Levi Vonk | Longreads | August 2018 | 7 minutes (1,927 words)

In the prelude to Mario Chard’s “Caballero,” we are presented with a car crash. We are told that the crash happened in the desert, that there was no one around. Two accounts of the crash exist. The first is a succinct description by the Associated Press:

Eight of the 14 people in the Chevy Suburban died
after it rolled several times on U.S. 191 a few hours
before dawn Monday. Salas-López, originally from
Guatemala, told investigators he swerved to miss a
horse. He was arrested after fleeing into the desert…

The second is a quote from the sergeant investigating the crash:

The passengers say no, he wasn’t swerving to miss a
horse, that he was fondling a female passenger in the
front seat of the vehicle.

At first it seems an all-too-familiar migration narrative, the harsh coalescence of movement and death, of sexual exploitation and isolation, which has become a defining aesthetic of the U.S.-Mexico border. Of course the coyote lies. Of course the victim dies. We find ourselves in bitter but accustomed topography.

Instead, “Say it was a horse,” writes Chard in the first canto of “Caballero,” and we move into stranger territory.

Chard writes migration as mythic act. It is the space between two spaces, the roving boundary between here and there, then and now. Migration, like myth, exists in a timespace apart.

Chard’s tireless pursuit of the horse, and his mapping of all the lands and languages the horse leads us to, is the true and driving brilliance of his first collection of poetry, Land of Fire, published by Tupelo Press this March. This shrewd approach manages to capture the bleak contours of the American immigration landscape today, all the while blurring its edges. Chard is one of the most promising writers of migration today. His work is not simply an indictment of walls, but a careful tracing of their erection and the process by which we become encircled, and how we might yet find a way out.

However, in “Caballero,” the collection’s lynchpin composed of a prelude and six cantos, this strategy at first seems horrifically callous. Throughout we are asked to choose between a variety of uncanny dualisms, the most persistent of which is: Was it a horse or sexual assault? To entertain the coyote’s version of the story when a young woman has died at his hand is a wretched endeavor.

But Chard’s dualisms are not about polarity, yin and yang, of choosing the horse over the passenger — they are about the two broken things left when a border cleaves the world in two. The choices presented in Land of Fire reflect the ambiguity haunting all human distinctions, but also ambiguity’s generative potential — and they suggest a means of holding the coyote accountable.

Chard writes migration as mythic act. It is the space between two spaces, the roving boundary between here and there, then and now. Migration, like myth, exists in a timespace apart. It is the momentum that moves the story and the thing to which the story returns.

It makes sense, then, that Land of Fire weaves its contemporary immigrant tale with two biblical themes: the Fall as recounted in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and meditations on fatherhood in the shadow of Abraham’s command to kill his son. One story of being cast from home, the other of sacrificing something most dear.

Other bible stories appear, but in new forms: “Mouth,” an early poem in the collection that reinterprets the Old Testament story of Daniel being cast into the lions’ den, is also a clear allusion to Freud’s own mythic mouth that dually speaks the cure while it tongues the illness. The poem’s epigraph is by Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni: La vida es una cueva, la muerte es el espacio. (“Life is a cave, death is the space,” or, alternatively, “death is the emptiness.”)

The cave becomes the architecture we build around death, whether that be psychoanalysis, or immigration policy, or, for Chard, a book of poetry.

Even Chard’s asterisms, which divide Land of Fire into five sections, invite this kind of dual interpretation. Instead of the common asterisk, the symbols appear to either be flowers blooming or ships with their sails unfurled, a bouquet or a fleet. They bring to mind the tulip mania that gripped the Dutch during their slave-powered Golden Age, over a century after first contact with the Americas, and the speculative and illusory machinery that financed colonization the world over — or la Niña, la Pinta, and la Santa María, whose contact spurred these new economic machinations. All the men and horses who arrived to burn and conquer from Tierra del Fuego to the tips of the Rockies.

Chard grapples with this exact subject in the sixth canto of “Caballero”:

You’ve heard the Spanish
conquered Mexico
on their horses.

You’ve heard the conquered
could not tell
the man from the horse
and ask me

How do we know
the conquered knew?

They listened. The horses
never spoke.

Chard digs deeper into the nature of speaking and language in his two contrasting and interwoven poems “Parable of Migrants” and “Parable of Prophets.” In the first, the narrator laments how ungrateful the migrants are, how wastefully they use his water to wash their feet. But in “Prophets,” the same travelers are now revered, God-sent, and this new naming transforms them. The narrator is also transformed. Rather than scorn the migrants, the narrator becomes angry

… at the way God saw need
to clothe his ministers in rags, the same God
who once gave prophets staffs to curse a boulder
for the water underneath…

Othering is a process of language. The stranger is made strange because he is pronounced so. It is not only a matter of slurs, but of deletion. In “Repetition” the question is asked:

How did the bird get inside the house?
Through the door I said.
No. Through a window. Listen they said How did the
bird get inside the house?

