of poems is a sequence about the 36 years of war in Guatemala (The Land of
Trees). Each poem gives
a different perspective on this war. 'Voices' describe the experiences of
mothers, missionaries, children, journalists, soldiers from opposing sides,
priests and generals - creating a complex view of a civil war that I wasn't
even aware had happened.
This is part of the reason why Maltese poet Abigail Zammit wrote these poems.
She writes about a war that she describes several times in these poems as
Her prologue contains quotes from journals, organizations and people about
the civil war in Guatemala. It somehow sets out the agenda for the poems and
the historical/political context behind the complex events she explores:
'Do you think we've left proof? In Argentina, there are
witnesses, there are books, there are films, there is proof. Here
in Guatemala, there is none of that. There are no survivors.'
D'Jalma Dominguez, Head of Office for Army
The prologue itself is a sobering and shocking read. It adds a horrific
reality to the war we are about to explore in Zammit's poems.
Each sequence is split into three sections: Fractured Smiles; Breaking the
Silence; and Stones of Hope. Each poem offers us an insight into the
individual experiences that make up a complex war:
He was my father,
my brother, my son,
my husband -
his throat slit,
his tongue cut out,
five bodies to a ditch.
She was my girlfriend,
my daughter, my sister -
tied to a tree, raped and beaten,
strangled with cords.
Six to a ditch.'
I carry biscuits, bread, biros.
I carry boxes and a fractured smile.
The poems are brutal, often in a simple, honest way. The poet is never afraid
to reveal truth and confront it. She is representing voices that have been
'silenced', yet these voices are never sentimental or immersed in pity. They
are 'matter of fact' about the horrors they have experienced and witnessed.
The ground shifts as each different perspective is given to us. As we encounter
different views, we appreciate the complexities of civil war; perhaps
understand why this war might have lasted so long.
There are many images about silence, being broken, not being able to smile:
'I am ugly. /My eyes are broken. / No tengos ojos. /No quiero ver.' ('The Mother Speaks'). The writing is
rich with visceral detail: 'She moves barefoot/ her toes/ licking earth.'
('Portrait of a Child'). They are written in an accessible way, but nothing
In 'A Young Missionary', we meet the 'poet' or at least a persona that the
poet adopts within the sequence. She describes herself as 'a foreigner in the
land of trees - a green stranger'. Abigail Zammit did in fact spend time in
Guatemala in 2003, involved in missionary work to help build a hospital for
It is interesting - the
idea of a European poet writing about a war elsewhere, a war she never
experienced first-hand. It raises questions about how poets represent human
suffering without exploiting the people they are writing about. Zammit is
aware of this risk and writes with empathy, compassion and insight. She
observes people and relationships acutely; people experiencing poverty,
relationships between mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers put
under strain by war.
There is often an angry timbre to the poet's voice. She describes breaches of
human rights; this is a brutal war, where genocide, torture and rape are
commonplace. But, also the tone in some poems is understated and reaches deep
into our consciousness. The poem 'Bus Ride', I found to be one of the more
affecting poems in the sequence:
we stop talking:
the driver throws glances
at the mirror,
his sweaty fingers
clenching the gear box.
walk the length of the aisle,
swinging their rifles,
Silence. We walk back
to the bus, shaking.
We are leaves
We share the experience with the people on the bus - the tension, the slow
grinding halt of their lives as war takes over their country.
The last poem in the sequence 'Epilogue' perhaps gives us the most direct
insight into the poet's experience of Guatemala: 'I recall / the purple tinge
of lavender, the perfume of that foreign land/ las voces, purple, from the land of trees.' There
is poignancy in this poem, a certain distance and powerlessness. It also
tells us how much the poet admires these people; has been affected by the
beauty of a country that was ravaged by war.
Voices from the Land of Trees raises many questions about human suffering, not
just in this war, but in all wars. It is a powerful testimony for the people
who were directly involved in the war in Guatamala, written with sensitivity
and an awareness of what has been lost.
© Annie Clarkson 2007