The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by Seth Michelson on Alicia Partnoy
Eat Your Heart
Alicia Partnoy’s third and newest collection of poetry, Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales (Settlement House, 2014), performs an important sort of poetic magic: It makes absence present. That is, through Partnoy’s artful manipulation of the tropes and figures of poetry, she renders in a mere twenty-one poems a clarifying array of the voids, excisions, and erasures that are paradoxically constitutive of our lives and communities.
Readers are therefore likely to find the collection deeply moving, with its subtle revelations of hope in the afterlife of violence and its delicate insights into the complexities of our identities and our networks of belonging.
This comes chiefly from Partnoy’s poetic exploration of present absence, which arrives in a diversity of iterations. These include figures of present absence, such as the widow, the exile, the prisoner, and the disappeared, and sites of present absence, such as vanished cities, demolished homes, and vacated corridors of political power, not to mention more abstract instantiations of present absence, such as revoked freedoms, rewritten histories, suspended laws, and abandoned economic frameworks.
Note, for example, the figural, temporal, and emotional representations of present absence interwoven in the ars poetica “Después”:
Cautious lover, poetry,
she flees from those who talk a lot about her:
when, where, why
she gives herself to you
or makes you burn with jealousy
only remains to be recorded
in your wheezing between stanza and stanza
and in the space of air that opens
right here, after the final bullet.
In a more critical vocabulary, this is poetry as spectral presence; it is a poetry of ghosts whose conjuring creates new modes of reckoning what it means for a life to exist. Poetry is and suggests life as flight, as continuous transformation. It is a coming-into-being-through-undoing, an emergence from and of erasures, excisions, and disappearances. In short, poetry is an awakening to present absence.
In “Después” this comes via the representation of poetry as an anthropomorphic figure, with that move to metaphor being itself a signifier of present absence in so far as poetry is simultaneously absent in itself but present in its figural representation, which in operating through metaphor is a longstanding marker of poetry. Moreover, in incorporating poetry as a gendered lover, whose inconstancy and ephemerality produce her maddening allure, we can reckon poetry as that which defies the human impulse to capture and contain. Or as Partnoy phrases it, poetry “flees from those who talk a lot about her.”
We might further note that in the aftermath of poetry’s withdrawal, readers are left “wheezing,” which is a purposeful action depicting presence absence. Wheezing is the struggle to breathe, to gain control over respiration, whereby the interplay of the absence and presence of breath, of oxygen, is literally constitutive and/or destructive of life, much as the control of the reader’s breath might be a foundational concern of a poem. Wheezing is also an audibilization of the struggle over present absence. It is the sound of that battle, a straining that blends sound and its absence, with the combination of the two creating and conducting its experience.
At the risk of isolating and overanalyzing this metonym, we might consider, too, how the wheezing in the poem takes place in an empty expanse. This is evoked both denotatively in the narration of the “space of air that opens / right here” and formally in the lineation that fragments the narrative and surrounds its claims with the emptiness of white space.
Moreover, within the lettered presence, the emotions in the poem surge and recede, thereby reinforcing the poem’s claim of poetry to be evanescence, or present absence. Thus we cycle through a quick succession of emotions in the aforementioned lines, shuffling through caution, flight, abandon, jealousy, angst, and more, with poetry only “giv[ing] herself to you” so as to disappear, leaving you alone, bereft, and riddled with her absence in the wake of her departure.
Such rapid-fire movement between forms of presence and their subsequent absence in fact pervades the book, much to the reader’s benefit in her quest to think through present absence.
For example, while the poem “Movimientos oculares rápidos” has a different narrative focus than the poem “Después,” it allows us similar insights into the interplay of presence and absence. More specifically, it foregrounds ontological and epistemological questions about presence by depicting overlapping temporalities and protean lives:
Sometimes in dreams
we encounter a man
or a woman from the past.
We make love to them
We talk to them about things
that ought to matter to them
Here present absence is explored in ways that are distinctly meaningful to the individual poem; we contain convolutions of time as opposed to linear progressions, and the result is a continuous renegotiation of the present, affecting both the construction of the self and its relation to others, both living and dead. Importantly, too, these individuated suggestions by this poem commingle with many others from the remainder of Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales, with the result being a composite narrative told across the book about the consubstantial force of present absence in our lives.
In that light, Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales can be read as an urgent call for us to examine how we exist. More specifically, Partnoy is challenging us to review and undo false fixities, orthodoxies, and essentialisms in order to realize more intricate and nourishing modes of (co)existing. Of note, we are to undertake this reexamination by poetically renegotiating our understandings of the generative porosity and the auspicious fragility of our lives and communities. This is why we encounter lines like:
eat your heart.
