Imaginary argument with anyone who might care

In everything I’ve read about Cuban women writers, Luisa Pérez de Zambrana is either called a romanticist (and dismissed for it) or a not-quite-romanticist or post-romanticist-but-not-a-modernista (and dismissed for that too). I see the romanticism in a lot of her work, though I haven’t found, much less read, everything she’s ever written. And I see the not-quite-romanticism. But then, in other poems, I see modernismo. As far as I can tell there’s no reason to call her not also a modernista.

What the heck do you call this, if not “modernismo”?

La poesía esclava
a Aurelia Castillo

Con túnica de nácar, pasa pura
una dulce, una espléndida figura
más blanca que el jazmín.

Es un ángel con alas estrelladas,
un ángel celestial que lleva atadas
las manos de marfil.

Tú eres esa beldad tierna y sombría
¡adorable y celeste Poesía!
¡prisionera inmortal!

¿Cuál es tu culpa, ¡oh cándida acusada?
-¡Sobre mi frente pálída y sagrada
llevar la Libertad!

Poetry Enslaved
to Aurelia Castillo

In her pearl-pale tunic, she endures, pure
and sweet, a splendid figure
whiter than jasmine.

She’s an angel with starry wings,
a celestial angel,
her marble hands in chains.

You are that lovely maiden, tender and serious
adorable and heavenly Poetry!
Immortal captive!

What is your crime, oh innocent accused?
“On my pallid, bleeding brow
I bear the mark of Liberty!”

White ethereal ideal marble jasmine maidenly starriness. Check. Art and Beauty internalized by Artist as a sort of metaphysical/aesthetic/political method of acheiving The Good. Check. Parnassian tendencies. Yup, got that too.

Perhaps the sticking point is the idea that modernismo is about exact form. This is true for one strand of it, but even Darío gets to be modernista in his long Whitmanesque rambles. Critics of the early 20th century were in surprising agreement for such a waffly topic that they were just making up anyway – that there were various strains of modernismo, formal and free verse, symbolist/imagist or symbolist/parnassian. Over time, this evolved to a more and more patriarchal geneology, where Darío sort of fertilized everyone else; but this is not true since plenty of other poets were reading the same things he was reading in Paris and elsewhere.

Perhaps the sticking point is the artist’s life-myth? As the poet of modernismo had to embody Art in their entire life and whatever they did. Perhaps Pérez de Zambrana was too old and had too much of a reputation for stuffy elegies and elaborate patriotic verses. But then I turn to her elegy for Mercedes Matamoros, which also seems like a paragon of modernismo. In her elegy, “Ya Duermes!” she hits every point… Matamoros is hanging out in a tunic, dead and ethereal, like a lily… lyres are mentioned.. muses… silver and blue, sublimeness, infinity, alabaster, and finally Matamoros kind of waves farewell as she steps lightly out among the stars. As for being too old… That should not matter. Besides, Pérez de Zambrana was hangin g out with all the modernista chicks (whose existence seems in dispute of course) in Cuba, in the 1890s, and with Julian de Casal and that whole gang.

It irks me!

So why care? Actually, my ultimate argument is that we shouldn’t care. But since stuff is getting published in “modernista” anthologies and bigger anthologies seem to need that handle to make poetry of that time hip and cool and valuable, it does matter that all the women (except maybe sometimes Agustini, with caveats) are excluded. If you think it’s important, I’m gonna argue that plenty of women fit it. But fitting into a genre should not be all-consumingly important.

I would also note that another force is in play. Pérez de Zambrana gained some fame as a Romanticist, and then moved on to write in other styles. When male poets do this, it makes them versatile. When women do it, it’s because they haven’t mastered any one thing, they haven’t focused, and they have no depth. Ah, fickle Woman!

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List of poets in the anthology

Here’s the list of women poets that I have translated so far (some, many poems; some, only one).

limitation is that they should have been publishing or writing between 1880 and 1930. I have another list of many more poets from the same era – some that I want to translate and expand into a really big book. I will probably put the bios of the poets online. In fact I feel like I could have more of an effect by making Wikipedia pages for all these poets, and by tagging them up. But I would like a book.

The long list (not posted yet) is only a few of the many hundreds of women whose work I’ve seen.

