The Common Good
January-February 2000

Lamentations

by Rose Marie Berger | January-February 2000

Capturing sorrow with hope.

One definition for "death" is to become senseless, to lose one’s bearings. In Claribel Alegrfa’s Sorrow—her first collection of poems since her husband, Darwin Flakoll, died in 1995—she unearths the many ways one becomes lost when the bonds of love are loosed by death.

Death is something we all share, and yet often don’t share enough. Sorrow is a good companion for those walking in the darkened valley. The poems are short and simple, and they move at the pace of the human heart—from the companionship of absence to the desperate desire to rearrange time. Alegrfa rails against becoming a "king of desolate lands." She begs not to be left with only a ghost, "it’s you/you I love/the light in your eyes/in mine/your lips naming me." As translator Carolyn ForchT puts it, Alegrfa makes her way through this passage of grief by "seizing hold of the beloved’s light."

Employing the Greek myths, Alegrfa explores that twilight land between the living and the dead. In "The Lamentation of Ariadne," she begs her lost Theseus to seize the golden thread of her love and return to her. "Hermes" reveals the way Alegrfa’s wedding ring becomes a winged messenger. The unpredictable nature of grief is poignantly portrayed when Sisyphus is sent tumbling back to the mountain’s base, not by a boulder, but by a grain of sand.

Alegria is best known for her book Sobrevivo ("I Survive"), which received the Casa de las Americas poetry prize in 1978. Her themes are love poems to the land and people of El Salvador—where she grew up—and testimony to Latin America’s tortured and disappeared.

Poet-activist ForchT was the first to translate Alegrfa’s poetry into English, and the two forged a life-long friendship. Alegrfa’s later works were all translated by her husband. With Sorrow, Alegrfa returns to that original voice she found in ForchT’s translations. In the book’s foreword, ForchT recalls the grace, quick wit, and desire vividly present in Alegrfa and Flakoll’s marriage. "In their last decade and a half together in Central America," writes Forche, "[they] dedicated themselves to a community of souls engaged in work on behalf of social justiceà.[They] were filled with joy and unflagging in their devotion to each other."

During a 1995 interview, Bill Moyers asked Alegrfa how she reconciled the joy in her art with the painful realities of war, death, and torture. "When there is so much horror around you," she said, "I think you have to look at it. You have to feel it and suffer with the others and make that suffering yours. Horror [and suffering] can only be captured with hope."

Alegrfa does exactly that. In the midst of loss and losing one’s way, she drags her sorrow towards the light and the darkness cannot prevail against it.

—Rose Marie Berger

ROSE MARIE BERGER is assistant editor of Sojourners.

Sorrow. Claribel Alegria, translated by Carolyn Forche. Curbstone, 1/1/99.

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