Reviewed by Catherine Wald
Requiem, Rwanda was a revelation for me: about history, humanity, and the power—and limitations—of art.
The author, Laura Apol, an associate professor at Michigan State University, began traveling to Africa in 2006 to help teach Rwandan genocide survivors to use narrative writing to heal themselves and others. Along the way, she decided to embrace the prickly, painful, nearly impossible task of creating art that serves as witness for a culture that once was completely foreign to her. It’s hard to imagine which took more courage: listening to survivors of a 1994 civil war where Rwandans murdered 800,000 of their countrymen in a 100-day period, or addressing this material from what she recognizes is the position of a privileged outsider.
Make no mistake: this is not the work of a breast-beating, one-time tourist. It’s a carefully observed lamentation in poetic form by a woman who has lived in Rwanda and let her heart crack open in order to convey the aftermath of atrocities she cannot imagine. From the poem “The Lives of Others”:
each story holds a question
that is more than life itself
And each story is its answer.
What can I do but listen?
Over the course of several visits to the geographically lovely and landlocked country, which never experienced civil war until it was colonized, Apol is always conscious of the difficulties of her work and her responsibility to the people whose stories she explores. In the book’s afterword, she says, “I do not have the right to speak. But at the same time I do not have the right to not speak.” Caught “between the poles of entitlement and obligation,” she tries to understand her role. “If I resist entitlement, I shirk obligation. I cannot have one without the other.”
As much as possible, Apol’s poetry manages to transcend her personal reactions and reveal a nation’s torment. Her poems are spare, incisive, and hard-hitting. In “Rift,” she describes a Rwandan stranger with a six-inch scar:
Scar is not the word.
It is part of his body gouged out,
a pound of flesh gone, a visible absence
—skin, muscle, bone.
“At the Hotel Bar” reads, in its entirety:
the journalist in flip-flops
is typing up his notes.
Now he eats fried chips,
now he drinks draft Primus as he works.
Now he turns from the keyboard,
his hands over his face.
His sobs wrack the room.
This collection is based on the form of a Catholic requiem, divided into the stages of Introit, Dies Irae, and Lacrimosa. It’s a fitting way to present the subject matter, and the poems, like religious rites, combine awe, horror, and prayer. Deeply mournful, rageful, and elegiac, they also celebrate life, the beauty of the Rwandan countryside, and the power of regeneration. From “Reparations”:
The ferns grow regal here,
the rivers fill, flowers bloom
purple, yellow, fuchsia
Requiem, Rwanda is well designed and produced, and it is kind to the non-savvy reader. It includes an introduction; a summary of Rwanda’s history; and an epilogue, “The Writer as Witness,” that further explicates the challenges of exploring and memorializing an alien culture from a white American’s perspective. The front and back matter provide pertinent information without becoming overly scholarly; the notes are well organized and easy to understand. Readers should appreciate the guiding hand of the author/editor and the poet’s careful description of her creative process. I highly recommend this volume of 32 poems to Friends, artists, and activists.