*Luisa Pérez de Zambrana (Cuba)
*Jesusa Laparra (Guatemala)
*Maria Luisa Milanes (Cuba) (1893-1919)
*Maria Villar Buceta (Cuba) (1899-1977)
*Salomé Ureña de Henríquez (Dominican Republic) (1850-1897) “Herminia”
*Elisa Monge (Guatemala) (18XX-1932)
*Adela Zamudio (Bolivia) (1854-1928) “Soledad”
*Mercedes Matamoros (Cuba) (1851-1906)
*Nieves Xenes (Cuba)
*Aurelia Castillo de González (Cuba) (1842-1920)
*María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira (Uruguay) ( 1875-1924 )
*Emilia Bernal de Agüero (Cuba) (1884-1964)
*Delmira Agustini (Uruguay) (1886 – 1914)
* Antonieta Le-Quesne (Chile) (1895-1921)
*Juana de Ibarbourou (Uruguay) (1894 – 1979)
*Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva (Venezuela) (1886-1962)
*Gabrela Mistral (Chile) (1889-1957)
*Emma Vargas Flórez de Arguelles (Colombia) (1885 – )
*Alfonsina Storni (Argentina) (1892-1938)
* Adela Sagastume de Acuña (Guatemala) (18XX – 1926)
*Magda Portal (Perú) (1901-1989)
*MARIA MONVEL (Chile) (1897 – 1936)
*Nydia Lamarque (Argentina) (1906-1982)
*Olga Acevedo (Chile) (1895-1970)

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outrageously erased

Today in the library I meant to write up a formal description of my anthology project, but instead skimmed through biographical dictionaries.

I checked out several huge fat multi-volume dictionaries of Latin American authors, and some other Spanish-language Encyclopedias of Famous Women. It was interesting to see patterns emerge. Some encyclopedists knew a fair amount of Cuban women writers, but missed all the Chileans. Others got the Argentinians and Uruguayans, or knew about certain of my own favorites like the Venezuelan poet Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva, or massively famous feminists like Adela Zamudio, but missed the Cubans entirely except for Gomez de Avellaneda. *Everyone* was blind to the very strong groups of Guatemalan women writers. Some of the encyclopedias who knew the Matamoros-Borrero-Xenes circle still missed Emilia Bernal, or perhaps left her out on purpose for being too scandalous – I have no idea.

Sainz de Robles’ Diccionario de Mujeres Celebres, 1959, was strong on international and historical references. I’d enjoy reading all of it someday. If I found similar books from 1900 or so, and simply read them through, I’d understand these women’s poetry better. I’d see their references, just as reading a historical review of Sappho-myths helped me understand the poetry of Mercedes Matamoros and Nydia Lamarque. And just as my somewhat random knowledge of Norse mythology clued me into understanding Juana Borrero’s poem about Ran’s daughters.

Anyway, I studied patterns, took notes, xeroxed some things, and added considerably to the short biographies of many of the poets.

I enjoyed skipping around in Cesar Aira’s dictionary of authors. The appendices, which listed writers by country and then by birthdate, looked extremely useful. Though he missed quite a lot of the women I think are interesting. I like to think that he just didn’t know about them – rather than that he knew them but rejected their work as inferior.

Then I got into a terrible history-of-literature book, Literatura Hispanoamericana, volume 5 of an enormous and authoritative-looking reference series, Historia de la literatura española. It’s from 1969, and its author, Professor A. Valbuena Briones, included only one woman in his 600-page review of five centuries of Spanish-American literature, and it was… wait for it…. who do you think? There are only two possibilities and it is unimaginable to leave one of them out. It was Gabriela Mistral! He left out Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. Fucking incredible… of all the people you’d think it would be impossible to erase. I kept looking through the index in dismay and finally flipped through the books’ opening chapters. Nope! No Sor Juana! I still hope I’m wrong. It keeps my faith in human nature going. The Valbuena B, he’s an amazing guy. I started having flashbacks to my classes 20 years ago in the Spanish department at University of Texas… maybe those old fossils had learned off that very book. Since The Valbuena had huge bibliographies that made it clear he had at least opened the flyleaf of many fine books that had women in them, we have to think that perhaps he is the distillation of many filtering layers of sexist anthologizing and critical reviewing, so that all the times that women writers were shunted off into the last paragraph of the last chapter of the book finally came to a head, like an enormous, gross zit, and popped, leaving nothing for Valbuena Briones to work with. He didn’t even have the obligatory section of “mention a couple of women while putting them down and lamenting that they aren’t better and there aren’t more of them” which I notice in so many literary doorstops of the 20th century.

