Political and Toxic Discourse in María Mercedes Carranza’s
The poetry collection El canto de las moscas (Versión de los acontecimientos) [The song of the flies (A version of the events) (1)] by Colombian Maria Mercedes Carranza appeared in November 1997 in a volume of the prestigious Colombian poetry magazine Golpe de dados, entirely dedicated to the author. Unlike all her previous production, predominantly urban and feminist in its content and purpose, these eighteen poems concentrate on the rural landscape of Colombia, and are explicitly linked to Colombia’s current political and social crisis through their titles, being the names of provincial towns where massacres have occurred.(2)
My goal here is to analyze the political discourse as presented in El canto de las moscas. Of particular interest are the images of destroyed or mutilated nature that are at the center of most of these poems, which point to a toxic discourse. It is necessary to study the function of such images and the relation between the political and toxic discourses, and to explore the implications of the focus on nature within Carranza's lyric production.
Canto 2 / Song 2
|Quieto el viento,||Still wind,|
|Mapiripán es ya||Mapiripán is already|
|una fecha.||a date.|
The political discourse in "Mapiripán," as in all these poems, is formulated in a subtle way, through an economy of words, and an emotional restrain, which remind the reader of Japanese Haiku (3). Linguistic and emotional economy create silences within the poems. But these silences 'speak' a certain truth. "It is in the significant silences of a text, in its gaps and absences that the presence of ideology can be most positively felt" (Moi 94). The silences within "Mapiripán" conceal sordid details of this horrifying massacre, (4) and reveal a political repression, which prevents the speaker from making any comment about its perpetrators. Nevertheless, emotional unrest slips through the image of stillness and in the matter-of-fact-announcement of the death of the town, "Mapiripán is already / a date." This emotional pain is a reaction to the implied truth that Mapiripán has no future.
Explicit political discourse is not the norm within these poems, but a couple of them are exceptions. "Caldono," for example, poses a direct question:
Canto 10 / Song 10
|llega a Caldono enciende||arrives in Caldono sets|
|el fuego fatuo||the fatuous fire|
|y convoca||and summons|
|a los gusanos?||the worms?|
The poetic voice questions who the perpetrators of the ruthless violence are. The image of the "fatuous fire" points to the destructive war. But the question posed in "Caldono" has a clearer answer in "Cumbal:"
Canto 17 / Song 17
|En bluyines||In blue jeans|
|y con la cara pintada||and with a painted face|
|llegó la muerte||death arrived|
|a Cumbal.||in Cumbal.|
|Guerra Florida||Flower War|
|a filo de machete.||Fought with machete blades.|
This poem includes a reference to the perpetrators of the violence and a critique of the war. Therefore, it constitutes a rare example, within the collection, of a more explicit type of political commentary. Blue Jeans and painted faces refer to the physical appearance of the mostly young groups of armed actors in the war in Colombia, whose distinctions are sometimes hard to draw. (5) The reference to the Flower War is very revealing of the poem’s critical intention. "Flower" or "Flowery" Wars were the ritual wars the Aztecs engaged in during times of peace with their neighbors in order to provide their warriors with practice for real battle, and to keep a steady supply of prisoners to be sacrificed on the altars. (6) Their name as "Flower" wars has various explanations. In one account, it means "flowery death, blissful death, fortunate death" (Hassig 10), as opposed to death in ordinary wars. In another one, it refers to the fact that "finely attired warriors would fall like a rain of blossoms" (Townsend 200). In any event, it seems that the name implied an honorable type of death. Interestingly, "killing one’s opponents was not a primary goal," but rather, it was the "demonstration of martial prowess designed to determine dominance" (Hassig 129). Most importantly, though, it is that in certain periods, these wars had a specific political purpose, which was to keep at bay enemies too powerful to be conquered outright, when neither side was willing to risk the consequences of an all-out war (Smith 184-5; Hassig 130).
