Poems and translations: Retrato, La poesía esclava, and ¡Ya duermes! (En la muerte de la ilustre poetisa Mercedes Matamoros)
Luisa Pérez de Zambrana was a Cuban poet whose work first appeared in print in 1854. She was strongly associated with romanticist trends in her early career, and for the “freshness” of her sentimental verses, the publication of which led to her marriage to the poet and scientist Ramón Zambrana (Coester 395). Pérez de Zambrana was associated with the Cuban magazines En el Hogar and Cuba Ilustrada in the 1880s. Later, she often wrote for El Fígaro. She was still writing and publishing books until at least 1920 (García Ramos).
Her husband died in 1866, and five of their sons shortly afterward (López Lemus 87). She was in the same literary circles as Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Mercedes Matamoros, Aurelia Castillo, and Rafael María de Mendive (García Ramos). José Martí admired her poetry, glorifying her as the poet of elegy, pearl-like and ethereal compared to Gómez de Avellaneda, the poet of fire and grand patriotism (Martí). Lezama Lima admired her “fundamentally Cuban” way of confronting death in elegiac poems (Chacón y Calvo). Her poetry was considered to be an exemplar of women’s poetics of her time, of “discurso feminino” or feminine discourse (López Lemus 87).
Her poem “Retrato” asks a portrait-painter to see her as she sees herself; young and simple, olive-skinned or suntanned, not falsely pale and beautiful. This pastoral picture of a rural maiden is set in sharp contrast to the last four lines of the poem, which establish that Pérez de Zambrana is thinking of her own death. The seventeenth century Mexican poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, in Soneto CXLV, “A su retrato,” also addressed her own portrait as a manifestation of impermanence. Portrait and poem function as a message to the future, defining how Pérez de Zambrana would like to be seen as a person: reading a book. She presents her engagement with other writers as her defining characteristic. In other poems such as “Contestación” ‘Answer’ and “Sobre el estudio” ‘On Studying’ Zambrana protests women’s position in society and asserts their right to education.
“La poesía esclava” describes the poet Aurelia Castillo as a white marble statue, as poetry personified and enslaved. This could be read as a patriotic poem, as a feminist protest, or as both. Poetry, however, is outlined as containing an inherent path to freedom, perhaps the modernista ideal of art and beauty as a force for political and moral good. Liberty, believing in it and living by it, was Poetry’s crime. In form, the poem is an Italianate madrigal with varying 11 and 7 syllable lines.
“Ya duermes!,” on the death of Mercedes Matamoros in 1906, shows strong modernista influence in its valuation of the ineffable. Pérez imagines Matamoros surrounded in lilies and gold, pale, a swan surrounded by the muses, disappearing into the modernista “azul” of ideal beauty and art. She describes Matamoros as a modern Sappho, putting her in the context of other women writers. The poem is de arte mayor, “greater art,” with lines of eleven syllables and even lines ending in consonant rhyme.
In most descriptions of the circles of women writers which included Matamoros, Castillo, the Xenes and Borrero sisters, and (from a distance) Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Pérez is not included. But her own poetry to other women shows her ties to women’s literary communities (Vallejo 290).