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When Ran’s daughters meet

Oh happy synchronicity! I opened my juicy new “Poesía moderna en Cuba” and right smack in Juana Borrero’s short bio:

Debido a esta doble cualidad de pintora y escritora, y la pintura, y a la precocidad de su geniio, Julián del Casal la compara con la fascinadora María Bashkirseff, cuyas analogías se acentuan despueés con la muerte temprana de nuestra poetisa.

My sister just gave me a ratty old volume of Marie Bashkirseff’s journals (translated) which I devoured whole… Of course, I love to make the connections of who knew of whom and of course it makes sense that Borrero and her sisters would have known about Bashkirseff. And Bashkirseff wrote about Madame de Stael and George Sand, and other women who were inspirations for her. There was a hilarious day when she made her bumptious country cousin from Russia, who was in love with her, read Corrine… as if to say “And if you can take that, you might begin to understand the tiniest part of my little fingernail…”

I haven’t yet gotten my hands on the volume “Grupo de familia”, which collected work by several of the Borrero sisters, edited by Aurelia Castillo. I translated a few of Juana B.’s poems, and some of Aurelia’s, and I’m reading some of Dulce María Borrero’s. Others by Mercedes Matamoros, Nieves Xenes, and another Xenes sister make it clear that their poetic circle was not always focused on Julian de Casal as its center. The women read each other and wrote poems to each other. They read work by women from other countries and times. It seems important to say this, because most of the critical writing, the short bios, and the prefaces of anthologies, speaks as if de Casal was The Influence on everyone of that circle.

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Genre classifications and sexism

I come up against this again and again. Critical literature focuses on defining a genre, and women end up just outside that definition. So it always looks like they just miss the boat because they’re not quite good enough. Really, though, if you look at the moments when the genre is being defined, the boundaries are arbitrary. Other genres could be declared.

I need to read more widely…

So check this out.

With respect to her poetry in particular, critics have often failed to recognize the modernity of its lyric voice on account of its traditional verse patterns. Reflecting a dual attitude of competition and cooperation with her cultural world, Noailles held a similarly double-voiced discourse toward conventional interpretations of woman. Her classification in literary history as a belated French Romantic further obfuscates the significance of her work. While recognizing her predecessors, Noailles was frequently unable to find adequate models in their works for a distinct poetic identity. In seeking new versions of the feminine self, she acknowledged women who were unable to write and, more broadly, she attempted to provide a formerly silent Muse with voice and presence. (Catherine Perry)

She’s not quite a romantic… or she’s a “late” romantic… but she’s not quite a modernista either – like de Ibarbourou, Bernal, Vaz Ferreira, Elisa Monge, Mercedes Matamoros, and so many women poets of the 1890s to the 1920s.

I’ll be looking for Perry’s book. She has more to say on her brief website on de Noailles:

A discrepancy between form and content, reflecting Noailles’ situation at the cusp of the antithetical world views of nineteenth-century Romanticism and twentieth-century Modernism, characterizes her poetry, where dynamic concepts and images strive to dissolve a largely classical structure. By actively engaging with her French literary heritage while finding a source of inspiration in Greek paganism and in Nietzsche’s radical thought, Noailles constructed an original poetic world view. Her work is best described as Dionysian–ecstatic, sensual, erotic, playful, sometimes violent, and always marked by a tragic undercurrent which becomes more apparent in her later poetry.

“Dionysian” describes Agustini, de Ibarbourou, Bernal, and Matamoros very well. I would prefer a different name if we are going to declare a new genre… Imagine the articles as we define Maenidic poetics and make brief offhand mention of Ruben Darío – and how he doesn’t quite fit the Genre. A pity, really, as his work contained echos of Maenidism, traces which can’t help but reflect the prevailing spirit of the time.

***
It occurs to me that I have had a giant epiphany about this, but I’m reinventing the wheel. I did a little poking around and found this excellent bibliography: Gender and Genre. My god! right up top we have “Benstock, S. (1991). Textualizing the feminine. On the limits of genre. University of Okla. Press.” Looks perfect! I’m still 15 years behind in academic literary theory. Though I think it might be more like “feminizing the textual” than “textualizing the feminine” – that’s what’s going on in a lot of the criticism I’m reading. The poets are textualizing the feminine. The critics feminize in order to denigrate and marginalize. *sigh*

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