I know why I say it:
it’s what happens to me
every time I dream
between myself and exile,
neither a yes nor a no.
From such verse, we are reminded not only of the generative tension between absence and presence, but also of the power of miscommunication to engender sociality. Miscommunication, or mistaken presence, or present absence, engages our mutual want and need, as well as the strength in our friability, the resilience in our permeability, and the hope in our transformability.
In other words, Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales argues that both our personal vitality and interpersonal conviviality derive from the gaps, holes, elisions, and lacks. And this is cause for neither despondence nor despair. Instead the poetry reveals to us the endlessly available possibilities for being and for being-in-common, and in more egalitarian and inclusive ways.
It bears mention, too, that all of this is explicated with aesthetic ingenuity in the book, which poetically illumines how we each are a discrete assemblage of matter and memory paradoxically held together by that which is missing, lost, effaced, excised, and/or elided. Consequently Partnoy can explain, for example, that:
[t]hose who inhabit you haven’t died
they’ve only changed a bit.
I just want you to read
my heart with your fingertips.
Such is the epistemology of loss grounding the book. It formulates a new sociality, a fresh reckoning of interdependence, and in ways that transcend time and space. Furthermore, such a knowing (of present absence) is as interactive as it is corporeal. It is a poetic touching of immateriality, with that immateriality inviting transhistorical and transcultural possibility.
The flash point, or the point of contact, for the actuation of such possibility is of course the poem, with each verse in the book serving as an opportunity to apprehend and shape absence into a construct linking the body to the teeming nothingness around, against, and from which we are, at least according to the logic of Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales. This is why, as Partnoy explains in the poem “Prepositions,” we suffer the
[i]mpotence of fire
in our throats:
That’s what we talk with[.]
This is also why Partnoy explains in the poem “Song of the Muleteer Woman en los U.S.” that
[m]y dead are not mine:
I call them by their names,
they number in the thousands
and they overwhelm me
That feeling of being choked and overwhelmed is in fact epitomic of the experiences depicted in and enacted by the book, and it emerges as forcefully from Partnoy’s examination of historical events as personal anecdotes. Interestingly, those two categories converge in Partnoy’s poetry in this collection about the Argentine genocide (1976-1983), which is unsurprising to readers familiar with Partnoy’s oeuvre. After all, she is a survivor of Argentine death camps, about which she has written best-selling prose and acclaimed poetry, and she returns to the subject in Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales to innovate revelatory ways of reconceiving the figures of Argentine desaparecidos, or disappeared people from the genocide, as present absence.
Moreover, while that poetry excels in revisiting and rethinking the afterlife of the Argentine genocide, which is an indisputably crucial undertaking both within and beyond Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales, the collection is limited neither to nor by that focus. Instead one could argue that the power of this new collection emerges from the syncretism of its experiences, with Partnoy juxtaposing the symbolic resurrection of the Argentine desaparecidos with a terrible, transhistorical retinue of the dead from genocidal violence in places as distinct as Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq, and Auschwitz.
Importantly, too, Partnoy never creates false equivalencies between these different sites and systems of torture, slaughter, and genocide. Instead she orchestrates in various pitches, tones, and tempos these diverse renderings of present absence in order to build for her readers a symphonic narrative about the repercussive endurance and influence of violence across time and space.
To put it differently, Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales ponders how to live with the intractability and irreducibility of loosed violence, which is shown not only to persist forcefully across lives, but also to produce life. It is generative erasure, creative subtraction, and productive excision, and through Partnoy’s poetic re-presentation and actuation of this complex action, we can realize with her, for example, the horror of the “luxury / of throbbing with grief” (emphasis added).
In simple terms, that luxury in grief is a brute marker of our good fortune: Unlike the victims of genocidal violence, we are alive. More deeply, it is an existential privilege and a civic duty to endure in the present with the added weight in our bodies of the departed, with our epiphanic realization of their presence altering us in our velocity and direction through life, much the way the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle suggests the impact of measurement on the speed and location of a particle hurtling through space-time.
Again, the vastness and heft of such musing is not intended by the poetry to inspire readers to self-abandonment and/or fits of anguish. To the contrary, it can be liberating in its revelation of existential possibilities. In that spirit, we might for example find ourselves singing with Partnoy of the merits of struggling to endure, and how we are each
yearning to embrace
of tender, unknown animal
which for lack of a better name
we had baptized
Interestingly, too, this is but one of many different ways that Partnoy traces the tribulations of the human spirit in its quest for freedom from and against obliterating violence, with each iteration of that quest reinforcing the importance of Partnoy’s innovative poetics of encounter with present absence, whereby one’s capacity to engage absence defines her capacity to live.
