Fossils on a Red Flag by Amelia Diaz Ettinger
Review by Nancy Knowles
The US military has made a habit of using beautiful islands for target practice while also destroying animal life, fragile ecosystems, livelihoods, cultures, and even people. Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, is one example, about which Marshallese poet Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner has evocatively written. Culebra, in Puerto Rico, is another.
Inspired by Jetn̄il-Kijiner, Amelia Diaz Ettinger wrote her chapbook Fossils on a Red Flag (Finishing Line Press, 2021) about the Culebra Island Naval Defensive Sea Area and Naval Airspace Reservation. The Navy reserve was created in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for training purposes. Culebra is an archipelago of 11.6 square miles with a population, according to the government website, of 1,868 people. The chapbook begins with the Executive Order 8684, establishing the naval reserve, and presents nineteen poems that move through time from 1941 to 2017, when deadly Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. Born in Mexico and raised in Puerto Rico, Diaz Ettinger writes from her own experiences visiting Culebra for scientific study as a teenager in the 1970’s and from her vantage point today as a retired educator and an expatriate Puerto Rican now living in Oregon.
Echoing the protests of the culebrenses that took place in the early 1970s and resulted in the discontinuation of the Navy’s use of Culebra, Diaz Ettinger’s collection decries the extensive damage to the environment. She uses the motif of half-life, the scientific term that identifies the time it takes for a substance to decay to half its potency, to probe how long it will take for the archipelago to recover from being used as a bombing range. Among the damages done to the archipelago were destruction of bird and turtle nesting sites, destruction of coral reefs, radiation contamination of land and seafood due to leaching from munitions, and the threat of unexploded munitions. In the poem, “1968*half life,” Diaz Ettinger brings the reader right into the destruction of bird life:
They were parents here, and aunts
They knew and fed each other’s chicks.
The inferno that followed
charred the anxious waiting families
sitting peacefully at their nests.
The poem “*1970 half life” starts with the epigraph “I have my orders. / We will blow up some / more on Monday.” The poem depicts the detonation of missiles lodged in coral, a bombing that resulted in native fishermen’s loss of livelihood:
Two hundred feet from the explosion
the coral was sliced as by a divine indifferent knife,
white spots already spread, where life had been blasted.
The shore filled with the glassy eyes of fish.
Diaz Ettinger’s collection also depicts the culebrenses in protest against the US military. The poem, “Claro Feliciano, a citizen of Culebra” describes how this 74-year-old man experiences the “ghost” of the Navy’s radiation poisoning in the cells of his body. It is like “skeletal fingers,” or like “fishbones / that turned to steel.” In “*1970 half life,” the culebrenses, in response, stand outside the naval base within range of “sharpshooters / poised on the occupied hill” and sound “Seventy conchs strong / singing / with the willingness of a hurricane.”
The collection reflects the history of Puerto Rico as a colonial landscape—site of displaced native populations and imported African slaves, colonized by the Spanish, won as a US territory as a spoil of war, disenfranchised in US politics, routinely mistreated and ignored by the US government, and now essentially bankrupt. On behalf of this population, Diaz Ettinger’s work demands that Americans notice the pattern of destruction, both ecological and sociological, to American lands and to fellow American citizens.
A third strand in the collection is Diaz Ettinger’s own life experience in this landscape. She recalls herself as a teen oblivious to the politics of life on Culebra. In “Queen Conch I,” she arrives as a scientist studying “birds and turtles,” “wrapped in loud youth.” A highlight of the collection is “Cebu Poem: Loggerheads and Leatherbacks,” which depicts a youthful love affair among the science crew:
Once in the Caribbean brine,
away from the prying eyes of my father,
lost in the blue with the smell of fish-bones on our skin
I gave myself to you, soft as the inside of a mollusk.
The young people are oblivious to the destruction around them, this time other young people stealing protected eggs. The contrast between the lovers and the destroyers speaks to the irony of attempting to protect rare species in this devastating context. Here, even young love fails:
Plundered nests before the sun entered those waters,
under the fading eye of Yucayu,
just as you left without saying adios
leaving me alone on sand, ocean, and new discovered fire.
Fossils on a Red Flag ends with a poem, “Dedication: After Hurricane Maria,” that depicts the poet looking at Puerto Rico and Culebran politics from the vantage point of years and of the Continental US. Her mourning for the people and places of her childhood is palpable in “baskets of loss.” In this poem, she calls readers to “Witness!” With this command, we are instructed to notice destruction and cruelty. We should take action in helping those who are suffering, and to have sympathy–also for the poet, safe in Oregon, watching with grief the desolation of her home.
In the poems of Diaz Ettinger, as well as those by Jetn̄il-Kijiner, the personal is political and so is the poetry. Diaz Ettinger’s chapbook is art that both delights us and motivates us to live better.
Born in Mexico and raised in Puerto Rico, Amelia Diaz Ettinger has written poems that reflect the struggle with identity often found in immigrants. She began writing poetry at age three by dictating her poems out loud to her uncles who wrote them down for her. She has continued writing poems and short stories throughout her life. Her writing took a back seat while she raised two wonderful human beings and worked as a high school teacher. Now retired, she has renewed her writing with fervor. She has published three books of poetry: SPEAKING AT A TIME (redbat books, 2015), LEARNING TO LOVE A WESTERN SKY (Airlie Press, 2020), and FOSSILS ON A RED FLAG (Finishing Line Press, 2021). She currently resides in Summerville, Oregon with her husband Chip, her dog Oso and seven unnamed chickens.
Title: Fossils on a Red Flag
Author: Amelia Diaz ettinger
Publisher : Finishing Line Press (February 19, 2021)
ISBN-10 : 1646624424 ISBN-13 : 978-1646624423
The daughter of two architects, Nancy Knowles began her career in education as a school model, posing as an eager student in publicity photos for her parents’ business, which focused on designing K-8 schools. In addition to earning degrees from UCLA, Humboldt State University, and the University of Connecticut, she worked in business management in the entertainment industry and taught English at a summer camp in Japan. She has taught literature and writing at the college level for almost 30 years.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.