November 25, 2009

Review by Cindy Williams Gutiérrez Dreaming the End of War by Benjamin Ali Saenz

DREAMING THE END OF WAR
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Copper Canyon Press
P.O. Box 271
Port Townsend, WA 98368
ISBN 1-55659-239-6
$15.00, 71 pp., 2006
www.coppercanyonpress.org

“You must read this book in one sitting: it’s an unforgettable experience.” Joseph Bednarik of Copper Canyon Press wasn’t exaggerating. Dreaming the End of War by Benjamin Alire Sáenz turned out to be the memorable find at last year’s Wordstock in Portland, Oregon. I am still haunted by the beauty of its unflinching truth.

From the moment I sat down with it through the last line, Sáenz took me on a gripping twelve-part vision quest that awakens hope as much as it incriminates human nature. Only a bold seer would dare to dream of things the world has never seen:

I dream. The day. I dream that all

the wars are done. I dream the earth, having lost

all patience, rises up in its own revolution,

erasing all the lines we have carved

on her back. I dream there are no more

nations. This is what I dream—that

nations do not matter.

A modern-day shaman, Sáenz enters “the dream-time” wide awake. He is keenly aware of his own and the world’s limitations: “I know it is easy/ for me to dream these things because I am sitting in the comfort/ of my office. Because I am not a Jew. Because I am not a Palestinian./ … Because/ The guns are not pointing at me.”

Dreaming the End of War is brave enough to damn (“and killed and killed/ rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat/ and in my heart I killed/ rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat/ my brothers more than once/ I killed, I killed, I killed”) and even braver to hope (“I dream Eden and a garden/ in their hearts./ I dream. The day”). But what made this collection impossible for me to put down is Sáenz’s powerful blend of humanity and humility—his incrimination begins with himself: “Hitler is alive and living/ in my heart.”

And his incriminations don’t abate. None of the living escapes unscathed and none of the dead remains unnamed:

Nicaragua Cuba Vietnam
Panama Salvador Haiti
Kuwait Afghanistan Iraq
Korea Russia Guatemala
Selma Hanoi Birmingham
Manzanar Dachau El Mazote
My Lai Abu Graib Tlatelolco
Guantánamo Guantánamo Guantánamo

Ruthlessly, Sáenz urged me to remember. In a time of war, he encouraged me not to turn away but to brave the terrain of the human heart. With brutal veracity, he confronts savagery in his own life: “My niece, thirteen years old,/ shot in the back of the head, executed/ in some barbaric ritual.” Through the relentless act of naming, he condemns the dehumanization of “institutionalized murder” and puts a face on war:

I think that killing has been made too easy—it has

Always been too easy. I think you should be forced

To know the name of a man before you spill his blood, know

The name of his wife and the names of each of her daughters

And sons. I think the names of the dead should appear

On the walls of every church, synagogue, and mosque…

I try to imagine the names of all who have been killed…

I couldn’t stop myself. I tried to imagine, too.

Then Sáenz lured me to the next dream. With his dreamscape placed spaciously on the page, it was impossible to rush through this provocative sequence of linked poems. From the poignant “Prologue: Do Not Mind the Bombs” (“The wars are everywhere. I’ll plant/ another tree. Something to survive the torture/ of the sun”) through “The Twelfth Dream: Dream the Day” (“And as I die, I see/ the resurrection of the animals, victims of our greed/ and gluttonous wars”), these poems must be sat with; they must be minded. Now I want to sit with one a month. By the end of a year, what, then, will I dream—with all that spaciousness in my heart?

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Cindy Williams Gutiérrez is a poet-dramatist who collaborates with artists in theatre, music, and visual art. Her poems and reviews have been published in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Calyx, Harvard’s Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Quiddity International Journal and Public-Radio Program, Rain Taxi, ZYZZYVA, among others. She has an MFA from the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast Program with concentrations in ancient Mexican poetics and creative collaboration.