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 US, Latin America and Europe, George Floyd’s last words are eerie echoes of our collective angst. Modern poems on ruined cities often amplify that anxiety and suggest that provoking political consciousness in the reader might serve as an alternative to a silent, collective suffocation.
In 2016, in Puerto Rico, people couldn’t breathe in the town of Peñuelas. Protests over coal ash deposits saw mass arrests of citizens who were condemning the high levels of aluminium, arsenic, lead and lithium in the fugitive dust they were breathing daily. In Chile, the resistance of the Mapuche people against logging firms since 2014 has also resulted in arrests during diverse acts of protest as they struggle to reclaim control over their ancestral lands. Since 2019, fires and deforestation in the Amazon, Australia, the US and now in Europe, with record high temperatures in the UK this July, have all served as reminders of how climate change and environmental degradation are increasingly shaping and constraining our communities, our wildlife, our ability to breathe at home.
From Peñuelas to the Amazon, Chile, the US and Spain, environmental crises disproportionately affect impoverished, disenfranchised communities. What’s more, all these examples clearly tie environmental degradation to the widespread effects of racism, social injustice and the legacy of colonialism, where multinational companies are abetted by impunity and profit.
Sites of slow violence
These sites of ecological disasters and the protests they have generated exemplify what Rob Nixon refers to in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor as ‘environmental activism among poor communities who have mobilised against slow violence’. By slow violence, Nixon means ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all’. Climate change, deforestation and the toxic by-products of wars are some of its many effects.
Poems such as ‘Silencio’ by Rosario Castellanos (Mexico, 1925-1974) respond to this invisible colonial violence, where the ruins have been replaced by trees.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 look at the submerged temples / I just look how the trees above the ruins / move their vast shadow.’) Soon our landscapes will have no trees to replace the ruins of modernity.
Soon our landscapes will have no trees to replace the ruins of modernity
As with the violence described in Castellanos’s poem, the victims of air, water and land pollution have been rendered invisible and silenced as if their calamities were less real, justified by their poverty. Ruins have also often been represented as the threshold between what is real and fake, what is authentic or inauthentic, between the historical and, as Charles Baudelaire put it, the ‘mémoire du présent’.
Ruins have been treated as historical allegories since antiquity. In the Middle Ages, they often carried a didactic message, just as Baroque poems on ruins portray how nature takes over after the destruction of once-powerful cities, to reflect on death – memento mori – and how nature survives us all. Romantic poetry tended to idealise ruins, real or fake (building artificial ruins, or follies, on one’s property became popular concurrent with romantic poetry), often depicting them as sublime places to nurture the contemplation of the melancholic self.
Modern poems on ruins, on the other hand, tend to historicise the destruction of the modern city, often criticising capitalist illusions of progress. A particularly poignant example of this is ‘Canto sobre unas ruinas’ by Pablo Neruda (Chile 1904-1973), a poem from España en el corazón (1937), a poetic collection in support of the republican cause during the Spanish civil war. The poetry collection was also published in 1938 by Manuel Altolaguirre and republican soldiers in Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey in Catalonia, where they used the remnants of uniforms and a ragged enemy flag to transform waste materials into a recycled book. Although in ‘Canto sobre unas ruinas’ the speaker doesn’t specify the ruined site, the poem reveals an apocalyptic vision of history, in which aluminium 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 awakenings
Neruda’s poems to the ruins of that war and his critique of fascism clearly determined how he read the past in Latin America and its connections to the present. This comes across in ‘Alturas de Macchu 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 complex net of literary allusions in Alturas, from Dante to Whitman to Rodrigo Caro, evokes the journey of the poetic voice through the Inca city, engaging with the voices of the voiceless and instilling life in the lifeless.
In Cities in Ruins: The Politics of Modern Poetics, I discuss how ruins have shaped modernity, and how poets such as Charles Baudelaire, T S Eliot, Luis Cernuda, Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda, among many others, provoke a ‘historical awakening’ (see Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project) to criticise the devastating effects of war and modern progress, historicising the ruins and avoiding a narcissistic reflection on the destruction.
Poems on ruins from Latin America and Spain likewise reflect upon the collective angst and a political, historical awakening. Over the past few years ecological, economic, racial and political injustices have provoked a series of struggles worldwide, where violent repression has been used to deal with political ‘unrest’. Millions of people have mobilised through grassroots organisations to decolonise institutions and systems marred by imperialism and neoliberalism. In Colombia and Chile, we have witnessed how these mobilisations have culminated in a new political era. Earlier in the mid-20th century, poetic visions of a contaminated future and derelict landscapes seemed to anticipate these contemporary protests, the challenges we currently face, and the multiple possibilities to reshape the future.