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Carolyn Forché

BPR 44 | 2017

Excerpt (full interview available in Birmingham Poetry Review number 44 and as a downloadable pdf)

Born in Nicaragua in 1924, Claribel Alegría is one of the world’s greatest living poets. Winner of the esteemed Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 2006, author of numerous books of poetry and prose, and formative member of “la generacion comprometida” (the committed generation), Alegría has secured a permanent place in the history of Central American literature.

In this feature, we reprint several of her classic poems, and also publish (with triumphant joy) a section of her latest work—a long poem entitled Amor sin Fín (Love without End). The feature also reprints two translator’s introductions by Carolyn Forché, prefaced by a personal note in which Forché thanks Alegría for her invaluable poetic and political mentorship. In addition, we include a scholarly tribute by a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Chapel Hill, and an interview conducted with Alegría in July 2015 (she was 91 years old at the time) at her home in Managua.

The editors wish to thank, above all, Claribel Alegría for agreeing to be featured in BPR. Our deepest gratitude extends, as well, to her son Erik Flakoll Alegría, who provided guidance and support at every turn. We would like to acknowledge the professionalism and generosity of Liz Hamilton and Margie Bachman, who handle reprint rights at Northwestern University Press and the University of Pittsburgh Press, respectively. Special thanks also go to Alegría’s translators, including Daisy Zamora and George Evans, Carolyn Forché, and Margaret Sayers Peden, as well as to Claribel’s late husband Darwin J. “Bud” Flakoll and their daughter Maya Flakoll Gross.

You wrote only a tissue of time, a tissue separates us. It is now forty years since that summer we spent together in Deya, in the house you named C’an Blau Vell, the blue-doored and blue-shuttered stone house facing a rushing stream on the island of Mallorca. You were forty-seven years old that summer, nearly twenty years younger than I am now, and I was twenty-seven, and in Europe for the first time. You knew that my Spanish was terrible, yet you gave permission for me to translate your poems into English. You were patient with my naïveté regarding history, politics, oppression, the complicity of my government in the sufferings of the two countries from which you were exiled: Nicaragua and El Salvador. I learned that summer how little I knew about the world, my country, or myself, and that was an important lesson and perhaps the first step toward awareness: to know that one knows nothing. So despite the Mallorquin music carried on the sirocco through olive and lemon groves, the shower of almond blossoms, the lemons like lights in the dark trees, despite all that beauty, and your infinite hospitality, the summer was not an entirely happy one for me, and you sensed that. I felt helpless with my new knowledge and inadequate to the task of carrying your poems across the abyss between our languages. I wanted to do something about the suffering you revealed to me, but I didn’t know what. I remember being told by one of the writers who gathered on your terrace: “There is nothing you can do. Change your government. Enjoy your summer.” I studied you then, Claribel, to learn how a poet should comport herself, and this is what you taught me: that I should go to my desk every morning and wait with pen in hand or fingers on the keys; that I should read everything, and enter as many languages as I could master; that I should take a stand against tyranny, brutality, and injustice; and that I should embrace life, the whole of it, with no holding back. When the time came for me to emulate your courage and clarity, I hoped I would be sufficiently able, and would have your blessing. Thank you for walking ahead of me on the path we made as we walked.

The following essays were written seventeen years apart, at the beginning, and toward the present.

—Carolyn Forché

Preface to Flores del Volcan (Flowers from the Volcano)

reprinted with permission of University of Pittsburg Press, 1982

With Tears, Fingernails, and Coal

“I have no fusil [rifle] in my hand, but only my testimony.” Her hands sculpt her language as she speaks. The late sun dissolves in the Mediterranean, the hour’s bells drop down the terraces of Mallorca. She moves into another of her memories.

“I was attending a conference of writers and intellectuals. We Latin Americans were sitting around our table and it seems that there was a package addressed to us. It was casually tossed from one mailboy to another. The one who caught it was killed. The other was injured in the explosion. Months later, in another part of the world, I was asked what I would have done if we had been issued rifles. I explained that I could not take up the gun, that I would not be good with a gun. I would have asked for bandages and medicines instead—this is the one thing I know how to use. The other is the word.”

The ink of memory washed in blood, clouds that are wrapped around the open wounds of the Cordillera. Claribel Alegría is a poet who has called herself a cemetery, willing to provide herself as a resting place for those whose bodies have never been recovered, the friends whose flesh has been mutilated beyond recognition. They are the dead who have become “too many to bury,” who do not cease to exist and who seem to besiege surviving poets with pleas to witness on their behalf, to add their names to a litany and, in so doing, illuminate a senseless brutality.

These poems are testimonies to the value of a single human memory, political in the sense that there is no life apart from our common destiny. They are poems of passionate witness and confrontation. Responding to those who would state that politics has no place in poetry, that expressions of the human spirit in art should be isolated in aesthetics, she would add her voice to that of Neruda’s: we do not wish to please them.

Read the full introduction in Birmingham Poetry Review 44, or download the PDF.