Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Blood Soaked Dresses by Gloria Mindock

Poet Gloria Mindock

Blood Soaked Dresses
By Gloria Mindock
Ibbetson St. Press
2007, p. 62
Reviewed by Lo Galluccio.

I was eager to read the entirety of “Blood Soaked Dresses” after hearing Gloria Mindock read several of its poems at the Somerville Writer’s Festival in November. Surprised to hear one friend, a yogi who I would have expected to have a stronger stomach and willing imagination, declared the poems “ too dark,” She left the hall, and upon hearing this, I had to strongly disagree.


“Swimming in a stream of nothingness,
There is no line
to grab me.
My speech comes out in a scream.

Must I wrestle with these borrowed dreams?
Convince myself of song?
Do I really have the gift of breath?
Tongue is cursing throat –
Fingers flicker out –
Eyes desire teeth---
Life of the petrified dead
remind me of my torment.


El Salvador is crazy.
It has abandoned me and blessed me
With nightfall.”

This work is a complex requiem to war and the death that war bequeathes. One could read the poems, each like a short musical movement or song, and know there is morbidity there, but somehow Gloria also evokes beautiful melodies, laments, echoing patterns of loss. The elegance and metaphysical depth of these poems, often inhabiting a negative space between sky and grave, more than redeems this morbid look at the brutality of war’s butchery-- its bones, blood, its pain and its terrible attempt to render human life, “nothingness.”

This book is not a journalistic or factual account of the El Salvadoran Civil War which lasted from approximately 1980-1992.
Once the Christian Democratic Party lost control, under Jose Napoleon Duarte, there were repeated coups and protests in the early ‘70’s. And beginning in 1979 --- after Duarte was exiled -- a cycle of violence and guerrilla warfare broke out in the cities and countryside, initiating what became a 12 year civil war. A key signpost for those in the United States, was the murder of Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero after he publicly urged the US government not to provide military support to the El Salvadoran government.

In such a Catholic country, it is only natural that God is invoked as being absent and yet also, in his many forms, a longed for salvation. But there is also an almost dream-like thirst for retribution. In “Archbishop Romero” she writes:

“Sin has formed on their mouths, and they
assault us.
We are silenced into a void.
Souls singled out for torture.”

“Oscar Romero created a heaven,
carried us in his arms of prayer.
In church, we drink Christ to free ourselves.
Decapitation was not a devotion to believe in.
The soldiers will burn in a red sky….”

The contours of the book follow Gloria’s journey into the massacres and eclipsed lives of the country’s citizens through imagined portraits of its people and by capturing the way death can permeate a landscape, while angels and memory and rosaries and love haunt it as well. Her insight and identification with the people of El Salvador, the reveries she channels about the sheer madness of the War, are nothing short of astounding. We walk with her in a shroud of language that gives dignity and concreteness to the way these people both surrendered and remained hopeful about their fate at the hands of the death-bearers – soliders, campesinos, assassins. Yet we still know almost nothing about the logistics and politics of their deaths. In fact one of the key and tragic notes is the mystery which envelopes the war -- not unlike many wars fought in small, “developing” or “third world” countries where the United States does not intervene to end violence, or in fact, as in Iraq, has a strong hand in engendering it.

Gloria does not choose to point fingers. She writes to mourn and to give voice and magical imagery to the victims. I think it would be correct to say she goes one step farther; she actually becomes the El Salvadoran people caught in a looming death-trap.

The book is dedicated to the memory of Rufina Amaya, “the only survivor of the massacre of El Mozote.” Gloria writes, “She lived her life speaking about the atrocities committed so no one would forget.” The epigraph reads: “But she had so rubbed her eyes from grief that all she had seen could be seen in them

The book is divided into five sections: THE ATROCITIES, COUNTRYSIDE THOUGHTS, HEARTS, EXILE, and LOOKING BACK.

In “Waiting for Execution” (from ATROCITIES) she writes:

“My spirit accelerated into the sky,
The mountains were happy by the sea.
The enemy was not around.

At church, communion was red wine. A sip – I wanted
it all. To drink would make my life last, make me immune,
God of God, this air is hot.
I’m heaving from the stench. These are the bodies
in your hands. How many can you hold?
Will you hold me?”


This pain waits for an entrance.
If they shoot me, I conquer, and you God,
Unseen in your cage, cry escaping from my rusted dreams.”

This book is not about religion, not about God. It is more about angels and their various manifestations, as people, as hearts, as memory. In “Befallen” (COUNTRYSIDE THOUGHTS) she writes:

“The one last heart to remain in
this world circles around me.

Angel, I have a good perspective about this.
A heart is on my doorstep, and it is haunting,
Figuring out who it will go to.
I have courage. The dead love me.”


Angel, I am devoted.
Bury me in your wings.
Enfold me for safe-keeping.
I need to be warm.”

There are many many poems one could quote. Gloria has inscribed many deaths into this book with her soul’s quill and that does make it challenging to read. Yet, like a gorgeous elegy, she also renders these deaths and the unspeakable brutality of their killers, into a kind of otherworldly music we can all find cadence with, and drink in. One other point to be made, “Blood Soaked Dresses” is dedicated to a woman and the dresses could just as well be pants, given the boys who were also murdered, but significant to note that this is a woman’s quilting a shroud of beauty against violence. In an North American world where we are growing more and more habituated to its glamour – in TV and movies – I am thankful for her devotion to life.

Lo Galluccio
Ibbetson St. Press Update

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:37 AM

    By the very nature of their origins, these are poems both beautiful and horrific, fueled by a spiritual source beyond my grasp. The power in Blood Soaked Dresses is inescapable.