Example poetry

The world in ruins: what poetry on ruins can teach us about our current struggles


The Inca city of Machu Picchu in 2015. (Diego Delso)

The phrase “I can’t breathe” has acquired multiple resonances since 2020. As we face concurrent environmental and public health crises and a renewed struggle for racial justice in the United States, Latin America and in Europe, the last words of George Floyd are disturbing echoes of our collective anguish. Modern poems about ruined cities often amplify this anxiety and suggest that provoking political awareness in the reader could serve as an alternative to silent, collective suffocation.

In 2016, in Puerto Rico, people could not breathe in the town of Peñuelas. Protests against coal ashes the depots saw mass arrests of citizens who condemned the high levels of aluminum, arsenic, lead and lithium in the fugitive dust they breathed in daily. In Chile, the resistance of the Mapuche people against logging companies since 2014 has also resulted in arrests during various acts of protest as they struggle to regain control of their ancestral lands. Since 2019, fires and deforestation in the Amazon, Australia, United States and now in Europewith record temperatures in the United Kingdom in Julyall recalled how climate change and environmental degradation are increasingly shaping and limiting our communities, our wildlife, our ability to breathe at home.

From Peñuelas to the Amazon, Chile, the United States and Spain, environmental crises disproportionately affect poor and disenfranchised communities. Moreover, all of these examples clearly link environmental degradation to the widespread effects of racism, social injustice and the legacy of colonialism, where multinational corporations are encouraged by impunity and profiteering.

Slow Violence Sites

These environmental disaster sites and the protests they sparked illustrate what Rob Nixon is referring to in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor such as “environmental activism among poor communities that have mobilized against slow violence”. By slow violence, Nixon means “violence that happens gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed in time and space, an attritional violence that is generally not considered at all to be violence”. Climate change, deforestation and toxic by-products of wars are some of its many effects.

Poems such as ‘Silence‘ by Rosario Castellanos (Mexico, 1925-1974) responds to this invisible colonial violence, where the ruins have been replaced by trees. ‘Yo no miro los templos sumergidos / sólo miro los árboles que encima de las ruinas / mueven su vasta sombra.'(‘I don’t watch the submerged temples / I just watch how the trees above the ruins / move their vast shadow .’) Soon our landscapes will no longer have trees to replace the ruins of modernity.

As with the violence depicted in Castellanos’ poem, the victims of air, water, and soil pollution were made invisible and silenced as if their calamities were less real, justified by their poverty. Ruins have also often been represented as the threshold between the true and the false, the authentic or the inauthentic, between the historical and, as Charles Baudelaire says, the “memory of the present”.

Soon our landscapes will no longer have trees to replace the ruins of modernity

The ruins have been treated as historical allegories since antiquity. In the Middle Ages, they often carried a didactic message, much like the Baroque poems about ruins depict how nature takes over after the destruction of once mighty cities, to reflect on death – memento mori – and how nature survives us in all. Romantic poetry tended to idealize ruins, real or false (building man-made ruins, or follies, on one’s property became popular alongside romantic poetry), often portraying them as sublime places to nurture self-contemplation. melancholy.

Modern poems about ruins, on the other hand, tend to historicize the destruction of the modern city, often criticizing capitalist illusions of progress. A particularly poignant example is ‘Canto sobre unas ruinas‘ by Pablo Neruda (Chile 1904-1973), a poem by Spain in el corazon (1937), poetic collection of support for the republican cause during the Spanish Civil War. The poetry collection was also published in 1938 by Manuel Altolaguirre and Republican soldiers from the Abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat in Catalonia, where they used the remains of uniforms and a tattered enemy flag to turn trash into a recycled book. Although in ‘Canto sobre unas ruinas’ the speaker does not specify the ruined site, the poem reveals an apocalyptic view of history, in which aluminum and cement are ‘pegado al sueño de los seres’ (‘ glued to the dreams of beings’), representing his critique of progress, which should be read in the context of the Spanish Civil War and its urgency.

Ruins and Revivals

Neruda’s poems on the ruins of that war and his critique of fascism clearly determined his reading of the past in Latin America and its links to the present. This is found in ‘Alturas of Machu Picchu‘ (‘Heights of Machu Picchu‘), composed after his trip to Peru in 1943. In contrast to the pessimistic tone of ‘Canto sobre unas ruinas‘, Neruda’s intricate web of literary allusions in Alturas, from Dante to Whitman to Rodrigo Caro, evokes the poetic voice’s journey through the Inca city, engaging with the voices of the voiceless and infusing life to the lifeless.

In Ruined Cities: The Politics of Modern PoeticsI discuss how ruins have shaped modernity and how poets such as Charles Baudelaire, TS Eliot, Luis Cernuda, Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda, among many others, are causing a “historical awakening” (see the work of Walter Benjamin The Arcades project) to critique the devastating effects of war and modern progress, historicizing the ruins and avoiding a narcissistic reflection on destruction.

The poems on the ruins of Latin America and Spain also reflect collective anguish and a political and historical awakening. In recent years, ecological, economic, racial and political injustices have sparked a series of struggles around the world, where violent repression has been used to deal with political “unrest”. Millions of people have mobilized through grassroots organizations to decolonize institutions and systems tainted by imperialism and neoliberalism. In Colombia and Chile, we have seen how these mobilizations led to a new political era. Earlier in the mid-twentieth century, poetic visions of a contaminated future and abandoned landscapes seemed to anticipate these contemporary protests, the challenges we now face, and the myriad possibilities for reshaping the future.

Cecilia Enjuto Rangel is an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Oregon and author of Ruined Cities: The Politics of Modern Poetics (Purdue University Press)

This article first appeared in issue 237, fall 2022, Power in unions. Subscribe today to receive your magazine fresh off the press!

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