Archive for July 27th, 2012

A Nocturne

Para vivir es demasiado el tiempo;
Para saber no es nada.
A que vinimos, noche, corazon de la
No es possible sino sonar, morir,
Sonar que no morimos
Y, a veces, un instante, despertar.

Time is too long for life;
For knowledge not enough.
What have we come for, night, heart of night?
Dream that we do not die
And, at times, for a moment, wake
(from the Spanish, English text by Magda Bodin)

Rosario Castellanos, still a young woman

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve chosen Rosario Castellanos for our third poet since I’ve made my website region, From the Women’s Canon: Foremother Poets because I’m strongly drawn to her poetry and I chose lines from one of her poems as the epigraph for its index. She’s particularly fitting for an Austen reverie because she writes as a spinster, and yes she was an important Mexican poetic voices of the 20th century (as Louise Bogan, my first choice since my website was an important mid-20th century American poet).

“Silence Concerning an Ancient Stone”

Here I am, seated, with all my words,
like a basket of green fruit, intact.
The fragments
of a thousand destroyed ancient gods
seek and draw near each other in my blood. They long
to rebuild their statue.
From their shattered mouths
a song strives to rise to my mouth,
a scent of burned resins, some gesture
of mysterious wrought stone.
But I am oblivion, treason,
the shell that did not keep from the sea
even the echo of the smallest wave.
I look not at the submerged temples,
but only at the trees that above the ruins
move their vast shadow, with acid teeth bite
the wind as it passes.
And the seals close under my eyes like
the flower under the searching fingers of a blind man.
But I know: behind
my body another body crouches,
and round about me many breaths
furtively cross
like nocturnal beasts in the jungle.

I know: somewhere,
like the cactus in the desert,
a constellated heart of spines,
it is waiting for a name, as the cactus the rain.

But I know only a few words
in the lapidary language ,
under which they buried my ancestor alive.

(from the Spanish, English text by George D. Schade)

Another: “Untitled

They say that plants don’t talk, nor do
brooks or birds,
nor the wave with its chatter, nor stars
with their shine.
They say it but it’s not true, for whenever
I walk by
they whisper and yell about me

‘There goes the crazy woman dreaming
of life’s endless spring and of fields
and soon, very soon, her hair
will be gray.
She sees the shaking, terrified frost
cover the meadow.’
There are gray hairs in my head; there is frost
on the meadows,
but I go on dreaming—a poor, incurable
of life’s endless spring that is receding
and the perennial freshness of fields
and souls,
although fields dry and souls burn up.

Don’t gossip about my dreams:
without them how could I admire you? How could
I live?

(from the Spanish Enlish text by Aliki and Willis Barnstone)

This is the famous one:

“Meditation at the Threshold”

No, the solution is not
to jump beneath a train, like Tolstoy’s Anna,
nor to swallow Madame Bovar’s arsenic,
nor to wait on the barren plains of Avila
for the visit of the angel with the javelin
before tying the scarf around one’s head
and beginning to act.

Nor to deduce the laws of geometry by counting
the rafters of the castigation cell,
as Sor Juana did. The solution is not
to write, when visitors come
to the living room of the Austen family,
nor to shut oneself up in the attic
of some house in New England
and dream, with the Dickinson Bible
under a maidenly pillow.

There has to be some other way that isn’t called Sappho,
or Messalina, or Mary of Egypt,
or Magdalene, or Clementina Isaura.

Another way to be human, and free.

Another way to be.
(translated from the Spanish, English text by Kate Flores)

Leonora Carrington (1917, 2011, The House Opposite — there is no more appropriate woman artist

And this, most courageous:

“Daily Round of a Spinster”

To be solitary is shameful. All day long
a terrible blush burnishes her cheek
(while the other is in eclipse).

She busies herself in a labor of ashes,
at tasks worthless and fruitless;
and when her relatives gather
around the fire, telling stories,
the howl is heard
of a woman wailing on a-boundless plain
where every boulder, every scorched tree stump,
every twisted bough is a judge
or a witness without mercy.

At night the spinster
stretches herself out on her bed of agony.
An anguished sweat breaks out to dampen the sheets
and the void is peopled
with made-up dialogues and men.

And the spinster waits, waits, waits.

And she cannot be born in her child, in her womb,
nor can she die
in-her far-off, unexplored body,
a planet the astronomer can calculate,
existent though unseen.

Peering into a dark mirror the spinster
— extinguished star — paints on her lips
with a lipstick the blood she does not have.

And smiles at a dawn without anyone at all.
(translated from the Spanish, English text by Kate Flores)

But she did marry and have a son, Gabriel

“Speaking of Gabriel”

Like all visitors my son disturbed me,
taking a place that was my place,
existing unpropitiously,
making me divide every mouthful in two.

Ugly, sick, bored,
I felt him grow at my expense,
steal his color from my blood, add
a weight and a secret breadth
to my own way of being on the earth.

His body begged me to be born, to cede him the way,
to give him a place in the world,
the quota of time essential for his history.

I consented. And when he came through that wound, through that
hemorrhage of dislodgment,
there departed as well the last I had
of solitude, of gazing out from behind a window.

I was left open, receptive
to visitations, to the wind, to presence.

Many online poems in her original Spanish, from a good full website dedicated to her.


