The Chilean Bobby Sands: a protest poem by Carmen Berenguer

‘Someone should write a poem of the tribulations of a hunger-striker. I would like to, but how could I finish it,’ wrote Bobby Sands. A Chilean dissident took up his challenge

 

It was in 1983 that the Chilean poet Carmen Berenguer self-published her first poetry book. It was entitled Bobby Sands desfallece en el muro (Bobby Sands Expires at the Wall) and it caught her readers’ attention from its very title. Who was this Bobby Sands and why would a Chilean author consider such a foreign and transatlantic reference?

The context in which this poem was produced is of paramount importance. Chile had been in a dictatorship since 1973, and democracy would not be handed back to Chileans until 1990. The regime had clear ways to censor the literature and artistic production that did not go in line with what they promoted. Book burnings and Kafkaesque bureaucratic processes that delayed publication are just two of the ways in which the regime made sure they had control over official publications. Carmen Berenguer, however, decided to publish her own book. She made it herself with a small typing machine and a binding system. The few copies she manufactured were secretly shared among artists and readers who opposed Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and Bobby Sands desfallece en el muro soon became an icon of resistance writing.

Surprisingly, Carmen found her inspiration for the work in a newspaper article in El Mercurio – a daily that was clearly in favour of Pinochet’s regime – that told the story of Bobby Sands and how he died. In an interview I conducted with her, she was very emphatic when she indicated how much his death, and his rationale for striking, had made a huge impact on her, so she had to write the poem.

Her book is a homage to Sands in terms of his fight to be considered a political prisoner, something that was clearly relevant in the Chilean case as well, bearing in mind the great number of people imprisoned for thinking differently during the regime. Although the political context in the United Kingdom was different, as they had elected their prime minister democratically, Berenguer focused on Bobby Sands’ path to death and elevated it to a heroic category, slighting – or perhaps not knowing too much about – the fact that he had a complicated legacy in both the UK and Ireland that lasts until today.

Berenguer took the figure of Bobby Sands in order to make him speak for and about Chileans who were experiencing violence from the dictatorship. Her poetic version of Sands is a ventriloquist through which she writes against the regime, without addressing it directly.

The poem itself begins and ends with two quotations from Bobby Sands’ prison diary so as to remind her readers that, above all, she is honouring the prisoner. The poem ends up with the following quotation, extracted from a translation of Sands’ diary. While on his tenth day on hunger strike, the historical Bobby Sands wrote: “Tomorrow is the eleventh day and there is a long way to go. Someone should write a poem of the tribulations of a hunger-striker. I would like to, but how could I finish it” (229).

Carmen Berenguer reads her Bobby Sands poem

This excerpt shows that the historical Bobby Sands understands his inability to express what he goes through, as the process of deterioration when dying of starvation is fast and soon the senses fail. As these words close the poem, it is clear that Carmen Berenguer accepted Sands’ challenge and she indeed wrote “a poem of the tribulations of a hunger-striker”.

The Chilean Bobby Sands, in Berenguer’s poem, suffers as anyone would while voluntarily starving. The poet did a medically researched poetic description of a body that was losing strength and vitality day by day. Interestingly, Berenguer shaped the poem as a poetic diary, which describes what her Bobby Sands goes through from day 11 to 55 in her imagined Long Kesh/Maze Prison. She treats her Bobby Sands as someone who sacrifices himself for his ideals, who voluntarily experiences agony in order to fight for what he thinks is right. The many mistreated and disappeared dissidents of the Chilean dictatorship are other Chilean Bobby Sands who had to endure hardship but who endured in their principles and political stance.

Carmen Berenguer wrote the poem mostly in tercets – poems made of three lines – but also decided to add a visual dimension to her poem by including graffiti, as if the page was also a blank wall where her Bobby Sands could share his pain and resistance. Above is an example of a group of verses that express his path to death but that also draw his prison.

The poem Bobby Sands desfallece en el muro by Carmen Berenguer is part of an enormous legacy of literature written during dictatorship times in Chile. Her triumph is that she was able to dodge the regime’s means of censorship, and her poem has survived until our times, showing us that idealism as a general concept is something that never dies and that needs to be remembered.

Berenguer’s poem established her as one of the most important Chilean women writers of our era. Her Bobby Sands has been reprinted on several occasions. The fact that the poem has never been launched or published by a recognised and commercial printing house keeps its crafted or hand-made nature. The last edition of this book was a “cartonera” version. Cartoneras are independent publishers that make books with recycled cardboard boxes that become the book covers, they bind the books with needle and thread one by one, and include original illustrations. One edition, manufactured by La Joyita Cartonera from Santiago de Chile, was launched in December 2015 and consisted of only 50 unique copies. Berenguer read the whole poem for the first time in public on that occasion. There is audiovisual material on her reading that will keep her poem for posterity in another medium. In sum, her poetic Bobby Sands will remain as a symbol for those who fight for political reasons and never give up.

Bárbara Fernández Melleda is a PhD candidate in Hispanic Studies at the University of Edinburgh

References:

Berenguer, Carmen. Bobby Sands desfallece en el muro. Santiago de Chile: Carmen Berenguer, 1985. http://www.memoriachilena.cl/602/w3-article-9331.html

Sands, Bobby. Writings from Prison. Cork: Mercier Press, 1998.

Video of the launch of the last cartonera edition in Santiago de Chile, December 2015, in Spanish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUR65Rkqfuk

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