Juarez, Mexico is frequently referred to as the most dangerous place in the world. A second’s worth of Googling will uncover terms like “Murder Valley” and news stories titled “Who Is Killing the Women of Juarez?” It is a city that is universally known for violence and death, and that reputation serves many purposes. The drug cartels that keep the city in a grip of fear have redefined the city of Juarez, transformed the world’s perception of the city into a war zone, a place where innocent victims die with startling regularity. Donald Trump used Juarez as a bullhorn through which he could amplify the anti-immigration fear of his base, and he hollered his battle cry all the way to the White House.
Washington State Poet Laureate Claudia Castro Luna’s latest collection is about Juarez. Killing Marías: A Poem for Multiple Voices tries to give voice to the innocent victims of Juarez — the young women who are killed as a result of the ongoing war of the cartels. Specifically, Castro Luna writes poems about women named María who were killed in Juarez — one poem per victim, with further cues taken from the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“María, you are now dead/nothing of you left,” begins a poem early in the book. It’s about as blunt as you can get: these are forgotten women, casualties of an unofficial war. But because the poem continues, those lines are disproven. In fact, this María exists…
…in the sinuous valleys
between these printed ridges
safe, the coolness of the page
In the book, María is remembered. She is safe and honored and never forgotten. Castro Luna writes, “my words are shelter,” and that sets the scene: Killing Marías is a shelter, a safe place for women who are in danger.
These aren’t just elegies for lost souls, or dirges about crimes. Some of the poems in Killing Marías are straight-up love poems. “Maria Elba Queen of Angels” is an appreciation: “Did someone ever/tell you,/that the winning/lottery ticket/was you?”
The idea of a person as a winning lottery ticket — as a better life, waiting to be claimed — is a heady one. But Castro Luna adds an air of ruefulness on it by phrasing it as a question. She is asking the María in question if she’s ever been told that, if she’s ever been seen and appreciated and admired for not just who she is but for what she had the potential to unlock. It’s sad and beautiful, a dream that recognizes it’s a dream.
Castro Luna interrogates these women, asks them if they’re haunted by their unfinished business. She asks one María if she would slice the testicles of the man who killed her. She wishes for another María “a safe patch/to be left alone/to nourish ourselves/and raise our young.” At its loftiest, Killing Marías expands beyond its concept. These aren’t just the Marías of Juarez. These women stand in for every woman who’s ever been beaten by a man, for every woman who’s been murdered by someone they once loved. Castro Luna writes about the bruises “blue green/like gasoline rainbows” that women carry “under long-sleeve shirts,” about the “misogynist fists/punching day and night” at the women of the world. It’s a continual assault, with no absolute safe harbor. For women, any place on earth has the possibility of becoming the most dangerous place on earth.
It must be noted that Castro Luna is not the sort of poet who crafts each line down into a diamond-perfect pressurized state. As a poet, she’s more journalist than jeweler: she’s not out to steal your breath with a perfect line so much as help you crawl inside someone else’s experience and walk around for a while. Empathy, not literary precision, is the goal.
And so sometimes, the reader will encounter a line that snaps, rather than rings. Here, Castro Luna writes about the things that women come to realize as they make their way in the world:
that your body is not your own
that women’s paychecks are cut short
that women’s wombs remain law controlled
That “law controlled” is sub-optimal. At the very least, it needs a hyphen — “law-controlled” — but the phrasing is so awkward that a rewrite, and not just a thorough editing, is in order.
But for every one of those problematic lines, there are a few dozen lines that do exactly what they need to do, that place us in Juarez alongside the Marías and reminds us of their essential personhood. Castro Luna tells the truth, and the truth doesn’t always fit perfectly into the shape of a poem. We’ve spent too long enthralled by beautiful perfect lies, in any case.
By memorializing these women, Castro Luna is performing as more than just a poet. She’s a eulogist and a pastor and a biographer and a commentator. And she’s also the Charon, ferrying these women from the land of the living to the land of the dead. It’s hard to imagine a better poet for the role.
Castro Luna, in her time as Seattle’s first Civic Poet and in her short time as the state’s Poet Laureate, has made it her business to provide a voice and a platform for people who need attention. With Killing Marías, she’s found her most perfect expression of that role. She speaks for those who cannot speak. She stands for those women who fell.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant