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The Art of Exile

In The Art of Exile William Archila’s poems are hauntingly beautiful in their evocation of the loss of his country, of his Salvadoran friends, of a beloved father.  He risks language about those war years when He couldn’t bear all those open graves, / black mud, hyacinths falling apart. Archila was a child watching his country move inexorably … Continued

In The Art of Exile William Archila’s poems are hauntingly beautiful in their evocation of the loss of his country, of his Salvadoran friends, of a beloved father.  He risks language about those war years when He couldn’t bear all those open graves, / black mud, hyacinths falling apart. Archila was a child watching his country move inexorably toward the rising flood of terror when the


cemetery washed into the city.
Bones began to knock
and knock at our door
In a few years no one cared
about turtles banging their heads against rocks…
parrots that kept diving into creeks,..
the dark swelling of the open ground
or at night the knife

Grief has a voice. It is why music follows him, always the music of those who, too, give sorrow language. Coltrane, Mingus, Duke Ellington cross the border, with him, sax and trombone, sad enough, undefeated, their language deep enough. But grief is not the last voice for this poet. As Yusef Komunyakaa states in the Forward, William Archila’s poetry “does not serve as avenues of escape, but as mechanisms of confrontation, paths toward wholeness, always shying away from any kind of diminishment.”  This book is a requiem, yes. There are memorials for friends lost: Memo, Henry, Chico and Luis. It is also a celebration of love, a refusal to let the dead be forgotten or anonymous: how soon we forget the red clay of men/ scooped out of the earth, the gods/ who spit down upon them. 

Archila refuses to forget. He remembers the lush fields and mountains of Santa Ana, remembers the dead whom he carries, an immigrant whose voice is soil, roots…each single word a bag of bones
all the bodies dumped and slumped
in the swamp of a ravine, those cooped
in a dark grave of roots and rocks.
They’re mine

I spent brief periods of time in El Salvador during the war years because I was working with refugees seeking to escape the eclipsing carnage that took the lives of 75,000 and drove a million into exile. It seemed impossible to believe that language could convey the horrific that I observed. Carolyn Forche brought the traumatic to powerful witness. But her voice was not a voice like this: quiet, tender, the voice of a Salvadoran who escaped but who never escaped. Archila shows us his country’s fragile and exquisite terrain, his people’s untrammeled spirit, the wounds an immigrant hides, an LA where he comes to manhood, where he becomes a teacher, where he carries the dead & lost: Memo, Chico, his mother who could never have his safety.  They carry him, too. His poems carry us. In America he goes to the place of the forgotten and recognizes himself.


When you lie on a hotel bed,
too tired to sleep, when you feel torn,
twisted like an old newspaper, blown

from city to city, you have reached the place.
You have begun to speak like a man
by the side of the road, barefoot.

Archila’s voice utters the terrible but also (and this is utterly Salvadoran) the humorous and finally, his utterances are lyrical and his observing gaze opens to us the campo surrounding his town even as it is ravaged. He addresses Salvador’s great poet Roque Dalton, assassinated during Archila’s childhood, telling him

Nothing has changed since you left.
Cornfields still flash like daggers.
Stars are nail heads hammered 
against the sky…

always writing
about your country, small as a paper cut
that tiny republic tattooed on your body,
its women, men dumped by the roadside

The Art of Exile is an act of faith, a refusal to avert his gaze from his small country’s history. Archila writes to resurrect the dead.  In the simple remembrance of the Guayabera shirts that his father and uncles once wore, he imagines that the shirts can once again be uniforms of celebration.

I don’t know what came first,
war or years of exile
but everyone—shakers of maracas, cutters

of cane, rollers of tobacco—stopped wearing them,
hung them back in the closet, waiting

for their children to grow,
an arc of parrots across the sky
at five in the evening.  In another country

fathers in their silver hair sit
on their porches, their sons now men,

hold babies in the air, guayaberas nicely pressed.

“From the worst of humanity’s destructiveness, Archila creates the best our civilization has to give—human sentiment, forgiveness, love and poetry.” Virgil Suarez places The Art of Exile in the ranks “of the best poetry published this year…it is exciting to be present at the start of such a brave and luminous career.”

Reviewed by Renny Golden author of The Hour of the Furnaces (Mid-List, 2000) Raising the Bones (NM: University of New Mexico, 2010) and Oscar Romero: His Life and Writings (NY: Orbis, 2000)

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