Women and the Global Imagination: Carmen Boullosa

by Jeremy Paden

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In his essay, Jeremy Paden considers Carmen Boullosa's epic poetry and how it comfortably spans across the personal and the politcal. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Carmen Boullosa, the Long Poem, and the Global Imagination

Soon after the European conquest of the Americas began, a host of epic poems were written by the conquering Spaniards and the ruling criollos. It could be argued that the epic is the first literary mode that tried to imaginatively apprehend the world, to understand the self and other, albeit in the mode of conquest: Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Roland, Cid, globe trotters and nation builders all of them. In a scene that makes explicit the connection between the epic mode and the global imagination, Alexander the Great, in the Libro de Alexandre, from late 12th century Spain, fashions a flying machine from a woven basket and four gryphons in order to better survey and understand the world.

The first and best of the Spanish American epics from the 16th and 17th centuries, Alonso de Ercilla’s La Araucana, begins,

No a las damas, amor, no gentilezas
de caballeros canto enamorados,
ni las muestras, regalos y ternezas
de amorosos afectos y cuidados
mas el valor, los hechos y proezas
de aquellos españoles esforzados…

Not ladies, not love, not the graciousness
of gallant knights in love sing I,
not the tokens, or gifts, or tenderness
of loving attention and care,
but the courage, the deeds, and the exploits
of those brave Spaniards…

This opening stanza makes both genre (epic poems are not love poems) and gender boundary claims (the world of war and politics belongs to men, not women). Though Ercilla does include a romantic interlude or two in his 37 canto epic, these are mere digressions to help break up the rhythm of the story and, possibly, to humanize the Araucanian warriors. At the beginning of what might be called Spanish American poetry, women are excluded.

As with Anglo-American Modernism, the Latin American avant garde transformed the epic by disrupting the logic and coherence of narrative through the use of the poetic fragment and image, e.g. Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor, Eunice Odio’s Tránsito de Fuego, Gabriela Mistral’s Poema de Chile. The most famous of these, Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, is comprised of 231 individual poems divided into 15 cantos. Poems like Neruda's have become a more common way to adress the political concerns and world imagining that had been the province of the epic.

Indeed, strong distinctions between the epic and the long poem or the poem sequence have become increasingly difficult to make. For example, Carmen Boullosa, one of Mexico’s leading contemporary poets and novelists, has consistently written multi-sectioned poems of 10 to 25 brief lyrical sequences that take up the question of politics. Her longest and one of her most recent endeavors, “Los nuevos” from Salto de mantarraya y otros dos (2004), is a 119-page long poem divided into two sections.

Boullosa began as a poet but has more novels published (17) than collections of poetry (16). Additionally, her poetry hasn’t received the same kind of critical attention that her novels have. When it comes to fiction, Boullosa is celebrated as a protean author who continually reinvents herself. She has written lyrical bildungsroman, detective fiction, speculative fiction, pirate novels, parodies of the contemporary literary establishment, historical fiction set in various moments throughout Mexico’s history, and novels that reimagine the lives Cleopatra, Sophonisba Anguissola, and the various ancillary female characters of Cervantes’ fiction. A favorite of mine, a novel I’ve always wanted to translate, is a post-apocalyptic story that switches between three different narrators: a Nahuatl Indian from the 16th century writing the story of post-Conquest Mexico in the Latin taught to him by the first Christian missionaries, a twentieth-century translator of the Indian’s confessions who grew up in the southern jungles of Mexico and learned Latin because she wanted to be a priest but could not because of her gender, and a cyborg in love with words and stories that lives in a post-nuclear holocaust commune that is trying to rebuild the world one plastic tree at a time and that distrusts language and the cyborg narrator’s love of books. The novel is prefaced with pseudonymous epilogues and disavowals of the novel’s authorship that are reminiscent of Cervantes and Kierkegaard. It also contains one of the best responses to the so-called Latin American Literary Boom. Specifically, an extended commentary on the wonder caused by Gabriel García Marquéz’s 100 Years of Solitude and a spot on criticism of the failure of that novel and of Latin American intellectuals to take into consideration the real and present state of the Native Peoples of Latin America. Though this summary does not bring out the humor and play of her novels, it does, I hope, bring to light the ambition and some of the complexity of her fiction. But this essay isn’t about her fiction; it’s about her poetry.

A prominent Latin American critic, who extols Boullosa’s novels and poetry, has called her poetry the site where her more personal or intimate voice can be heard. He does not explain what he means by this, nor does he expound on her poetry beyond calling it just as inventive as her fiction. Whether this judgment is one based on the presumption of genre (lyrical poetry as private, confessional) or the presumption of gender (woman’s writing as personal, sentimental), I cannot say. But it is certainly not based any real reading of Boullosa’s poetry. Though there are times when she writes what can be called confessional and autobiographical poetry, as with the already mentioned “Los nuevos,” but it is one thing to play with the conventions of autobiography and confessionalism and another thing altogether to write personal poetry. As Boullosa states in an essay titled “Destruccion en la escritura,” “Destruction in writing,”

No he escrito un poema o una novela que no me obligara a entablar duelo a las palabras, a destruir previamente una realidad (imaginaria, leída o vivida), con el costo que fuera. Por ello me he quedado prácticamente sin un recuerdo de infancia no incendiado y desaparecido de su relación original con mi presente. No tengo historia. No tengo memoria. En el mejor de los casos, los usé para armar poemas o novelas que he publicado. En el peor, novelas o poemas que he tirado a la basura. 

