The difference between what is horrendous and what is beautiful is only the defect of our own eyes, not what we regard.
In Mario Ariza’s “Ciguapa”, a woman offers cocaine, then tells her listener a story. The ciguapa is the character beneath the folkloric mat, revealed for tongue-dusting. Nocturnal, mountain-dwelling, with feet turned backwards, Dominican ciguapas make me hearken to Trinidadian douens/duennes, with a notable exception: douens are unbaptized children; ciguapas are human women. This puts them in a juxtapositional league with churiles, of Hindu origin, who are the spirits of pregnant woman who died during childbirth. Douen, ciguapa, churile: all orthodox instruction warns you to avoid them, as they are all ‘dangerous’, with varying degrees of vindictive malice beneath their straw hats, knotted in their long ropes of hair.
Ariza’s poem is speculative and stabilizing in particularly the ways I like. It aligns the folkloric real — the horror of the ciguapa we can imagine — with the immediate brutality of everyday living: its victims here are malnourished children, so hungry their parasitic worms are starved. I admire the capacity of what Ariza seeks to do here, vaulting horror against horror, embroidering our bare palms with many different ways to be scared.
The poem turns doubly speculative in the heavy vaguada rains: not only is there a ciguapa, but she is presented here as a lodestone, in a story of ancestral recall. The speaker accesses her through reflection on another self, another time: “women with their feet turned / backwards, vengeful Taina women with matted hair / and the thin moon in their obsidian teeth / drove my body in its past life away from its home”.
Think, then, of all the visitations wafting, stirred into the dark blood of your ancestry. How many spirits have stalked you in the dark, teeth so ready?
This is the twenty-third installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.