While I was doing my research I pretty much ignored Chile and in fact I have completely ignored Gabriela Mistral because I figure everyone else has written about her already, and she’s well known. Ultimately I have to go and read her poems and read something about her life – in fact, probably I’m being stupid and there’s a biography of her out there in English that would be easy for me to find, with pointers to lots of other good poets.
My poet this week has been Olga Acevedo, a Chilean born around 1895. Acevedo fits firmly with the other women I’ve been translating, all the ones who are “not quite modernists”. Well what if they’re not? Why not call them something else? Because there was definitely something. Why not call it a genre? For god’s sake.
My special favorite, Juana de Ibarbourou, doesn’t fit strict definitions of modernismo in her early work mostly because she’s not quite rigorous and formal enough. I read somewhere in an interview with her that until after her second book, she didnt’ even know what a sonnet was. She’d read plenty of them, and written them, but had never studied the rules of verse. (All the poets did not study the rules of verse, but the ladies DO roll their eyes.) She just DID it – but slightly “wrong”.
Back to Acevedo. I got very excited at her early poems. Acevedo mentions silence a lot. There’s a lot of not-speaking, and dot-dot-dot ellipses, ghosts and statues that can’t speak but who want to speak and paradoxically ARE speaking through the poem. The sort of poem that goes like this, “I’m totally mute, I’m a statue, I can’t speak! Oh, the sadness!” (Not an actual line.) It’s a beautiful rhetorical strategy that makes me aware of all the things they’re not saying. Despite my writing ALL THE TIME there is plenty I’m not saying and can’t say because of social convention or attempts to be private — and I don’t always feel comfortable with that. Show me a wall and I want to break it. Reflex! But these early 20th century women, their silent speaking statues are all talking to Rodó, in response to his essay “Ariel” in which a philosopher explains to his students (gatherred around a statue of Ariel) all about their duty as artists.
I wondered about the phrase “la tristeza de ser”, which was in quotes in Acevedo’s poem “Serenata”. Is it a quotation/translation from French? Or Kierkegaard? I could translate it as “existential despair” but I’m not sure if I want to be anachronistic if it’s an anachronism. If you’re going to say “sadness of being” you might as well say “existential despair”. Anyway, Acevedo’s angst is expressed thusly: She’s passionately addressing a ray of pure white moonlight as it streams into her room, and she wants to hide her face in its gauzy negligee and melt away into perfumed nothingness like a ravished bride. Hot stuff!
In other early poems by Acevedo, I noticed a lot of blue which is now a red flag, or really a blue flag, for me that something is going on about Art and Poetry with capital letters. Anything that’s blue, or anything about fountains or swans, and the poet is definitely talking to/about Darío and “Azul” — and so is addressing the ideas of modernismo; the poem should be read in the context of modernismo whether you “count” it or not in that genre. Pure art, inspiration, beauty — Beauty — as a way of being. These women, these adherents of maenidismo, saw themselves as living their lives as art. I feel like the more I read, the more I am in their dream-world. Edith Södergran is there — and the Comtesse de Noailles — and I’m sure so many more from other countries and languages. I want to put my Latin American women together with them in a lovely anthology, someday, to show the connections.
My own dreamworld is still this imaginary, beautiful data structure of all the texts in the world. I want it to be easy to see relationships between books. I want people to be viewable as nebulous clouds of text-production and consumption or maybe those are the wrong words; texts and people have conversations and relationships.
How much happier I am to be putting all this out into the world, instead of just in private notebooks! And not to be a lonely super-reader autodidact freak anymore. I mean, I still am, but the value of it is different once I’m not talking to the air.