Reflections — War, Poetry : War Poetry


Review of: Mirrors of War, Literature and Revolution in El Salvador, edited by: Gabriel Yanes, Manuel Sorto, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Lyn Sorto, trans. and intro. by Keith Ellis.  Monthly Review Press, 155 W. 23rd. St., NY 10011. $7.95. 1985.


Mirrors of War is an anthology of recent writings —poems, excerpts from novels, testimonies— from El Salvador. The book is organized, like the writers’ lives, around the inescapable fact of the experience of war.  And the inescapable fact of our experience as readers is that this war is our war.  And for this reason alone we should value this book.  Mirrors of War provides a mirror for us as citizens who allow this war to continue, it provides a mirror for us to know ourselves as citizens and as readers of literature.  To refuse to look at these mirrored selves is not just to refuse the challenge war literature makes on us.  That the U.S. has attempted political and economic control over Latin American countries is beyond dispute.  It would be naive not to see cultural imperialism as part of this continual attempt to subordinate the Latin colonies.  Mirrors of War, then, becomes the occasion for us North Americans to reflect on literature itself, since our literature must of necessity be a part of the society sending its message south of our border, the message that translates from English into Spanish through the media of bombs, white phosphorous, and napalm.


The real challenge of this book is to our esthetic categories —the last refuge of the “officer and a gentleman,” the man who can listen to another man being tortured and hear song.  Naturally, the Salvadoran writers are aware of the problematic nature of writing, so many of the poems are about the nature of poetry itself:

     The impeccable / savage / renewing / metaphor / of the

     Salvadoran poem / is protected in the boy / who prepares

     for war

                 (Manuel Sorto)


     And to the system and the man

     we attack through our poetry

     with our lives we give the chance to come around,

     day after day.

                 (Roque Dalton)


Aware of the connection of our culture with our bombs and bullets, in the same poem Dalton says “we are openly against the enemy / and we ride very close to him, on the same track.”  Literature must of necessity be a weapon against literature.  Denial of who is the enemy, especially the enemy within ourselves, places us, as readers in civilian clothes covering our uniforms along side the death squads.


     ...tying them by the ankles, they bound them with strong

           ropes to a tree trunk;

     their hands were tied to the bumper of the truck,

     then they moved the truck off suddenly

     and we heard the screams.

     The six pairs of hands, bloodied, hung from the bumper

           of the truck.

     The policemen were enjoying themselves.

                 (Alfonso Hernadez)


Mirrors of War challenges all esthetic pre-conceptions of what are the limits of poetry, what distinguishes prose from poetry, and both form testimony, and continually questions the activity of writing itself.  If these claims sound like academic exercises it is only because the academics have used the arch-conservative Wallace Stevens as their model rather than taking up the challenge of Whitman’s assertion that to touch a real book is to touch the man.  Mirrors of War asks us to touch ourselves through getting in touch with the experience of war, a war we are responsible for, a responsibility we hide from at the cost of hiding from ourselves.  These writers simply give us the mirror to see by:

     I want to keep on fighting.

     Because on the mountain range

     of Guazapa

     from their hideouts

     my brothers lie in wait for

     three battalions

     trained in Carolina

     and Georgia ...

                 (Claribel Alegria)


We can stand before the mirror and look or we can hide from ourselves by imposing before us an esthetic judgment questioning the quality of writing that condemns us.  Our response becomes a question of translation.  We accept these voices from south of the border or we condemn ourselves to continually misunderstand ourselves.  We accept their writing or we join the guards in a different kind of writing in the Kafkaesque penal colony of our own creation we know now as El Salvador: 

     The Green Berets didn’t speak Spanish, but a Salvadoran

     officer translated for us.  They began to torture the boy

     by sticking knives into his nails.  Then they pulled out

     his nails and broke one of his elbows.  Right after that,

     a Green Beret plucked out his eyes and made all sort of

     incisions in the skin of his chest, his arms and his legs.

                 (Carlos Antonio Gamez)