The reference to these ritual wars in Carranza’s poem is important because of the association of rite with repetitious or habitual activity. Thus, the poem might be implying that the present violence in Colombia is the result of habitual political maneuvers, through which the armed actors engage periodically in competing demonstrations of force. According to this line of thought, the civil war in Colombia does not have a justifiable political purpose. However, since the historical Flower Wars were also a cowardly political strategy to avoid dealing with powerful enemies in a direct way, Carranza’s poetic voice might be criticizing the indirect and cowardly way the armed groups in Colombia deal with each other. They rarely engage in direct battle, but rather target the civilian population thought to support their enemy. (7) Massacres in the countryside are central to this strategy, since they are an effective way to eliminate the enemy’s popular base in a certain area. Therefore, through the connection to the Aztec Flower Wars, the poem is a critique of the present conflict in Colombia for its lack of real political purpose and for its dirty and deadly strategies. And there is an ironic association between the Flower wars and the Colombia conflict in the concept of death. Rather than honorable and blissful, death is a sign of the ultimate injustice.
Another important feature of the political discourse of El canto de las moscas is the use of irony, a staple in all of Carranza's poetic production. (8) Within these poems, it works in a way similar to the "kirejis" in the Japanese haiku, as a striking word or sentence at the end. The last sentence in "Beautiful sight," for example, is ironic since it points to the fact that after the massacre was carried out, the name of the town no longer seems appropriate. Irony sets the political meaning of the poem, by expressing anger and condemnation of the war, even through its contained way of expression.
Canto 7 Song 7
|VISTA HERMOSA||BEAUTIFUL SIGHT|
|El alto tallo||The high limb,|
|quemada, yerta,||burned, dead,|
|flor del páramo.||flower of the tundra.|
|Vista Hermosa.||Beautiful Sight|
In another poem, irony is present in the subversion of a famous verse by medieval Spanish poet Jorge Manrique, for whom death was the natural end of the life cycle.
Canto 8 / Song 8
|Si la mar es el morir||If the sea is death|
|en Pájaro||in Pájaro|
|la vida sabe a mar||life tastes like the sea|
In Manrique's old image, the sea represented a positive view of death. But in Carranza's version, the meaning of the sea is that of an untimely and violent death. The metonymy "to taste" implies the effect of violence over the meaning of life itself. Life in Pájaro "comes with" a violent end. The poem denounces the fact that there is no freedom to live a full life.
El canto de las moscas’ political discourse also shows a stylistic feature familiar to Carranza’s earlier poems, namely, a pessimistic attitude when referring to social or political change. (9) "Soacha," for instance, says:
Canto 18 / Song 18
|Un pájaro||A black|
|negro husmea||bird sniffs|
|las sobras de||the leftovers|
|la vida.||of life.|
|Puede ser Dios||It could be God|
|o el asesino:||or the assassin:|
|da lo mismo ya.||it’s the same now.|
The pessimistic attitude is read in the symbolic black bird, signifying death, and in the expression of apathy and hopelessness of the last three verses. There is a vague reference to the perpetrators in the juxtaposition of good (God) and evil (assassin). By refusing to discern between them, a sense of abandonment, perhaps betrayal by God himself is emphasized. The speaker’s voice appears undermined by the declaration of impossibility of judgment about the identity of the perpetrator. However, by diminishing its own importance and that of the perpetrators, it increases the attention given to violence itself and its aftermath. Only a sense of hopelessness in the face of an apparent lost cause remains clear.
This pessimistic attitude in Carranza’s poetry is often accompanied by an anti-sentimental tone towards her subject matter, (10) which creates an apparent distance between the speaker and the object described. In this poetry collection, anti-sentimentality is apparent through the identification of the poetic voice with the song of the flies, in the title of the collection itself, and in the identification of the poems as "songs." The poetic voice or "fly" "sings" the "songs," (poems), in order to render a particular version of the violent events. But since the only kind of sound we expect from a fly is a buzz, the identification of poetic self and flies creates a trivial representation of the poetic voice, through which it seems unimportant and useless facing the magnitude of the tragedy. But the trivial self-representation is ironic. As seen in "Necoclí," the poet’s voice, as the song of the flies, will be strong enough to remain after the brutal destruction.
