Survival Tactics: open pit by Jose Antonio Villarán

Sebastian Stockman
| Reviews


open pit by Jose Antonio Villarán (Counterpath Press, 2022).


What is this? A play? A poem? A polemic?
Jose Antonio Villarán’s open pit: a story about morococha and extractivism in the américas is a play and a poem and a polemic. It’s also: a letter to the author’s son; a ledger toting up the brutal cost of the extractive industries on the people those industries displace as well as on the people those industries nominally benefit; an attempt to wrestle with the existential crises we confront on personal and societal scales.
open pit is the story of Morococha, a town of some 4,000 people that sat more than 4,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes atop a rich vein of “copper/molybdenum/and silver deposits… .” By the end of this book, it’s a town exploited, excavated, almost- eradicated.
open pit is also the story of its own making, of the worth of its making. In a series of interstitial “process notes,” Villarán considers the preposterousness of worrying about his dissertation and other daily mundanities against the backdrop of the literal hollowing-out of a town of 4,000 people. What use is a mixture of play, prose, and poetry in the face of the massive scale of destruction resulting from the extractive economy in which we are all, to greater or lesser degrees, complicit?


Imagine a black box theater. There are six people on a stage with two tables, one short and one long. Five people sit at the long table. One sits apart, at the shorter table. These are the “actants,” as Villarán calls them throughout. “The parent writer,” “the people,” “capital,” “the extra-human,” and “government” sit around the long table to form “the body of the open pit.” Meanwhile, at the other table sits “the actant that’s not one of the actants that forms part of the body of the open pit,” a denotation Villarán offers insistently in full each time this actant is mentioned.
In several of the poems (scenes? acts? entries?) this actant-whose-name-is-too-long serves as a sort of Greek chorus and is given instructions to “read as background noise, and at a lower volume, running each sentence against the next” and sometimes “as a closed loop,” returning to the beginning when reaching the end.
And so these “Staging Directions” prime us to read a play. As does the “Topographical Map (Actants),” which gives us the names of those actants strewn across the oddly-sized (it’s square, almost-eight inches by almost-eight inches) book’s first page:


“the parent writer (0)


the people (0.5in; 1.27cm)


capital (1in; 2.54cm)”


And so on.
We wade in, instantly at a loss. How do we know who is speaking? We refer to the map. The “coordinates” above denote the distance from the left-hand margin of each actant. The voices are literally speaking from different places on the page.
The book will teach us how to read it, but at first we are a little unmoored. We are displaced, confused. The book is a chronicle of displacement and confusion. The first proper poem (scene? act? entry?) is in fact called “A Question of Displacement,” and it sets up the problem: “a chinese company/buys a large mining site in peru” and “there’s a town on the mountain/a bull with no horns.”


Sebastian Stockman is a Teaching Professor in English at Northeastern University. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Georgia Review, among other places. His work has been noted in Best American Essays and Best American Sportswriting. He writes an (occasional) newsletter at A Saturday Letter on Substack.

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