Whiteness of Bone
Glass Lyre Press
Reviewer: Lynn Levin
Political poetry is necessary poetry, but it is also one of the most difficult types of poetry to write. The moral imperative that drives poems of outrage against man’s inhumanity to man often leads to work that explodes with fury and gore. How to capture on the page the massacres, beatings, tortures, and schemes of dictators and warlords? To what extent is the description of atrocity the mission of political poets? To what extent should political poetry use the violence as a backdrop, focusing instead on the lives of individuals—the victims, partisans, even the perpetrators—caught in the storm? And, finally, how is one to make art out of agony and destruction? In her newest collection, Whiteness of Bone, Gloria Mindock assigns herself the difficult mission of being a political poet.
The founding editor of Červená Barva, a Boston-area press well known for its strong international and US list of contemporary poetry and prose, Mindock is the author of several books of poetry, some of them published in translation. She is the recipient of the Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award and the Allen Ginsberg Award from the Newton Writing and Publishing Center for her community service.
In Whiteness of Bone, Mindock bravely confronts some of the genocides and bloodiest political conflicts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: the catastrophes of El Salvador, Rwanda, the Congo, and Darfur. In order to gather material and details for the poems, the author corresponded directly with a number of survivors from these regions. This research allows Mindock to bear witness, albeit indirectly, and to describe in poetry what the survivors themselves may not be able to do.
The strongest poems in the collection engage violence through specific individual situations or voices. The lyric “Eye (Mistranslation from a Romanian Poem)” does not name a country or conflict, but it conveys anger in an emotionally intimate manner. The voice is engagingly unadorned:
If you can see the pupil in my eye, know it is an instrument
of sight, pinning its gaze on you.
I did not carry an umbrella on this rainy day,
but I will tell you one thing, you are an insensitive bastard.
Apparently, no one told you.
Well, I am the plant in the system to let you know.
Your rage has been defeated.
The volume in your mind knocked out in an instant.
Let me make this clear.
Your soul is a never-ending circle bruising itself
to black and blue.
The invective in this poem is spirited. The community has suffered and survived, and the poem ends on a hopeful note as the children who outlived the conflict ready themselves for a better future.
Midway through the collection, Mindock focuses on the Salvadoran Civil War, which mostly took place during the 1980s. I found the biographical poem “Maria” to be exceptionally gripping. Here Mindock describes some of the life journey of a nine-year-old girl whose mother was killed by a death squad. The child crawls into the mass grave in which her mother lies, embraces her corpse, tears off a piece of the mother’s clothing to save as a keepsake, and recalls, through Mindock’s touching third-person narration, their life together:
See her smile as you cooked supper together.
Hear her laugh as you played.
Hear her tell you not to wander too far away.
All these things a mother does.
The cloth now pressed close to you.
Ultimately, Maria is saved by another family and brought to Illinois where she grew up safe and well cared for. She now travels the world bearing witness to suffering in her homeland.
In political poetry, the urge to describe and condemn atrocities often conflicts with the poetic imperative to write in unusual, evocative, and even appealing language. Mindock addresses this issue in the poem “Don’t.” “Don’t tell me my writing is too graphic / for you as you sit in your nice apartment / enjoying the day, sleeping peacefully at night.” Well, perhaps at times the poems are too graphic. Or rather, they occasionally overly reiterate the horrors of bloody tribal, political, sectarian, and factional warfare, bludgeoning a reader into a kind of defensive numbness rather than a heightened awareness. That said, most of the poems add to rather than detract from an overall effect, and are threaded with captivating lines. For example in “Tongue,” a victim of torture speaks:
My lips hurt and they’re on fire.
I look at them and pretend my
body is a vase, full of flowers—
transforming into spring blossoms.
In “Dante,” I find this standout line: “Time moves, collecting death for its museums.” I admire the opening lines in “Adventure”: “The rain hits the earth / with such force, soaking the ground, / cleaning it up for its next adventure.” These lines in “Strength” also moved me:
When shadows fell on my heart,
I became fulfilled.
Now, I have felt everything
there is to feel.
That said, in these poems, as in a few others, some lines devolve, as mentioned above, into excessive references to machetes, bullets, blood, silenced voices, and graves. The collection might have benefited from a few more allusions to love, hope, and relief. Yet the mission of this collection is to capture the awful repetitiveness of war, genocides, tortures, and massacres. This is human history at its worst. And a poet, even one as principled as Gloria Mindock, is aware that, though she speaks out, she is ultimately powerless to halt the onslaught. She writes. She documents. She knows that her work may never make a difference in the larger sense. As Auden wrote in his elegy, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
And still, the poet writes and hopes. And still we read.