think that our government ended almost 100 years of democracy in Chile for the sake of energy and mining interests. It should stop us in our tracks that this happened on another September 11th, in 1973.
Instead we forget the wealth made from slavery and from Native lands. We forget that the powers Congress just gave the executive branch to secretly gather information and prosecute war are precisely the powers we took from it after the Pinochet coup. We forget, because to remember is to face the deep inequalities of the market economy and the profound lie of progress. To remember is to face the fact that our privilege is a product of these.
In a world where community is a small-town dream located in a never-land past, and the people who say they long the most for its values have divested and run to private schools and gated subdivisions, it is duty of artists and intellectuals to remind us. They must touch us with the fact of the real, not simply in an economy of desire, but because truth will out.
Oddly enough, it is here that Dorfman is again given a gift by his bilingual heritage. Spanish differs from English in that it is possible to be lyrical and emotional in Spanish in ways that, in English, seem stilted or overblown. American prose and poetry has tended to prefer a plain speech, close to the everyday, and avoids the intimate and emotional out of a respect for privacy.
Most of the poems in this collection were originally composed in Spanish and then translated into English by Edith Grossman and the author. As one reads back and forth between the Spanish and English versions, the contrast between the lyricism and music of the Spanish and the plain speech poetics of the English effects a subtle re-valorization.
That one could care or express meaningful emotions seems somehow possible in light of the naturalness of this in Spanish, while, in listening to the English as music again, one becomes aware of the effects of our restraint. The poems sound as empty as our downtowns, as parsed as our landscape.
And yet, in this stillness, a suffused emotion rings. In “Vocabulary,” Dorfman says he cannot tell the story of a murdered couple he wishes to bear witness to. Then he asks:
Show me a word I can use.
Show me one verb.
An adjective as clear as a ray of light.
Listen carefully to the bottom of every sentence,
to the attic and dust in the furniture
of every sentence,
perk up your ears,
listen and look under the bed
of every sentence
at the soldiers waiting their turn
at the foot of the bride’s bed.
To preserve just one word.
What is it to be?
Like a quiz show.
If you could take one word with you
to the future,
what is it to be?
Plunge into the garbage heap.
Stick your hands deep into the ooze.
Close your fist around the fragment of a mirror
fractured by feet that dance on what should have been
a wedding night.
Let me tell you something.
Even if I had been there
I could not have told their story.
A poem which ends:
As for the story I cannot tell.
They accumulated tenderness
as others accumulate money.
Even if the phone is busy.
Even if the machine has just swallowed your last dime.
Even if the operator drowns out all the other voices.
Ask them for the verse our lovers will still need
if we are ever again to bathe
in the same river.
Let them speak for themselves.
It is now difficult to know whether the brooding sense that our country is at the precipice of despotism will be born out by the facts. Neither our history nor the way in which we blindly search for an “other” to demonize augers well. There is some way in which the human spirit seems to stagger forward, but the current military and political power of the United States suggests a possible darkness is already upon us.
We cannot hide from the consequences of this. The consequences will arise within us, just as the faces of those killed on Sept. 11th appeared on fences in New York.
When we kill something so that we can eat or have it, it rises up in us. We belong to it, no matter how hard we forget, no matter how empty we imagine ourselves to be.
In his dedication, Dorfman makes a play between the dot-com English word “commerce” and the Spanish comer, to eat. He reminds us of his mother’s voice, saying
el que come y no covida
if you eat and do not share
a toad will grow inside inside
a toad will grow
still there so many years later
her voice across time
and the toad
the toad still growing
here we go again
who eats who
who eats who eats who
whoeatswho dot com
A black joke, with a moral sharp: Wake up, life still matters. If we are unable to get in touch with our gut sense of what is right, Dorfman notes in the title poem, “maybe it’s time to start praying.”
In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land is an important work by one of our time’s significant moral voices. It is worth letting him get under your skin.