Categories
Parallax

The Second Sex: A Translation of “Le Deuxième Sexe” by Simone de Beauvoir

by Simone de Beauvoir | translated by Julia Peterson | Parallax | Spring 2019

Image by Bridget Conway

Translator’s Note:

Why keep reading (and translating) The Second Sex?

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a massively significant early second-wave feminist book, turned 70 years old this year. As I have worked closely with this text over the last two years, I have become very aware of all the ways that this text shows its age, from its eager explorations of ideas that feminists have largely discarded or moved beyond to language that we would no longer use today. I am also a strong believer in reexamining the literary canon—just because something was once significant does not mean that it is still important for us to study it, and remaining married to the texts that we were taught or what our teachers were taught means that other, perhaps more worthy texts are left o the syllabus. at said, I think that The Second Sex remains a text that should be read, studied, and re-translated by contemporary and future feminists, largely because of the way I have come to believe that it is structured to require reader interaction.

Five years ago, I was introduced to The Second Sex in a French class that I was taking back in my home province of Quebec – it was my first exposure to feminism in an academic context, and I was enthralled. Since then, especially as I have immersed myself in this work from a translator’s perspective, my ideas on how this book should be read have evolved. First, I have learned that The Second Sex is so much more fun than I gave it credit for, five years ago. Back then, I was trying to read it as just another dry academic text, but that does not do justice to the joyful tumult of lavish literary prose that de Beauvoir wove through her academic arguments. She was not just curating information about feminism in an ordered list; I have found that her prose revels in the moment between proven fact and extrapolated conclusion. The life cycle of an ant becomes high tragedy, the history of pervasive societal myths become poetry, and the authors of sexist arguments become the targets of her laser-guided snark.

I have also come to believe that The Second Sex is not trying to definitively answer the question of ‘What is a woman?’ – if de Beauvoir had thought she had the answer, I don’t think she would have buried it in a 700-page text. Instead, I think that this book is a debate looking for a debate partner. In two volumes, de Beauvoir presents all the information she could find relating to women and essentially invites readers to go to town, to push back on her weaker claims and cut away the dross until only the most valuable arguments remain.

For me, this is why this book remains so worthy of study and translation, and I think will remain so for a very long time; because we are invited to bring our whole selves to this debate. I read and translate The Second Sex as a Jewish woman, a queer woman, a young woman, an Oberlin student, and all of these aspects of who I am are engaged in my interactions with this text. When it comes to the marriage between this text and its readers, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and I believe that this 70-year-old text can still be a valuable tool in helping us shape the feminism of the future.


J’ai longtemps hésité à écrire un livre sur la femme. Le sujet est irritant, surtout pour les femmes ; et il n’est pas neuf. La querelle du féminisme a fait couler assez d’encre, à présent elle est à peu près close : n’en parlons plus. On en parle encore cependant. Et il ne semble pas que les volumineuses sottises débitées pendant ce dernier siècle aient beaucoup éclairé le problème. D’ailleurs y a-t-il un problème ? Et quel est-il ? Y a-t-il même des femmes ? Certes la théorie de l’éternel féminin compte encore des adeptes ; ils chuchotent : « Même en Russie, elles restent bien femmes » ; mais d’autres gens bien informés – et les mêmes aussi quelque-fois – soupirent : « La femme se perd, la femme est perdue. » On ne sait plus bien s’il existe encore des femmes, s’il en existera toujours, s’il faut ou non le souhaiter, quelle place elles occupent en ce monde, quelle place elles devraient y occuper. « Où sont les femmes ? » demandait récemment un magazine intermittent. Mais d’abord : qu’est-ce qu’une femme ? « Tota mulier in utero : c’est une matrice », dit l’un. Cependant parlant de certaines femmes, les connaisseurs décrètent : « Ce ne sont pas des femmes » bien qu’elles aient un utérus comme les autres. Tout le monde s’accorde à reconnaître qu’il y a dans l’espèce humaine des femelles ; elles constituent aujourd’hui comme autrefois à peu près la moitié de l’humanité ; et pourtant on nous dit que « la féminité est en péril » ; on nous exhorte : « Soyez femmes, restez femmes, devenez femmes. » Tout être humain femelle n’est donc pas nécessairement une femme ; il lui faut participer de cette réalité mystérieuse et menacée qu’est la féminité. Celle-ci est-elle sécrétée par les ovaires ? ou fi gée au fond d’un ciel platonicien ? Suffi t-il d’un jupon à frou-frou pour la faire descendre sur terre ? Bien que certaines femmes s’efforcent avec zèle de l’incarner, le modèle n’en a jamais été déposé. On la décrit volontiers en termes vagues et miroitants qui semblent empruntés au vocabulaire des voyantes. Au temps de saint Thomas, elle apparaissait comme une essence aussi sûrement défi nie que la vertu dormitive du pavot. Mais le conceptualisme a perdu du terrain : les sciences biologiques et sociales ne croient plus en l’existence d’entités immuablement fixées qui définiraient des caractères donnés tels que ceux de la Femme, du Juif ou du Noir ; elles considèrent le caractère comme une réaction secondaire à une situation. S’il n’y a plus aujourd’hui de féminité, c’est qu’il n’y en a jamais eu. Cela signifie-t-il que le mot « femme » n’ait aucun contenu ? C’est ce qu’affirment vigoureusement les partisans de la philosophies des lumières, du rationalisme, du nominalisme : les femmes seraient seulement parmi les êtres humains ceux qu’on désigne arbitrairement par le mot « femme » ; en particulier les Américaines pensent volontiers que la femme en tant que telle n’a plus lieu ; si une attardée se prend encore pour une femme, ses amies lui conseillent de se faire psychanalyser afin de se délivrer de cette obsession. À propos d’un ouvrage, d’ailleurs fort agaçant, intitulé Modem Woman : a lost sex, Dorothy Parker a écrit : « Je ne peux être juste pour les livres qui traitent de la femme en tant que femme…Mon idée c’est que tous, aussi bien hommes que femmes, qui nous soyons, nous devons être considérés comme des êtres humains. » Mais le nominalisme est une doctrine un peu courte ; et les antiféministes ont beau jeu de montrer que les femmes ne sont pas des hommes. Assurément la femme est comme l’homme un être humain : mais une telle affi-rmation est abstraite ; le fait est que tout être humain concret est toujours singulièrement situé. Refuser les notions d’éternel féminin, d’âme noire, de caractère juif, ce n’est pas nier qu’il y ait aujourd’hui des Juifs, des Noirs, des femmes : cette négation ne représente pas pour les intéressés une libération, mais une fuite inauthentique.Il est clair qu’aucune femme ne peut prétendre sans mauvaise foi se situer par-delà son sexe. Une femme écrivain connue a refusé voici quelques années de laisser paraître son portrait dans une série de photographies consacrées précisément aux femmes écrivains : elle voulait être rangée parmi les hommes ; mais pour obtenir ce privilège, elle utilisa l’influence de son mari. Les femmes qui affirment qu’elles sont des hommes n’en réclament pas moins des égards et des hommages masculins. Je me rappelle aussi cette jeune trotskiste debout sur une estrade au milieu d’un meeting houleux et qui s’apprêtait à faire le coup de poing malgré son évidente fragilité ; elle niait sa faiblesse féminine ; mais c’était par amour pour un militant dont elle se voulait l’égale. L’attitude de défi dans laquelle se crispent les Améri-caines prouve qu’elles sont hantées par le sentiment de leur féminité. Et en vérité il suffit de se promener les yeux ouverts pour constater que l’humanité se partage en deux catégories d’individus dont les vêtements, le visage, le corps, les sourires, la démarche, les intérêts, les occupations sont manifestement différents : peut-être ces différences sont-elles superficielles, peut-être sont-elles destinées à disparaître. Ce qui est certain c’est que pour l’instant elles existent avec une éclatante évidence. Si sa fonction de femelle ne suffit pas à définir la femme, si nous refusons aussi de l’expliquer par « l’éternel féminin » et si cependant nous admettons que, fût-ce à titre provisoire, il y a des femmes sur terre, nous avons donc à nous poser la question : qu’est-ce qu’une femme ?

