Making The Political Personal

Poet Juan Felipe Herrera Finds The Human Truth Behind Tragedy In Chiapas.

IN HIS BOOK-length sequence of poems titled Thunderweavers, or Tejedoras de Rayos, Juan Felipe Herrera pays tribute to the Mayan villagers who died in Chiapas, Mexico, during an assault by paramilitary forces in December 1997. But rather than focus on the politics of this terrible event, Herrera, a widely published poet who lives in Fresno, Calif., inserts us into the minds and voices of four women from one family, separated during the attack on the tiny pueblo of Acteal.

The dual-language book follows the women in their struggle to reunite with each other, as each travels the roads alone with her own thoughts--thoughts that nevertheless interweave with and call out to the others in four meandering, often surreal narratives. Images of both the distant and more recent past swim up and over them; smells of cooking alternate with the stench of wounds; imagined and all-too-real sights and sounds intrude on each speaker's mind in a roar.

What facts Herrera gives us emerge slowly. Both grandmother Maruch and mother Pascuala seem to have lost their sight, although perhaps only temporarily. Maruch cannot walk and was brought on a stretcher to a clinic in the nearby city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, where both Pascuala and daughter Makal, who is nine months pregnant, eventually find her. Only 12-year-old Xunka does not appear.

Xunka, "The Lost Daughter," opens the book with three questions: "Chenalhó--who? / By which roads? / Among whose blood?" The very illogic of her first question (Chenalhó is a place, not a person) conveys her disorientation. Later, in sudden fear, Xunka calls out to her mother, listing place after place where she might be:

Are you on the road to Angel Albino Corzo?

Are you coming from Polho, your arms folded?

Did you fall in Xoyep, with brother Marianito?

Did they find you in La Concordia, among honey and ashes?

Throughout Xunka's monologue runs uncertainty, even about her very being. Shifting sunlight and shade confuse her: "one cloud here, another there / or perhaps it is my hand, my steps across the villages, / some violet smoke that crosses itself as it falls?" At one point she asks, "Do I still exist in this nothingness?"

Pascuala's voice follows Xunka's. Helpless to help her daughter, Pascuala--"Mother among Thunder"--can only send comfort and advice via her thoughts: "Do not fall / do not lose yourself in the pestilence and smoke ... / Walk on, Xunka, walk ... "

Toward the end of her account, Pascuala calls out to her daughter for perhaps the last time. As she tries to fashion hope out of hopelessness, her tone signals resignation mixed with faith: "Xunka, you plant, dream, you weave / you kneel down, alone now--in an instant / there is no voice, no flame to give you light. / ... There are voices that seek you and arms that protect you."

For both Maruch, "Grandmother of the Roads," and Xunka, the world has gone mad: "everything rumbles and folds, the butter of blood / with the chicha [corn whiskey], Sor Juana's cassock / against the bullets ..." Lying in the clinic, a prisoner of her useless legs, Maruch calls out to the other three: "Xunka, where? / Pascuala, in what cave? / Malakita, are you running ahead on the road?"

Makal's account comes last. "Daughter of the Drums," she carries the future inside her in the form of her unborn child, but it, too, is uncertain: "will you be a beast, / will you be a thorn flower?" she asks. She asks everywhere for news of Xunka, but no one has seen her. Finally, her little sister answers in a long, enigmatic and dreamlike passage that ends the poem: "I crossed the borderlands, Makal, / I crossed thinking of you and mother Pascuala, / ... I crossed / ... with your newly born girl in my arms--a star rebel corn over a mountain of sun."

All poetry can be called "political" if by political we mean, broadly, "affecting our quality of life, both personal and public." Every poem examines, on some level, what it means to be alive, to suffer and to know joy.

But poems and poem sequences such as Juan Felipe Herrera's Thunderweavers that are tied to specific historical events or themes such as war, poverty, crime, and civil or social unrest, must travel beyond their historical contexts to be successful. They must transform the political into the personal. Only then can they enter the reader's own mind and experience, not by means of graphic, violent description, not by counting the dead, but rather by examining what we love, what we fear and what we all share.

With its intimate focus on the lives of these four women, Thunderweavers works such a magic. As the human face of struggle displaces the ideological, it brings a powerful story of survival--with all the complexity and uncertainty of real life--to many more readers than might otherwise have noted the fallout from five tragic hours in the highland village of Acteal, Chiapas.

Thunderweavers, by Juan Felipe Herrera. University of Arizona Press, $17.95.