John Charles Ryan reviews The Bones of My Grandfather by Esthela Calderón

Esthela Calderón, The Bones of My Grandfather: Ecopoetry without Borders: Selected Poems, translated by Steven F. White. Madrid: Amargord, 2018. ISBN: 9788494837739

 

John Charles Ryan

 

Ethnobotanical Poetry?

The Bones of My Grandfather (Los huesos de mi abuelo): Ecopoetry without Borders (Eco-poesía sin fronteras) is a finely crafted bilingual Spanish-English selection of poetry by Nicaraguan author, artist and scholar Esthela Calderón. Calderón was born in Telica, a municipality famous for Telica, one of the most active volcanos in Nicaragua. Her poetry publications include Soledad (Solitude) (2002), for which she received the Juegos Florales Centroamericanos prize, Amor y conciencia (Love and Awareness) (2004) and Soplo de corriente vital: Poemas etnobotánicos (Breathing the Vital Current: Ethnobotanical Poems) (2008). In 2019, her exhibition Pollen showcased artworks she created using marmoleado, a technique entailing the rapid application of paint to a liquid surface to evoke organic shapes, colors and textures. (Indeed, her painting titled Huellas or Footprints enlivens the collection’s front cover.) Calderón also directs Promotora Cultural Leonese, an organization dedicated to art, culture and equality in Nicaragua, and teaches Latin American culture at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.

Los huesos de mi abuelo features an introduction by Roberto Forns-Broggi and a preface by Steven F. White who translated the collection to English. This introductory material contextualizes Calderón’s poetry for readers—such as the one writing this review—previously unfamiliar with her ethnobotanical poetics. In addition to selections from Soledad, Amor y conciencia and Soplo de corriente vital, the volume brings together work from Coyol quebrado (Hard Seeds for One Meal) (2012), La que hubiera sido (The Woman I Could Have Been) (2013) and Las manos que matan (The Hands That Kill) (2016) as well as the remarkable long poem Los huesos de mi abuelo (2013) and three unpublished poems. A comprehensive botanical appendix lists the Spanish, English and Latin names of ninety plants cited in the collection. In particular, the twenty poems included from Soplo de corriente vital represent the pronounced ethnobotanical dimensions of her work as a whole. As White observes in his preface, Calderón speaks for ‘the plants from the western part of her country that she knows so well due to the intergenerational knowledge passed on to her through her grandmother and mother, especially with regard to traditional medicinal uses’ (155).

Calderón’s writing calls attention to the significance of poetry and poetic expression in an era of widespread botanical decline. More specifically, from my perspective, Los huesos de mi abuelo constitutes a vital literary corrective to the human-plant estrangements that attend ecological loss. As the 2019–20 Australian bushfire season has demonstrated, the global situation is becoming increasingly dire. A study of species around the world that have become extinct since Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum appeared in 1753 indicates that recently described plants are disappearing at twice the rate of those described prior to the year 1900 (Humphreys). What’s more, the likelihood is high that many plant species are disappearing before science can identify them. In Nicaragua, the circumstances are no different. Between 2001 and 2018, for instance, the country lost 1.40 million hectares of tree cover, an eighteen percent reduction involving the emission of 541 megatonnes of CO2 (Global Forest Watch). As Calderón’s collection makes clear, this kind of profound environmental decline precipitates ethnobotanical dislocations that imperil longstanding traditional knowledge of plants as foods; fibres; medicines; ornaments; totems; focal points of rituals that bind human communities together over time; mediators between material, psychological and spiritual realms; living wellsprings of cultural sovereignty; and lively embodiments of resistance to neoliberal forces.

In this urgent context, Los huesos de mi abuelo offers a engrossing phytopoetics that speaks of deep-time natural-cultural entanglements, interconnected human-vegetal histories, and plant-people exchanges predicated on dialogue, filiation, and affection. I define the concept of phytopoetics as a mode of intermediation between humans and plants in which language—verbal, visual, sensory, material, bodily—acts as a medium for dialogical interchange between intelligent subjects. More specifically, Calderón’s phytopoetics counters a reductive view of the botanical world—herbs, flowers, shrubs, trees, forests—as a backdrop to animalistic affairs or as a commodity destined to be appropriated, decorporealized and circulated through global networks. Consider the incisive ecocritique of her short poem ‘History’, which opens the Soplo de corriente vital selection:

The sound of the first word was made by a tree,

and the animals and waters answered.

 

The first human being was deaf

And did not hear the living current’s breath.

 

Ever since, that deafness has been our legacy.

(175)

If the natural world is a heteroglossic or multilingual assemblage—as the poet encourages us to consider—then sound, vibration and song give rise to the animacy of beings, or ‘the living current’s breath’. For the poem’s speaker, however, a ‘deafness’ that refuses the vitality of the more-than-human—the tree, animal, water—underlies the pervasive denial of vegetal and other non-human agencies. Scholars have described this condition as ‘plant blindness’ (or, recast in the poem’s terms, ‘plant deafness’) (Balding and Williams).

