The grass was trampled down on either side of the road. Or was it—July, we’d just moved to Ohio, how do I know what I remember? But there was grass, the deep green of late summer, as we drove back from the U-Haul place—you behind me with the truck and the pod of our possessions, what we’d packed in the Tucson heat before we came to our new home, with a downstairs and upstairs, with oversized windows and window panes. Out of the window of my new office, an oak tree. I got back to the house first and was waiting for you when it happened, the image of what I think I’d always known but not let myself remember, flashing up with no suggestion except for the fact that we’d moved here, closer, maybe, to where I’d grown up, with the trees, the grass, the river.
Did you come into the house and call my name? Later, we sat at the kitchen table while I tried to tell you, tried to say, it was my father.
Who told you you could say this?
At a residency in May I’d started with this line, then written in fragments, out of traumatic memories that had surfaced about my older sister, and some I’d remembered but not fully let myself know, things that felt unspeakable. And I was writing about the landscape where I was, in Cassis, on the coast of France, in an apartment facing the Mediterranean, so close to the cliffs, the wildflowers, the water, it felt as though they were writing the poems for me. I thought I’d gotten to the other side of something there. But then, before we moved, the other dreams started. I remembered when I got here, and I haven’t stopped remembering.
My public position now is that of a writer, to write. Never before has my title been so close to what I might dare to call myself, quietly. But that only makes it more clear how private, how acute and mysterious it is, the way poems happen, like this oak tree, like this desk of oak stained deep brown that you gave me, that I touch in the morning to remind myself I’m here.
So poems come and they say what I know. So they come unbidden when I thought I knew, when I’d just finished a book that I thought could face the light, poems that came out of when I worked for an immigrant rights organization in Arizona, and was with a group of people who found someone who had died in the desert. The medical examiner estimated he had died at least six months before, and he has never been identified.
Writing these poems, that question, Who told you you could say this? exerted itself in different ways. In my job at that time, I coordinated a project to document Border Patrol abuse; a report that we published in 2011 included over 30,000 incidences, including physical and verbal abuse and denial of food, water, and medical care. But in a way, to focus on these more obvious types of violence is to miss what is inherent in the border itself—established through conquest and colonialism, maintained through neoliberal policies and militarization—intended to uphold not some false idea of “security” but what that “security” is code for, which is white supremacy.
So when we found a person who had died trying to cross, who had died as a result of this violence, and when I began to write poems that were an elegy for him, I felt that in a way I had no right to do so. I am complicit in the violence that killed this person, and I will never know who he was. The most the poems could do was to try to imagine who he might have been, and what he might have endured, and to try to understand the fragility of that experience, of finding another person’s body, and taking on a responsibility I hadn’t earned. I mean by this the private and sacred responsibility of caring for another person’s body, since we helped to recover his body—they call it that, to recover the body—and never to know where his soul was and if it too was fragmented or if it could rest.
I didn’t intend to write political poems when I wrote about the man we found. The poems just kept insisting on this person’s presence, on how much I could never know, on what caring might mean and the limitations of it. The landscape in which he died—which, truly, killed him—is, of course, both public and political: the legacies of colonialism and NAFTA that force people to leave their homes and try to cross into the United States; the political and corporate forces that have lobbied for increased militarization of the US-Mexico border, so that people must cross through increasingly remote corridors of the Sonoran Desert. Which is stolen O’odham land. Which is varied and breathtaking and vast, and in many places so wide open, it seems that nothing is private, everything exposed to the sky and heat, and, in the winter, the cold. But whoever dug a grave for this man—he had been buried, with a handmade cross, and then uncovered by months of rain—did so in the quiet of a low wash, protected by rock and trees. The quiet there lasts; it seems unending.
I thought I was aware of the problems around speaking, or at least, that I tried to be aware. I thought I was aware of the problems that arise when it’s someone else’s suffering you’re writing about. But in recent months I’ve thought that I wasn’t prepared for what it would mean to write out of a more personal terror, a more private vulnerability. Some fragment that I wrote last spring, or that wrote itself:
When you found another body, you were invincible. When it’s your own, you’re in pieces on the ground.
Silencing: white writers have often delineated the “personal” as the realm of their own private experience, implicitly de-politicized and de-racialized, since that is part of the lie of whiteness, to pretend that we exist outside of race. Writing that comes out of other kinds of experience, meanwhile, is implicitly regarded as political—an epithet. At the same time, the “personal” can be its own epithet, often used to dismiss work by women or writing that examines forms of violence as they are felt within a more private sphere. The implication is that this writing is somehow inferior to the “true” lyric poem. But a true lyric poem, if it is true, can’t abide by these lies. It has to acknowledge what is real; meaning, it comes from the voice of the soul rooted in actuality, which is both immensely vulnerable and immensely powerful, because it can speak, and which refuses the distortions of the narratives of power, even those distortions we have internalized.
