The disappeared are like straight pins, or lost needles. If consciousness can be said to take on the metaphorical substance of a carpet, or of the skirt I inherited from my mother, patchwork, handmade, and one day I sat down and something stabbed me through brown cotton tights, drew blood, an uneven circle of dark on dark, and I found a pin sewed into the lining, a pin which had lurked there for decades, decades of trends and fads, mini skirts, leisure suits, shoulder pads coming one upon the other like waves at a white sand beach, rising up each against the other, each over the last, which is of course also a metaphor for the disappeared, words which in Spanish (los desaparecidos) have taken on the meaning of a certain and definable disappeared, those of the Argentinian terror, and are not those of whom I speak, their lot being tragedy or perhaps holocaust, which by very virtue of such terminology renders them distant from these other disappeared, the disappeared of English and not of Spanish, who are in disposition very like the waves, being not the ones that fall but rather those which are fallen upon, having become undertow, that insidious tide immortalized in newspapers and creation myths, wherein, always, the Chosen are swept up on the back of the Unknown and carried away through frothing seas to found empires, which rise in their course and also fall and are used in history to define eras.

The empires, in this structure, having the the metaphorical significance of my mother’s patchwork skirt, representing the concrete, or moreover language, or culture, or art and business, which are all intrinsically the same, being only distractions, and in their turn metaphors for fabric, being that which we use as a barrier against the elemental. And so this skirt, which my mother bought in 1964, in Greenwich Village, where she was not a hippie but rather a tourist, if one can be said to be a tourist of the city in which one lives, meaning, of course, by living, that it is the place in which one wakes, however alien, and in which through the window the light either shines or does not shine on an unmade bed, an unmade face, discarded shoes, perhaps, if I may be permitted to romanticize, this skirt, hiding like all inheritance a catch, a codicil, such as memory, in the case of death, which is not, as I say, the circumstance to which I refer.

But I am speaking, inevitably, not of the disappeared, but rather of the witnesses, as in courtrooms evidence becomes imbued with perspective, or perhaps I mean that fact when given perspective becomes evidence, since the disappeared by their very nature will not stand and swear and speak. The disappeared are the personification of absence, they are cloaked in a brittle anonymity, the possibility—which is another word for improbability—of return. The dead leave in their wake a kind of responsibility, that of the athlete towards the cripple, which is also the feeling of the present as regards the past, and can be called chivalry. Towards the disappeared there is no such obligation. They leave neither wake nor pity, pity being an outgrowth of condescension, and not applicable to the escaped, who are presumed by virtue of translocation to have acheived freedom, which is traditionally equated to motion.

And so to the abandoned, the absent—I have called them the disappeared—become things of steel. They draw blood but no language. Words may represent only things present. The act of naming is a form of limitation, as definition is a form of war, the final blade in the mythical and therefore gargantuan dragon that is the other, the alien, which is also fear. It is significant that it is only through myth that the unknown, which is reality, speaks and moves, slithers and of course is slain, for to admit the inadmissible would be hearsay, of sorts, a recognition of impotence, which is the final and invisible disappeared, by which I mean unspoken. And yet the disappeared by their very nature must exist. They belong in parallel planes, geometric divisions of perception, mirror worlds where vision is inverted and the absent, who are the alien, must become the concrete, who again by convention may not speak of the abandoned, for to exist in the world of the unspoken must also contain codicils, more specifically that of the denial of the other, which in this case must mean precision, the scalpel’s point, the separation of flesh by steel, which is amputation, and made more complicated because the disappeared are likened to steel, as well as water.

And so their world also is a world of shadows, in which fear has flesh as in dreams, in which the other which has become the concrete cannot be slain, even in stories, because the word which is the foundation of the story cannot be allowed to exist, such existence being the instrument of bondage, as well as its executor. The unspoken flies out unchained and without gravity, spinning and uncentered, unable to recognize itself except in comparison to the abandoned, who in poems take on the figurative appearance of stone but are more like iron, which can be melted and poured, hammered and bent, and in any case retains its central atomic configuration, being an element.

This cannot be said of the disappeared. They are the blade which morphs suddenly and without explanation, becoming the sea. They are the bull which becomes a man, the girl taken away while gathering flowers, simultaneously the destroyed and the instrument of destruction, a clarity which is also distraction, by which I mean a metaphor. The disappeared, who cannot be codified, become instead the personification of language, which is by nature allegorical, using sound to represent the tangible. Theirs is the present absence, a paradox, which is the recognition of irony. They are the synechdoche of loss, the metonymy of fear, the pentameter by which we organize desire. They are to the abandoned a caesura, the drawing of breath, for which the disbursement is grief, meaning the act of witness.

It is common to assign the absent the role of muse. Those who remain are tangled in the dull fibres of monotone, like bad electronica. It is the absent who add rhythm, in whose gaping place comes recognition of those things which cannot be articulated. It is here that the dead and the disappeared diverge, split ways and interpretations. One may at least imagine the dead feeling nothing, or having been elevated to spheres of bright lit harmony, singing in choirs and strumming gilded harpsichords. The absent, who are removed but not transfigured, can be termed exarchons, having been taken from the Doric chorus and given lines in another dialect. The grief of the chorus is a common grief, recited in unison. The protagonist speaks alone, and with elegance, in language which is the distillation of pain, meaning its essence.

And what of the Muses? They are the daughters of memory, sisters to the fates, incarnation of formlessness, being that which fills, lending inspiration in exchange for shape, though who is chosen is cursed as well as blessed, becoming the ultimate fiend to divine intoxication, which pervades, uplifts, transcends, and then destroys, as the blade severs, the god steals. There is no levity among the nine sisters; the curse of their immortal license is that they must orchestrate their own disintegration, not once but many times. They enter the beloved and erode it from within, each voice echoing the last, each vessel an instrument of speech and each consumed by the unspeakable, which demands articulation. And so the sisters remain untouched, forget nothing, becoming mute archives of remembered form, remembered passion, which they may incite but never sustain, being what they are, namely unfettered, and thus condemned, the cry of union morphing into the lamentation of the bereaved.

The act of leaving is not the same as the act of gaining immunity from pain.

Copyright © 1998 NC Houghton