L’énoncé même du problème me suggère aussitôt une première réponse. Il est significatif que je le pose. Un homme n’aurait pas idée d’écrire un livre sur la situation singulière qu’occupent dans l’humanité les mâles. Si je veux me définir je suis obligée d’abord de déclarer : « Je suis une femme » ; cette vérité constitue le fond sur lequel s’enlèvera toute autre affirmation. Un homme ne commence jamais par se poser comme un individu d’un certain sexe : qu’il soit homme, cela va de soi. C’est d’une manière formelle, sur les registres des mairies et dans les déclarations d’identité que les rubriques : masculin, féminin, apparaissent comme symétriques. Le rapport des deux sexes n’est pas celui de deux électricités, de deux pôles : l’homme représente à la fois le positif et le neutre au point qu’on dit en français « les hommes » pour désigner les êtres humains, le sens singulier du mot « vir » s’étant assimilé au sens général du mot « homo ». La femme apparaît comme le négatif si bien que toute détermination lui est imputée comme limitation, sans réciprocité. Je me suis agacée parfois au cours de discussions abstraites d’entendre des hommes me dire : « Vous pensez telle chose parce que vous êtes une femme » ; mais je savais que ma seule défense, c’était de répondre : « Je la pense parce qu’elle est vraie » éliminant par là ma subjectivité ; il n’était pas question de répliquer : « Et vous pensez le contraire parce que vous êtes un homme » ; car il est entendu que le fait d’être un homme n’est pas une singularité ; un homme est dans son droit en étant homme, c’est la femme qui est dans son tort. Pratiquement, de même que pour les anciens il y avait une verticale absolue par rapport à laquelle se définissait l’oblique, il y a un type humain absolu qui est le type masculin.

I have long hesitated to write a book about women. The subject is irritating, especially for women, and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled on the topic of feminism and the discussion is nearly exhausted: let’s stop talking about it. Yet we continue to talk. It seems that the large amount of arrant nonsense produced during the last century has not shed much light on the problem. And—is there a problem? What is it? Are there even women? Certainly, the theory of the eternal feminine still has followers; they whisper, “Even in Russia, women are still women”; but other well-informed people—sometimes the same people—sigh that: “women are losing their way, women are lost.” We don’t know if any women still exist, if women will always exist, whether we should wish for their existence or not, what place they occupy in the world, or what place they ought to occupy. A periodical recently asked “Where are the women?” But first: what is a woman? “Tota mulier in utero”: she is an incubator, one might say. However, when speaking about certain females, people decree that “they are not women,” though they have a uterus like the others. Everybody can agree that there exist females of the human species; today, like in the past, they constitute approximately half the human population; and still we are told that “femininity is in peril” and we are urged to “be women, stay women, become women.” Therefore, a female human is not necessarily a woman: she must participate in this mysterious and threatened reality that is femininity. Is femininity secreted by the ovaries? Does it fall out of a platonic sky? Is a frilly skirt enough to conjure it up? Although some women work zealously to embody it, the model has never been precisely defined. We willingly describe womanhood in vague and shimmery terms that seem to have been borrowed from the language of prophecy. In the time of Saint Thomas, femininity appeared to be an essence as clearly defined as the soporific effects of the poppy. But conceptualism has been losing ground: biological and social sciences no longer believe that there exist immutably fixed traits that define the essential character of people such as women, Jews and Blacks; they consider character to be a secondary reaction to a situation. If there is no femininity today, it’s that there never was. Does this mean that the word “woman” is meaningless? This belief is strongly championed by the enlightenment philosophers, the rationalists, and the nominalists: that women are simply those humans to which we have arbitrarily applied the word “woman.” American women in particular think that ‘woman’ as such does not exist; their advice is to go get psychoanalyzed to rid yourself of this obsession. Concerning a particularly irritating book titled Modern Woman; a Lost Sex, Dorothy Parker wrote: “I cannot be just to books which treat of women as women… My idea is that all of us, men as well as women, should be regarded as human beings.” But nominalism as a doctrine is somewhat lacking, and anti-feminists have a challenge in proving that women are not men. Certainly, women are, like men, human beings; but this is an abstract statement. The fact is, every human being is always singularly situated. Refusing notions of the ‘eternal feminine,’ the ‘Black spirit,’ or the ‘Jewish character’ is certainly not denying that, in today’s world, there exist Jews, Blacks and women. Denying this fact does not represent a liberation for the concerned parties, but an inauthentic escape. Clearly, a woman can only pretend to be above her sex in bad faith. A few years ago now, a well-known female writer refused to allow her picture to appear in a series of photographs dedicated to female writers: she wanted to be shown among the men. But she used her husband’s influence to obtain this privilege. Women who claim to be men do not receive the same respect and praise as men. I also recall a young Trotskyist—she was standing on a platform in the middle of a boisterous meeting and was preparing to punch somebody despite her evident fragility: she overcame her feminine weakness; but this was for the love of an activist that she wanted to be equal to. The tensely confrontational attitude held by American women proves that they are haunted by the feeling of their femininity. Truly, one only needs to walk around with their eyes open to understand that humanity is split into two categories of individuals whose clothing, face, body, smiles, gait, interests and professions are obviously different: maybe these differences are superficial, maybe they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that, for the moment, there is undeniable evidence for their existence.

If the designation of ‘female’ is an insufficient definition of what woman is, and if we refuse to explain it by the “eternal feminine,” but if, despite this, we provisionally admit that there are women on earth, we must then ask ourselves: what is a woman? I find that this formulation of the problem suggests an initial response. It is significant that I must ask this question. A man would not have the idea to write a book about the particular position that males occupy among humankind. If I want to define myself, I must first declare “I am a woman.” This truth is the base upon which I can construct all other affirmations. A man never begins by positioning himself as an individual of a certain sex: it goes without saying that he is a man. It is only in formal matters, on marriage registers and other official documents, that masculine and feminine appear to be symmetrical. The relationship between the two sexes is not like it is between the two electricities, the two poles: man represents both the positive and the neutral, to the point that in French we say “man” to designate humankind, and the particular meaning of the Latin vir has been conflated with the general meaning of homo. Woman appear so completely as a negative that all of her unique characteristics are defined as limitations, without reciprocity. In abstract discussions, I have sometimes been aggravated when men tell me “you only think this because you are a woman;” but I knew that my only defense was to respond that “I think it because it is true,” eliminating my subjectivity. There was no question of replying “and you think the opposite because you are a man,” because it is understood that the fact of being a man is ordinary. A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. Practically, just as the ancients had an absolute vertical by which they defined the diagonal, there is an absolute human type—the masculine.

Categories
Parallax

On-Going: A Translation of “Hingegend” by Anne Duden

by Anne Duden | translated by Elizabeth Yearsley | Parallax | Spring 2019

Image by Haley Johnson

Translator’s Note:

The German title for this poem is a made-up almost-word. “Hingegend:” a combination of hingehen (to go), hingegen (however), gegen (against), and gegend (area, region). Duden plays with her words; she experiments with nearly-neologisms, puns with compound nouns, and wrangles adjectives into nominalizations. Each stanza describes movement that it is somehow static, isolated to the landscape it both clutters and animates.

