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Summer Books

Subversive poetry tells of martyrs, peasants

By Renny Golden
Mid-List Press (4324 12th Ave. S., Minneapolis MN 55407), 86 pages, $12


After the Bible, this is the most subversive book I ever read. It replaces Das Kapital as No. 2 on my list. Do not read it unless you are prepared to repent and believe the good news.

Its 23 poems, Golden tells us, aspire to be both poetry and social history. “The voices in these poems -- clergy, human rights workers, peasants and guerrillas caught up in the wars that plagued Central America over the last couple of decades -- speak from Salvadoran graves, from Guatemalan highlands, from dank jails, from primitive hideouts, from ghost towns, from country churches. The poems are divided into two main sections: martyr poems and peasant poems. Each martyr and each peasant is presented first in a brief prose account, then in a poem.”

One of the founders of the Sanctuary movement in the early 1980s, Golden went to El Salvador in 1985 to see for herself, and she has been visiting El Salvador and Guatemala almost every year since. I saw her in San Salvador for the 20th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination in March.

Laura Lopez in 1981 chose to relocate with her five children as a pastoral worker to the guerrillas and their families on the Guazapa volcano in El Salvador. In the absence of a priest, she led all the services and became known as “the bishop.”

As the attacks of A-37 bombers intensified during Holy Week in 1985, she told the people in her Good Friday homily that “the martyr’s cross has been placed on our shoulders ... [but] the word of God has to be made a reality.” A week later, during an intense bombardment, she gave up her space in the underground shelter to a family with small children, and with her 13-year-old daughter tried to outrun the ground patrols. A few extracts from the poem complete the story:

The people ordained you “Bishop.”
No ecclesiastic noticed,
a housewife teaching
catechism to illiterates.
As for sacramental authority,
what you had packed
in your knapsack:
bread, alcohol for wounds,
sacramental oils, a few coins ...
“Mama tried to get up
after the first shot.
Another bullet hit her spine
and she did not rise.
Only the knapsack ...
She gave me the knapsack.
‘Adelante!’ my mama said,
‘Adelante!’ ”
On the path ahead your child
finds six-year-old Carlos
shot in the testicles,
a puppy whimpering
in the dumb voice of helplessness.
Now your child improvises:
she is you,
she is a mother
she is the church
She is thirteen years old.
“Come Carlos, I must carry you.
The soldiers are closing in.” ...
Carlos and his father
Return to Valleverde to dig your grave.
The child says:
“It took us a week
to find Mama.
We wore bandanas
for the stench.” ...
That is the month your oldest daughter
packed her knapsack, kissed
her sisters, and walked
toward Guazapa.
“Adelante!” she told them
and left.

Ostmaro Caceres was killed in 1982. Golden walked a long day through the countryside with a guide who knew how to circumvent the military checkpoints to meet Caceres’ father.

In front of the priest’s house,
The old man touches my arm, whispers:
“They came through both doors,
He was not ordained a month.
I warned him.”

Even an oft-told story shines more brilliantly in her telling.

The executioners -- Sergeant Avalos,
(nicknamed “Satan”) and
Private Oscar Amaya -- step forward,
lift AK-47s into firing position.
One last voice is heard.
It is “Nacho” Martin-Baro.
He does not beg. Shouts
last judgment: This is barbaric!
Nothing more.
Close rang AK-47s split craniums
fragile as porcelain.

The woman, M16 on shoulder, kisses her child in the cradle.

Good-bye, hijo, I say,
Your grandmother will sing
to you until I return,
or don’t.

And the indomitable courage of the women.

Suddenly, up from the riverbed,
a wave of mothers appears, their
children with pear-shaped stomachs
full of worms. The refugees of Usulatan.
They arrange themselves under
leaves of ceiba and eucalyptus,
their only protection from low-flying bombers ...
One guitar wails a ranchera.
Their voices are full in that dense emerald house.
Oh my friends, the song
winging through the arcs
of that forsaken wood
was a song of thanksgiving to
“God, who has accompanied us, always.”

So what has Golden learned? “I have learned,” she tells us, “that insurgent hope, even in the midst of hideous repression, is a weapon that the powerful always underestimate.”

Gary MacEoin may be reached at gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000