I received an unanticipated package early this week. Each month, enough packages containing books or journals show up in my box that I tend to be unfazed when an unexpected package arrives. Often, when such books arrive, I take a cursory glace at the cover and the table of contents, register interest, then set the book aside, promising to return to it when I have a bit more time.  Lately, I’ve been on the run, with too much to do in too few hours, and I’ll admit I opened the padded envelope without even bothering to see who/where it was from. But this little package was different.  It had come all the way from Venezuela, carrying with it the work of twenty-five women I immediately wanted to get to know.  Perfiles de la Noche/Profiles of Night: Mujeres poetas de Venezuela/Women poets of Venezuela compelled me to stop all my running, to sit down, to read.

The House Inside

To Poetry

The house needs both my hands.
I must hold up its plaster like my bones,
its salt like my joys,
its fable in the night
and the sun burning in the middle of its body.
I have to suffer the curtains and their seagulls
dead in flight.
Be moved by the garden and its sketched mask of flowers,
the innocent brick accused
of not being up to the mirrors,
and the doors open for new brides
with their sound of rice growing under the veil.
I have to look after its replica of the universe,
the memory of fields in the vases,
the concerted vigil of the table,
the pillow and its likeness of strayed birds,
the milk with dawn’s face under its brow
with the stiff solitude of a lily
simply being born.
I have to love it whole, going out of my hands
with the grace that lives on my dying grace.
And not know, not know there’s a clover village
with the sea at it’s door
and no names
nor lamps.

This poem, by Luz Machado (born 1916) represents some of the earliest work collected in this anthology.  Rowena Hil, who selected and translated the poems, included the work of Enriqueta Arvelo Larriva, born in 1886,  María Calcaño, Ana Enriqueta Teran (1918), and three poets born in the 1920s.  The rest of the poems represent work from later parts of the 20th century.

The Walls of Death in Spring

I will not teach my son to till the earth
nor to smell ears of wheat
nor to sing hymns.
He will know there are no crystalline streams
nor clear water to drink.
His world will be a world of hellish downpours
and dark plains.

Of screams and groans.
Of dryness in the eyes and throat.
Of tortured bodies that can no longer see or hear him.
He will know it’s not good to listen to the voices of people
that praise the colour of the sky.

I will take him to Hiroshima.  To Seveso.  To Dachau.
His skin will flake off bit by bit at the horror
and it will hurt him to hear a bird singing

the soldiers’ laughter
the firing squads
the walls of death in spring.

He will have the memory we did not have
and he will believe in the violence
of those who believe in nothing.

That is the work of Miyo Vestrini who, Hill tells us, was “born 1938 in Nimes, France, but lived from childhood in Venezuela, chiefly Maracaibo and Caracas.”  The poems in this anthology are impressive in the scope of their vision.  They are accomplished both in their broad foci and their penetrating gaze.  Several poets manage to make the mundane new again, re- invisioning concepts, actions, and objects like the soul (“The Pitcher and Its Night,” Hanni Ossott), garlic (Luz Machado), absence (“The Hour That Should Have Brought You,” María Clara Salas), emotionless sex (“Largatos,” Miyo Vestrini), and the poet’s task:

Work

I write as a woman grows
beside a window
as a man in the distance
washes his arms
and an orange grove grafts itself
in the cracks of a door
as if history was the shadow
of a stricken
hare
and its pulse
a storm no one heard.

(Márgara Russotto)

The wit and insight, music and movement of the poems in this collection kept me happily turning page to page finding playful, plaintive, and provocative poems like “Neither With It Nor On It” (María Isabel Novillo), “Holidays Without Hegel” (Márgara Russotto), “Highway No. 95, Going South, New Jersey (Verónica Jaffe), and “Capital City” (Yolanda Pantin):

Capital City

The high preist
throws the heart of the well-born child
to the dogs
covering them with blood.

The poems in this book vary in length, some of them being several pages long. They are presented, on facing pages, in the original Spanish and English. “Capital City” is short enough I will give it to you in the original Spanish so those of you who know both languages can assess Hill’s translation yourself:

Ciudad Capital

El sumo sacerdote
arroja el corazón del bien nacido
a los perros
llenándolos de sangre

In her introduction Hill refers briefly to Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury”: “A look at the meanings that the poets themselves attribute to the writing of poetry will reveal a more deeply shared point of view, especially in the conviction that poetry is a vital necessity for the writer.”  Indeed, both the act of writing and the act of reading good work is a vital necessity for the writer.   What a gift to discover, unbidden, in my mailbox, a book that introduced me to poems to make me slow down, to rekindle my imagination and help me see the world, and the world of poetry, anew.  A former student passed along this little prize, and I thank her for her kindness. Thanks to it, I am refreshed. A quick glance at Amazon.com suggests Perfiles de la Noche/Profiles of Night: Mujeres poetas de Venezuela/Women poets of Venezuela might be hard to find in the States.  Your best bet, for now, might be here at La Isla Libros.

Originally Published: May 7th, 2009

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...

  1. May 7, 2009
     Terreson

    I got to have this book, Camille Dundy. The few examples call up duende.\r

    Terreson

  2. May 7, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Camille, wonderful post-=your excitement comes through and many thanks for sharing it!

  3. May 7, 2009
     Francisco Aragón

    Yes, thank you, Camille.

  4. May 7, 2009
     Erica Mena

    Thanks for sharing this - it just moved onto the top of my to-read list!

  5. May 7, 2009
     Guillermo Parra

    Martha Kornblith and Patricia Guzmán are especially worth checking out in this anthology.

  6. May 21, 2009
     Maxine

    Many thanks for this post - and keep the recommendations coming. Poetry by women of colour is so unfortunately scarce here in Australia where I write...

  7. May 21, 2009
     Valerie

    Moving, insightful poetry. I would really like to obtain a copy. Can you help?