Claribel Alegria has known too much death. Enough to carry its weight across the distance of countries and too many unforgiving years, and still feel the need to confront it with the afflicted voice of a witness who will never become accustomed to its stench.
She has named its many devastating faces in her decades of writing, which started in 1948 with her first collection of poems, Anillo de Silencio (Ring of Silence). This book initiated readers to the poet's introspective and lyrical explorations of self. But it wouldn't be until 1982, with a collection of previously published poems translated by Carolyn Forche, that North American readers would be introduced to the stripped and searing witness of Flores del Volcn (Flowers from the Volcano). Drawn from over two decades of work, Flores would introduce readers to the poet as cemetery.
As Forche accounts in her preface to the groundbreaking collection, Alegria 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."
With the publication of Flores, Alegria gave shape to her commitment to testifying on behalf of the struggles against political turmoil, brutal repression and torture in Central America--specifically under the dictatorships in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Alegria has called both of these her countries, and has dedicated much of her life to documenting and breathing life into the movements for social change in Latin America.
Beneath her testimonies of struggle and survival, there lives a fundamental confrontation with death. She has committed years to the excavation of missing faces and voices lost to torture, disappearances and massacres of whole peoples at the hands of dictators and their armies. All along, she has cultivated a relationship with death and "the contemplation of final things," culminating in her most recent collection of poetry, Soltando Amarras: Casting Off.
Returning to the familiar themes of loss and reflections on the past flowing from her previous collection of poetry, 1999's Saudade (Sorrow), we are swallowed by the solitude and finality in Alegria's latest explorations of the intimate mourning and evanescent triumphs of life after loss. In Saudade, we watched the poet confront death with the urgency of new mourning, challenging its finality by imagining the transcendence of time and space: "I don't know what seas/rivers/or secret passages/you have to cross/but I'm waiting for you today/at sunset/so we may listen together/to a Bach fugue."
Soltando Amarras shows us the poet later in life, with a heavy vision of life lived beneath the weight of too many memories and no more answers: "memories keep flooding by/they show me a senseless/world/a voracious/world-abyss/but I keep loving it/because I do/because of my five senses/because of my amazement/because every morning,/because forever, I have loved it/without knowing why."
She shows us a life unfettered by the struggle to evade death: "I have put distance between myself/and life/and stand confronting death." And, finally, she shows us a life that has come to terms with the enigma of death: "My footsteps are leading/toward quiet solitude/toward the star-silence/that has no more questions."
With her latest collection, Alegria solemnly reminds us that even as a cemetery, the collection of so much death brings no more answers than this, her title poem:
my long conversation
it is hard for me
to let go of myself
to engender myself
to conceive myself