An especially haunting example of this comes in Partnoy’s evocation of the aching absence of her only brother, Daniel, who committed suicide decades ago, and whom she muses to be “[t]hat music that resembles nothing / in all the empty spaces in the afternoon.”
This is how the book inundates us with eruptions from the past that destabilize and recalibrate the present. It is how Partnoy’s poetry suggests that we rethink time. Moreover, in its introduction of possibility, we are empowered to imagine fresh and vital alternatives to the present, helping us n turn to conceive of more egalitarian and pacifistic futures by unmaking positivist and teleological historical narratives and politics.
Hence we see in the poem “Lullaby Without the Onion,” for example, how Partnoy uses transhistoricity and intertextuality to great effect. More precisely, she resuscitates for us the deceased Spanish poet and political prisoner Miguel Hernández (1910-1942), from whom she borrows the title of his famous poem from prison about familiar despair and destitution, “Lullaby of the Onion,” in order to launch a poem of her own about her familial anguish as a political prisoner.
Through that work, the poem recasts Partnoy’s experience of present absence in Villa Devoto Prison in Argentina in 1978, when she found herself writing to her three-year-old daughter, Ruthie, that:
[y]our mother isn’t in prison
your mother has
birds in her blood,
grates and bars
don’t detain her
nor is she in prison,
nor has she left you.
Her sadness is dove,
her pain is swallow,
her days are sparrows
seeking your street corners.
Your mother isn’t in prison
girl, your mother
throws the birds of her blood into flight
And how can we help but be moved by the poem’s imaginative vigor and empathy, suggesting as it does the symbolic transformation of carceral anguish in the (poet-mother’s) present into hope for the future?
Furthermore we cannot help but note how that hope hinges upon the interplay of presence and absence, which is emphasized here even by the quick succession of metaphors; one after another, they are presented and revoked until being climactically cast to the skies in flight, which itself is an image of simultaneous presence and absence: the birds are materially present each in itself, but also disarticulated as a group being dispersed to the point of divergence into disappearance. Thus the figure of their interconnectedness is defined by active increase of the absence between them. In other words, the presence of their community, their collectivity, is defined relationally by mobilized gaps, by dynamic absence, with each bird journey into solitude and emptiness working both within and against that matrix of belonging and departing.
Such is the beauty and brutality of Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales; it sensitizes us to the scorching presence and power of the many voids, erasures, and absences comprising a life. It continuously presents absence and erases presence, challenging us to reckon our false sense of stability and solidity in the present. That in turn causes us to rethink our very conceptions of being, and not only in ourselves, but also in relation to one another. It is the poetic action of struggling agonistically between presence and absence.
By way of conclusion, I would like to offer yet one more example of Partnoy’s poetic enactment of the struggle over and through present absence. It comes from the poem, “En resumidas cuentas,” which has been translated rousingly into English as “To Summarize” by Partnoy’s longtime translator Gail Wronsky, with whom Partnoy has collaborated to offer Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales as a fully bilingual edition. That bilinguality, too, seems a credit to the vision of Settlement House, and particularly its editor, Laurence Moffi, who not only sponsored a fully bilingual book, but also a book of poetry including an interspersed selection of beautiful and apropos black-and-white drawings by Partnoy’s mother, Raquel Partnoy, a celebrated painter.
Returning to “To Summarize,” here are the first three stanzas of the six-stanza, one-page free-verse poem:
All of us practice
a more or less generous way
of turning ourselves into the center of the world.
In the air we draw
arrows that stay:
me, me, look at me,
love me, me,
look for me.
I live. I give. I remember.
With this brief excerpt alone, we can join Partnoy in examining the interplay between absence and presence. It comes to us, for instance, in the speaker’s metacritical reflection on our processes of inhabiting “the world” by “practic[ing]” who we are and where we exist. That is, according to the poem, we live by being always already in revision, in transformation; we experience an ontology of being-through-practice and of always “turning-ourselves-into.” In other words, we live through continuous reformulation; we exist as human palimpsests, with erasure producing the possibility of our presence in the present and future so that we can discover ways to “live,” “give,” and “remember” with more ingenuity, intensity, and generosity.
This is the fundamental action exhorted and enacted by Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales. It is a poetic call to freedom: In existing through practice, we are concerned with a striving towards as opposed to an arriving at. We are motion as opposed to stasis, and revitalization as opposed to stagnation. We are mosaics of absence that can be indefinitely reconfigured, and we are therefore the limitless possibility intrinsic to endlessly available acts of reformulation. And if we can understand that, then we might be able to respond more adeptly to the oppression and tyranny of fixities, orthodoxies, fundamentalisms, and essentialisms, which have wreaked such devastating violence transhistorically, as Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales attests.
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