LLuiva en el desierto: Rain in the Desert By Marjorie Agosín. Translated by Celeste Kostopolus-Cooperman

Sherman Asher Publishing, P.O. Box 2853, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1999. 112 pages, $15, paper. ISBN 1-890932-09-4

    The Hills

    From the radiance of the hills
    like uninhabited dwellings,
    light poured down as illusion.
    Uncovered colors according to the passion
    of the shadows.
    The traveler didn't know
    how to recognize himself.
    Everything was
    appearance and nakedness.

*****This short poem exemplifies the strengths and limits of this collection. Full of general, rather than specific nouns— "illusion," "passion," "radiance," "everything" "appearance" and "nakedness"— the poem is located not in a particular desert but in an internal landscape of human significance. In this collection, Agosín is less interested in evoking a particular desert than in using the desert as a poetic intersection with an emotional landscape. The Gobi, the Sahara, the Atacama—all deserts seem to become one desert. The poems lack the vivid detail of a scrutinized landscape. Agosín seems aware of that scrutiny, of how the desert demands it:

    Everything in the desert is
    a thin sheet
    of invisible
    to one who gazes
    like a sage
    at life's smallness.

She grants that scrutiny to the Chilean women, "The Widows of Calama," but even they are combing the desert for signs of human significance. They are searching for the bodies of their loved ones who have been 'disappeared,' their corpses dumped, in the Atacama desert of Chile.

    I don't know if they are dead or alive.
    I only know they comb the sand
    as if it were
    lover's lace.
*****Agosín's work often gains in intensity when it focuses upon the tragedies of her native country, becoming most metaphoric. One of the women finds a hand, and they all "dress it in red..." Yet at times, this same desire to witness makes Agosín overreach. She has the poem end with the image of one of the women "giving me the hand of/ a dead child,/ and as I took it, it changed/ into a flower of the wind." The "hand of a dead child" or that its mother or sister would give it away is certainly more shocking, but the metaphoric transformation "into a flower of the wind" seems almost predictable. Why not end with the more original and compelling earlier image where, having dressed the hand in red, the women "continue searching with/their hands like feathers," having been altered by what they've touched?
***** In the translation of "The Hills," one wonders why the colors are "uncovered," for "desvestía," also means to undress. The colors are being undressed by the passion of the shadows, as lovers undress one another, yet the image remains oddly muted. Both the poet and the translator might have been more awake to the emotion of longing that connects these small poems of interior landscape with the more ambitious works of public concern. At its best, the collection evokes the search for the beloved in a landscape of loss.