Where are the cadavers?
The skeletons won’t be kept in the closet. They’re hidden everywhere, haunting everything: “Under the brush / In the scrub / Upon the bridges / In the canals / There Are Cadavers.” So begins Néstor Perlonger’s masterpiece Cadavers — newly released in a beautiful Spanish/English bilingual edition from Cardboard House Press, translated by Roberto Echavarren and Donald Wellman— a restless queer elegy for victims of Argentina’s Dirty War.
From 1974–1983, a right-wing military junta (installed by the CIA’s Operation Condor in South America) ushered in a violent era for Argentina. Colonial-enabled state terrorism targeted leftist dissidents including students, journalists, and artists. At least 30,000 people became los desaparecidos — the disappeared, who were secretly kidnapped, detained, or killed by the state. Perlongher, a poet and gay rights activist, fled Buenos Aires for refuge in São Paolo. Supposedly, the long bus ride into exile provided him the dramatic setting to compose his most famous poem.
Formally, Cadavers exhumes the disappeared cadavers through persistent chains of serialized prepositions, until each stanza lands on the refrain “There Are Cadavers” (Hay Cadáveres). This ominous Poe-like repetition is the animating force of the poem, emphasizing the felt absence of Argentina’s missing population. The cadence of hyperspecific prepositions bear witness to the disappeared within the mundane and epic on dizzying scales. Sound the alarm:
in the little flasks of pig milk which country girls
lavish on their pimps, in the fjords
where port and maritime girls remain until dawn, as if
hidden, with their baggy pants full; in the
moisture of those little bags, balls, that are flattened by the moving
of those from
There Are Cadavers
Notice the erotically charged language. Double entendres, secretions, and effusive grunts (Ay, uh) give queer resonances to Perlongher’s project of bringing the cadavers out of the closet. Indeed, the sexual dimension of Perlongher’s poem should not be understated in light of Perlongher’s homosexuality and his activist work with the Frente de Liberación Homosexual (Homosexual Liberation Fronts — one of the first LGBT organizations worldwide).
In juxtaposing erotic and political bodies, Perlongher queerly attends to evasions and silences to unveil out-of-sight mechanisms of state repression. When he writes, “It was to see despite all evidence / It was to fall silent against all silence / It was to protest against every act / Against all licking to suck,” Perlongher queers the silence of the government’s disappearing act, resignifying the very mechanism he is up against. To fall silent against all silence… Perlongher draws on silence as a resource for protesting erasure. Perlongher endows silence with sexual vitality and possibility — all wiped out.
Perlongher’s expansive lists marshall evidence against the military regime. Despite the governments’ efforts to snuff dissidents, their Cadavers cannot be scrubbed out of history. Perlongher reinforces this message by capitalizing “Hay Cadáveres” — mirrored in the English translation by “There Are Cadavers,” especially that capitalized verb of being “Are.” Capitalization and other language games take on political significance in an ontological struggle for recognition and acknowledgement. The Cadavers Are decidedly real. Present, even in absentia.
A subtle shift occurs as Cadavers progresses. While Perlongher initially indexes and details physical places where the disappeared are present, he later explodes “in” to accommodate temporal locations. The disappeared haunt everyday actions and inside gestures. For example, Perlongher describes cadavers appearing “in the moan of that chorus girl who sold ‘federal badges’” and “in the quickies on ‘unconscious’ divans.” Perlongher’s disappeared insidiously sneak into small quotidian scenes such as sewing and sex, radicalizing these moments as acts of resistance against the military regime. “In” becomes both incessant and inescapable:
In the collapse of this writing
In the blurring of those inscriptions
In the blending of these legends
In the conversations of lesbians who display the marks left by their garters.
In that elastic fist,
There Are Cadavers.
To say “in,” isn’t it a marvel?
An attempt at centering?
A centering of the central, whose forward
dies at dawn and decomposes by
There Are Cadavers
Perlongher focuses on the preposition “in” as a potential space for subversion, “an attempt at centering.” In contrast to the state’s goal of removal — to eradicate people on the margins and kick them out — Perlongher’s stated intention of re-placing the marginalized in the center emphasizes the centrality of the disappeared to Argentina’s national narrative. What’s at stake is whose lives matter.
Perlongher’s poetry of witness exposes and indicts a rotten carcass economy, to invoke contemporary Chicago-based poet Daniel Borzutzky. This phrase, which recurs throughout Borzutzky’s ouvre, bluntly names the permeability of flagrant corruption and political violence in late capitalism. As he expounded at a reading in Chicago for his new book Lake Michigan, the image of a rotten carcass economy expresses “what it means to live in an environment where there are dead bodies all around you.” Not just dead, but deadened. The rotten stench pervades and interrupts our everyday motions, all thanks to the orchestrated machinery of an indiscreet carcass economy.
The specter of disappeared lives in Chicago and Chile (where Borzutzky is originally from) motivates his political poetry. Victims of the carceral state, police brutality, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and racist economic policies populate Borzutzky’s surreal landscapes. Indeed, some lines from Borzutzky’s previous book, The Performance of Becoming Human, could double as a description of Cadavers:
The sentences are collapsing one by one and the bodies are collapsing in your bloody hands and you stitch me up and pray I will sleep and you tell me of the shattered bus stops where the refugees are waiting for the buses to take them to the mall where they are holding us now and there was a man outside nobody is making comments about perspective and scale and light and there is light once more and your bloody fingers.
Borzutzky’s ominous tone and hyperspecific imagery of violence matches Perlongher’s. Desperation and insistence linger in both of their critiques of political systems. I find a quote from Borzutzky’s interview with BOMB particularly insightful: “The intensity comes from a sense of desperation inseparable from the one I have felt while living through and observing the last ten years of life in the globalized US. But it’s also a desperation to articulate this mess so as to not fall into an even deeper despair.” It seems an almost dystopian motivation— writing through the air of despair to avoid even deeper despair. This despair is almost banal: the engaged citizen’s activity of “living through and observing.” Given the desperate circumstances, writing must take the form of vigilant watch.
The writer as witness has a responsibility to recognize and call out injustices, especially in the face of euphemisms and cover-ups. Bluntness feeds Borzutzky’s fiery critiques in Lake Michigan, especially his interlinked strings of self-equivalent metaphors. Disrupting the typical comparison-oriented mechanics of metaphor’s likening of “x” to “y”, Borzutzky tautologically reminds readers that “x” is, sickeningly, exactly like “x”. Call it what it is:
The police shooting boys are like police shooting boys
And the nazis burning Jews are like nazis burning Jews
And the police protecting nazis are like police protecting nazis
And the prisoners who are tortured are like prisoners who are tortured
And my baby is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth who is like a baby with a bullet in its mouth
And the disappearing public employees are like disappearing public employees
And the puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner is like a puddle of vomit from a tortured prisoner
And the hunger of an actual child is the hunger of an actual child
Borzutzky’s turn to literalization politicizes euphemistic language as a violent erasure. His insistent repetition is head-on and rejects softer renaming, thereby indicting state violence as unacceptable. By drawing parallels contextualizing Chicago’s police violence against a global backdrop of colonialism and fascism, Borzutzky refuses to be a complicit witness as history repeats itself.
If we turn away, there are no cadavers.