The trees sense the danger. The corn grieves in its husk.
There is a deadly tremor in the November sky. Water stops
in the riverbed.
And the dogs hide from the scent. But the child
in the yard
is playing with a stone.
(from Manuel José Arce’s “Map With a Stone”)
A few years into my marriage, my husband, one of Manuel José Arce’s nephews, showed me the poem “Map With a Stone.” It was my first exposure to Arce, and it blew me away. Written during some of the most brutal years in Guatemala’s history, the poem describes helicopters attacking an indigenous village, and ends with the powerful image of a child throwing a stone at one of them in protest.
Though Arce is well known in Guatemala and had published several books of poetry during his lifetime, the poem my husband showed me did not appear in a book—it had been transcribed some years ago from a handwritten letter Arce had sent to my mother-in-law. As my husband told the story then, the paper had become like tissue and was falling apart, and so he took the poem, along with some others in similar shape, to a local university in Guatemala City to have them transcribed and preserved. To his surprise, he found that people at the university already knew the poems, though they had never appeared in print.
Inquiries made at the university suggested that the poems had circulated “mano a mano” (hand to hand) around the time of the massacres they describe, possibly along with leftist pamphlets and other subversive materials. The NAR’s decision to publish the poems in Spanish as well as in English translation, then, is a moving one—it accords a dignity to the poems that had long been withheld from them.
Arce wrote “Map With a Stone” and “Presidential Sermon” from exile in France, where he fled after receiving numerous death threats from supporters of Guatemalan dictator Romeo Lucas García. He never returned home; he died of cancer, still in France, in 1985. The poems unflinchingly indict the brutality of the Guatemalan army and of Lucas García’s successor, Efraín Ríos Montt, the general and evangelist dictator described in “Presidential Sermon.”
By the end of the Guatemalan conflict, nearly 200,000 people, mostly indigenous, were killed, an act which the United Nations recognized as genocide in 1997. In May of 2013, Ríos Montt was tried in Guatemala for genocide and crimes against humanity. This was a significant event in the history of human rights—it was the first time the head of state was prosecuted for this kind of crime in his own country rather than in an international court. Though the former dictator was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison by the trial court, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court overturned the verdict just days later. The Guatemalan people continue their fight for justice.
Near the end of his life Arce wrote, “Perhaps someday, in another book, I will gather some love poems: ‘love’ not in the usual sense, but rather love of humanity, of myself, of my country; love that often becomes angry, and raises its fist.” Surely he would have included “Map With a Stone” and “Presidential Sermon” in this book. I hope some of the fist-raising love Arce put into them comes across to you in translation. As I imagine Arce would have been delighted with the potential of the internet to bear witness, to give voice to the oppressed, and to protest injustice, I include the shorter of these here.
The Army passed through,
and in what was once a sweet little town,
a tourist attraction on multi-colored postcards,
not even two stacked stones remain,
let alone someone to tell the story:
the bodies of pregnant women were found,
with fetuses peering out through gaping wounds.
Little children five years old—even younger, were found
hanging by their intestines from tree branches.
The elders of the town,
Were beheaded in the plaza facing the church.
There was no one left to tell the story.
Not even a dog.
And the press, the radio and television
rebroadcast today, Monday, the Sunday sermon
of El Señor Presidente
—general and evangelist—
“Brothers and sisters, God is Love…”
Kimberly Woosley Poitevin is a professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts.