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  • Alfredo Aguilar and Laura Villareal

Cenizas by Cynthia Guardado

$16.95 | University of Arizona Press | September 2022 | 80 Pages | ISBN: 9780816546176


Alfredo Aguilar (AA): Picking a place to begin talking about a book can always be a bit difficult, especially when there is so much to draw on as in the case here with Cenizas. Maybe we should start with some of the poems near the front of the book? I’ll have more on this later but I felt like these first poems did the important and difficult work of setting up for us as readers much of what follows throughout the rest of the book. What were your thoughts on some of these first poems?

Laura Villareal (LV): A strong book of poetry uses its opening poems to teach the reader how to read the collection. Cynthia Guardado is exceptionally successful in doing that. I enjoyed Guardado’s reflection on her last name in the first poem “Guardado: 1. The Guarded 2. Put Away” as a way of entering the collection. It began the work of contextualizing family history. Also the heart of this poem, “This name– / branded on my family– rises out of / the ashes in the wind,” is something I thought of often as I read the rest of the book. That being said, I’d like to look at “The Historian” with you.

Family history is tricky– sometimes it feels like a game of telephone. Stories are lost, changed, or family members remember a story differently. I think poets often become de facto family historians because we’re interested in how history has influenced our existence.

In “The Historian” Guardado writes,

I am writing this: because no one else has (& don’t we deserve history too?). I’m tired of turning to a (disappearing) time line where the only highlights are the smell of a cantón & the ashes (of everyone) (before us). My mother (stands in the kitchen half a world away) tries to remember (for me) (for her); her research is in the deep sea (of memory)

Using parentheticals is an interesting move; they’re a sort of self-editorializing. What did you think of the parentheticals?

I think poets often become de facto family historians because we’re interested in how history has influenced our existence.

AA: Absolutely agree with you about how the opening poems teach the reader how to approach the book. In thinking about the opening poem I’m struck by the use of definition and pronunciation at the very beginning. The word Guardado is defined in the title of the poem as “1. The Guarded 2. Put Away” and in the poem is broken down into its sounds: “Gwarr-dah-doh.” It reminds me of an entry in a dictionary and I can’t help thinking that the defining of terms/words at the outset of the collection is a kind of frame. That it's important for both the collection and the speaker of the poems to begin in defining the terms of what will unfold in the collection. Definition here is something of key. But even the definition here is diverse in what Guardado can mean. For example:

My name a destination, Los Guradados,

a place of ancestors & colonization. This name—

branded on my family…

I am Guardado Guardado:

a name that hides history from itself.

Here name is a site of colonial history, land, family, and self. The last lines feel like a great ending that to me as a reader signaled much of what was to come in the poems that followed. It prepared me for a kind of unearthing and bringing to light of a history (familial, colonial) that has gone unspoken and suppressed and all the difficulty and complexity that is involved in that endeavor. It’s an exemplary opening poem and a wonderful way to begin this collection.

In “The Historian,” I was also sensing a sense of duty to archive intersecting histories of family and embattled countries. Lines like “No hay bibliotecas en donde estamos guardados” and “I am writing this because no one else has (& don’t we deserve history too?)” highlight this need to archive and preserve histories that can only be found in people, and in this case the speaker’s family. Also family history is tricky! There is rarely just one objective defining story. I think the use of parentheticals point to that in some way. In the poem the parentheticals add in details like in the quote above about how, where, when, why, and who. It's a story but it's also clearly the speaker’s subjective experience of that story.

There is one more thing I wanted to touch on within this poem and that's its sense of urgency in documenting and keeping stories. I’m thinking of the lines “la academia es mi mamá…She is the only person I know who knows my history…I’m tired of turning to a (disappearing) time line.” Here the speaker turns to their one source, their mother, to understand their family. Simultaneously other stories and family members pass into silence and will never be able to be recovered. I get the sense that this history already has so many gaps in it and yet the speaker positions themselves in the face of and against oblivion by insisting on tracing memory. This poem for me really states what is at risk in writing these poems.

There are other instances of the use of parentheticals throughout the collection. I’m thinking specifically of “How I Remember It, After He Hit Me.” Did you feel like they’re doing similar work of self-editorializing or maybe something else?

LV: I had the same thought about a dictionary entry with the first poem.

Your observation that “the speaker positions themselves in the face of and against oblivion by insisting on tracing memory” resonated with me as I went back through the book looking for parentheticals. By my count there are 12 poems in the collection that use them. As I looked back, I thought perhaps a better descriptor for how they’re functioning is that they’re filling in the silences. Though the collection is seeking actively to create a record there are still silences in every family story and I feel like the parentheticals are doing the work of giving as close of a record as possible. They resist ambiguity in storytelling– revealing facts, clarifications, and pieces of information that may go unspoken among family.

In “How I Remember It, After He Hit Me,” the parentheticals work to retell a difficult story about the speaker’s father using violence against them while showing the sense of uncertainty that accompanies the memory. The poem says,

That was the last time he hit me

(or at least this is what I believe).

(Is this the story

I retell—the one in which

I recall my father’s shame?)

My father is intentional in the way

he doesn’t hit my youngest sister,

the way Abuela taught him, too.

Abuela stood over him without restraint:

switch in hand

her arm pulling back

until everything was blurry.

He is intentional now

because the switch,

the nearby tree,

the piece of wood

are all connected in memory.

(My father told me this, right?)

The parentheticals contain the speaker’s doubt about if it was truly the last time their father hit them. There are also moments that I interpret as being protective and sympathetic of the father. The speaker acknowledges how patterns of violence can be passed down. Breaking cycles of generational family violence can be difficult—people often return to what they know or how they were raised. It’s revealed in those parentheticals that the speaker’s father feels shame for his actions and as we move into the next stanza we learn that he is being “intentional in the way” he doesn’t hit the speaker’s youngest sister the way his mother hit him. The stanzas that follow feel like they’re meant to justify the father’s actions but then we get to another parenthetical that says “(My father told me this, right?)” and we return to the speaker’s feeling of doubt about how their memory was shaped. Memory can often be altered by whoever enacted the violence or abuse and due to trauma itself. Our brains try to protect us. Did you have thoughts on this poem?

AA: I’m really taken with your idea that the parentheticals are sometimes used to fill in the spaces of silence; all the things that have by various people and entities been kept silent and silenced. I also felt that the parentheticals were also doing the work of adding a kind of subjective texture. While many of the poems in this collection seek to bring into language a kind of history, thereby preserving it, there are moments where the speaker gestures to their own subjectivity in their recording, mostly in the way of parentheticals. This felt most apparent to me in sections from “The Historian'' you quoted. Also because the speaker is dealing in recording memory, that act inevitably leads to some slippage and things not being remembered the way they “really” happened. It’s the nature of memory for it to not be exact. For me the inclusion of that subjectivity and slippage is a gesture to the idea that there is no one single story that could explain everything. But in the face of that the poet still attempts in their searching because they need an explanation to how they and their family got to where they are. And memory, though faulty, is their only tool.

When I read “How I Remember It, After He Hit Me,” I was really taken with the use of parentheses in the stanzas you quoted. The speaker can’t seem to trust their own memory about what happened exactly, which is one aspect of trauma. The need to make sense of the inheritance of how family harms one another, particularly the relationship between parents and children, is most apparent in that last stanza you quoted. It seeks to draw the line from further back in the family to make sense of what happened and why people are the way they are, but then the speaker immediately questions where that conclusion came from. Was it something their father said or was it something that they arrived at in searching for an explanation for the harm that was done to them?

In the latter half of the poem the speaker “can’t find the moment in which / he shared this truth, but I do / just barely see a memory of Abuela—.” The idea of a “just barely” seen memory feels so apt in describing a story that maybe the speaker has heard many times, so much so that they have an image of it in their head but it's only the shape of the memory, of the story. Also toward the end there is this imagining into what looks like a tender future where the speaker’s father reconciles with his mother “when he holds her small hand against his, / [he] imagines this was how/ she cradled his small body after birth.” Memory in this poem works in interesting ways, and not just in the speaker. There is a compelling moment here where the father forgives his mother for violence in childhood and imagines a tenderness that might not have been there. He invents the memory of tenderness in the act of forgiveness. I also can’t help but wonder if this is the road that the speaker is starting out on but is simultaneously wary of in the space of the parenthesis. Like maybe they can be forgiving, but they’re suspicious of any memory of tenderness that may or may not have in fact been there.

LV: I like how you’ve described the parentheticals as adding “subjective texture.” The suspicion of memory you’re honing into is one of recurring themes of the collection. It feels like a very human impulse to look for the good, the tender, or the nostalgic in memory particularly if the memory is not a positive one about family members we love. Everyone we love is more complicated in reality than our memories of them.

If it’s okay, I’d like to look at another poem that uses parentheticals in an interesting way. “Reflejo” was a poem I returned to often in this collection. It’s an ekphrastic based off of “Untitled (Niños I), San Antonio Los Ranchos, Chalatenango, El Salvador, 1988, by U.S. photographer Donna DeCasare.” Should we talk about it?

AA: Yes, I’d love to talk about “Reflejo.” It’s a fascinating and dynamic ekphrastic poem. One of the more compelling things that I found in this poem when reading it was the various ways of looking and the different kinds of people doing that looking. The poem itself meditates on a photograph taken by a white woman of a young Salvadoranian boy with the remains of a bomb and the speaker’s proximity to that boy. But even with that as its frame the speaker realizes how narrow it is: “But this photo will not tell us: his mother was killed / by militares & his father joined la guerrilla.” The speaker, in engaging with this photograph is also cognizant of its limits and where it might fall short and writes into that space, filling in the gaps.

The speaker is looking at this child who is looking back at the photographer, and simultaneously at the speaker in their position as viewer. The photograph was captured during a time of embattlement in the country for which the speaker is in some ways proximate to but not present for to the same extent. Guardado writes: “the placard says 1988; / he is the same age as me when i board planes / in & out of war.” The speaker compares the life that the boy is living in the “aftermath / from attacks on his village.” with her own life in a different country: “at age four, / i was convinced the only force against me / was a preschool fence:” There is distance between these lives that is measured in more than miles and the speaker is tracing that as well as seeing something of themselves in this child and a life she could have lived had her family stayed in their hometown. In seeing a reflection of themselves in this child though, the speaker is also aware of how their lives are dissimilar and not equivalent: “no entendía cómo se quemaban / los montes, ni cómo a un lado de tu casa / caían bombas. nunca nos conoceremos.” The speaker treads a difficult line of sympathy and proximity to what they know this child has lived, while at the same time acknowledging the limits of their knowing and empathy. It's done very skillfully here.

Towards the end of the poem, the speaker makes a departure from thinking on the photograph to thinking about their own childhood and a moment where:

at ten years old, caution tape wrapped around

a building in Inglewood like a noose still waiting,

& i imagine a dead body (even if i’ve

never seen one) (or at least this is what i believe).

To your point about parentheticals, here they are being used one right after the other to re-write or add on a thought only then to immediately question it. Again it is a gesture towards the slipperiness of memory and the subjective experience of living the memory and remembering it.

The poem then moves on to meditating on memory and forgetting. Guardado writes

i know i don’t remember much of my childhood

(& now my fading memories try to make their way

into this poem i’ve been writing for a decade);

the black hole that sits in my brain swallows up years,

& maybe this is my body’s way of protecting me,

the way the shell of the tortoise resists certain kinds of death.

Even though a number of the poems in this collection seek to preserve and lift memory out of forgetting and oblivion, here is a moment where the speaker questions if maybe forgetting is a way to preserve the self, especially a younger more vulnerable one. That to remember everything, especially the most hurtful things, may be more than the body can handle.

Forgetting is a part of survival and perhaps only after enough time has passed can one think of returning to retrieve what was forgotten.

What stood out to you in this poem?

That to remember everything, especially the most hurtful things, may be more than the body can handle.

LV: You covered many of the things I noticed about the poem very nicely so I’ll refrain from commenting too much on the poem other than to say I loved the last three lines you quoted. I agree with your praise for how skillfully she moves from photograph to considering the reality of the child’s life in the poem and then finally to how not remembering can be a sort of protection. The photograph becomes a conduit that amplifies memory. The poems in Cenizas struggle with how or if they should continue uplifting memory from silence. I’m reminded of the Salvadoran poet, Janel Pineda’s chapbook Lineage of Rain. Have you read it? I’d really love to see Pineda and Guardado in conversation one day.

Pineda and Guardado approach writing about the U.S. sponsored civil war in El Salvador differently; but I am struck by how certain sentiments are consistent in both poets' writing. Major threads like resisting silence and the heritage of trauma. In a poem called “The Assessment Form Asks About My Anxiety,” Pineda writes,

It wouldn’t be a story I’ve lived

But it is still a story of mine,

this muscle memory

of scavenging for scraps,

the insistence to prepare

to run, to hide, to flee.

Guardado’s poem “When People Say: But You Weren’t Born in El Salvador” echoes Pineda’s sentiment. This echo between both poets’ lives and writing conveys a deep sense of the war in El Salvador’s impact– that the violence from it reverberates for generations. The trauma of our parents and grandparents informs how we move through the world. We inherit their survival skills and anxieties. I think that’s why Guardado's penultimate poem “When People Say: But You Weren’t Born in El Salvador” felt so compelling. She opens the poem by writing,

all the blood inside my body

is a stream tethered to the roots of trees

stretching thousands of years

they have carried me for generations

from the past into my physical body (the future)

The image of blood “tethered to the roots of trees” is so evocative. Though anything related to families and trees can be an easy metaphor for lineage, I think that slight shift to include the blood and body makes it new again. Then the idea of roots that reach for “thousands of years” towards the future feels like a powerful shift in the image. What were your thoughts on this poem?

AA: I am familiar with Pineda's chapbook, though it has been sometime since I read it. But I think you’re right, there is a feeling or sentiment about memory, family, war, and silence that both poets take on in distinct ways.

There is a particular kind of embodiment and collapsing of time in “When People Say: But You Weren’t Born in El Salvador” which I found compelling. In the lines you quoted, it's the blood that feeds the tree and possibly vice versa. I’m with you on how the image of trees being a metaphor for family is perhaps the easy metaphor, but what I think makes it feel fresh is the inclusion of the corporeal, of blood. It's surprising, embodied, and distinct. The lines “they have carried me for generations / from the past into my physical body (the future)” begins a kind of collapsing or blurring of time, and there’s an interesting wrinkle about how the body or the corporeal exists in time. In these lines the speaker has been carried in the roots, in the blood for years before their own physical body comes into being. Their own physical existence is the future of those roots. Towards the end of the poem there is more about how the corporeal exists in and comes into time as well:

my soul bloomed in the dark of Abuela’s house

& migrated to another country

where my ancestors prayed for my parents

prayed over my unborn body…

until the day of my return

where my father (under pouring rain)

carried me across el río Las Minas

like baptism wading in water

What I find compelling here in my reading of the poem is that the speaker’s soul is born before their body. That their soul makes a journey to another country, where their ancestors invoke that soul, the soul returns to its origin, where it receives a baptism of sorts, and it is then that the speaker becomes embodied or is initiated into being corporeal. There is something here about only being real, being embodied upon returning or being returned to the waters of an origin that felt mysterious and compelling. That the speaker is returning to the place where their family has deep roots is a kind of communion or initiation into that place and what it means to be from and of there on some level.

Did you have any other thoughts on this poem? If not, we can maybe look at the final poem in the book.