When I first read the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, in the collection of letters she, Rilke, and Pasternak wrote to one another in 1926, I thought she was, to use that awful word, hysterical. Rilke was angelic and dying, Pasternak kind—both slightly alarmed, it seemed, by Tsvetaeva’s passionate letters, their frequency, her love for both poets and insistence that they meet. It was the time of Stalin coming to power, Tsvetaeva isolated and in exile. What room could there be for the lyric poem, the lyric cry? Rilke would die, Pasternak take on the role of Minister of Culture for the Soviet regime. But reading the letters again, years later, and reading and trying to translate her poems, the cry in her writing, the unapologetic pitch, seems the truly human response. That she continued to write from that place in such circumstances seems nothing short of heroic.
To translate Tsvetaeva’s poems, from her circumstances, her time of collective political disaster, is to try to carry the suffering and voice of someone else into another language and time. At the same time, her poems ask us to consider how our time might be similar, and what forces of silencing exist for us now. These forces take their shape in broad and official ways—in the election of a man who ran a campaign based on terrorizing people, and all that this means about our culture—and within personal experience. For people writing about abuse and trauma, the forms that silencing takes can be shaped by an intersection of factors: particularity of experience, race, gender, mobility, access to other kinds of social power. Sometimes the silencing is internalized, coming out of fear learned over years, fear of consequences that may no longer be critically present, though it can take a long time for the self to know this.
They’ll think you’re disgusting.
They’ll think it’s your fault.
You won’t get published.
You won’t get a job.
They’ll think you’re crazy, that you’re making it up.
He’ll send flowers to your office so your coworkers see.
She’ll show up here and kill you.
Or this: the sense that you’re not a person, but a nonhuman life form; that, though part of the abuse was to rob you of all forms of privacy, there is now the pervasive feeling of being separate, of being only and necessarily private.
For Tsvetaeva, perhaps the public and private are not dual realities to be negotiated. Her life is a stark example of how we all must live in history, not apart from it. Still, that lyric cry, that voice of the soul, with all her biting sarcasm and unapologetic feeling, is as present in the cycle of love poems she wrote for Sophia Parnok as it is in her Poems to Czechoslovakia, written following the Munich Agreement of 1938 and Nazi invasion of 1939. In the third poem of this cycle’s first section—especially relevant, now, after the recent election—she addresses those “representatives” who annexed part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler:
There on the map—the place:
You look—blood in the face!
Godmother beaten in the flour
in every village.
Divided—by a pole axe,
a boundary pole.
There on the body of the world,
From the porch—to the stately
mountains—to the eagles’
nests—in thousands of square
Laid to rest—
the Czech: buried alive.
In the heart of the people,
this wound: who we let die!
Only from this land, called
brotherly—rain from these eyes!
Fat, celebrating swindler!
You nicely managed this.
Fat Judas—give yourself honors!
We—in whom the heart—exists:
There’s a place on the map
that’s blank: our honor.
November 19-22, 1938
When Tsvetaeva speaks with the “we”—that “We—in whom the heart—exists”—she is not displacing the personal, but speaking from within it, her own grief bound up in the outrage of a people.
Maybe there are different kinds of silence. The quiet of a person’s body, the presence of a soul. A wash in which birds are singing and wind moving in the leaves. The silence of a death that should never have happened, one of thousands, the brutality of colonialism, motion sensor cameras in the desert blinking at night. The silence of abuse and tyranny, which are silencing.
When I write, now, at this oak desk, the oak tree changing each day in the seasons—or whatever is outside the window, where we live next—poems that arrive and make me face truths I’d tried for a long time to keep at bay, it feels sometimes like this hidden life will never see light. Who wants to read about trauma, or shame, about the past when it won’t stay where it is? Who wants to read about sexual abuse, that kind of pain—or about love, the kind of love that lets you believe maybe you, too, have a right to be on earth—when there are such pressing, public concerns? Only maybe they are not such separate things. One poem given to me, a fragment maybe, when I was in Cassis and writing about fear:
I heard the birds calling out on the water.
They were saying, that is not the sea.
The sea is here, it is made of water. We live here,
in sight of your balcony. That flower like honeysuckle
growing by the door, white flowers
that release their scent just because they do;
those dreams in which she is Alice in Wonderland size,
so much bigger than she could be in life.
In life, the smell of the salt water—
Tell me it’s only personal, this injury to the soul,
when the soul is made of the sea.
 “A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-Term U.S. Border Patrol Custody,” No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, 2011.
 “While the victim of a single acute trauma may say that she is ‘not herself’ since the event, the victim of chronic trauma may lose the sense that she has a self. Survivors may describe themselves as reduced to a nonhuman life form” (Judith Herman, “Complex PTSD,” Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1992).