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Poetry on El Salvador forces readers to see human tragedy

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Steinbaum
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2007

This month of holiday lights and frenetic cheer opened with World AIDS Day, reminding us of a disaster we are in danger of forgetting. It is one I have felt compelled to write about often through the past two decades. That is what writers do: We refuse to not see.

Every day we wake to newspapers full of new human catastrophes of all types in various places, year after year, decade after decade. Bosnia, Aceh, Sudan, Bhopal blur in our minds into a vague disaster stew. And though we are caring people, we are human and the tragedies are painful. So we ignore. We forget. Unless someone insists on reminding us, as Gloria Mindock does of the civil war that raged in El Salvador from 1980 to 1992. In her new poetry collection, "Blood Soaked Dresses," she holds up the events so we cannot look away.

Mindock, recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant for poetry, is the author also of two chapbooks and the forthcoming collection "Nothing Divine Here." She is the editor of the Cervena Brava Press and the online journal Istanbul Literature Review, and is a former editor of the Boston Literary Review.

The poems from "Blood Soaked Dresses" began when Mindock had the opportunity to speak with refugees from El Salvador.

"I'm very political," she says. "I get so angry when I see what mankind does to mankind."

She says the book is written in memory of one of the refugees she interviewed, Rufina Amaya, who was the lone survivor of an infamous massacre in which the entire village of El Mozote, including Amaya's family, perished at the hands of the government-linked Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, or ARENA, death squads.

"They would hang body parts in the trees. One woman saw her husband's hand with his wedding band on it, and that's how she knew he was dead," Mindock says, adding that the stories were so horrifying to her that writing about it felt almost like a calling.

Now she wants us to remember that as long as there are survivors to remember, tragedies continue to echo long after the news photographs and on-the-scene reports have faded. And even without survivors, the facts remain. And so Mindock has made it her mission to bear witness, as centuries of writers, composers, and visual artists have done before.

"Blood Soaked Dresses" begins in Rufina Amaya's voice: "Death crawls underneath this world and waits. Who will be next? Three months ago, the soldiers murdered my two little girls. . . . Their screams were like bad music. . . . I talk to them every morning. . . . At night, they invent my dreams."

Mindock continues her book with the sad indictment that, no matter how high the cost in human suffering, our attention will not be held. We will forget, turn away, move on with our lives. But maybe we can be persuaded to remember, if only for the time it takes to look at a painting. Or read a poem.

El Salvador, 1983

Somewhere, someone is mourning
for the body of a brilliant one.
Man or woman, it doesn't matter.
The tears in this country, an entrance
to a void . . . shadows touching skin like frost.

A star fell north of this city. Armies parade around
in their uniforms bragging about the killings.
Dead bodies thrown into a pit, cry.
Flesh hits wind, wind hits flesh.
How many dead?
Finally, they are covered with dirt at noon.
All eyelids are closed.
No one knows nothing.
No breathing assaults to hold us. The bitter ash
weeps over the world, and no other country
wants to see it, taste
the dead on their tongue or wipe away all
the weeping.

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