Volcanic heat

Cynthia Guardado
2022, University of Arizona Press

I FEEL the heat of the lava that flows under Cynthia Guardado’s skin. I recognised it immediately, that inexplicable longing to communicate with the invisible dead.

That lava burns in a very different tradition, hers Salvadoreña, mine Celtic, but the ghostly liquid fire flows beneath a rocky surface in the same way, ever threatening to burst into our lived world. It is primordial, a thing of existence, no more avoidable than gravity itself.   

A scientist might tell you that inherited memory, inter-generational trauma, is an epigenetic phenomenon, a rare case of the physical environment imprinting stress factors, the accidents of man-made history, on the genes of offspring. A tool of survival for a species shaped by narrative, perhaps?

Whatever the explanation for those unanswered questions that haunt children of diasporas, sometimes generations down the line, these fevers cannot be cured, their symptoms only assuaged.

Guardado has done so through poetry, and the fiery currents of the volcanoes of her ancestral El Salvador are evident in every line of her collection, Cenizas. She treats the wounds caused by an unforgiving world to memory by examining the scars of violence that pock her spiritual home. Her family escaped its violent maw, yet she cannot resist its dangerous lure.

Cenizas brings together 40 poems written by Guardado over a 10-year period that explore the relationship of her immediate family, migrants to the US, with their tortured homeland. About 2.3 million Salvadoreños now live in the north, an exodus closely associated with the civil war (1979–1992) and its violent legacy.

This is a volume filled with maternal voices, recognition perhaps of how women are the vectors of tradition. Guardado writes of her own mother: “i cannot explain to her/how each night i see all of our ghosts”. Women pray, mourn, strive to understand the lost souls of their menfolk.

 It is also filled with violence, snapshots of a crueller war than many, “the sound of bullets muffled by pouring rain”, but also criminal violence, the murder of her cousin in the US, the pointless slaughter of the Mara Salvatrucha.

The poet journeyed often there, threats to familial bonds considered worse than those of violence, but always in her dreams does she travel back as well. “Everyone says I should be afraid of you,/but all I want to do is return to you”. Such yearning taps into a universal truth that uprooted peoples everywhere will understand. It cannot be explained rationally, but poetry never can.