I first learned of Guillermo Fernández’s murder in an email from a friend on Saturday, March 31, 2012. At first all we knew was this: a poet murdered. I could not find any more information until the next day. The local newspaper in Toluca published a story on April 1 with the headline “They kill a poet,” “Asesinan a poeta.” The article begins with this sentence: “With hands and feet bound in cables, face wrapped in tape, and with a shot to the head, the body of a Toluca-based poet was found inside his home.” (“Amarrado con cables de pies y manos, envuelto del rostro con cinta canela y con un tiro en la cabeza, fue localizado el cuerpo de un poeta toluqueño en el interior de su hogar.”)
The facts are shocking to me, even in a country and a world where shocks have become so frequent as to often be perceived as mundane, customary, and easy to fit into a logic of dismissal: Well, there is a war going on; well, that is a dangerous place. One has to pause for a moment sometimes to let the brutality sink in, and one can only pause like that so many times a day.
I did not know Guillermo Fernández. I had not read his poetry. Perhaps because the news of his murder came via a friend and fellow poet it slipped quickly by the sentries of feeling and hit. A 79-year-old poet and translator of Italian literature tied and gagged and murdered in his kitchen. And this in the context of more than 50,000 people executed in Mexico in the past 5 and a half years.
The Toluca news reports of a bullet to the head were, it appears now, incorrect. The killer delivered the mortal blow not with a bullet, but with a club or a rod of some sort. The killer did not pull a trigger with a finger’s twitch, but swung, probably with both arms.
Fernández’s house was in disorder, but his killers apparently took nothing. There were wineglasses and a full ash tray on the table. And Fernández bound, gagged, and killed at that table.
One of the first things I thought, upon learning these few details was this: they’ll say it was a robbery. No need then to investigate much less feel outrage against anything but “criminals” and bad luck. But for me, with such a statement, the rage quickly extends from the killer who delivered the mortal blow to include the bureaucrats and detectives who do nothing to find the killer.
It is impossible to understand anything about the violence plaguing Mexico without constantly recalling that 95 percent of all killings in the so-called “drug war” are never investigated. (Eight out of ten of all homicides in Mexico remain in impunity.) And yet Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón has said that 90 percent of the executions supposedly related to organized crime are the result of “criminals” killing each other. How does he know this? If 95 percent of the killings are never even investigated, from where does Calderón draw his 90 percent figure? From nowhere, of course, for it is a bald lie with deeply insidious intent.
The Mexican government’s semi-official logic is that if you are dead, you are to blame for your own death: you were a “criminal.” Why investigate? Dolores Dorantes recently wrote a powerful denunciation of this logic in her eulogy for Guillermo Fernández, translated by Ben Ehrenreich in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Dorantes reminds us of that wretched and revealing advice once offered by the Chihuahua state attorney general: “Don’t think about it as one more death, it’s a question of one less criminal.”
The logic of assumed guilt. Impunity. Getting away with murder. And often, wearing a police or military uniform, drawing a salary from public funds, and getting away with murder. The bodies on the ground, or tied to kitchen chairs cannot be separated from the empty case files and corresponding knowledge that a killer has at least a 95 percent chance of getting away with it. This should give us a place to channel our rage.
PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee put out this appeal recalling in the understated language of the non-profit world that: “These crimes go unpunished largely because the Mexican authorities, especially at state level, are notoriously susceptible to corruption.”
But the violence and impunity do not unfold in a vacuum of the Mexican political and judicial systems. The racist and neo-imperialist drug policies of the United States government are also complicit. And, if we would take the time to reflect upon the broad networks and long histories of complicity we would do well to listen again to, among many others, Franz Fanon, Gloria Anzaldúa, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Aníbal Quijano.
That Saturday when I first learned of his murder, I looked for Fernández’s poems online. A week or so later, I went and purchased his collected poems, Exutorio (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2006) and sat with them.
To honor a poet, read that poet. And share the poetry. In this spirit, I would like to offer here two translations (or translation attempts) of Fernández’s poems.
First, a poem that I found published online here.
Lo sé examigo mío: entre el corazón y la mano se sigue abriendo el hondón del barranco; entre lo que pensamos y decimos la palabra tropieza con la cola del diablo y la amistad laudada es un pastel barato que ni una mosca verde aceptaría.
Así pues, lo mejor será mirar la luz del día con lentes tan obscuros para seguir dudando si mierdas o personas son las cosas con que andamos resbalando.
I know, my exfriend:
between the heart and the hand
the depth of the ravine
between what we think and what we say
over the devil’s tail
and the much-praised friendship
is a cheap cake
that not even a green fly would accept.
And so, the best thing
would be to view the light of day
through lenses so dark
that we may continue to doubt
whether they be shit or people
these things we keep slipping on.
And here, a poem from the 1965 book La palabra a solas (The word on its own), reprinted in his 2006 selected poems:
Tus manos se han quedado distraídas…
Yo no quiero saber lo que es morir. Yo no quiero morir.
Te he mirado rozar un borde del espanto,
tocar la púa del remordimiento.
Dime. Algo oculto se queja detrás de tu risa
y una umbela de sombra desliza su muro.
Están tus ojos no sé donde, como ropas caídas.
¿Cómo llamarte cuando tocas aquel o este silencio
y todas las cosas cercanas
hacen tus ojos los más largos horizontes?
En el aire nos deja tiernamente heridos.
No es tiempo de llorar. Ven. MIra ese árbol.
En nuestras horas hay hojas que no conocen el río.
Un dios ha puesto en nuestras manos un fruto de alegría.
Que nada cante más allá ni más acá de la vida.
Your hands have become distracted…
I do not want to know what it is to die. I do not want to die.
I have seen you scrape against an edge of dread,
touch the spike of regret.
Tell me. Something hidden complains behind your laughter
and a screen of shadow slips out its wall.
Your eyes are I don’t no where, like fallen clothes.
How should I address you?
How should I address you when you touch that or this silence
and everything near
makes your eyes the longest horizons?
In the air we are left gently wounded.
Now is not the time to cry. Come. Look at this tree.
In our hours there are leaves that have never been to the river.
A god has placed in our hands a fruit of joy.
May nothing sing further away nor further near of life.
*A short anthology of Fernández’s poetry in Spanish is also available online here.
John Gibler is a writer based in Mexico and California, the author of To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War and Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt (both City Lights Books, 2009), and a contributor to País de muertos: Crónicas contra la impunidad (Random House Mondadori, 2011). He is a correspondent for KPFA in San Francisco and has published in magazines in the United States and Mexico, including Left Turn, Z Magazine, Earth Island Journal, ColorLines, Race, Poverty, and the Environment, Fifth Estate, New Politics, In These Times, Yes! Magazine, Contralínea, and Milenio Semanal.