In “Hingegend,” Duden articulates a journey and renders the particular places she encounters, honoring the bucolic and the urban, the idyllic and the deadly. To communicate the mass of her words, which are often as condensed and inventive as the title, I need to make space for meanings to accumulate in other ways. I’ve done so with dashes, which break words apart where Duden pushes them together, but I’ve found that my attempts to open up these words do just as much to link them together. My hope is that these dashes, like Duden’s poem, probe the bridges and breaks between solid and liquid, earth-bound and flying, gone and ongoing.


Hundsrosen ins eigene Gebein gelegt
Heckenseide gezogen über die Augen
der Gezeitenfrucht Kind.
Entlang zwangseingewiesener Luftholer
wütet das Hirn in Schüben
und blutet zur Seite
stromtote Ableger
ins süße Faulen der Nebenarme
Robinien- und Pappelgestöber.
Rauhreife Blickabsteige
schneeiger Roggen
Hoch-, Hitzegesirr.
Hopfenschnellen am Regen
lächeln sich zu Boden.

Ichausweser
gasgesamt
um die Dome getrieben
der Worte verwiesen
tropfenweise verflüssigt
Ins Rührei geschwemmt.

Auf- und Unterwühlhalde Precinct
Ab-Ahnhof Hannover.
Hier sagten Bäume
zwei Sprechboten
gegen das Licht.

Unter Autorücken aus Zu- und Abschlagstoffen
Tiefgang durchs weggetretene Meer
beim unaufhörlichen Wachsen der Stockwerke
weiter absinkend.
Im Grunde
nötigt sich eine Musikzeile auf.
Und Baumkronen
zerfleddert in anderthalb Sätzen.

Um das: gehöhter Augenblick
Sturm und Verdurstung.
Wippgang ins Nervengebüsch
Laub abgekämpfter Eschen.

Schluchzen Sie nicht.
Lassen Sie hängen
das Abgesparte vom Mund.
Ich gehe jetzt
– alles Vorgefundene
hinter öffentlich verschlossenen Lippen –
in die Wahrnehmung
Hingegend um Nienburg
auf den von oben schon überfahrenen Landstrich
schnell abgeblickte Schönseite.
Denn zeitgleich und überall
auf ihren Tod getroffen
geschleudert
gefetzt
geklatscht.
Im Strecksprung Flug Watschelgang
dabei eigens noch gegengestachelt –gebuckelt
-geballt.

Großer Eisvogel nun
geschwänt hinter Lidern
Gestalt unter Tag
der Gebeinfreien
der Gehör- und Gehäuslosen.

Einem ausgeweinten König
abends ins Nest gelegt
Eulen-Plumeaus
darunter schwerhöriges Wimmern kleiner Organansammlungen.

Stellen Sie sich baldmöglichst ruhig.
Nun entschlafen Sie endlich.

Briar roses split a splinted foot
hedgerow silk pulled over eyes
of a tide-fruit child.
Beside forced to fish-breathe breath-getters
the brain rages in waves
and bleeds to the side
electric-dead offshoots
find the sweet rotting of estuaries
locust and cottonwood flurries.
Frost hostage
snowy rye sight
high-, heat-hum.
Hops spring at rain
smirk themselves to ground.

Ex-I-led
gas-gathered
caught near domes by tides
pulled away by words
liquid now by drops
egg-scramble wash-up.

Over-churned piled-under “precinct”
de-part de-scend Hannover.
Trees spoke here
two messengers
up against the light.

Under carbacks of add- and de-ductives
keel through the stepped away sea
with neverstopping floor-growing
sinking still.
At bottom
a line of music suggests its lack.
And tree crowns
turn ragged in few and a half phrases.

For this: heard-over moment
storm and thirst-death.
Teetering to headgerows
foliage of battle-weary ashes.

No sobbing, you.
Save up to let fall
the sectioned-off part from the mouth.
I’ll go now
– everything before-found
behind openly closed up lips –
in becoming aware
on going around Nienburg
from the above already run over stretch of land
quickly unlooked at attractions.
Since just now and everywhere
run up against their death
bedraggled
beaten
begone.
In duckfooted handspring flight
once again buckled- bent-
balled-against.

Giant icebird soon
swanned behind eyelids
shape beneath day
of the bonefree
of the hear- and house-less.

For a wept away king
evenings laid into its nest
osprey duvet
thereunder hardly-hearing thrums
tiny organ murmurations.

Set yourself still as soon as you can.
You outsleep yourself already.

Categories
Parallax

A Book About Happiness

by Dmitri Aleksandrovich Prigov | translated by Isak Saaf | Parallax | Spring 2018

Drawings by Julia Friend

Consisting of poems and dialogues.


TRANSLATOR’S NOTE 

I found Prigov accidentally. A video clip with that appealing VHS quality, in which he recited an alliterative poem at a level of Russian beyond my own. I toyed with the idea of translating him, and in the process began to appreciate his printed poetry, his art exhibitions, his enormous character. He told absurd jokes about the atrocities of Russian and American history without ever growing sentimental or ideological, a pitfall even for the best of the Russian poets. He follows in the Russian tradition of absurdism, if the absurd can be called traditional. 

Although his topics are often political, it would be a disservice to call Prigov simply a dissident—his writing is usually too arcane to be clearly read as criticism. He brings the mysticism of Soviet hero worship to the fore and makes us confront it, bends it into something closer to real forms of power. His poetry is the pure absurdist admission that life is at best a place where we dance around meaningtly encounter it. The politics of his work will never touch my pulse as closely as they might for those who knew Soviet power, but his broad sense of the absurd and of the mystical or essential nature of power is still familiar. At least I hope it is. 

Prigov was born in 1940, just before the Great Patriotic War, and died in 2007. His work was not officially printed in the Soviet Union until 1986, although it was circulated abroad and in Samizdat. This particular cycle of poems dates to 1985, one of the 36,000 that he claimed to have written before the millenium. 

The translation came easily. His language is simple and straightforward. Many of the dialogues are riffs on famous phrases by the authors with whom he speaks, and I’ve done my best to render them into simple English that would slander neither Pushkin nor Prigov. Naturally, I hope that the chaos and mystery remains.


NOTICE:
This book was born from a love for Dialogues, Poems, and—naturally, naturally—for happiness.

There is no happiness in life
But there is peace and will
There is no will in life
But there are certain inevitabilities
Nothing in life is inevitable
Save severity and humility
There is no humility in life
Save to be thankful and to rejoice
And to be thankful
And to be thankful
And to rejoice, and to rejoice, rejoice 
                 And to be thankful, to be thankful, thankful 
                                 And to rejoice.


Dialogue #1

Dostoevsky: What is happiness? 
Prigov: What is happiness? 
Dostoevsky: To take a child! 
Prigov: To take a child! 
Dostoevsky: An infant! 
Prigov: An infant! 
Dostoevsky: To take a drop of his blood! 
Prigov: A drop of blood! 
Dostoevsky: A drop of blood! 
Prigov: A droplet! 
Dostoevsky: What is a drop of blood? 
Prigov: What’s a drop of blood? 
Dostoevsky: What are you saying—blood? 
Prigov: What am I saying—blood? 
Dostoevsky: Really—blood? 
Prigov: Blood! 
Dostoevsky: What does blood mean to you? 
Prigov: What does blood mean? 
Dostoevsky: It doesn’t mean anything! 
Prigov: It doesn’t mean anything! 
Dostoevsky: That’s all, then!