Canto 1 /Song 1
|el próximo instante||the next instant|
|de noche tarde o mañana||of night afternoon or morning|
|en Necoclí||in Necoclí|
|se oirá nada más||nothing will be heard|
|el canto de las moscas||but the song of the flies.|
This is a subtle affirmation of the intent of the whole collection, which is to keep a record of sorts, amidst the collective historical amnesia, and to denounce the violence. For the readership, the effect of such record keeping is that each poem becomes a testimony to a Colombian town that once existed. The theme of memory has always had a place of importance in Carranza’s poetry. In her previous collections, distorted memories were a main leitmotif. Love memories, particularly, were often represented through temporal distance, which made them become obsolete or laughable. But the poems in El canto de las moscas seem to try the opposite, that is, to encapsulate the horror of the massacres, in an attempt to keep them from the distortion of memory or from our forgetfulness.
The use of images of nature reflects a new awareness on the part of the author about the effects of the war, which are not only at the human level, but also at the non-human one. They represent "a world that has fouled its own nest" and show a new consciousness towards environmental destruction, a "toxic consciousness" (Deitering 200). Carranza shows a rural landscape that is poisoned by the toxicity of war. Although her poems don’t describe the toxic force --we don’t know exactly how flowers, trees, and rivers are being polluted and destroyed-- we can identify it in the material elements of the war in Colombia such as weapons (landmines and bombs) and chemicals used for the elimination of coca crops (11).
These poems point to what Lawrence Buell calls a toxic discourse. Toxic discourse can be identified within texts particularly by the presence of "ruined-world" images, and for certain evidence of a "rude awakening from simple pastoral" (Buell 647). In Carranza's collection both of these aspects of toxic discourse can be traced. Besides the images of ruined nature, pastoral images appear in the form of a lost Eden betrayed by some force not mentioned but implied. In "Beautiful Sight," for example, there is a lost pastoral ideal in the contrast between the title and the image of the destroyed flower. The "negative" image, like that of a photograph, implies a "positive" one, but in this case a positive one that is no more. Silence within this poem is as revealing as the image itself. Silence 'speaks' of a past healthy rural reality, a lost pastoral setting, which the poem is mourning.
The idea of a lost pastoral is typical of texts that present awareness of toxicity. They often acknowledge "their polluted environments, nonetheless hold fast to…that pastoral home site associated with innocence and harvest" (Deitering 200-1). This is clearly seen in "Dabeiba," where two different realities are presented: a pastoral scene of beauty and another one of pollution. But, interestingly, instead of "holding fast to the pastoral ideal," Carranza’s personae shatters it:
Canto 3/ Song 3
|El río es dulce aquí||The river is sweet here|
|en Dabeiba||in Dabeiba|
|y lleva rosas rojas||and carries red roses|
|esparcidas en las aguas.||scattered in the waters.|
|No son rosas,||They’re not roses,|
|es la sangre||it is blood|
|que toma otros caminos.||taking other routes.|
The reader is brutally awakened from a supposed pastoral, described in the first four verses, by the inkling of a corrupted landscape, referred to in the last three ones. The sweetness is not a natural state of the river as the reader wants to believe, but rather an unnatural state due to the blood that has polluted it. In a few words the poetic voice destroys any sense of pastoral and clarifies what really is. The irony is poignant by the contrast of sweetness, roses and waters to the view and taste of blood; and also by the matter-of-fact anti-sentimental statement that closes the poem, "it is blood / taking other routes." The shattering of the pastoral image fits Carranza’s typical anti-sentimental tone, but it also carries a specific purpose, which is to impress the idea of the brutality and toxicity of the war, where harmony has no place. Its poetic effect is visual and emotional.
An important detail to further understand toxic discourse is its association with "the exigencies of an anxiously industrializing culture" (Buell 639). As most Latin American nations, Colombia has long had a desire to become industrialized. Such desire, according to experts, is one of the many underlying motivations for the current war. (12) The Urabá gulf, bordering Panamá, and the fertile and oil-rich eastern plains are the location of most of the towns mentioned in these poems (Dabeiba, Necoclí, Mapiripán, Vista Hermosa, Paujil, etc). They are lands rich in natural resources and the last frontiers for development. (13) Not coincidentally, they are also the places where the most violent events unfolded during the nineties, such as massacres and vast population displacements. (14) All armed groups, --the right-wing paramilitary associated with the Colombian national army, and the left-wing guerrillas-- have acted out their violent tactics in those areas because all have interests invested there. The results of this violence are the "ethnocide" of the indigenous and black inhabitants of the Chocó and Urabá regions, (15) and the "ecocide" that includes the destruction of 25% of the original Chocó rainforest and the deforestation of 2,700 square miles of Amazon rainforest in the 80s and 90s.(Hernandez 2) (16)
Carranza’s poems do not mention directly the economic factor (the motivation for development and industrialization), but simply show a sliver of the brutal reality through images of destroyed nature. Nevertheless, the textual references to those most sensitive geographical areas of Colombia, show the poet’s implied critique of an "anxiously industrializing culture" which is, in great part, responsible for the rapid destruction.
