Raising the Dead: Claudia Castro Luna’s Killing Marías

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Claudia Castro Luna’s book, Killing Marías: A Poem for Multiple Voices (Two Sylvias Press, 2017), evokes, in elegiac verse, the “disappeared women” of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Each poem is named for a woman (a ‘María’) who was murdered or went missing in this US/Mexican border town, which, since the 1990s, has been dubbed “the most dangerous city in the world,” or more pointedly “the capital of femicidio,” referring to the violent deaths of hundreds of women and girls there. In her acknowledgements, Castro tells us, “From the onset of my writing these poems I have felt my hand guided at times by the dead women whose names appear in the text.”

The honorific, María, followed by a more unique second name, is given to many girls in Mexico in much the same way that Mary is used among Catholic families in the US. The term “maría” also may be used disrespectfully, as slang for an indigenous domestic worker. In Killing Mariás, Castro Luna’s use of María becomes more than a way of consecrating the dead; it is also an allegory for women and girls everywhere who are nameless victims of violence. Castro Luna, in viewing a list of the hundreds of known murdered and disappeared women of Ciudad Juarez, chose to honor victims whose first name was María. It was from this list that she came up with the forty-five poems that are in the book, and in these poems, each María is also given a symbolic name, as if invoking a spiritual twin for each. The names are poetic and poignant, casting life and visibility back into these women. A few of my favorites are: “Gracious Serpent,” “Mother of Weeping Rocks,” “Queen of Lullabies,” “Sultry Yearning,” and “Hug of the Earth.” In her Notes to the book, Castro Luna explains how she found her Marías’ names:

The Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary inspired the titles of the poems in this book. […] My hope is that this weaving of flesh and spirit creates a covenant of love and a place of survival and allegiance.

Beyond naming and sanctifying, what is Castro Luna doing in these forty-five short poems? Witnessing, yes—given the few available facts—but the poems are also flights of imagination, giving each woman a story to redress and re-clothe her life. This witnessing makes no attempt to soft-pedal images of beatings, tortured bodies, and skeletons abandoned along the borderlands. The accomplishment here is the task posed by Carl Jung that poets and philosophers alike aspire to—“holding the tension of opposites.” These women are dead. These poems bring them back to life.

In the first poem, “María,” Castro Luna identifies with all Marías, simply as woman:

Like you
we have aureolas
smooth and nipples hard

Like you
we have a nested swallow cave
and a life-giving cut

In “María de Jesus Mother of Weeping Rocks,” Castro Luna warns all women of our potential fate:

It starts early
before you learn to speak
even before
you leave the hospital
in your mother’s arms
that your body is not your own

In many of the poems, Castro Luna reveals the brutal results of torture, as in “María Elena Mirror of Justice,”

You at 15
your head smashed
your nails blood blue
o dead virgin

She exposes the ubiquitous role of domestic violence in women’s lives, as in “María Isabel Cup of Morning Sun,”

How many among us
bear marks
blue green, blue green
like gasoline rainbows

In “María de los Angeles Heaven’s Nest,” Castro Luna reminds us of our less privileged sisters who perform backbreaking, low-wage work,

all that denim walking New York and LA streets
cut and sewn in places like Ciudad Juarez and Bangladesh

do you, Beloved, know
whose fingerprints trace the clothes you wear?

In this act of re-clothing the Marías, these poems inherently prize motherhood while they delineate the utterly limited roles that women living in poverty can attain. Reading as a feminist, and believing that Castro Luna, too, is a feminist, I was somewhat troubled by this gender stereotyping. That the poems fail to imagine a diversity of potential achievements for women whose lives were cut short may be a failure of imagination, or just a hard truth to swallow. When I heard Castro Luna speak and read movingly from the book, I was struck by her compassion—and particularly her compassion for children, and by proxy, mothers. At the time, we were just learning of the horrific separation of children and parents by the current administration, at a border very like the one at Ciudad Juarez.

Castro Luna herself fled El Salvador with her family at age fourteen. She holds an MFA in poetry, an MA in urban planning, and is currently the poet laureate of Washington state. Reading Killing Marías as reportage is a cautionary tale of suffering taking place on a global stage—the mass the displacement of populations by the triad of war, poverty, and climate change. Attention given to the loss of life, bodily integrity, and opportunities, particularly for women and children, is more than admirable, it is essential. Honoring the spirituality of motherhood above that of ‘womanhood’ in poems written by a such an accomplished woman does give me pause, but read most broadly, these poems also affirm the mothering that every child needs and deserves, and no less so the earth herself. The poems in Killing Marías sustain a deep reverence for women and are a call to action for the world. That there are no periods anywhere in these forty-five poems leaves an open wound and open questions.

Castro Luna offers her most deeply held aspirations in “María Rosario Clearest of Nights,”

it turns out that it is possible
to mend the crevices inside yourself
without silk threads and silver spoons
it is possible to tell the truth
and not burn in hell
to win wars without shooting a rifle
and without a rifle to write a poem

Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state where she works as a nurse practitioner. She a co-founder at Headmistress Press, publisher of lesbian/bi/trans poetry, and curator at The Poetry Café, a site where poetry chapbooks are celebrated and reviewed. She reviews poetry books for Adroit, Cultural Weekly, Entropy, and other venues. She has published seven collections of poetry, most recently the full-length collection, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition. Find her on Twitter at @risaden. More from this author →