Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunday Scribblings- my collection

This week's Sunday Scribblings prompt is "collecting."

I don't have an inclination for poetry. I don't read it much and I could not write it even if I tried. But I collect dead poets. Female poets. Dead, broken female poets.

I have kept their names in my head for ages, like talismans. Their deaths haunt me. All tragic deaths, and entirely too early. Two of them took their lives into their own hands. One drank herself to death. She collapsed on the streets of Harlem, died and was buried as an unknown. Another received a death sentence and decided to end her life in her own terms. One resisted the impulse for so long, until she could fight it no longer. They had so much beauty to give, and they were in such pain.

My collection says something about me. My father was an alcoholic. When he tried to sober up, he died. My mother talked about suicide a lot. I grew up fearing my mother's death. She said that she would kill herself while she was still young, before she would become a burden to others. She said she would kill herself before she turned fifty. She is past fifty, and still around.

I have suffered from clinical depression sometime or other in my life. I have known a sorrow so deep, so pervasive that you wonder if it will ever end. Years ago, in another place, I would play with the idea of crashing my car into a tall wall I passed everyday on my way from work. My will to live, my love of life (however painful), my sense of duty kept me from ever giving in to those brief temptations. But I got a glimpse of the utter despair these women must have felt, and to a certain extent I understand it.

Also, I have someone close in my life who attempted suicide in their youth. Despite the fact that it was so long ago and this person is at a different stage in life, I know that once that threshold is crossed the fear is gone. If things go badly there is nothing stopping them from considering an option they have already chosen before. And so I find myself back to the way I lived as a child, with the fear in the back of my mind that I will be powerless to stop someone I love from leaving me behind.

Below are excerpts of works from the poets I collect. Two of the poems are in Spanish, and I could not find any satisfactory translations on the web, so I took a stab at translating them. I enjoyed doing the translations and trying to respect and maintain the spirit of the original Spanish verse.

Julia de Burgos, Puerto Rican (1914-1953)

Yo misma fui mi ruta

Yo quise ser como los hombres quisieron que yo fuese:
un intento de vida;
un juego al escondite con mi ser.
Pero yo estaba hecha de presentes,
y mis pies planos sobre la tierra promisora
no resistían caminar hacia atrás,
y seguían adelante, adelante
burlando las cenizas para alcanzar el beso
de los senderos nuevos.

It's hard to convey the aching beauty of Julia de Burgos' poetry in translation, but below is my best attempt at translating into English this excerpt.

I wanted to be as men wanted me to be:
an attempt at life;
a game of hide and seek with my self.
But I was made of nowadays,
and my flat feet over the promising land
resisted walking backwards,
and continued forward, onward
evading the ashes to reach the kiss
of new paths.

I grew up in Carolina, the town where Julia de Burgos is from. I studied her poems in school, I memorized and recited her ode to the Rio Grande de Loíza, the largest river on the island, which runs through our city. I was so proud to come from the same place as her, and so sad as I learned about the tragic life she led and how it ended.

Alfonsina Storni, Argentinean (1892-1938)

Voy a dormir
(complete poem)

Dientes de flores, cofia de rocío,
manos de hierbas, tú, nodriza fina,
tenme prestas las sábanas terrosas
y el edredón de musgos escardados.

Voy a dormir, nodriza mía, acuéstame.
Ponme una lámpara a la cabecera;
una constelación, la que te guste;
todas son buenas, bájala un poquito.

Déjame sola: oyes romper los brotes...
te acuna un pie celeste desde arriba
y un pájaro te traza unos compases
para que olvides... Gracias... Ah, un encargo:
si él llama nuevamente por teléfono
le dices que no insista, que he salido.

Below is my translation. Again, some of its beauty gets lost in the transition. This one is especially poignant to me because it is the last poem Alfonsina wrote before killing herself by walking into the ocean at Mar del Plata.

Teeth made of flowers, cap of mist,
hands made of grass, you, fine nursemaid,
have ready for me the earthy blankets
and the eiderdown of weeded out moss.

I am going to sleep, my nursemaid, put me down.
Put a lamp at the head of my bed;
a constellation, you choose one
they are all good, dim it a little.

Leave me alone: you hear the sprouts break through...
a celestial foot rocks your craddle from above
and a bird composes a few bars for you
so you can forget... Thank you... Ah, one more request:
if he calls again on the phone
tell him not to insist, I have gone out.

Anne Sexton, American (1928-1974)

Wanting to Die

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.
Then the most unnameable lust returns.

Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention
the furniture you have placed under the sun.

But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.

This excerpt from Anne's poem reminds me of my mother and her obsession with pondering the best method to kill herself. She would talk about getting in the tub full of water and throwing an appliance in it. She would talk about slashing her wrists, about taking pills, about doing all three so that there would be no chance of failure. I should have never worried so much, as I see now she was just venting, albeit in a way she should not have done in front of her child. She was too chicken and pain-averse to have actually done something. And thankfully her life is quite different now and I still have her around, which in the end is what matters to me.


  1. Beautiful poems shared... excellent post! Your story really touched me, especially when you said... "And so I find myself back to the way I lived as a child, with the fear in the back of my mind that I will be powerless to stop someone I love from leaving me behind"... a fear that I am all to familiar with. I too wish that your mother wouldn't have done that to you, what a horrible fear for a child to live with. I am glad that she is better now, and glad that you are stronger in your life as well. Our children keep us here, we know that we can't bear to leave them beind without us.

  2. Overwhelming. Heartrending. A collector post. So impressive and lovely! Encourages me to learn another language, too!

  3. "Our children keep us here, we know that we can't bear to leave them beind without us."

    Very true, Josie. They drive us crazy but also motivate us to keep our sanity.

    Thanks for the kind words, Sue. Spanish is a wonderful language for poetry. I wish I had a talent for writing it.

  4. i loved this post... i can totally identify with it,, and i am thrilled you introduced me to the two spanish poets,, as this is definitely a genere that piques my intrest... you didn't mention plath,, but i must say,, she is among my favorites....

  5. Oh yes, paisley. Plath is the other dead poet I collect. Sadly, I have to admit that while I know her life story and her tragic end, I really do not know her poetry that well, and that is why I did not include her in my post.