In her new poetry collection, I Was A Bell, M. Soledad Caballero explores the ways in which our bodies remember the past and the present, and what we lose or gain in the process of this remembering. The book, published by Red Hen Press (redhenpress.org), spans from her childhood in Chile, to becoming a resident of America, then to her cancer diagnosis as an adult. I Was A Bell weaves together these points of migration and illness, as well as the violence that comes along with growing up in the aftermath of a coup.
In one of the poems, “Immigration Office, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1985,” the reader learns about terms like “stowaway” that were used to describe immigrants who “came by water.” The poem reads:
“We were a sign of something/still buried but pulsing outward/from Oklahoma to Texas to other/borders, legal, illegal, the things/that happened in between.”
Caballero wrote most of the book splitting time between her homes in Pittsburgh and Meadville, where she is a professor at Allegheny College. She also spent some time in Chile during a sabbatical in 2017. She has been a professor at Allegheny for almost 20 years and has spent part of her time in Pittsburgh for the past 12 years.
The early poems in the book are about the 1973 Chilean coup, where President Salvador Allende was deposed. The poems recount stories of torture and disappearances of citizens of Chile who were taken away in black vans, “their bodies not just/a story.”
Caballero says she wrote these poems, in part, to document the horrors of the coup, but also to interrogate how people are capable of, and how they justify, violence.
Caballero’s family left Chile in 1980, and much of the book deals with this flight, or, perhaps, displacement from their home.
“We were supposed to go back and then we didn't, and then we never talked about it. It was just that specter, that haunting and I just felt, like, well, how would I put it together for myself now as an adult?” she says.
In addition to the demeaning language used to categorize immigrants, the poems also dive into the topic of Caballero’s use of Spanish as a language spoken in childhood, and then reclaimed in adulthood.
“Spanish, as I was growing up, was always like an intimate, private language, like in my own family, that's how it was. My parents were very keen on making sure we did know English,” she explains. “They didn't want our not knowing English to interfere with our success, you know, with that triumphalist immigrant stuff.”
Caballero says she has written poetry since she was a child, and her mother used to read her poetry in Spanish, which she would recite back to her mother. She did an honors thesis in poetry for undergrad, but found that, as she shifted to getting her Ph.D. in literature, her poetry took a back seat. It wasn’t until she was diagnosed with and treated for cancer that the desire to work on her own writing returned.
“I got cancer in 2015 and I was sick and in treatment most of 2016,” says Caballero. “I had a cancer that was ‘curable.’ It was stage two, but it was a hard year. I realized, why am I putting this off? Why am I not doing this? So I think I'm motivated by the perception I had, that maybe this was the second chance to try this, to really devote myself to it.”
“Too much life. That is/what the doctor says. Many routes of muscles, blood/to dance with, invade. So many ways to make mountains/of death.”
Here, the use of words like “dance” does not diminish the severity of what the language is trying to convey, but only adds to the threatening nature of what she is describing. In her own words, Caballero describes a similar motivation to why she wrote the poems about Chile and the coup.
“I think the body knows things and has a whole understanding of its history, that if we're not paying attention, produces more hurt, produces more violence, in a way,” she says. “I wanted to understand that, how is it that my body produced this cancer?”
In addition to the heavier subject matter, there are also love poems, to her husband and to her niece, scattered in the collection. In a book that deals with violence and illness, these love poems serve as an anchor of relief for the reader.
With the book set to release on Tue., Sept. 7, Caballero says she is looking forward to reading in the company of other poets, specifically at her upcoming virtual book launch hosted by White Whale Bookstore. It was set to happen in person, but has moved online, so readers can attend even if they aren’t in Pittsburgh.
“I'm looking forward to seeing if the book connects with people,” she says.
Virtual Poetry Book Launch: I Was a Bell by M. Soledad Caballero with guests. 7-8:30 p.m. Fri., Sept. 10. Free. Zoom link provided with required registration. whitewhalebookstore.com/events