Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Gravedigger's Archaeology - William Archila (Red Hen Press)

Today's book of poetry:
The Gravedigger's Archaeology.  William Archila.  Red Hen Press.  Pasadena, California.  2015.

Winner of the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize

The war in Salvador is the haunting underpinning for The Gravedigger's Archaeology and William Archila carries many ghosts.  These poems come at the reader full on with all that terror and then, Archila's gift to us, all that beauty.

The Night John Lennon Died

I come down the thrashed mountain
repeating, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,"
my mother's hand over mine, the moon on guard,
wind slapping my face, smell of rain and trees
as we enter the states, fog rolling out
at daybreak, suburbs glazed in light--
a load of refugees coming out of the ravine
across streets, hiding behind parked cars
dripped with mist, bodies low and close,
creeping on the ground like soldiers over puddles.

My mother in her best clothes -- Lee corduroy
Jacket, Levi's Jeans -- carries a newspaper
closer to her chest, the picture of a man
from Liverpool shot in front of his house.
I am eleven, running toward a father
who had become a kitchen helper, pots and pans
burned black, the slow drag of chain smoke
as he waited for the bus, the cold breath
of the American pavement on his back.

I never expected the next morning, grey and damp,
watching my father coming out of the wooden house.
I want to take the boy, who lost his dad in a gun blast,
say, here is mine, a man who left a country rift in half.
Here he is, defeated, this Salvadoran I will outgrow,
this one with the wet apron and yellow gloves.
I say nothing, not a single word, not even a sound
as he touches my head, my arms around his waist.


Most of us Canadians, quietly tucked under safe sheets have never been exposed to war beyond what filters in on the nightly news.  War appears to us in movies or a twenty-six minute sit-com.  The Gravedigger's Archaeology is one of those books of poems that makes Today's book of poetry wonder what every other book of poetry is about.

What I Learned From A War Too Small To Notice

To lie awake all night under the bed, stare
          at the springs, study of coils and hooks,
ironwork's constellation disarmed
          into a shattered landscape, light bulbs
doused with the grumbling sound of artillery.

          To cut off my breath, for at least a minute,
choke the dump thump of the heart's vein,
          then release, count the beat's thud, a muffled
blow like driving a nail into soft wood,
          one hit, one blue nail splitting the heart.

Night sounds magnified. Every foot's scratch,
         every backdoor squeak or cracked tile
on the rooftop was a loose private, down
         from the shanties they came, dressed
as civilians, triggers burning like live coals.

          My childhood of 1980
learned to take cover during shootouts,
          mold itself into the cut-corner
of the curb, lie half-drowned in the street's gutter,
          resembling a half-rotting animal.

My childhood of 1980
          saw my mother hanging wash
on a cold morning, her house dress wet
          from the load of clothes, my eyes on the church's
belfry, a needle in the sun's match flare,

         my eyes on pews overturned, saints fractured
on the floor, on their boots, black as a furnace,
         beside the altar the blunt weight
of the gun, the blade embracing the back,
         their faces covered with brown paper bags.

I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know
          I could never leave this war. Even now,
I am the buckets of water splashing
          on cobblestones, the dapples of mud,
that clothesline trembling in the wind.


There are many reasons for sorrow buried in the pages of Archila's utterly compelling The Gravedigger's Archaeology but that is not the destination.  There is hope in the desecration, small moments of joy ratchet out of the darkness as unexpected as shooting stars.

Don Santiago

Death always came to neighbors
just before dawn broke open, the sky
a steel grayness against the street.

The candle's dripping vein
began to glow for the great dead,

always more with the coming days,
always more powerful than birds;

while the moon white
as chalk sloshed through puddles,
a man clicking his rosary beads

fell in folds about the rooms,
a discharge of lead among the blankets.

The family does not live anymore.
They exist. They seemed lonely

as the barks of a black dog in an alley,
its stress strong and monotonous
as the steady drone of traffic.

What if I say this isn't an elegy,
but a recollection of Don Santiago,

a grave-maker and his sod-cutter,
and if I continue, the funeral band

will strike a note? There'll be an encore,
a priest and sermon for the spring.
Forget the pine box. Forget the altar

and the screaming like hogs
stuck in the bellies. I'll curse

the dawn turning pale over the highway,
eating up the ramp like white slate.

It's true, who needs another elegy?
Even the gravedigger and his spade are dead.


"The dark scavengers pick on a toe."
                         - from "The Night Watchman"

You can almost taste/smell the foul buzzard stench of rotting flesh.  You can certainly feel the sear/scar these horrors have tattooed on this generation of Salvadorans.

The poetry William Archila has siphoned off the drowning pool of what his country and people had endured is remarkable for its clear-headed candor.  This is an achievement that most of us, in our quiet and privileged progress, cannot begin to imagine.

This might be an example of real bravery.

William Archila

William Archila is the author of The Art of Exile (Bilingual Review Press, 2009), which won an International Latino Book Award in 2010 and was honored with an Emerging Writer Fellowship Award by The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. He has been published in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Notre Dame Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Georgia Review, among others. His book was featured in “First Things First: The Fifth Annual Debut Poets Roundup” in Poets & Writers. His second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press), recently won the 2015 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize.

“Tough music is the first phrase I reached for in describing William Archila’s poems, early Coltrane or perhaps Sonny Rollins or Mingus as analogues. For his dominant (though certainly not exclusive) themes are the almost unspeakably violent world of his Salvadoran childhood and the struggles of immigrant life in the United States, and yet spiraling up repeatedly in stunning riffs of word-song is the rare thing called duende, marvelous in itself but also in its evocations of beauty to be found in the life fully lived, the struggle never abandoned. The Gravedigger’s Archaeology is an aesthetic and moral triumph, and I felt honored to have read it.”
     ―B.H. Fairchild, National Book Critics Circle Award winner

“In his brilliant second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology, poet William Archila excavates the cratered memory of war and its aftermath, his pen chiseling a language of ‘black roosters & fossil bones’ in a lost country, ‘a country rift in half.’ But Archila’s pen is also a spade, as poet Seamus Heaney suggested, and this spade unearths ‘the ribcage / still clinging to its shirt and bodies / dumped in a black lava bed’. This is clandestine territory for the lyric, but it is territory Archila traverses with consummate skill. I have been waiting many years for a book that would guide us through that time and place, exhuming the remains with grace and dignity. Archila has written it.”
     —Carolyn Forché

William Archila
Poetry.LA Interview Series
video:  Wayne Lindberg


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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