Some Mexican poetry from the 1950’s, a period of literary production where the recently read and reviewed Juan Rulfo’s ‘Pedro Páramo” (1955) falls.
Rosario Castellanos wrote the novel ‘Balun Canán’ (1957), translated by Irene Nicholson as ‘The Nine Guardians’, another work credited as being “indirectly associated” with the Mexican Revolution. Whilst I await the (delayed) mail and my copy of Rosario Castellanos’ novel, I thought I would share a poem of hers taken from ‘A Rosario Castellanos Reader’, a collection of short fiction, poetry and essays published by the University of Texas Press.
Monologue of a Foreign Woman
I came from far away. I’ve forgotten my own country
and I no longer understand the language they
use there for trade or work.
I’ve reached the mineral muteness of a statue.
Sloth, scorn and something
I can’t distinguish have defended me
from this language, that heavy jewel-studded
velvet that people where I live
use to cover their rags.
This land, like that other one of my childhood,
still bears on her face
a slave’s brand,
burned in by fire, injustice, and murder.
As a girl I slept to the hoarse crooning
of a black dove: a conquered race.
I hid beneath the blankets
because a huge animal
crouched out there in the dark, hungry
but patient as a stone.
Compared to him, what’s an ocean, a catastrophe,
or the bolt of love
or joy that annihilates us?
that I had to grow up fast
(before terror devoured me),
go away, keep a firm hand
on things and run my life.
I was still very young
when I spit on places the mob held sacred.
In crowds I was like a dog
that offends with its mange and copulation,
its startling bark in the midst
of a ritual or major ceremony.
although serious, was not entirely fatal.
I recovered, healed, and learned to gauge
the pulse of success, prestige,
honor, wealth, with a clever hand.
I possessed what the mediocre envy, the victors
dispute, but only one carries off.
It was mine but it was like eating foam
or passing my hand across the back of the wind.
Supreme pride is supreme renunciation.
I refused to become
a dead star
that takes on borrowed light to come alive.
Without a name or memories
I spin in spectral nakedness
in a brief domestic orbit.
But I still simmer
in the turbid imagination of others.
My presence has brought
a salty gust of adventure
to even this sleepy inland city.
When men look at me they remember that fate
is the great hurricane that splits branches,
uproots tall trees,
imposing merciless cosmic law
— above and beyond the meanness of humankind —
throughout its empire.
The women pick up my scent from afar, dreaming,
like draft animals when they smell
the brutal bolt of the storm.
for the elders
I fulfill that passive role
of the generator of legends.
At midnight I open wide the windows so anyone
keeping watch at night, meditating on death,
suffering the pangs of guilt,
or even the adolescent
(a burning pillow under his brow)
can question darkness through my being.
Enough. I’ve kept quiet more than I’ve told.
High mountain sun has tanned my hand
and on my fourth finger, “that points to the heart,”
as they say here,
I wear a golden ring with a carved seal.
A ring used
to identify corpses.
“Spanish American Women Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Source Book, edited by Diane E. Marting, says of Rosario Castellanos’ poetry:
The reconstruction of female experience in her long poem, “Lamentación de Dido” (Dido’s lament), dramatized a woman of antiquity, which the speaking voice of “Malinche” reversed the Mexican ethnic and gender stereotypes that cast this woman as a symbol of betrayal. If male myth has distorted the image of woman, the language that encode it alienates her in “Monólongo de extranjera” (“Monologue of a Foreign Woman”).
Although many critics have attempted to explain Castallenos’s poetry through an obsession with death, it is only one element of a much wide concept that permeates all her writing: The exploration of the other, whether that other be woman, indigenous culture, language, silence or writing itself.
This is a wonderful example of the “exploration of the other”, she is a “foreign woman”, clearly alienated, a stranger who is not accepted. Although nostalgic for the land of her “childhood”, she has “forgotten” her “own country”.
Interestingly the “Reading Rosario Castellanos” book also says (I am assuming they are the same writer as the second paragraph is also repeated verbatim – I’ve not a credit for the Biographical Source book):
If male myth has distorted the image of woman, the language that encode it alienates her. “I’ve forgotten my own country/and I no longer understand the language they use there / … that heavy jewel-studded velvet that people where I live use to cover their rags” declares the female speaker in “Monologue of a Foreign Woman.” It was one of Castellanos’ favorite poems, she told Margarita García Flores: “I wasn’t aware of it at the time that I wrote it. I thought I was telling the story of another woman but when I finished I realized that I was talking about myself, that it was my own story that once again I had transformed and used in that oblique form of reference that creates distance between the object and expression…that is perhaps aesthetic distance” (“La lucidez como forma de vida,”). There transformations became twelve volumes of poems.
Rosario Castellanos’ entry in “Latin American Women Writers: An Encyclopedia” explains:
The large-scale sociopolitical transformations that took place in Mexico after the Revolution played a decisive role in Castellanos’ intellectual formation. With President Lázaro Cárdenas’ sweeping land reforms of 1941, the Castellanos family lost their vast landholdings and decided to migrate to Mexico City….
In 1950, she completed her master’s thesis in philosophy, entitled Sobre la cutura femenina (On Feminine Culture). Although the text has been criticized as being too pessimistic and lacking in strong scientific base, the study is important in that it clearly signals the beginning of Castellanos’ pointed examination and questioning of the role of women in a male-dominated cultural tradition.
The poem I’ve presented today, touching on these themes. And I chose this poem, because there’s the dogs again this time it “offends with its mange and copulation”.
As I work through another longer novel I may present another Rosario Castellanos poem, stay tuned.
A fascinating writer, who died tragically before reaching age fifty, she was electrocuted in her home in Tel Aviv, where she was the Mexican Ambassador to Israel, when she switched on a lamp after leaving the shower. Her novels, stories, poems and plays exploring a raft of feminist, indigenous and Mexican themes, she is a writer I will explore in a lot more detail as I continue my Mexican journey.
If you would like to read more about Rosario Castellanos there’s an article at ‘The Paris Review” that is worth exploring “Feminize Your Canon”.