A guest post by Iliana Rocha: Follow @la_ilianarocha
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about poetry & its relationship to community, & the place I keep arriving at is that, for me, poetry is community.
One of the questions I get asked the most is why I turned to the genre in the first place: Why poetry? The unstated assumptions behind this question, I think, concern the supposed difficulty of it, supposed lack of contemporary relevance, supposed exclusivity.
But here’s the thing—what if you don’t have a community? People don’t just automatically inherit one. I turned to poetry because I have always felt othered, & poetry feels as if it were designed specifically for such an other. As a child, I couldn’t turn to my rural Texas neighborhood for security, & as an adult, I still can’t completely rely on academia to understand the complexity, nuance, & challenge of being a woman of color trying to negotiate the power dynamics embedded there.
What I do have, however, is poetry. I have poets like Delmira Agustini & Carmen Giménez Smith, who interrogate & resist a conventional Latina identity. In “Parts of an Autobiography,” from her 2013 collection Milk and Filth, Smith writes:
20. Her [Sylvia Plath’s] poetry was pungent when so little poetry is pungent. Poetry of regimented epiphany smelled like fabric softener when I was young.
21. I liked my poetry to smell like I had forgotten my deodorant. You could smell me across the table. I liked my work to smell of work and fuck.
27. There are deserted bodies and ruined bodies and starved bodies all around me.
28. My mother’s body was once sharp. Now, it’s delusional and rotten with dementia.
29. My baby sister killed her body and other girls have destroyed their bodies since then.
34. The reveal: the abject pleasure of this abject mind.
The repetition of “abject” is significant because it refers to the taboo, the cast off, the other—these lines from Smith’s long poem are in direct opposition to a “regimented epiphany” that includes a false sense of comfort & community, the status quo “fabric softener” symbolizes. A “fabric softener” discourse is one that omits multiplicities, one that perpetuates the hegemony at the expense of those who are marginalized. The speaker of this poem ain’t having that; rather, she excavates the subaltern. Smith’s speaker asks that poetry take risks, resist the laws of inertia, while also making visible the death & destruction done to bodies of color. For me, these lines conjure images of the women of Ciudad Juárez, the continued violence done against women that largely goes unrecognized or ignored.
My obsession with the body began because I was told not to talk about it, & when I found writers who were unafraid & unapologetic in articulating it, my community began. Sandra Cisneros’ Loose Woman (1995) is a text cited frequently because it fits under Gloria Anzaldúa’s paradigm that a Chicana’s greatest weapon against oppression is her sexuality, & Cisneros’ texts were the catalyst of my lifelong exploration of the body & sexuality. Carmen Giménez Smith continues & explodes the matrilineage. Later, in “Parts of an Autobiography,” the speaker declares, “92. If I write my body, what comes out is: ooohhh. Arch moon.” The babble of “ooohhh” is an instinctive reaction of wonder when one is confronted with the body’s miraculous processes. There is a quality about the body that is indefinable, but unlike the Freudian notion that the feminine is mysterious & unknowable, Smith grounds us, not necessarily on the physical earth, but in the planetary, an expanse apropos for a speaker who wants to “act in resistance to the classist assumptions of post-feminism [and] to write about gender folded into race and class folded into gender too.” This cry for intersectionality is, above all, a commitment and an invitation to the other.
During her short life (1884-1914), Delmira Agustini’s personal relationships seemed to outshine her contribution to Modernism in Latin America. I was fortunate enough to discover her in my early 20s, as she was included in an anthology of Latin American poets I checked out from my local library. When I read her, my body immediately responded to her echo. One of my favorite Agustini poems is “Explosión,” particularly the last stanza:
Hoy partió hacia la noche, triste, fría
Rotas las alas mi melancolía;
Como una vieja mancha de dolor
En la sombra lejana se deslíe . . .
Mi vida toda canta, besa, ríe!
Mi vida toda es una boca en flor!
Today, sad and cold, towards the night,
My melancholy—its wings broken—departed.
Like an old stain of grief
In the distant shadows it dissolves . . .
All of my life sings, kisses, laughs!
All my life is a mouth in bloom. (trans. by Alejandro Cáceres)
The emotion is multidimensional—Agustini confronts the threshold of love, and beyond love, what the speaker discovers is grief, but on the other side of grief is transformation. The persistent swan motif throughout her corpus may be an extension of this, insistence that a woman’s (& a man’s) identity is not static, but constantly undergoing construction. “Luego soñelo triste, como un gran sol poniente/Que dobla ante la noche la cabeza de fuego (Afterwards, I dreamt it sad like a great sun setting/That facing the night turns its fiery head),” she writes in “Love,” as the speaker travels through the spaces where desire & grief converge. Seeing the two so inextricably linked destabilizes essentialist attitudes about romance & intimacy, particularly during the time in which she was writing, further emphasized by the hazy & tenuous framework of a dream. The great hinge, “like,” positions the reader between impetuousness, sadness, & tenderness.
Y era mi deseo una culebra
Glisando entre los riscos de la sombra
A la estatua de lirios de tu cuerpo!
And a snake was my desire
Crawling among the crags of the shadow
Towards the statue of lilies of your body.
There is such authority in these images, the explicit declaration about female desire taking the shape of the serpent responsible for women’s (& subsequently humanity’s) undoing. She writes away from that trope &, instead, reverses expectations—the delicacy lies within the male object of affection. Reading about the erotic without the obfuscation & half-stepping that accompanies a typical dialogue grants readers like me a sense of control over our bodies, when control & access to power is limited elsewhere.
My kinship with Agustini (& others) doesn’t remain solely on the page—it serves a practical purpose. When there are external forces constantly working against us, especially now in a political climate rife with anti-immigrant & anti-Mexican rhetoric, the reassurance isn’t as perceptible because it gets overshadowed by a rampant lack of empathy. Poetry demands empathy. My community of poets grants me that, unconditionally.
About the author:
Karankawa by Iliana Rocha
If you’re looking for poetry to read during Latinx Heritage Month, or just in general, then please consider Rocha’s excellent, award-winning collection Karankawa. Support Latina poets!
Winner of the 2014 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry
Selected by Joy Harjo
Karankawa is a collection that explores some of the ways in which we (re)construct our personal histories. Rich in family narratives, myths, and creation stories, these are poems that investigate passage—dying, coming out, transforming, being born—as well as the gaps that also reside in our stories, for, as Rocha suggests, the opportunity to create myths is provided by great silences. Much like the Karankawa Indians whose history works in omissions, Karankawa reconfigures such spaces, engaging with the burden and freedom of memory in order to rework and recontextualize private and public mythologies. First and last, these are poems that honor our griefs and desires, for they keep alive the very things we cannot possess.
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