The questioning continues until it has abstracted all qualities of the bird:

The bird is nameless. Who named the bird?
I said No one. The bird is nameless.
What is your name? They said.
I am nameless I said.

As soon as it is determined that the bird has not entered through the door — the only legitimate entrance — everything unravels. Here the process of language and immigration policy is laid bare. “Nameless” can be substituted for “illegal.”

Illegality defines through negation. Any complexity that the U.S. immigration system feigns — the spiraling and opaque categorizations between asylum and refugee and tourist and trafficking victim and special immigrant juvenile — is suffocated by the word “illegal.”

The bird cannot speak. The bird is nameless. The bird is not asked its name until it has no name to give.

In the age of borders that kill, of an administration that crashes and blames the horse, our duty is to understand how we might use the driver’s lies against him. To lure him into the desert he has made.

From “Renditions” we move to “The Oath,” and the bird becomes Chard’s mother as she performs the ritual motions of a U.S. naturalization ceremony:

In the oath my mother
cleared her throat before
a word then said the word,
made the same sound
I knew to listen for
when I had lost her in a crowd, […]

The physical and psychic consequences of namelessness begin in the mouth, on the page. Citizenship actually strips Chard of his mother, she becomes something else. Inclusion becomes predicated upon exclusion:

[…] They took
her country when she spoke,
but the cords that first
learned Spanish in her throat
spoke first: last strains of loss
and its resistance.

And there are even more overt ways to be disappeared. Land of Fire searches for the remains of existence in the non-space of the U.S.-Mexico borderland, but also in the hidden place of Argentina’s Dirty War.

In “Machismo,” we follow a man named Refugio, which means “refuge” in Spanish. In his belt buckle we see:

the figures of the men unmade inside it,
the thousands vanished in its glass.

Machismo, Oedipal and phallic, here does not penetrate, but rather vanishes others, turns life into empty space, makes nothing with nothing. It is an eerie parallel to the Dirty War, which is recounted in the very next poem, “Banner Trees”:

The disappeared were drugged
then dropped from planes into the delta.

If there is any consolation, it is that Chard works to mark the disappeared. In death they can be located in the delta. This mapping provides a slim but material chance at, if not justice, then a process of uncovering, of reckoning.

This leads us back to the horse, the two versions of the crash, and the death that Chard builds Land of Fire around. The horse’s appearance is the moment we question what is truth and what is falsehood. In the first canto of “Caballero”, Chard writes:

… Say it was
the horse he followed

in the desert. Say it was
the desert, the sagebrush
that kept the horse. Say

it was the trail he left…

In an era of regulated immigration, what we are left with is twofold: First, the reality that regulation is an attempt to order truth. And it may produce a kind of truth, a myth of what truth is, but this does not mean that is it actually the truth. The horse is conjured.

Second, that the pursuit of such a truth only creates greater confusion. What Chard understands is that whether the horse was at the scene of the crash or not is the wrong question. Of course the horse was a lie; of course the horse is here with us now.

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In “The Ground,” one of the collection’s strongest poems, we are introduced to presumably another victim of the crash whose grave marker simply reads “UNKNOWN MALE”:

Did he dream? Yes.
And after the crash?

Died in the dream.
Inside. Or woke
in the sand. The brush.

The ground was his dream.

Here, again, the unseen is deadly, the immaterial kills — the man dies in the dream. But to say “The ground was his dream” is to intertwine the immaterial with the material world. The dream kills, the ground kills. The desert kills because of its phantasmal border. It is this intertwining of space and non-space, the imaginary and the real, that transforms the desert into a deadly thing, its starkness masking a churning and multifarious ruthlessness.

To pursue the horse is to track all the myths and lies and truths that make up the desert, to see what is being built around death. It is to look death in the mouth.

In this way, Chard flips the horse’s story. The horse is the one who gets revenge on the driver. The lie becomes the thing that swallows the liar. In the age of borders that kill, of an administration that crashes and blames the horse, our duty is to understand how we might use the driver’s lies against him. To lure him into the desert he has made.

But we must go further still.

The eight migrants who died were — are — real people. The crash was — is — real. Their deaths were and are still real. Retaliation is one thing; ensuring that such catastrophe does not happen again, even and especially at the cost of ourselves, is another. In Chard’s final poem “Spoke,” everything changes:

… — I listened —
horses spoke. Kept sacred names.

We learn there are many horses, not one. They are not simply dreamed up by the driver, but speak for themselves. Free of the driver, they share their own sacred names. We come to understand that those conjured by lies may also be actually real and, if we listen to them, are something entirely other than what we imagined:

The horse breaking free of its master’s myth. The migrant on whom catastrophe is timelessly heaped. The horse speaking. The migrant beyond the borders. The migrant speaking. The names heard. All, for a moment, transformed.

* * *

Levi Vonk is a writer and PhD student at UC Berkeley, where he works with Central American migrants traveling through Mexico. His work has appeared in Rolling StoneThe Atlantic, and The Guardian, among other outlets.

Editor: Dana Snitzky