Nature does seem to be primarily a political metaphor in some of these poems. That is the case of "Paujil," with its grotesque flowers:
Canto 13 / Song 13
|Estallan las flores sobre||Flowers bloom all over|
|la tierra||the soil|
|de Paujil. En las corolas||of Paujil. In their corollas|
|aparecen las bocas||appear the mouths|
|de los muertos||of the dead.|
The central theme in this poem is clearly the human tragedy, not nature per se. These flowers serve as symbols of violence. (17) The poetic voice refuses to represent their beauty or resiliency, but rather reveals the horror that lies beneath them. These flowers are far from the pastoral ideal and, rather, are represented in complicity with the tragedy, by covering it up. As the flowers of Paujil, many of the images of nature in this collection, serve as political metaphor. They are present for the reader to decode in political terms.
Nevertheless, by choosing to present the human tragedy through images of the natural world, Carranza shows a new relationship to nature, unknown to her previous writing. Before, her poems always occupied an urban and domestic space, and dealt with themes of female sexual identity, love, nation, and pop culture. There is a new worldview in El canto de las moscas, produced by a different level of awareness. Even though the human tragedy is the main preoccupation here, there is an affirmation of nature, through the photographic denunciation of its demise.
Nature, and particularly toxic discourse, has its place within these poems, even if in a marginal way. Its main function is to enhance the political denunciation through visual and emotional effect. The relevance of nature and of toxic discourse in El canto de las moscas can be better understood in light of Buell’s words: "If toxification is not consistently the central subject, it is central to the poems' cultural landscape, and an energizing concern. Metaphorical fugacity may bespeak a certain amount of uneasiness about confronting toxicity, but by the same token it marks toxicity as an emergent literary focus" (665). Indeed, the poems of El canto de las moscas present a new awareness and focus which acknowledge the close relation between political unrest and environmental demise.
By combining a political and a toxic discourse, Carranza creates a powerful statement against the vicious violence destroying the countryside of Colombia. To the high level of the alluded violence, this poetry responds with a contrasting minute type of expression; to the silenced cries of the victims, it answers with shocking, sometimes grotesque images of nature, and with silences, which ‘loudly’ denounce the injustice. It relies on the power of language, used at a linguistic minimum to its maximum effect, in order to disturb, to denounce, and to testify.
Both political and toxic discourses inform the testimonial goal of this collection. Each poem is an affirmation of the power of memory to resist the obliteration of social and natural entities by the violence of political terror and economic upheaval.
(1). This poetry collection has not been published in translation. All translations here are mine with revisions by Terry Martin.
(2). There were 187 massacres in 1997 alone, the year of El canto de las moscas publication. The civil war in Colombia dates from over half a century, but in the eighties and nineties the conflict became more complex with the intensification of drug trafficking. A problem resulting from this conflict is the polarization of the peasantry, willingly or unwillingly, into the traditional leftist guerrillas, and the far-right paramilitary groups supported by powerful landowners and the Colombian army. All armed actors employ extreme forms of violence.
(3). See the discussion on the expression of feeling in traditional Haiku and in Carranza’s poetry in the second section of this essay. Formally, the poems of El canto de las moscas don’t fit the traditional Haiku form of 17 syllables arranged in a 5-7-5 pattern, although some of them come close. For example, "Mapiripán" has 17 syllables, but distributed in four lines 4-3-6-4. Similarly, "Pájaro" presents three verses in this pattern: 8-3- 7.
