Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “La Perla," by Doreen Stock

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
I heard today’s poem read by its author at my local literary haunt, Rebound Bookstore, a few months ago. El Salvador was (and remains) much on my mind then, our president having recently announced his intention to end temporary protected status for almost 200,000 Salvadorans, bringing to near a million the number of immigrants losing sanctuary under the current administration. People from El Salvador are now slated for deportation to a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates—some say a homicide an hour—due at least partly to a brutal civil war in the Eighties when thousands of civilians were killed by military death squads, sanctioned by the government and backed by our country. The civilian massacre at El Mozote and its subsequent cover-up was eventually revealed to the world.
These atrocities and what is happening to Salvadoran refugees in this country today are two threads that weave the rich, tragic tapestry of today’s poem. Another is the story from the Book of Esther that gives rise to the Holiday of Purim, commemorating the salvation of the Jewish people from annihilation in the ancient Persian empire ruled by King Ahasuerus. In the story, Esther is chosen as queen by the king, who does not know of her Jewish heritage. The king’s Viceroy, Haman, offended by Mordecai’s failure to bow to him, decides to conduct a purge of all Jews in the realm. Mordecai asks Esther to intercede with the king. At great personal risk—a law forbade such intercessions on penalty of death—Esther agrees to fast and pray for three days and then approach the king. At the banquet breaking her fast, Esther reveals Haman’s plan and that she is Jewish. Ahasuerus orders Haman hanged on the gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai, who then dedicates the day as a holiday. [Wikipedia]
“La Perla” is a free verse poem organized into 18 variable length stanzas ranging from one line in stanzas 7, 12, and 14 to seven lines in the eighth stanza. In general, the lines are quite long, recalling biblical verse and other prophetic-utterance poets such as Whitman. In two instances, the lines are dramatically truncated: in stanza 10, where the speaker enacts a ritual to prepare her for her mission to the king, and in the final two stanzas, where Esther finally speaks directly to him.
I’m tempted to call this a narrative poem, but it does not tell a story so much as it enacts and evokes past events and imbues them with contemporary significance. The mode is primarily dramatic, with words spoken in the form of a dramatic monologue. But it is a monologue that uses images rather than “facts” to impart resonances beyond the surface meanings of its words. “Our cry is the cry of the dove in all the earth’s tongues” follows directly after lines telling us about women and children being marched off a cliff, giving the speaker a non-literal way to express horror and grief. That image, and many others, is quite beautiful, reminding me of songwriter Phil Och’s observation that in the worst of times, beauty can be a form of protest. I was seduced by the gorgeousness of these lines:
 
My hair is spun in the winds of your sighs, your songs circle my head as filigree of silver and
……………………….gold.
Your eyes are the centers of my crown of flowers.
The blue veil is flung back from my face. Now it is our face I carry to appear before the sword of
……………………….might.
and it occurs to me that Stock here is doing what Esther is doing with her king: using beauty to
win me over to her cause, to help open me to the message of her poem.
 
Incidentally, none of the accounts I read about El Mozote mention the cliff incident, reminding me again that poetry is not journalism and is not limited by “facts.” It’s part of the poetic license that allows Stock to weave many different historical and mythological strands into a poem that seeks to speak broadly about issues like individual responsibility in the face of massive brutality and human suffering. That particular form of murder may not have happened at El Mozote—guns, machetes, and fire were the machines of destruction there—but things like this have happened, and continue to happen in the history of the world.
Stock’s Poet’s Note tells us her poems are “time capsules involving dream time, real time, and political time.” “La Perla” indeed does have the quality of a dream, or a nightmare, encompassing ancient and modern times and at least two widely disparate cultures. The result is an utterance that feels prophetic, universal, and larger than the massacre averted by Esther and the one that happened in El Salvador. What craft choices by the author imparts these qualities to the poem?
The most important is the choice of point of view. “La Perla” is written in the first person, often represented as a singular “I” but also as a plural “we.” Let’s focus, for a moment, on the latter, sometimes termed the “communal we.” The voice, reminiscent of the Greek Chorus in ancient plays, belongs to the Jewish people in this poem. In fact, due to the overlay of the Salvadoran massacre in the poem, it belongs to all oppressed and persecuted people of history. When earned, the “communal we” bestows authority and gravity and speaks with immense power. When not done well, the perspective can wind up alienating readers. One risk is of giving offense, either for presuming to be able to speak for all members of a group or for not representing them accurately. Another is of sounding too grandiloquent or distant. One source I consulted, an essay by Sadye Teiser called “The First-Person Plural,” poses the dilemma as how to “speak from the perspective of the group without speaking for the group?”

It’s worth noting that what can be the first-person plural’s greatest pitfall is also its unique strength. Yes, the collective voice is inherently eerie, because people don’t naturally talk as one. If the first-person plural tries to be too sweeping, if it does not acknowledge its own subtleties, it can miss the mark. But it also has the singular ability to harness a power that is not limited by the bounds of one character’s individual perspective. That is why the first-person plural is often used to describe events, be they real or unreal, that feel bigger than us. [The Masters Review]

One way to avoid the problem of presuming to speak for a group is to take the time, as today’s author does, to first situate the speaker squarely within the group’s purview. Another, also employed in today’s poem, is to alternate between first-person singular and plural points of view. That flexibility is crucial because it acknowledges that the speaker does not always speak for all members of the group and that the group itself can change. Here is author Anne Valente explaining this approach in a novel about a school shooting:

I alternated between the first-person plural and the close-third point of view of these four main characters because this allowed me to contend with how a community mourns — what is everyone’s to mourn — and what is singularized and personal in a mass experience, the individual’s unique response to violence and mourning. [Id.]

Today’s poem opens in first-person singular, the speaker using metaphor to equate herself with a glass vessel, something connoting transparency and fragility and the capacity for holding something else. “For I am now charged with the gift of beauty,” she says next, establishing the burden of and authority for her task, both in the story (Esther importuning the King to save the Jews) and in this poem (the poet bearing witness to massacres like the one in El Salvador). Starting that sentence and the poem with the word “for” may seem a small thing, but it’s a convention that immediately evokes the feeling of a large, prophetic utterance. It’s similar to that line Robert Oppenheimer is known for quoting from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Starting with a provisional word like “for” (or “now”) conveys a mysterious sense of authority, one that I am at a loss to fully explain. One thing, though, is that it gives the entire poem a sense of being a rejoinder to the question of “Who are you, now, to speak of these things?”
The first instance of the “communal we” does not take place until line 7, well after the speaker has taken the time to locate herself within the community she represents: “I am of a people sold and doomed,” she tells us early in the poem, and we are reminded that Esther was herself threatened by Haman’s murderous intent. More than a bystander witness, she had skin in the game, something underscored later in “I am on my knees in the silent room plummeting among you.” These lines situate the speaker among the persecuted Jews and also among history’s murdered women and children, giving her authority to speak for them and lending gravity and authenticity to what she says. We trust in her right, and ability, to speak for a whole community of people. And for those of us who are not members of that community, that singular “I” gives us another way in, as witnesses.
I puzzled for a while over why the poem ends where it does, with Esther’s actual words to the king:
 

Oh King
I am every springtime thing

before you.

I offer only this face, this food,
this drink, to change you.”

 
And then it occurred to me that, of course, it is not just the biblical Esther or even a more universal Esther speaking here, but also the poet herself. She, too, must establish her authority to bear witness to atrocities; she too must prostrate herself before readers, hoping they will listen to what she has to say. All she can offer are her words, their truth and beauty, and the hope they will “change” readers’ hearts and minds—do anything that might help prevent genocidal catastrophe again.]]>

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