There’s some flowers, and a trough 
There’s a rocking chair. There’s something buried. 
Something 
Probably a corpse— 
This is how the porch looks. 


There’s some air, and a little water 
There’s a brother. There’s a sister. 
And there the earth is folded over. 
Probably something buried 
Probably a corpse 


There’s a field, and a forest 
There’s the edge of heaven 
There’s a village, let’s just say, forgettable 
And a little closer the earth 
Is bursting out 
Where the corpse, probably, tried to climb.


There is no truth in life 
But there is understanding and reason 
There is no reason in life 
But there is logic and sobriety 
There is no sobriety in life 
But there is choice 
There is no choice in life 
Save to forgive and to rejoice 
And to rejoice, rejoice, rejoice 
And rejoice, and rejoice 
And rejoice 
And to forgive 
And to rejoice 


In life, there is no love 
But there is tenderness and friendship 
There is no friendship in life 
But there is lust and desire 
There is no desire in life 
Save to dissipate and to rejoice 
And to dissipate, and dissipate 
And to dissipate, and dissipate 
And dissipate 
And to weep! To weep, to weep! 
And weep again! And weep and weep! 
And to rejoice and rejoice and rejoice! 
And to dissipate! 


There’s the kitchen, and the bathtub 
Which kitchen? And which bathtub? 
Just a kitchen. Just a bathtub 
And what smells so strange, underneath the bathtub? 
Probably a corpse, growing stale. 


There’s a man, right fucking there, and his fucking grandmother 
There’s power, right fucking there, and fucking glory 
That’s all there fucking is 
I don’t see a fucking thing 
Except— 
A corpse, probably


Dialogue #2

Stalin: There is no happiness in life! 
Prigov: But Dostoevsky said…. 
Stalin: What did Dostoevsky say? 
Prigov: Something about an infant’s blood. 
Stalin: And what is Dostoevsky? 


Prigov: What is Dostoevsky? 
Stalin: He is ten letters! 
Prigov: Ten letters! 
Stalin: And what happens if we take one away? 
Prigov: What then? 
Stalin: Then he’s Ostoevsky! 
Prigov: Ostoevsky! 
Stalin: And what if we take another three? 
Prigov: What then? 
Stalin: Then he’s Oevsky! 
Prigov: Oevsky! 
Stalin: And what if we take another three? 
Prigov: What then? 
Stalin: Then he’s Sky! 
Prigov: Sky! 
Stalin: And another two? 
Prigov: Another two! 
Stalin: Then he’s Y! 
Prigov: Y! 
Stalin: And another? 
Prigov: Another? 
Stalin: There is nothing! 
Prigov: There is nothing! 
Stalin: There is nothing! 
Prigov: There is nothing! 
Stalin: And no droplets of blood. 


There is no glory in life 
But there are connections and acquaintances 
There are no connections in life 
But there is thirst and freedom 
There is no freedom in life 
Except to choose purely 
How purely! 
Lord! 
How pure! How pure! 
And pure! And pure! 
Lord! How pure! 
How pure! 
Lord! How pure how pure! 
How pure it is to choose 


There is no childhood in life 
But there is school and youth 
There is no youth in life 
But there is maturity and age 
There is no age in life 
But there is eternity and bliss 
Eternal bliss! 
And eternity, eternity and eternity 
And bliss, and eternity 
Eternity, eternity! 
And bliss! 


A town—no larger than a shed 
Dim and quiet as the dead 
Pale and wretched 
By snow—tormented 
All in chaos 
As Buddha crouches 
Snow begins to lay 
Like a cat watching its prey 
Attentively 



Here is the stage, the curtainous layers 
Here is the play, and here are the players 
Aristocrats— 
How lovely! 
Here’s Uncle Vanya, Ranevskaya and Lopakhin 
And the stink of something 
A corpse, probably 
(Boris Godunov’s) 

There is Pushkin, there’s Dostoevsky 
There’s Gorky, and there’s Mayakovsky 
There is Caesar, and there’s Chapaev 
And there’s Prigov—what’s he digging for? 
A corpse 
probably 
ours. 
Collectively.


Dialogue #3

Pushkin: There is no happiness in life!
Prigov: Well, what is there?
Pushkin: There is peace and will!
Prigov: What about the infant?
Pushkin: What infant?
Prigov: Just an infant!
Pushkin: He has his own will!
Prigov: And what about the drop of blood?
Pushkin: Whose blood?
Prigov: His blood!
Pushkin: It has its own will!
Prigov: And what about the dagger?
Pushkin: It has its own will!
Prigov: Then what am I to do?
Pushkin: You have your own will!
Prigov: And if I don’t want it?! I don’t, I don’t!
Pushkin: Then there is peace!
Prigov: And if I have no peace?!
Pushkin: Then that is your will!



The wind a silvered sheet
That twists and hides us
That flies along the street
And lands beside us
And bumps into me
And grows embarrassed
I look at her
And at the street
And life, like a Buddha
Of extraordinary age.

Image by Hannah Sandoz

Dialogue #4

Stalin: There is no happiness in life!
Prigov: Pushkin already said that!
Stalin: And what else did Pushkin say?
Prigov: There, there is peace and will!
Stalin: Will?
Prigov: Will!
Stalin: And just what is this Pushkin?
Prigov: What?
Stalin: He is seven letters!
Prigov: Seven letters!
Stalin: And what if we take one away?
Prigov: What then?
Stalin: Then he’s Ushkin!
Prigov: Then he’s Ushkin!
Stalin: And what if we take another?
Prigov: What then?
Stalin: Then he’s Shkin!
Prigov: Then he’s Shkin!
Stalin: And if we take another?
Prigov: Another?
Stalin: Then he’s Hkin!
Prigov: Then he’s Hkin!
Stalin: And if we take another?
Prigov: Another?
Stalin: Then he’s Kin!
Prigov: Kin!
Stalin: And another?
Prigov: Another?
Stalin: Then he’s In!
Prigov: In!
Stalin: Another!
Prigov: Another!
Stalin: He’s N!
Prigov: N! 
Stalin: And another letter?
Prigov: Another letter?
Stalin: There is nothing!
Prigov: There is nothing!
Stalin: There is nothing!
Prigov: There is nothing!
Stalin: And no will!


There is no life in the world 
But there is something like it 
There’s nothing like that in the world 
But there is something else 
There is nothing else in the world 
But there is something like that 
Like that! 
Like that! 
O! 
Lord! Yes! 
Like that like that like that like that! 
God! 
Like that! 



There is ownership, and economics 
There is efficiency, and Reaganomics 
There is the Dollar, and the Ruble 
And there, buried, is some sort of corpse 
Ownerless 


Three is glorious valor, and revelry 
And a garden that is shining 
There are grinding tanks, there, cloak and dagger 
But something is buried here— 
A corpse, probably 



This city is Moscow—the capital 
This is London, and this—Sevastopol 
This is the South, and the North 
And this is a corpse 
Still unburied 


In Life—There is no death 
Only rape and murder! 
There is no murder in life 
But there is parting and oblivion 
There is no oblivion in life 
But there is metapsychosis and memory 
Memory! Memory! Me-ee-mmory! 
Mee-mmm-oory! Memmmmory! 
And murder, and memory-memory 
Memory! 
Eternal Me-eeee-mmmory! 
Of HIM! 
AMEN! 


