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Margaret Randall's 'Stones Witness' takes an unflinching look at art, memory, politics

Margaret Randall is among that rare breed of strong-willed, fiercely political and adventurous women you can only find in the American Southwest.

Never content to do what is expected of her gender, she left New York City as a teenager in 1936 to live in Spain. From there, she migrated to Latin America, living in Cuba, Nicaragua and Mexico City, where she founded the bilingual poetry journal The Plumed Horn and was involved the 1968 Mexican student movement. For these and other literary crimes, the U.S. government deported her in 1984, despite her American citizenship. It was only in 1989 that she won her immigration case, thanks to the international support of artists and writers, and she settled in Albuquerque, N.M.

As her immense travels suggest, Randall has done everything. Poet, essayist, photographer, teacher and activist, she's the author of more than 100 books. In 2004, she earned PEN New Mexico's Dorothy Doyle Lifetime Achievement Award, and the honors she continues to receive are numerous. Still, prizes are abstract ways of bestowing significance upon Randall's work itself, which is impressive even without knowing what an incredibly independent person she is. Reading her new multi-genre book, Stones Witness, you sense in every page--indeed, in every sentence and photograph--that Randall knows of what she speaks, that her experiences, like poet Walt Whitman's speaker in "Song of Myself," are "vast" and "contain multitudes."

A gathering of poetry, prose and photographs, Stones Witness stretches from Kiet Seel, 13th-century Puebloan ruins in Arizona, to the Lebanese town of Baalbek, where Israeli bombs slaughter families rather than Hezbollah. Randall's mind is omnivorous; she absorbs every visual and emotional detail, channeling the people and places into beautiful writing that is on the one hand unsparingly political, and yet fervently literary on the other. Randall has constructed a monument, not to herself or to (what may be fuzzy) memories, but to what she has seen.

The book's opening prose piece, "Memory of Samothrace," is an admission that human memory is imperfect. Here, she shares a memory of holding her grandfather's hand through the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a little girl and encountering the spectacle of Nike, the Victory of Samothrace, a headless and armless marble sculpture from the Hellenistic era. Seventy years later, Randall stumbles upon an obituary for the archeologist who discovered the statue. It turns out she'd never seen it in New York. She had seen it years later in Paris. The point of this isn't to say that everything Randall bears witness to in Stones Witness is factually incorrect. Rather, it's to note that Randall "believe(s) that time is linear. I prefer a circular or spiral configuration."

While memory may be fluid, Randall's love of primitive history and culture is steadfast. Her 14-part poem, "Kiet Seel," celebrates not only the Puebloan ruins themselves, but also the way in which archeologists excavated the site, with Randall employing a transcendent eyeball (to borrow a term from Ralph Waldo Emerson) to document the long-ago excavation:

Kiva and fire pit, surfaces and angles,

moments of this place

and their work upon it.

Their footsteps, the tough of their hands

lifting the ancient imprint, seeking guidance

from earlier hands.

Hands are a recurring symbol in Stones Witness; there's a constant reaching for the past, an effort to embrace things not easily embraced. But what else can we do? What are we put on this Earth for other than to try to hold on to each other, even when we are separated by history? Randall grows even more Emersonian in recalling her travels: "I have stood in the cave at Xochicalco and placed my hand in the ray of pure light descending from the opening high above: midday in June. The bones of my hand came clear as an X-ray negative; my blood surrounding them a rich coral-red."

Yet it's the political and philosophical side of Randall that's most striking, as in the prose piece "Corner Ghosts," in which she teaches English to a Vietnamese short-wave radio broadcaster in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. This is no hagiographic depiction of life under Communist rule; instead, it's a little story that supports the bigger idea that we're all just human beings struggling to communicate with one another, to understand the other's daily hardships despite what our respective governments may tell us. After she brings French fish sauce as a gift to bestow upon the North Vietnamese Women's Union, it dawns on her that there has been a miscommunication. Her student, it turns out, wanted the fish sauce for himself.

Such are the twists and turns of Stones Witness, a brave book that tries to make connections in places that have always been difficult to bridge: language, memory, people. Randall's writing is every bit as fearless as the life she has lived.

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