(4). Right wing paramilitary death squads, assisted by general Jaime Uscátegui, commander of the army's 7th brigade, took the town for five terrifying days, killed 30 people and threw their bodies in the nearby Guaviare river. For more on this massacre see the recent article by Scott Wilson. Also, María Cristina Caballero’s "Mapiripán: A Shortcut to Hell" at http://www.icij.org/investigate/caballero.html.
(5). Right wing paramilitary groups, left wing guerrillas, and army soldiers roam the countryside in military fatigues, and use similar violent tactics, making it difficult to distinguish between them by their appearance. But most of the massacres mentioned within these poems were performed by paramilitaries.
(6). "The institution of the Flowery War took root when the members of the Triple Alliance (Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan) had managed to secure most of the Valley of Mexico and their outward expansion slowed down. During this peaceful period Tenochtitlan reached a tacit agreement with the estados that had managed to remain independent (Cholula, Huexotzinco and Tlaxcala) to engage on set dates in ritual wars in which the youth of the warrior classes fought in order to prove themselves, and prisoners for sacrifice could thus be taken." (http://www.umich.edu/~proflame/texts/mirror/florida.html)
(7). 2000 Amnesty International Report
(8). See my discussion on the use of irony in Carranza’s previous poetry collections in my doctoral dissertation "Hacia una poética feminista latinoamericana: Ana María Rodas, María Mercedes Carranza y Gioconda Belli."
(9). See for example her poem "Patria" ("Fatherland"),
from her 1987 collection Hola Soledad, where the nation is represented
by the metaphor of the house. A political reading of the poem shows no
hope in face of the escalating violence of the eighties in Colombia. The
poem reads like a lamentation with no vision for change. Nevertheless,
a feminist reading yields a critique of patriarchy, and in this sense is
more positive. A fragment of the poem reads:
|Todo es ruina en esta casa||In this house everything is ruin,|
|están en ruina el abrazo y la música||in ruins are hugs and music,|
|el destino, cada mañana, la risa son ruina,||destiny, each morning, laughter are ruins,|
|las lágrimas, el silencio, los sueños.||tears, silence, dreams.|
|Las ventanas muestran paisajes destruídos,||The windows show destroyed landscapes,|
|carne y ceniza se confunden en las caras,||flesh and ash are combined in people's faces,|
|en las bocas las palabras se revuelven con miedo.||in their mouths words stir with fear.|
|En esta casa todos estamos enterrados vivos.||In this house we are all buried alive.|
(10). The anti-sentimental tone is a typical feature of all of Carranza's poetry. For more information see my article "El amor en la poesía de María Mercedes Carranza" and James Alstrum's article "La función iconoclasta del lenguaje coloquial en la poesía de María Mercedes Carranza y Anabel Torres."
(11). Toxicity in the Colombia war is deeply related to poisoning agents such as glyphosate and other chemicals used for the extensive fumigation of coca crops.
(12). See articles by Wirpsa, Zárate-Laun and Dudley. A member of Peace Brigades International explains it rather bluntly, "it all boils down to greed." See video "In the Company of Fear."
(13). Urabá, in particular, is a region of ecological and strategic importance. It encompasses the north of the Chocó rainforests, the Atrato basin and the Caribbean plains of Antioquia. It is recognized as "one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, [with] one of the highest concentrations of plant and animal species, many of them unique life forms. [But it is also]…the target of ambitious state plans –known collectively as the Plan Pacífico—to tap its resources more systematically and to use it as a platform for increased trade with the outside world" (Barnes 2).
(14). The number of internally displaced people in Colombia reached 2 million by the end of 2000
(15). Indigenous and black populations have inhabited the land of the Chocó and Urabá regions since the colonial times. Traditionally, this area has been one of the poorest and least economically developed areas of the country.
(16). Deforestation is due in great part to the clearing of land for coca cultivation. "The effects of coca cultivation cover a wide range of environmental problems including pesticide use, chemical dumping, deforestation, soil erosion, water pollution, a shift to mono-agriculture, biodiversity loss, and a potential loss of cultural eco-knowledge." (Trade and Environmental Database Case Studies)
(17). The prominence of images of flowers in El
canto de las moscas deserves special attention and more research on
its own right, which exceeds the scope of this study.
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