Follow Harriet on Twitter
Aurora de Albornoz (1926-1990)
A celebrated scholar of Spanish and Latin American literature, Aurora de Albornoz also published eleven books of poetry during her lifetime. She’s an innovative poet who incorporated prose poems, collage, and other modernistic techniques into her verse. Her writing is situated within the poetry about the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and “la Generación de los ’50,” one of many important periods in which the national literature flourished during Franco’s dictatorship (1939-1975). Her body of work is an important contribution to world letters because, among other achievements, it gives voice to the experience of los exiliados, or Spanish exiles—one of the prominent women poets in a group dominated by men.
Aurora de Albornoz comes from a remarkable lineage of politicians and thinkers: her grandfather and father wrote poetry; her father’s uncle, Alvaro de Albornoz, was the minister of the Department of Justice of the Republican government of Spain until the Civil War (in exile in Paris and in Mexico, he eventually became the president of the Republican government of Spain that was superseded by Franco’s dictatorship); and her uncle, Severo Ochoa de Albornoz (who had fled Spain on a Republican passport) while living and working in the United States, was awarded a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1959 for deciphering RNA.
In 1944, de Albornoz and her family relocated to San Juan, Puerto Rico. There she began her academic education, eventually earning an M.A. from the University of Puerto Rico. At that time, she was studying under the tutelage of the future Nobel Laureate, Juan Ramón Jiménez, who was offering instruction on the island and in Cuba.
In 1961, de Albornoz edited and published “The Prehistory of Antonio Machado” in Puerto Rico, a compilation of Machado’s war poems, banished work not allowed to be published in Franco’s Spain. (Machado, also an exile, died in 1939 in France.)
Some of de Albornoz’s most powerful work is inspired by her youth as a witness to the turmoil of her country’s Civil War. The following is an excerpt from her long poem “In Search of Those Children in a Row” (co-translated by Scott Hightower and José Fernández, Aurora de Albornoz’s nephew):
Do you remember, Child? You can’t have forgotten.
The girl was not very small; or perhaps she stopped growing then.
The girl could never forget that terrible noise that woke her every day at dawn.
The girl could never forget the terrible noise of the truck that always passed in front of her house. Always. Every day. Every dawn.
She had never seen it. But she always heard it. She knew it by heart. Just like yesterday, and the day before, and Thursday. . . First, the distant noise. Then, the noise nearer.
Afterwards, the distant noise, moving away.
When the noise was completely gone, the girl continued to imagine the difficult ride of the truck, going up hill, towards the mud wall of the cemetery.
Later, she would desperately plug her ears, hiding under the pillow.
One would hear it anyway.
Those dry blows were heard anyway.
Later, total silence.
Everything was over. Until the next day.
Aurora de Albornoz’s subject matter, though complex and varied, frequently harkens back to a line in one of her poems, an encapsulation and a critique of the war-torn history of her homeland: “Full of contrasts, full of sorrows. Absurdly beautiful. Absurdly sad.”
The following is a poem (co-translated by Hightower and Fernández) that also taps into Aurora de Albornoz’s exploration of “childhood interrupted”:
Girl paper dolls
over the world of sheets.
There were twenty dreams
of a girl
incapable of living twenty lives.
the brown curls.
and white songs.
tropics and stars.
The other would be
Madame Butterfly . . .
In her world, the twenty.
Brought and carried.
Them. The chosen ones.
Girl paper dolls
over the world of sheets.
(Boy paper dolls
and worlds of ground and water!)
Notice how the dreamscape of little girls is a fragile one, playful and innocent but only as long as it remains apart from the male world and its tangible elements (as opposed to the ethereal and ephemeral one of the female). And the sheets—as in bed sheets—are the safe space later to be transformed into the matrimonial bed with all of its complicated issues of power and gender.
Aurora de Albornoz is receiving more critical attention of late (within the last few years no less than three conferences have been held in and around her hometown of Luarca, Asturias to commemorate her body of work), and my hope is that translations of her poetry will soon be available to non-Spanish readers, so that they too might fall in love with one of the most compelling and political voices of Spain.