War’s Impossible Text
by Danielle Legros Georges | December 2016
In the gnashing sandstorm nights and in the days after the burials, in between
the vagaries of escape and tattered voices of Darfur, massacred and burned,
ambled three ghost children.
Set in August 2004, Juan Felipe Herrera’s Senegal Taxi opens us to a landscape torn by war and a vision of its most vulnerable victims: children. Of a decimated Darfuri village, Ibrahim and “his band” are the only ones left: Abdullah with one good eye, who sings and spits words out like bullets; Sahel, the youngest, a girl who constructs “tiny schools with sticks and wings of dead beetles;” and Ibrahim, son of Muhammad and Nasra, grandson of Um and Yaccoub. The siblings are led by Ibrahim through a terrain pitted by the rain of Russian bombs and armed men on horseback enlisted by their government to lay waste to villages seated atop vital and oil-rich land in Darfur, western Sudan.
As we follow Ibrahim, Sahel, and Abdullah, we move deeper and deeper into the unravelings inherent to civil wars. Here are the overlapping conflicts of local fights over resources, ethnic tensions, international business interests, and arms deals. Here too the cave from which the children emerge, and the words they utter to keep themselves alive and human. Ibrahim dreams of a taxi that will steal them away to neighboring Senegal, then New York. There they would emerge in a safe new world—one that broadcasts news of the 21st-century genocide in Darfur in 30-minute segments.
Senegal Taxi takes unflinchingly as context the second Sudanese civil war which consumed more than 2 million lives, drove more than 4 million people from their homes, and instigated a massive refugee crisis and the birth in 2011 of South Sudan, the world’s newest nation (a current site of escalating violence).
The recent story of Darfur is disturbing and complicated, and Herrera uses a mix of literary approaches to get under it, all the while mindful of the minefields that are popular tropes of Africans and things African in the Western imagination and news reports—aware of language’s collusive dangers.
Polyphony and nonlinearity then become the means by which Herrera arrives at a representation of war that both bears witness and provides profound vision into the positions and losses of non-combatants. Herrera is aiming not for a single vision but for characters and viewpoints which conflict in the development of his overarching themes.
Senegal Taxi is composed of a series of mud drawings (what we might understand as discrete poems), each in the voice of an actor on the ground in Darfur in 2004. The drawings are interspersed with prose poems and dialogues, which serve as a framework for the actors and a device for introducing voices from the past and future. The text is imbued with a sense of simultaneity of experience. One poem depicting a boy stands next to a poem depicting a man who could have been/could be that boy.
The agents of the book’s plot are human, inhuman and beyond human, giving the book a fable-like quality, a feeling of all things being chillingly alive. The first character to appear on the scene is the village ant warning the children (and, it seems, the reader): “Wakeupwakeupwakeupwakeupwakeup!” It has felt the rumblings through the air of an incoming Antonov bomb. If a bomb could speak, what would it say?:
. . . Here I go
With one eye
Made of ire
go . . .
Who to follow the bomb in its inevitability and grim monosyllables but the machine gun, child of the bomb (as Herrera suggests) who sees the villagers “grazing cows by the mud wall,” who notices “my father Antonov burning off their clothes.” The AK-47, more articulate and observant than its father, mentions how it “Came down the mountain and stumbled / On the gravestones of the Shugakaro where the grandmothers lay / . . . Came down the mountain as the sun broke.”
Abdullah when he speaks, does not know (and therefore we are not sure) if he is alive or dead:
All darkness in my eye even though the sun perches on a limb next to me
webs of lights and the stars that I speak to drooling my arms ahead of me.
Where? They ask me in starry breath pieces. Why are you running child?
They say. Why through this smooth wind under the moon? I tell them that
I cannot see that I can barely breathe that all is gone just me now my sister
gone back my brother gone forward too soon to fast too long. I want to
wrap all the trees on my back tie all the threads of stone and rag and bone
so I will not get lost. Do not hurry the starry ash mouths say. You will live.
I do not know I say, I do not know if I am living or dead or nothing or
something or maybe. . .
Such is the disorienting and deeply troubling world drawn by Herrera, who engages literary surrealism in its rendering, with mirages, dream sequences, and escape fantasies. An absurdist aesthetic also seems to inform but not fully define the text, as transcendence (however difficult) is implied, and in the end made manifest through expressions of familial and human connections.
If Senegal Taxi were not tagged poetry, it would be called a play as it employs to great effect customary elements of drama: a list of characters (Herrera calls them voices), varied settings (cave, village, ghost house run, and Juba, capital of South Sudan), exposition, and voices from beyond the action. Once the play genre is understood as a key, the text becomes markedly more scrutable. As with classic drama, a sense of a chorus is present, that entity that provides an audience with information the main characters cannot give us. This voice lets us know what happens to the children when they can no longer speak.
Senegal Taxi is as initially disorienting as it is ultimately devastating. Its power lies in its construction as a dramatic composition whose main characters suffer through no fatal flaws of their own. It is an examination of war both broad and intimate, chiseling out a new and hybrid structure and language(s) of loss and transformation.
Herrera, the United States’ 21st Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry is a consummate literary border crosser if not boundary dissolver. Senegal Taxi crosses a border into war, something many of us are fortunate enough to observe and pay attention to (if we do) from a distance and through mass and social media. Herrera’s text is remarkable in its willingness to consider the heartbreak of war, particularly in the lives of children and families, and its coexistent existential struggles.
“The problem with human catastrophe,” notes poet Eavan Boland, “is that it can be remembered all too well. But it is much harder to re-imagine it.” Herrera’s Senegal Taxi provides us an invaluable tool with which to re-imagine the war experience from the inside out.
By Juan Felipe Herrera
Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2013, 112 pp., paperback.
Danielle Legros Georges is the Poet Laureate of the city of Boston, and the author of two books of poems, The Dear Remote Nearness of You and Maroon.