There is shit, there is phlegm 
There is crap, there is vomit 
There is a thick nest of filth 
But there is still a sliver of light!— 


A corpse, probably 
Here is a coffin, and a corpse 
Here is corpse, and a coffin 
Well, then what’s at the funeral? 
They’re burying everything else. 


Dialogue #5

Stalin: There is no happiness in life! 
Prigov: No happiness! 
Stalin: What is there, then? 
Prigov: What is there? 
Stalin: There is Stalin! 
Prigov: There is Stalin! 
Stalin: And what is Stalin? 
Prigov: What is he? 
Stalin: Stalin is our glory in battle! 
Prigov: Glory in battle! 
Stalin: Stalin is our fleeting youth! 
Prigov: Fleeting youth! 
Stalin: Going to war with a song, he is victorious! 
Prigov: Victorious! 
Stalin: The people are for Stalin! 
Prigov: For Stalin! 
Stalin: And what else is Stalin? 
Prigov: What else? 
Stalin: He is Three Great Principles! 
Prigov: Three Great Principles! 
Stalin: And what else is Stalin? 
Prigov: What else? 
Stalin: He is Five Great Thoughts! 
Prigov: Five Great Thoughts! 
Stalin: He is Six Great Letters! 
Prigov: And what if we take one away? 
Stalin: What then? 
Prigov: Then he’s Talin! 
Talin: Talin! 
Prigov: And if we take away another? 
Talin: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s Alin! 
Alin: Alin! 
Prigov: And if we take away another? 
Alin: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s Lin! 
Lin: Lin! 
Prigov: And another? 
Lin: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s In! 
In: In! 
Prigov: And another? 
In: Another? 
Prigov: Then he’s N! 
N: N! 
Prigov: And another! 


There is nothing in life 
And that which there isn’t is already gone 
There’s none in the world 
And that which there is is already gone 
But there is still a little bit left 
Which means there’s something 
There is a little still in life 
Where means there’s something 
Good Lord! There’s something there 
There is, there is, there is! It’s there! 
God! It’s there! It is! It is! 
Lord, there’s something there! There is! 
It’s there, Lord! 
Lord, it’s there! 


Effeminate like Laura’s song 
Like laurel leaves, like Northern Lights 
But rushing, like the stream along 
The bank, or like Aurora’s light 
Her rays descending in a throng 
That rake up winter with their hands 
You see—around here, winter’s long 
So, so long. A winter. 
And winter, winter is so long 
A long winter 
With such frost enfrosted 
And such a winter, and such frost 
A long and frosty winter. 
A landscape. 

Image by Francesca Ott

Dialogue #6

Prigov: What is happiness?
Prigov: And what is happiness?
Prigov: And what is unhappiness?
Prigov: What is unhappiness?
Prigov: And what is the distinction?
Prigov: It is that when there is happiness, there is no unhappiness.
Prigov: And what is the similarity?
Prigov: It is that when there is unhappiness, there is still happiness.
Prigov: And what else is there?
Prigov: There is all the rest!
Prigov: And how does all that resemble all this?
Prigov: Because it is all essentially happy or unhappy!
Prigov: And how does it differ?
Prigov: In that all the rest flows out of this! Prigov: And where does it flow to?
Prigov: To ME!
Prigov: How’s that?
Prigov: Here it comes now!

Categories
Parallax

Berenice and the Taboo

by Dario Voltolini | translated by Prof. Stiliana Milkova | Parallax | Fall 2017

Photograph by Clio Schwartz

On Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.


TRANSLATOR’S NOTE

Dario Voltolini is a contemporary Italian writer, the author of novels, short story collections, radio plays, travel narratives, and a range of nonfiction texts. His literary works often dwell on human relationships in an urban, post-industrial world to find profound meaning underneath the most prosaic occurrences. The theme of the writer’s task in a global, overpopulated world emerges in “Berenice and the Taboo: On Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.” In this essay Voltolini reflects on Calvino’s famous novel taking the last city, the “hidden city” of Berenice, as his starting point. Voltolini discusses the question of Time (and its manifestations) as Calvino’s Other, and taming—or representing—that otherness as the writer’s task. When I read this essay in Italian I was captivated by its ideas, by its close reading of Calvino’s text and its broader implications for literature and society in general. Translating it in to English posed a single challenge: capturing Voltolini’s thought, rendering it legible, while also preserving his original language, his own “agile, incisive, sparkling” imagery.


In this essay I examine a particular aspect of Calvino’s poetics—his self-representation as a writer—that I have always deemed problematic. What I have in mind is a certain unresolved tension which afflicts me as a writer too, and perhaps for this reason I tend to notice it in the work of others. This tension arises from the general problem underlying the relationship between the writer and the Other, or better yet, to put it more abstractly, the writer’s relationship with otherness.

Berenice, the last city in Invisible Cities, exemplifies this tension: Highlighting specific themes elaborated in Calvino’s characteristic style, themes still resonant today with the depth and complexity of their implications. Berenice has much to give and to reveal to those of us who deal with meaning—that is, those of us who write. In Berenice, Calvino explores the relationship between the city of the just and the city of the unjust. He depicts it as the progressive nesting of the city of the just within the city of the unjust, but within the nested city the seed of injustice already germinates, and inside the city of the unjust, in turn, germinates the seed of justice, and so it continues in an infinite game of mirrors. It seems to be an idea borrowed from the mathematical theory of recursion. Here is a brief quote from Berenice to illustrate this process:

[I]n the seed of the city of the just, a malignant seed is hidden, in its turn: the certainty and pride of being in the right—and of being more just than many others who call themselves more just than the just. This seed ferments in rancor, rivalry, resentment; the natural desire of revenge on the unjust is colored by a yearning to be in their place and to act as they do. Another unjust city, though different from the first, is digging out its space within the double sheath of the unjust and just Berenices.

Having said this, I do not wish your eyes to catch a distorted image, so I must draw your attention to an intrinsic quality of this unjust city germinating secretly inside the secret just city: and this is the possible awakening—as if in an excited opening of the windows—of a later love for justice, not yet subjected to rules, capable of reassembling a city still more just than it was before it became the vessel of injustice. But if you peer deeper into this new germ of justice you can discern a tiny spot that is spreading like the growing tendency to impose what is just through what is unjust, and perhaps this is the germ of an immense metropolis.

Besides the fascinating image of a city nesting successively in itself its own opposites, I am always struck by something else. I am not a Calvino scholar, but as a writer I hear a call which in my own writing I have repeatedly tried to ignore or avoid so as to be able to do my work—because when you come this close to a planet as large as Calvino’s you risk being pulled away from your own course by its gravitational force. But in the end, I must confront this call, and I can begin doing it here.

So let me first discuss what disturbs me: Calvino’s unresolved tension, his persistent stumbling block. The telltale move which always takes me by surprise is when Marco Polo concludes his narrative: “From my words you will have reached the conclusion that the real Berenice is a temporal succession of different cities, alternately just and unjust. But what I wanted to warn you about is something else: All the future Berenices are already present in this instant, wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed, inextricable.”1

Drawings by Bridget Conway

Calvino’s double construction is curious. On the one hand, a remarkable recursive progression over time; on the other, the complete negation of time itself as suggested by the coexistence of all future Berenices within an undifferentiated present moment devoid of temporal movement. This is not merely a question of rhetoric—there is something else. Here, in my opinion, is Calvino’s taboo subject, the blind spot of his otherwise astute and penetrating eye. Why construct this sequence unfolding in time only to invalidate it in the end? What kind of operation is Calvino performing? What kind of logic underlies his discourse? Marco Polo is right to suspect that Kublai Khan “has reached the conclusion that the real Berenice is a temporal succession of different cities.”2 In fact, Marco Polo has just stated it! Not only has he told Kublai Khan precisely that, he has already conveyed this idea through the dynamic images used to describe Berenice: wheels will jam, a new mechanism will arrive, a cuisine evoking an ancient golden age, fermenting rancors, a city digging out its space, the awakening of a love for justice, a city more just that it was before it became unjust, a tiny spot spreading, a growing tendency—and from these data it is possible to deduce the future Berenice. The outcome of these dynamic transformations is even more striking: Calvino’s vision of an immense metropolis as the rhetorical and narrative realization of the germinating Berenices. An initial tension already inhabits the text here. Berenice’s game of mirrors is infinite, but the city’s realization as an immense metropolis stands in direct contradiction to it. Calvino seems to hypothesize a qualitative discontinuity. The nesting of the just city within the unjust one does not proceed in a straight line (or even in a half line, from the golden age onward), but rather leads to a discontinuity (the metropolis), an entirely different formation.