In vividly illuminating the detrimental effects of human activities on vegetal beings, Calderón’s work can be understood as ecopoetry—poetic formations that centralise the more-than-human world, human-nature relations and the environmental crisis. Yet, the distinctiveness of her ecopoetry is its emphatic—and empathic—concern with the biocultural disintegrations that arise from botanical loss. The collection’s specific attention to plants and ethnobotanical knowledge renders it a phytopoetic work grounded in traditional, local understandings of flora yet attentive to the global factors that impinge upon those traditions. ‘Madrone’ is illustrative. The speaker addresses the madroño (Calycophyllum candidissimum), a species common to Central America and frequently wild-harvested for its wood:

Dressed in your curtain of perfume,

my voice, together with yours, grew in December,

increasing the magnificence of other names in your name.

(178, lines 4–6)

In conferring voice to the madrone, especially via its appeal to the olfactory sense, the poem mediates multispecies polyvocality. Nevertheless, the music ‘slowly but surely, will become extinct’ (178, line 18). By the poem’s end, we realise that:

Roads overtake you, and the furrow of your family

sinks hooks of ash into the insane mourning,

whose only gift to you is death

beneath the mask of progress.

(178, lines 19–22)

This mask of progress resurfaces in ‘The Great Tamarind Tree’. According to an editor’s note, the poem’s plant-subject is an old tamarind near León, Nicaragua, where Spanish colonisers hanged the indigenous leader Adiac. Notwithstanding the legacies inscribed in the venerable tree, which should warrant respect from humans,

Drunks, garbage and a barred fence

keep you company now.

(183, lines 8–9)

The poem is as much about loneliness and estrangement as it is about imperialism and ecological abuse. Without question, the Anthropocene is an age of debilitating isolation.

One of the outstanding features of Los huesos de mi abuelo is its tonal diversity. In comparison to the graveness of ‘The Great Tamarind Tree’, poems such as ‘Classified Ads’ and ‘The Woman I Could Have Been’ revel in the healing capacity of plants. ‘Classified Ads’ is an exuberant commentary on local herbal medicines in which gentian, oregano, bitter orange, mango, papaya, castor, skunk root, and other plant personae announce themselves as botanical curatives:

Four steps to the left of where the Avocado tree used to be,

the Mango Mechudo would like to remind you

that the cure for your bruises is in its hands.

(189, lines 7-9, bolding in original)

Similarly, ‘The Woman I Could Have Been’ is a powerfully intercorporeal poem that analogises parts of the human anatomy to the vegetal anatomy in lines such as the concluding couplet: ‘A bunch of Everlasting as a brain / and thick liquid from Hibiscus flowers for blood’ (198, lines 49–50). I want to emphasise that Calderón’s ethnobotanical focus is not restricted to Soplo de corriente vital but recurs throughout the collection. Like ‘The Woman I Could Have Been’, the poem ‘Article of Faith’ from Coyol quebrado, for instance, is an emancipatory piece that strikes me as distinctly amenable to spoken performance. Its first three stanzas—each repeating the refrain ‘I believe in …’—evince a belief in vegetal life as a source of personal rejuvenation, community replenishment and cultural reinvigoration. Rather than a form of utilitarianism, intimate interaction with plants as food, medicine and mediators just may be essential to their—and our—thriving.

Now available to English-speaking audiences, Los huesos de mi abuelo is a significant contribution to ecopoetics, phytopoetics and literary ethnobotany that will be of interest to readers of Plumwood Mountain, especially those wishing to expand their appreciation of environmental poetry beyond anglophonic literary contexts.

 

Bibliography

Balding, Mung, and Kathryn Williams. ‘Plant Blindness and the Implications for Plant Conservation’. Conservation Biology 30, no. 6 (2016): 1192-1199.

Global Forest Watch. ‘Nicaragua’. https://www.globalforestwatch.org/. Accessed January 27, 2020.

Humphreys, A. M., et al. ‘Global Dataset Shows Geography and Life Form Predict Modern Plant Extinction and Rediscovery’. Nature: Ecology and Evolution 3, no. 7 (2019): 1043–1047.

 

 

John Charles Ryan is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Arts and Humanities at Southern Cross University. His interests include ecopoetics, critical plant studies and the environmental humanities. His poetry collection Seeing Trees: A Poetic Arboretum, co-authored with Glen Phillips, is forthcoming with Pinyon Publishing. In 2020, he will be Writer-in-Residence at Oak Spring Garden Foundation and Visiting Scholar at University of 17 Agustus 1945 in Surabaya, Indonesia.

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