Poem of the Week | December 30, 2019
M. Soledad Caballero “1978”
This week’s Poem of the Week is “1978” by M. Soledad Caballero!
M. Soledad Caballero is Professor of English at Allegheny College. Her scholarly work focuses on British Romanticism, travel writing, post-colonial literatures, WGSS, and interdisciplinarity. She is a 2017 CantoMundo fellow, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has been a finalist for Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ prize, Mississippi Review’s annual Editors’ prize and a finalist for the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award sponsored by the Poetry Society of America among others. Her work has appeared in Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Memorius, the Crab Orchard Review, Anomaly, and other venues.
At first it looks like a brick wall, like a ruin from another time
when knights and dragons wandered the world in search of love.
The bricks are faded teeth that stick out of a mouth, jutting out
of the dirt landscape. Or a forehead with round arches for
the eyebrows and missing eyes. The image is shot from below.
The furnace rises out like a wall missing a face. It is 1978. There
are people standing above it. There are people on the ground below
it. There are bodies inside the mine, though no one can see them.
I am wearing a white t-shirt, maybe it is a blouse. My hair is brown,
thick like steel wool. The picture is blurry like something left too long
in the heat. Snow White is luminous, with perfect teeth and a red plum
smile. Her hair a black plastic helmet stuck on the top of her white
powered face. Somewhere I remember there is yellow on her polyester
dress. She does not wear a crown, but the sleeves of her dress sparkle,
silver ribbon wrapped around each puff, black and red velvet muffin sleeves.
I think now about how hot she must have been every day, bending
bending down to hug children, freezing a smile for a 110-film camera.
The hornos of Lonquén are five miles from the Isla de Maipo. The Church
heard whispers about dangling socks inside a mine. A limestone mine with
a hidden, deep, dry mouth. A clandestine cemetery is what the newspapers
called it. If you look directly at the photo, you see a young man with straight
dark hair, a Beatles cut as my aunt would say. He is sitting on rock formations.
He seems to tower over the rest. He sits like he is waiting for the socks inside
the mine to grow feet and come out. Everyone is still. If you look at the picture
for hours, it won’t change anything. You would not know really what you were
looking at. You would not know that everyone is there to see, to know,
to find the truth, some truth about the bodies inside the mine.
As a girl, I do not think I ever thought about the wicked queen or the old
witch or the apple. I did not think about the poison or that this girl was fleeing
from a mother and her envy for red lips and skin and teeth and hair. It is strange
to think about the story now, that the girl had to run from another woman,
a mother desperate enough to wish for a daughter’s death. The girl ran into
a forest and into a strange house and fell asleep on a bed she knew nothing
about. She woke up to seven men looking down at her. Underground men
it turns out, who worked in the mines all day purging the black dirt and rocks
for diamonds and other fairy things. How did the story of this girl not strike
fear in my five-year-old self. It does now, to think of the girl and her loneliness.
But then, I coveted her red lips, red like a heart filled with blood, red like
a secret in the middle of the night. 1978, a princess and my baby fat face.
In the picture of the mine, everything is so quiet, so still. In that quiet
fifteen men were taken from the village five miles away. Vans pulled up
to small wooden houses. Mothers answered doors. Sisters answered doors.
Wives and daughters answered doors, and the men were grabbed. There was
no forest for the kidnapped men to flee into, just vans and hoods. No old
woman came offering an apple. Suddenly, no one knew the story they were in.
In the picture, there is only the moment of waiting. Waiting for someone,
some underground men to pull out bones or teeth, or someone’s grey jacket
or skull. When Luis Navarro took this picture, the people standing were
looking for the bodies, wondered about the bodies, wanted to find the bodies.
No queen hid her fantasies about killing her daughter or made herself
into a leathered crone. In 1978, there was only a general and his machine
for burying bodies. If you do not know the picture, if you look at its grainy
black and white pixels, you might imagine it is still possible to find more
than bones in the mine. You might imagine that the whispers were rumors,
that orders could not exist for such mines, for such bodies. You could try.
Many did. But there are no magical kisses. Death always ends up being real.
There is a grainy picture of me with Snow White when I was five years old, and I still love this photograph. When I was a girl, I loved Snow White and how beautiful I thought she was, especially her lips and her hair, both stark colors of black and red. In the last few years, I’ve been researching the Pinochet years in Chile, and I came across this now iconic image of the Pinochet years. It’s a black and white picture that is one of the first images that captures in some way the rumors about bodies and torture that were going on in Chile during this time. When I encountered this photograph it seemed, strangely, calm and quiet to me, like everyone the picture is just waiting for something to happen. In some ways, it seems that these Pinochet years were a time of waiting to see what would emerge, what would be hidden and what would be revealed and believed. I started thinking about the picture I had of Snow White and the fact that the dwarves in the story are also miners. The idea of juxtaposing these two images from 1978 emerged, and I wanted to contrast the photograph of my person biography and the Luis Navarro photograph which functions like a kind of “biography” of Chile for this period. I liked the idea of overlaying the fairytale to the both images because in the research I’ve done about Chile during this time, there was this kind of silence and disbelief from large sectors of the population, like things were suspended and also secretive. Some people really couldn’t imagine that the rumors about torture and kidnapping and killing could be real. We think of fairytales as kids’ stuff but really they are a way to reveal hidden things, deadly things sometimes, so in the poem I tried to think about what connected this orphan girl to the orphan bodies in the mine.
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