This initial tension is subservient to the real, central tension in Calvino: the tension between a process occurring gradually over time (the recursion of the just and the unjust Berenices) and a condition of complete immobility—the city Marco Polo reveals to Kublai Khan at the end. The figure of the metropolis bridges these two opposite visions. The figure of the metropolis works as a rhetorical linchpin allowing Marco Polo (Calvino) to negotiate the vertiginous slippage between the premise of Berenice’s existence and the text’s conclusion which invalidates this very premise. This is Calvino battling his own taboo: time. The irrational course of Marco Polo’s narrative already underscores this ongoing battle. Calvino cannot fight fairly either. The match evolves in three phases: 1) a city reverses into its opposite and vice versa, in a progression that is temporal, but otherwise flat and infinitely identical to itself; 2) even if that were not so, even if this progression did not unfold as infinitely identical to itself, but instead culminated in a qualitative change such as an immense (infinite) metropolis, then all of its reversals would occur simultaneously; 3) Berenice indeed is a point devoid of time where nothing can ever unfold and yet everything unfolds all at once, inextricably so, without any movement, as in a photograph.

It is both curious and symptomatic that to reach this conclusion Calvino invents the striking image of “yes” and “no” wrapped one within the other. First, he offers us an infinite game of mirrors over time, then he tells us that it is not so, that in fact everything happens all at once. What is he actually negating? The negation seems to imply an overt, ongoing dispute between Calvino and time. And for any narrator, time is not a trifle; for any narrator, time is the most important matter.

Now, I’d like to take a step to the side, to move the knight, as it were. I’d like to revisit the first of his American Lectures, the cross on which, in my opinion, Calvino crucified himself, exploring the familiar concept of lightness. By now, citing Calvino on lightness has become a routine, almost Pavlovian practice. At the beginning of the lecture, Calvino claims, as I recall, to feel a strong tension between the opacity, weight, brevity, and rigidity of the world and the language, the literature he wanted to create—picaresque, lively, agile, incisive, versatile, sparkling, polished like silver. He claims to perceive an already irremediable difference between what should have been his literary material (the world, everyday life) and his own writing. He claims he does not want to peer inside this heavy, inert mass, because it would be like staring at the Medusa’s eyes—he would turn to stone. And thus he invents, following the myth’s logic, the possibility of looking at this world indirectly, by way of mirrors, reflections, and triangulations.

Not as a critic or scholar, but personally, I believe that Invisible Cities provides the most convincing example of Calvino’s game of mirrors. This game enables him to attain what cannot be looked at directly. What cannot be looked at directly Calvino renders in the image of the weight of the world, and this weight is what I referred to earlier as otherness. Calvino knows he is not free from the obligation to deal with this otherness—no writer ever is—but he deals with it indirectly. He weaves webs, sets traps to get the better of it; always in search of solutions as incomplete, uncertain, or variable as they may be. He turns to already existing literary and scientific discourses, that is, to already established representations of otherness. Here in a nutshell is the metaliterary Calvino, while in his confrontation with temporality— which is the most petrifying aspect of otherness—we find the metanarrative Calvino.

For Calvino, contingency, mortality, limitation, uniqueness, and nothingness constitute total otherness—our private human Medusa—which he holds captive through his game of infinite possibilities, or at least he tries to. And in Invisible Cities he is more successful than anywhere else. In If on a Winter’s Night A Traveler, Calvino again plays the game of possibilities but he takes it to the extreme, to the point where the game itself reveals its limits. His attempt to create a collection of cities, as if arranged on a chessboard of his own invention, is also the attempt to tell, to narrate, to inscribe all possible cities. In the logic of set theory, all the real cities—past, present, and future—exist within the set of all possible cities. Any given real city is one of all possible cities. But the game does not work if we substitute “imaginable” for “possible.”

If we could imagine by way of literary creation, by way of the genius of invention, all the possible cities, then we would be able to imagine all the real cities, past, present, and future (and perhaps this is Calvino’s insight). It doesn’t work this way, however. There exist cities that were not imaginable before. The set of all imaginable things and the set of all the real things do not coincide completely but rather overlap in increasingly disturbing ways. There are unimaginable things that do occur. And therefore, if we could have full and total visibility of time and space, backward and forward, present, past, and future; if we could describe everything that exists, even by means of chessboard combinations, then we would really fence in everything that exists. We would deliver a blow to the Medusa; she would be the one afraid to look. Everything would be reflecting surfaces. We would have put the Medusa in check.

But this is impossible to do. And the sign of its impossibility lies in the question of time: Time as the site of otherness and not as quantity. Destructive time, time that gives birth and inflicts death, time that allows or rather brings about transformation. Time as the site of discontinuity and catastrophe, of the new and the unforeseeable, of our infinite ignorance and epistemic myopia.

Let me give a banal example. I don’t have the exact number but I know that today, for the first time in human history, 60 percent of the global population lives in cities. It used to be that city dwellers were a minority and now the reverse is true. So will this new condition produce qualitative change? We cannot foresee this even within the progression of all possible Berenices containing “yes” and “no” always within the same plane. Does the immense metropolis presuppose immobility or exactly the opposite? We cannot know, but we can dread it. We use literary combinatorics to pursue facts, but to no avail. This is a dramatically real yet exquisitely theoretical game of chess which appeals to anyone harboring the illusion that it is possible to impose immobility on the multiform and thus harness it once and for all. In a book someone gave me just this morning, Calvino says: “We raise our eyes from the page only to peer into darkness.”3

What is the main point then? How do we come to grips with Calvino’s call? What are the vertiginous dynamics still facing us today, especially us writers, all those riddles not resolved but posed by Calvino? The main point is that when faced with the irreducibility, illegibility, and otherness of facts or reality, we respond in different ways. Calvino’s way is to turn elsewhere in search of notions of otherness already established, made familiar, and therefore acting as a shield (weapon) against the Medusa. This is the game of mirrors I was referring to earlier.

For the author of Invisible Cities, the ideal city is the legible city. I remember reading that for Calvino, Paris was the champion among all cities. Paris was to him a legible city—he would walk around reading whatever interested him directly from the walls, from the streets. Paris for Calvino was a city enmeshed in writing, a cultural city, a text. Of course, it is obvious that the legibility of Paris derives from the fact that it is a much perused (written) city.

