For Hispanic Heritage Month, I offer some poems by Cecilia Martinez-Gil.
This event, which coincides with Independence Day of seven Latin American countries, seeks to answer the question of what are Latinos in the United States? It forces us to reflect on the meaning of our identity, slicing it into words, using remembrances of a supposedly better past, combining objects of collective desire, declarations of alleged unity, unfulfilled hopes and unreal dreams.
What better way, then, to show the transformation of a young poet born in South American Uruguay, from an cosmonaut of the Spanish vocabulary to a conquistadora of English poetry?
Her collection 'Psaltery and Serpentines', a Best Books Award finalist of USA Book News published in 2010 by Gival Press, is a volume of erotic poems. Some of them were originally written in Spanish and later translated, but most originated in English, with a heavy dose of the Spanish world's cultural images and metaphors.
In a café in East Los Angeles she reads to me in the thickest of accent (both hers and mine):
mother tongue is not my language
for my native voice
is the poetic texture of my being."
(from "lexis of emotions", page 51)
And this she writes to me this week: "I am a mutant of two languages: English and Spanish. I write as I speak, and on my pages there are mutations; blueprints of either Spanish or English".
I ask: in the quest to understand a woman, how better can one get to know her than through her poetry?
And Cecilia writes:
"For the poem just notices this dust on the shelves
dancing in the air
and it seizes its Devenir*
beyond this minute"
(from "sunrays and dust", 53)
(*) State of becoming, destiny, future, G.L.
Full disclosure: Although I met Cecilia Martinez-Gil in college - Santa Monica College, late bloomers' college, grown-ups' college, her essence was hidden to me then behind intensely-colored eyes, the darkest hair, the unstoppable stream of her thought, her body slim and fit, red and ochre.
Then I heard her in a Circo de Poesía presentation, the incredible troupe Federico Ludueña was then developing in Los Angeles. There was poetry, I thought, and there was an intense woman behind it, but the thought vanished amidst the cacophony and veils of other people's poems and gesticulations, among costumes and diluted drinks.
I lost track of Cecilia for many years. When we met again, Psaltery and Serpentines already stood between us. Separating and uniting. I read it and then I knew Cecilia.
Cecilia Martinez-Gil herself breathes through "Serpentines..." She just discovers with the most amazing ease, the most difficult words: those used to explain her body. Palabras que tocan, words that touch under the sign of simplicity.
"He was mouth watering
I wanted to be poured into him"
("Mulberry Fingers", page 9)
Or, even more:
I will you to come
To visit me even if you are a ghost"
("a new obsession to keep me craving", 83)
These images of desire and magic germinate and sprout from behind her eyes, while her hands dance in front of you, full of elasticity. I read with her in the café:
"I, a porcelain vase crashing into pieces,
cruelly landing on the ground"
("Unfair Treaty", page 65)
Then I realized that the poems are not hyperbole but just a bent description of yesterday's actual life events. The dreamlike tears of mist surrounding the verses were like clothes that kept falling off. And then then the magic stopped.
This is mainly a story about how accurate is the statement that language is our identity. Does language matter at all, then? Do poets have to shed their cultural clothes, their "palabras", and then put on new clothes, a new language?
Can we as immigrants ever change?
Cecilia, are you an immigrant?
"No", she writes to me, "because I am wearing Uruguay and in fact, I am responding your questions drinking mate with yerba from Uruguay on a Santa Monica morning with a greyish overcast that resembles autumn in Montevideo. Yes, I am wearing Uruguay, lo llevo puesto, Uruguay is inside me actually, Uruguay is my insight."
You read her poetry, and you note the appearances of Spanish in the English words, and how Uruguay, and the whole of South America, are straining to emerge from this melting pot while Cecilia keeps playing.
She plays the different layers of meaning that some Spanish language phrases cryptically contain, as if they were Aramaic verses in Hebrew verses in this volume reminiscent of the Song of Songs. The title "en la escala de sol" (77) could mean either multiple ways to write music or climbing towards the Sun. In "Era de Tango" (13), the title could mean both "He was of tango" and "A time of tango".
"Era, the past tense of To be, translatable as it was, becomes era as in time period, age of tango," she writes. "And the return to Spanish (which is still a work in progress), shows a title, mutating only in one word, affecting its temporality."
In the same poem Martinez-Gil mentions an "abandoned bandoneón", which is a typical instrument of the music of the Rio de la Plata.
Both "tango" and "bandoneon" could have been introduced here as intruders. Devoid of context, their appearances could be construed as her abandonment of Spanish and dismissal of Uruguay as her home.
But just a few verses later, Cecilia proves she took the entire house with her in order to recreate this in the New World:
"As we tango on the immaculate tile
you in black tuxedo and sleek hair,
me a Scarlet from a farther south."
The bandoneon, the tango, replaces any other sound and follows this new Scarlett O'Hara "from a farther south".
Then, in "in the wolf's mouth", she describes what for me is a lonely train station in the Pampas:
"Hermit trains transporting full luggage
of ballads and milongas of the fields
played by lonely guitarists
whose only audience is a dimming sun."
"Psaltery and Serpentines was initiated 22 years ago, in Montevideo, Uruguay with about ten poems, which included the homonym Salterio y Serpentinas, originally written in Spanish by a young writer, a girl who was becoming a young woman," she says.
"I was empowered by a career in journalism that landed me in a job at one of the most popular newspapers at the time, Diario La Republica, and publication in many other newspapers and magazines. I liked books, music, theatre and the visual arts, so I wrote reviews, comments and critiques of every performance that I was able to attend. The artistic scene of Montevideo and the relationships of the artists with their fans were central to inspire many of the poems that today constitute Psaltery and Serpentines."
Then she arrived here.
"In 1991 I left Uruguay for the U.S. and Europe and my box of poems as a portfolio of poetic artifacts traveled with me, safeguarded as my own passport. Soon, Salterio y Serpentinas started to speak other languages, ventured in describing imagery with new words, mostly in English. In 2003, for a chapbook of original poems. I had a curious case of writer's block: I was writing all the time, nothing but academic essays, and my mind worked already too much like a critic of literature, performing a close reading of any poem I wanted to write anew. Thus, I resorted to Salterio y Serpentinas, translated one or two poems and comparing the two versions in both languages, I started to create a new poem in my new language of choice."
"Psaltery and Serpentines" is then a book about rebirth, as much as it is about the challenges of taking your home with you on the long journey al Norte.
Psaltery and Serpentines: a book of poems
Gival Press, Arlington, VA
Available through Amazon.com, BN.com, Powell's Books & other outlets.