LV: Oh, I love that you highlighted that section! I had a teacher once tell me that we had to fill our wells in order to write. At the time I thought he meant a well for water because reaching for language and coming up short feels like putting a bucket down in a well and finding there’s no water to me. Like I’m still thirsty for the language. But now I understand he meant well as in an inkwell– that we need to provide the ink to write. With Guardado’s book, I kept thinking how deep and full her well must be because metaphor and storytelling overflow in her work. There’s an effortless richness that I admire. The section you quoted is particularly keyed in on her ability to deftly enter the metaphysical.

Yes, let's talk about “Mi Querido El Salvador,.” It’s kind of funny that we’re ending here since you just shared a chapter called “Apostrophe” from Jonathan Culler ’s The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction with me. The use of apostrophe, which is the address of someone (or in this case El Salvador personified) and absent, was an unexpected surprise in the collection. Culler posits that the use of apostrophe is often considered embarrassing and explores why we as readers may feel that way. I have rarely felt that way about the rhetorical device but it was an interesting dissection of its function and effect. In what I read as defense of apostrophe, Culler writes, “Apostrophe is perhaps always an indirect invocation of the muse.” I felt this was true especially in Cenizas. El Salvador is the muse, purpose, and occasion for these poems. I thought it was wonderful that Guardado ended on this poem which is a sort of love letter to El Salvador. “Everyone says I should be afraid of you” is a repeating line in the poem as Guardado addresses the perils and dangers of the country. Her love is open-eyed. I was moved by the final lines:

Everyone says I should be afraid of you,

But all I want to do is return to you–

to run my hands through the humidity,

to let the fireflies call me tenderly into night,

to let you kiss me with the ashes on your tongue.

The tie in here with the title Cenizas and final image of “ashes” felt like a tidy ending. How did you feel about the poem?

AA: I also found the move at the end of this collection to address and personify El Salvador, which for much of the collection has been written about as a place of origin and where war has happened, surprising and moving. There is a kind of tenderness and vulnerability in this address, which might speak to the idea of apostrophe being embarrassing. I think part of the risk here in addressing El Slavador is that it could be written off as silly or absurd, but Guardado allows desire, vulnerability, and clear-eyed-ness to guide the poem. Guardado writes:

Everyone says I should be afraid of you

as if you have never held me in your hands…

You haven’t always been tender…

We don’t speak of the devil that invaded your home

even if we all know los Estados

killed your children, possessed your people,

Throughout this poem there are competing feelings of desire for a country and a tenderness it at times offered and the realization that the country is also capable of inflicting cruelty on the speaker and her family, while also acknowledging that the country itself has suffered cruelty at the hands of outsiders, namely the United States. However this acknowledgement seems implicit or something known and carried in silence; it is a truth that is too uncomfortable and painful to speak. I think too this poem tries to parse the difference between the idea of country and the idea of land, of government(s) and environment. This a dense and tangled situation and I felt the poem moves through that situation, which is one of history and desire, with great tact.

With regards to the end of the poem I’ve been thinking about these lines:

But I want todos nosotros

to climb volcanoes full of fire,

to touch volcanic rock & black sand–

to look inside your heart.

The way I read these lines was as a kind of collective acknowledgement and coming face to face with some of the most turbulent and searing wounds in the country. That prospect isn’t without its risk but in touching and witnessing that ruptured earth it seems like what might be gained is a sense of clarity. That ultimately one can still desire a place even though there is a considerable risk in the wanting and in how that place may or may not desire you back.


Alfredo Aguilar is the author of On This Side of the Desert (Kent State University Press, 2020), selected by Natalie Diaz for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. He is a recipient of 92Y’s Discovery Poetry Contest and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Frost Place. His work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Waxwing, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Born and raised in North County San Diego, he now resides in Central Texas where he is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers.

Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She earned her MFA at Rutgers University—Newark and has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts, National Book Critics Circle’s Emerging Critics Program, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program at University of Texas-Austin. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, AGNI, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.


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