But the task of the writer, or one of the tasks in any case, is to confront total illegibility and otherness, to commit to rendering them more legible. To write is to make legible. The line, the threshold Calvino stood on (it will always remain a threshold since death stopped him when he was about to cross over and announce his new direction, for it is clear Calvino was on the verge of a new direction) is the demarcation line between otherness reduced to legibility (familiarity) and the reconfiguration of the already legible into further legibility. Calvino often intentionally thematized this very line, debating it and problematizing it. And this problem of (il)legibility, already founded on a tension, is grafted onto the question of temporality, which I suggest is Calvino’s own taboo, and thus opens space for new inquiries into his narrative. As a writer, Calvino was rent by infinite tensions, by unexpected fissures. Nonetheless, he did his best to offer us, in addition to his works and life, his interpretations and his biography. And yet, he still remains one of the most mysterious writers of the twentieth century. Although in his various essays, Calvino time and again battles with obscurity, illegibility, opacity, and otherness, it is in his clearest crystals that the darkest abyss opens. Perhaps because displaced, negated, or left behind. And Invisible Cities is his diamond.

1Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities. Trans. William Weaver. (Harcourt, 1974), 162-3. English translation modified slightly to reflect better the original wording.

2Ibid., 163.

3Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Trans. Patrick Creagh. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

Categories
Parallax

Translation: Les Colchiques

by Guillaume Apollianaire | translated by Emma March | Parallax | Fall 2017

Image by Rachel Weinstein

The first time I heard Apollinaire, my sister was reciting “Les Colchiques” from memory at the dinner table. When she finished I leaned forward and asked her, Who wrote that? Later that night, I found Guillaume Apollinaire’s calligrammes, his war poetry, and his life story scattered throughout various websites. Born in 1880 in Rome, Apollinaire was raised trilingual, which later allowed him to gain popularity in the Parisian circle of artists forming at the time. He fought in World War I, and was severely injured. He died shortly thereafter in 1918. “Les Colchiques” was published in his 1913 book Alcools.

Most of Apollinaire’s poetry, infused with linguistic, formal, and visual distortions, does not lend itself generously to the process of translation. In fact, I was first drawn to the task of translating this poem after reading renditions from other artists. No one sought to preserve the poem’s beauty, but rather attempted literal translations of the French. The difficulties of translation are magnified within Apollinaire’s work because he uses language as a form. In “Les Colchiques,” for example, he inverts sentences to confuse the images of eyes with the images of flowers in a way that leaves the reader unsure whether the flowers are blooming in the subject’s eyes or in the meadow.

Apollinaire so masters his ambiguous language that by the end of the poem, the reader is not convinced they have read a love poem. Rather, they are left in Apollinaire’s poisonous meadow, grazing with the cows and unsure what the metaphor was to begin with. Where Apollinaire does allow for solid ground is in the sonic beauty of his poem, how the words compliment one another and create cyclical waves of tones and rhymes. It is precisely that aspect of his poetry that gave me the confidence to stray from a literal translation and try to find a similar, albeit inferior, language in English.


Les Colchiques

Le pré est vénéneux mais joli en automne
Les vaches y paissant
Lentement s’empoisonnent
Le colchique couleur de cerne et de lilas
Y fleurit tes yeux sont comme cette fleur-la
Violâtres comme leur cerne et comme cet automne
Et ma vie pour tes yeux lentement s’empoisonne.

Les enfants de l’école viennent avec fracas
Vêtus de hoquetons et jouant de l’harmonica
Ils cueillent les colchiques qui sont comme des mères
Filles de leurs filles et sont couleur de tes paupières
Qui battent comme les fleurs battent au vent dement

Le gardien du troupeau chante tout doucement
Tandis que lentes et meuglant les vaches abandonnent
Pour toujours ce grand pré mal fleuri par l’automne.

The Crocuses

The meadow holds its poison in the autumn
The grazing cows there
slowly dying
The crocus shaded lilac color
flowers where your eyes are tired
Violet like their shadows and this autumn
And for your eyes I feed my life this poison.

Schoolchildren in the meadow making noise
dressed in uniforms and playing flutes
They gather crocuses—their mothers
daughters of their daughters and the color of your eyelids
shivering like flowers in the delirious wind

The cowherd sings gently
While the lowing cows slowly abandon
forever this meadow fed poisonously by autumn.

Categories
Literary Fare

La Vida, La Fuerza, La Mujer

by Adriana Teitelbaum | Literary Fare | Fall 2017

Images by Anya Katz

The first book I remember my mother giving me was The Secret Footprints by Julia Alvarez. It was about Dominican folkloric creatures called ciguapas, mythical women who lived in underwater caves. They were said to look like ordinary women, except for their feet, which were turned backwards so that if humans found their footprints in the sand, they would not be able to follow their tracks. This simple triumph of evolution protected the ciguapas from what they feared most: people. The story follows a young ciguapa girl who becomes curious about these strangers, and eventually travels ashore to observe them up close. She is discovered by a boy and his family, who in turn surprise her with their kindness. However, when she parts from these people, she vows to never again come that close to their kind. In the end, she returns to the safety of living with her fellow ciguapas and to the serenity of her ocean home. As a child, I took this book everywhere with me, and every trip to the beach I would make sure to walk facing away from the water, in order to leave behind a trail of backwards footprints.

***

Julia Alvarez and her work followed me into my adolescence with her novel In the Name of Salomé, a biography about Salomé Ureña and her daughter Camila. Ureña was a Dominican poet who began publishing her work at seventeen in the late 1860s under the pseudonym Herminia. She was a bold activist who used her words and her voice as means of revolution. I first read this book, given to me by my mother, at seventeen years old during the week I was hospitalized for depression. I spent my time in Newark Beth Israel Hospital pouring over the pages, trying to remind myself of better women who had gotten through harder situations. Though Ureña had lived in a different place at a much different time, I still found I could understand her pain and her sadness. I found comfort not only in her accomplishments, but also in the way the world had shaped her ideals, her personality, and her overall identity. Her poetry fueled a fire of revolution against Spanish imperialism in the 1860s by preaching for social and political change. But beyond her historical significance, the legacy of her words continues to thrive with generations of Latinas who hold onto them.

Throughout history, women have repeatedly turned to writing as an act for social change. Fighting against patriarchal power structures, countless women have produced essays, poems, novels, and other forms of written revolution to make their voices and opinions heard. Specifically in Latin America, under a particular brand of sexist social codes commonly referred to as machismo, women have marked their place within the ever-present legacy of revolution. Not only have their words helped inspire meaningful progress, but they have also left a foundation from which future generations of women can grow, both personally and politically. Julia de Burgos, a twentieth-century Puerto Rican poet, was one of these trailblazers. Like Ureña, de Burgos’ life in the Caribbean was marred by U.S. imperialism. They both witnessed the pain and injustice that spread rampantly across their homelands, fueled by economic and racial conflict, much of which was a direct result of norteamericano political intervention. Because of this, de Burgos was a fierce advocate for Puerto Rican independence. She was also a feminist, speaking out not only for women’s rights, but also against rigid social expectations that women were told to follow to be considered mujeres buenas, and fit for marriage.

Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer…
I am life, strength, woman…

In her poem, “A Julia de Burgos,” de Burgos writes about a personal dichotomy—being torn between the person she is and the woman she is expected to be. De Burgos confronts the two Julias that exist, and makes the brave claim that she is life, she is strength, and she can be these things because she is a woman, rather than in spite of it. With this statement, she makes it clear that it is not her womanhood that is a setback, but rather the way the world treats women. Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer. I first read these words in passing at the age of fifteen, sitting in the back of an almost exclusively gringo classroom, eyes glued to the clock. In the moment, I thought of nothing more than waiting for the bell to ring. But later on, I found myself constantly returning to her words. Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer. And it wasn’t just the words themselves I thought of. I found myself obsessing over the moment she wrote them—what time of day it was, where she was, what she was thinking. Yo soy la vida, la fuerza, la mujer. Was it in the dry heat of early summer or the wet humidity of a fall hurricane season? Could she hear the sound of coquis chirping in the trees, could she see the mountains of San Lorenzo where my mom had grown up? Trying to get myself through the cold New Jersey winter, I couldn’t help but repeat the words la vida, la fuerza, la mujer, finding comfort in the mere fact that they existed, and that they came from a place I felt so connected to.