In her maturity

A short biography: born 1925 in Mexico, she was born a daughter to wealthy people, well-educated and well-connected, but as revolution and reform swept Mexico her family were stripped of much of their land. Within a year of moving to Mexico City, her parents were dead. She did fend for herself. She became a poet, a diplomat (ambassador to Israel from Mexico) and professor, and she published. She grew up originally on a ranch in Chiapas, and her memories, what she saw, became central to her writing as well as her gender. She is said to have been the first woman from there to publish a book. She wrote a weekly column for a newspaper, Excelsior, and joined the National Indigenous Institute, writing scripts for puppet shows that were staged in impoverished regions to promote literacy.

It was upon her parents’s death in 1948, that Castellanos published her first collection of poetry (Trayectoria del polvo), and was able to go to Europe. So she had that essentail trip away, back to Europe, France too, so important to women writers. She is said to have studied Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir while there. Her feminist essays are much influenced by and acknowledge Beauvoir (especially her “Leccion De Cocina” — but a more ironic defiant stance). She was ever shaped by her Spanish ancestry. In 1950 in Mexico, she defended a master’s thesis, “Sobre cultura femenina” (On feminine culture), and perhaps (I would put it) clawed her way to director of cultural programs for the State of Chiapas? Perhaps no one else wanted it.

A brief marriage (1957-1961); one son, Gabriel (1961), then teaching at the National University of Mexico in the 1960s. She wrote one major play, three novels and short fiction too. At least two have been Englished: Balún-Canán(1957), translated as Nine Guardians by Irene Nicholson; The Book of Lamentations (1962), translated by Esther Allen. A famous book is The Eternal Feminine.

She said her letters would serve as her autobiography. Balún Canán and Oficio de tinieblas (translated into English as The Book of Lamentations) is semi-autobiographical and depicts a Tzotzil indigenous uprising in Chiapas based on one that had occurred in the 19th century. Among the Englished novels, Nine Guardians attracted stimulating reviews, e.g., Rodman, Selden. “Children Caught in a Storm.” The New York Times Book Review (5 June 1960): 5.

On these short stories and the longer fiction: See Mary Gomez Parham, “Alienation in Rosario Castellanos’ Ciudad Real [her 2nd collection], Letras Femeninas 15.1-2 (Spring 1989): p22-27. In her final work of fiction, Castellanos turned from the difficulties of racial and class conflict, from provincial to urban Mexican: Mary Gomez Parham, “Moving Toward the Other: New Dimensions in Human Relationships in Rosario Castellanos’ ‘Album de familia,’ Chasqui 17.1 (May 1988): p3-7. Marriage is one of its themes: Geldrich-Leffman, Hanna. “Marriage in the Short Stories of Rosario Castellanos.” Chasqui 21.1 (May 1992): 27-35. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jenny Cromie. Vol. 39. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Castellanos was humorous, witty, too: Nina M. Scott, “Rosario Castellanos: Demythification through Laughter, Humor 2.1 (1989): p19-29.

I chose an appealing photograph of Rosario Castellano when young to begin with: a black-and-white photo of her as a young woman with her hair pulled tight back and plainly into a knot at the nape of her neck; she wear a plain white T-shirt and pinafore or jumper of soft material. She leans on a desk with a book near her; at her back are shelves of books and folders. She has a straight-forward look, slightly dreamy on her face.

A sad sudden death when she was still young: she died in Tel Aviv in 1974 at the age of 49 after accidentally electrocuting herself while doing her hair. It’s been suggested she might have killed herself, but many dispute this and this kind of impulse seems foreign to her writing self. Yet there is an intense ironic melancholy & alienation in her writing (why I like it).

Remedios Varo (1908-63), Harmony (1956) — except it be Remedios Varo

If you’re like me and have a humble working library in English: these three anthologies can start you off with brief selections, a life, and list of books: Carol Cosman’s The Book of Women Poets; Angel and Kate Flores, The Defiant Muse: Hispanic Feminist Poems; Aliki and Willis Barnstone, A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now. Lund Humphries, Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, and Kati Horna. For her prose and fiction too: A Rosario Castellanos Reader, ed. trans. Maureen Ahern. University of Texas Press, 1988 (400 pages!); Meditation on the Threshold a Bilingual Anthology Poetry by Rosario Castellanos (Jun 1988).

A select bibliography in English from an academic website:

“Rosario Castellanos”. Spanish American Woman Writers: A Bio Bibliographical Source Book. Ed. Diane E. Marting. Westport &London: Greenwood Press, 1990: 140-155; Anderson, Helene M. “Rosario Castellanos and the Structures of Power”. Contemporary Women Authors of Latin America. Ed. Doris Meyer & Margarite Fernández Olmos. NY: Brooklyn College Humanities Institute Series, Brooklyn College, 1983: 22-31; Schaefer, Claudia. Textured Lives: Women, Art, and Representation in Modern Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992; Turner, Harriet S. “Moving Selves: The Alchemy of Esmero (Gabriela Mistral, Gloria Riestra, Rosario Castellanos, and Gloria Fuertes)”. In the Feminine Mode: Essays on Hispanic Women Writers. Eds, Noël Valis and Carol Maier. Lewisburg: Bucknell University press, 1990: 227-245.


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