Sharing the Experience

Voices from the Land of Trees,
Abigail Zammit

68pp, 7.95, Smokestack Books]

This collection of poems is a sequence about the 36 years of war in Guatemala (The Land of Trees). Each poem gives a different perspective on this war. 'Voices' describe the experiences of mothers, missionaries, children, journalists, soldiers from opposing sides, priests and generals - creating a complex view of a civil war that I wasn't even aware had happened.

This is part of the reason why Maltese poet Abigail Zammit wrote these poems. She writes about a war that she describes several times in these poems as 'silent'.

Her prologue contains quotes from journals, organizations and people about the civil war in Guatemala. It somehow sets out the agenda for the poems and the historical/political context behind the complex events she explores:

'Do you think we've left proof? In Argentina, there are
witnesses, there are books, there are films, there is proof. Here
in Guatemala, there is none of that. There are no survivors.'
(Colonel Edgar D'Jalma Dominguez, Head of Office for Army
Public Relations.)

The prologue itself is a sobering and shocking read. It adds a horrific reality to the war we are about to explore in Zammit's poems.

Each sequence is split into three sections: Fractured Smiles; Breaking the Silence; and Stones of Hope. Each poem offers us an insight into the individual experiences that make up a complex war:

He was my father,
my brother, my son,
my husband -
his throat slit,
his tongue cut out,
five bodies to a ditch.
She was my girlfriend,
my daughter, my sister -
tied to a tree, raped and beaten,
strangled with cords.
Six to a ditch.'
[from 'Survivors']

I carry biscuits, bread, biros.
I carry boxes and a fractured smile.
[from 'Hymn']

The poems are brutal, often in a simple, honest way. The poet is never afraid to reveal truth and confront it. She is representing voices that have been 'silenced', yet these voices are never sentimental or immersed in pity. They are 'matter of fact' about the horrors they have experienced and witnessed. The ground shifts as each different perspective is given to us. As we encounter different views, we appreciate the complexities of civil war; perhaps understand why this war might have lasted so long.

There are many images about silence, being broken, not being able to smile: 'I am ugly. /My eyes are broken. / No tengos ojos. /No quiero ver.
' ('The Mother Speaks'). The writing is rich with visceral detail: 'She moves barefoot/ her toes/ licking earth.' ('Portrait of a Child'). They are written in an accessible way, but nothing is simple.

In 'A Young Missionary', we meet the 'poet' or at least a persona that the poet adopts within the sequence. She describes herself as 'a foreigner in the land of trees - a green stranger'. Abigail Zammit did in fact spend time in Guatemala in 2003, involved in missionary work to help build a hospital for disabled children.

It is interesting - the idea of a European poet writing about a war elsewhere, a war she never experienced first-hand. It raises questions about how poets represent human suffering without exploiting the people they are writing about. Zammit is aware of this risk and writes with empathy, compassion and insight. She observes people and relationships acutely; people experiencing poverty, relationships between mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers put under strain by war.

There is often an angry timbre to the poet's voice. She describes breaches of human rights; this is a brutal war, where genocide, torture and rape are commonplace. But, also the tone in some poems is understated and reaches deep into our consciousness. The poem 'Bus Ride', I found to be one of the more affecting poems in the sequence:

At Tecpan,
we stop talking:
the driver throws glances
at the mirror,
his sweaty fingers
clenching the gear box.
Two soldiers
walk the length of the aisle,
swinging their rifles,
Silence. We walk back
to the bus, shaking.
We are leaves

We share the experience with the people on the bus - the tension, the slow grinding halt of their lives as war takes over their country.

The last poem in the sequence 'Epilogue' perhaps gives us the most direct insight into the poet's experience of Guatemala: 'I recall / the purple tinge of lavender, the perfume of that foreign land/ las voces
, purple, from the land of trees.' There is poignancy in this poem, a certain distance and powerlessness. It also tells us how much the poet admires these people; has been affected by the beauty of a country that was ravaged by war.

Voices from the Land of Trees
raises many questions about human suffering, not just in this war, but in all wars. It is a powerful testimony for the people who were directly involved in the war in Guatamala, written with sensitivity and an awareness of what has been lost.

Annie Clarkson 2007