In the late forties, Julia de Burgos moved to New York. Historically, the city has served as a hub for Puerto Rican migrants searching for economic opportunity. In 1917—nineteen years after the U.S. annexed Puerto Rico—its people were granted U.S. citizenship, which allowed them to move to the continental U.S. without the legal obstacles that had previously existed. This began a wave of migration that has resulted in a population of Puerto Ricans in the States that is larger than the one on the island. In the eighties, at the age of eighteen, my mother was one of these migrants, leaving San Lorenzo and coming to New York to get her degree. Working as a secretary in order to pay for school, she fought against racism, sexism, and classism on a day-to- day basis. Nonetheless, by the mid-nineties, she had earned both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree on the same streets where Julia de Burgos had died alone in 1953. My mother, in turn, had two daughters, and raised us on the stories and legacies of great Latinas who came before us.

Yo mis cantares lancé a los vientos,
yo di a las brisas mi inspiración;
tu amor grandeza dio a mis acentos:
fine fueron tuyos mis pensamientos
en esos himnos del corazón.

I sang my songs to the winds,
I gave the breeze my inspiration;
your great love gave to my accents:
fine were my thoughts
in those hymns of the heart.

In this poem, Salomé Ureña professes her unconditional love and gratitude for her mother. Among her poems of freedom and revolution, she writes of this crucial relationship not as an outlier, but rather as an important part of her literary and political career. All of the lessons, experiences, and wisdom she learned and inherited from her mother became the foundation of who she was. And although the impact of maternal relationships is something that transcends cultural boundaries, the legacy of oppression that Latinas have historically faced creates a unique kinship among Latina women, which is first experienced for many in their relationships with their mothers.

This phenomenon also transcends familial ties. I have found these relationships in academia, in professional settings, and among strangers and familiar faces alike. I found it with the nurse who would sneak tostones into my hospital room, and with the kind old woman in Port Authority asking me,“¿Sí pasa el camión 66 por aquí?” These types of relationships are precisely where political and personal revolution meet. The passing of information, inspiration, or a simple gesture on a real, observable level is the intersection between social progress and individual growth. Growing up in the U.S., reconciling one’s own latinidad against the reality of estadounidense surroundings is a lifelong battle. But being able to turn to other women who have come from similar backgrounds, who have experienced similar paths and understand where you’re coming from is more than helpful: It is crucial as a means for survival.

Nonetheless, these connections are not always so easy to find. In certain circumstances, they may seem almost impossible to come across. It is in these situations where I have turned to the written word to try to overcome that seemingly insurmountable loneliness, and it is in these poems and narratives that I have found a feeling of home. This is what makes latinidad so inherently transnational––the act of looking for connections to your identity that come from miles away. I understood the term transnational before I had ever heard of it. Growing up as a Latinx person in white America is a manifestation of the concept. By this I mean that if you identify as Latinx, one of the first things you will remember is feeling different. You’ll come to realize that there are things in your life that, despite seeming so normal, don’t match up with the world around you.

***

The concept of transnationalism goes hand in hand with Latinx identity. Since the beginning of European colonization, what is now known as Latin America has been abused by foreign powers. Ingrained in its past is the slaughter of natives and the enslavement of African people. Through the rest of Latin America’s existence and to this day, Europe and the United States have economically and politically oppressed Latin American land. Its transnational history begins with the genocide and forced migration of people of color, and continues with the interference of Western powers. This complex history has connected a wide variety of people and cultures, resulting in an ethno-racial identity that spans across nations. And this identity, which is interwoven with a plethora of different languages and histories, is impossible to pinpoint to a singular place or time. While there are overlapping themes and trends that follow latinidad, age, gender identity, race, and place of residence also impact the way it has manifested in different people’s lives.

This is why music, literature, and other cultural phenomena are so important in the exploration of identity for Latinx people and communities––especially for women. Literature has long been an essential tool in the spreading of revolutionary ideas; it is only natural that Latina women have found their voices through their writing. While part of this is in service of larger political movements, there is also a deeper level to their words. Their literature serves as a basis for different generations of Latinas, a structure from which we can continue to build and grow––whether they help inspire political figures like Sonia Sotomayor or allow teenage girls growing up in white America to find a place for themselves.

Even now, I find that I am constantly searching for myself in the words of others. In the middle of writing this piece while back home for fall break, I trudged through the mess of my attic and stumbled upon a book of poems by Lorna Dee Cervantes titled Emplumada. Cervantes is a Chicana feminist and poet who writes about her childhood and femininity growing up as a Latina in the United States. Sitting in the Newark airport, I read her poem “Freeway 280,” where she writes,

Maybe it’s here
en los campos extraños de esta ciudad
where I’ll find it, that part of me
mown under
like a corpse
or a loose seed.

While going through Cervantes’ work and reading her words about feeling out of place, misunderstanding her own identity, and searching for a part of herself that had been “mown under like a corpse,” I was reminded that I have not reached some grand conclusion about myself and my identity. That despite all of my searching, I would never shake off the feeling “that this is not my land and this is my land,” and that I would be constantly reading, listening, and watching for things that represent who I am and where I come from. Like the young ciguapa girl I read about as a child, I would always find comfort in people and spaces I understood, and that understood me in return.

Print by Julia Deen

***

Today, I am sitting in the back of the library, finding myself caught in a moment of deja vu, as I am in another academic setting surrounded by (mostly) white peers. Only instead of reading Julia de Burgos, I am armed with my copy of Emplumada. I am stuck on a line of a piece titled, “Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well- Read Person, Could Believe in the War Between the Races.” It’s on the second page of the poem, highlighted by a previous owner, perhaps my mother, or whoever had it before her.

Let me show you my wounds: my stumbling mind, my
“excuse me” tongue, and this
nagging preoccupation
with the feeling of not being good enough.

It’s the “excuse me” tongue and that feeling of not being good enough that I can’t seem to move past, the always apologizing for one’s own inability to live up to perceived expectations. That feeling of being too Latina, and yet not Latina enough. The feeling of growing up in a place that does not feel like home. It’s not just the relatability of this line that draws me in, but the fact that sometime in the mid-seventies, in San Jose, California, a place I’ve never been, Lorna Dee Cervantes expressed emotion so akin to my own experience 40 years later. And there is something about that fact that feels revolutionary. It’s the type of revolution that manifests not in strikes or protests, but in connections between people of a similar background. The type that, to me, is a fundamental characteristic of latinidad:

We were a woman family:
Grandma, our innocent Queen;
Mama, the Swift Knight, Fearless Warrior. …
Myself: I could never decide.
So I turned to books, those staunch, upright men.
I became Scribe…

As a child I loved to read. When my family and I visited my grandparents in Puerto Rico, my sister and I would spend hours outside, our noses buried in books. My abuela would step out of the house in a long linen dress and her chanclas and watch as we sat beneath the trees and on the patio, absorbed in our reading. She’d smile and feed us pastelillos and piraguas, and say something about the orgullo she felt for her nietas inteligentes. My memories of this are dreamlike: the symphony of smell in the air and the sounds of the wind and my abuela’s voice in harmony among them.