I haven’t ever written a poem or a novel that hasn’t forced me into a death match with words, to destroy an already established reality (an imaginary one, whether lived or read), at any price. As a result I practically have no childhood memory that hasn’t been burned to ashes and what relationship it first had with my present self has been utterly consumed. I have no history. I have no memory. In the best of cases, I used them to make poems or novels that were published. In the worst, I’ve thrown the novels and poems onto the trash heap.

Though Boullosa’s lyrical poetry is typically in the first person, most of what she writes consists of persona poems. This is true whether they are the short lyrical poems sprinkled throughout her books or the long fragmented poems that make up the bulk of her collections. Regarding the shorter poems (the “Infiel” section of La salvaja (1989) or the “Las despechadas” section from Salto de mantarraya, for example), the titles refer to domestic arrangements and experiences (“Amor conyugal,” “Cuernos,” “Cita,” “Silencio”), to literary women (“Julieta,” “Penelope,” “María”), or to types and categories of women (“La giganta,” “La obsesiva,” “La sabionda,” “La idólatra,” “La ciega,” “La bruja”). The voices of these women are ironic, often angry or frustrated. Their addressee is sometimes their lover, sometimes the air, but always patriarchy. They can be extremely brief; “Penelope” simply reads, “Detesto esperar.” “I despise waiting.” Or they can be between 10 and 20 lines. These poems speak of scorn, of desire and lack of desire. They come out of a certain Latin American and Mexican feminist tradition, seen especially in the poetry of Rosario Castellanos, where the beloved, worshiped, silenced, and scorned woman questions, resists, and speaks back to the conquering/poet male, a tradition where the deified woman speaks of her own desires (however shocking or lurid) and demonstrates her autonomy. 

Boullosa’s longer poems (and, as her career has progressed, her poems have become considerably longer) also employ love and desire as principal tropes. These, though, constantly swerve into or are born out of expressly political questions. For example, in “La memoria vacía,” the first poem from La salvaja, desire, deep bodily desire, isn’t just a unique, individual experience. Present throughout the poem is the plural, collective: “mis hermanas,” “my sisters,” “nuestra virginidad,” “our virginity.” As this meditation on desire and the relationship between the sexes progresses, she writes,

Y el verbo nunca se hizo carne porque no lo es aquello que se hace presencia, sino lo que se entrega a otra carne.

And the word never became flesh because that is not what becomes presence; no, that is reserved for that which gives itself to another’s body.

Though there are moments when the poetic voice calls into question the use of the collective, “Nosotras tres/ no somos sino yo,” “We three/ are not but I,” the fact that this highly erotic poem continually returns to the first person plural and to the bodies of women (“los cuerpos de las mujeres”) to speak of desire shows that from very early on Boullosa’s concern with love and desire is political. This is also born out in that the poem takes up and rewrites theological formulations that make the giving over to desire and the giving up of one’s self to another in desire a requisite for embodiment.  

As her work progresses the poems become even more political (if by political we mean national history and economics), but they keep their erotic core. This is to say, they still are about desiring bodies. For example, in “Europa, puerto sin mar,” from La delirios (1998), a poem about modern global capitalism and the European conquest of globe, the speaker, an unsexed deity that takes on the form of a woman, notes that love and desire has brought her to some strange modern port of shipping containers and cold-calculated plunder. In “Agua,” from La bebida (2000), water that is drunk is something like desire or love. And like these, it’s tricky. She notes, had Huitzilopochtli, the god who founded the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, drunk from this water he would not have guided the Aztecs safely from Aztlán through the desert to the island in the mountain lake of Texcoco. In “El son del ángel de la ciudad,” (also La bebida) recently translated by Catherin Hammond as “Angel Sound, Mexico City,” the history of Mexico and the banal street scenes of orphans, lost shoes, sex in the park, and rush hour traffic are all recounted by a golden statue. As the angel recounts this history and witnesses these scenes, she relates her own family history. Last of all, her most recent collection, La patria insomne (2012), is a sequence of love poems to a country fallen prey to violence.

Boullosa’s long poems are epic in the sense of their subject matter. They take up Mexican history, gender politics, and the North/South relationship. They speak of the founding of nations and the economics of global capitalism. And they do so through the language of love and bodily desire. They blend the epic mode with the lyric. And give the lie to Ericlla’s exclusion of women from the epic. Intertwined with world history are the bodies of women, desired and desiring.

Jeremy Paden was born in Italy and raised in Central America and the Caribbean. He received his Ph.D. in Latin American literature from Emory University. His essays have appeared in Colonial Latin American Review, Romance Quarterly, and other journals. His poems have appeared in such places as the Atlanta Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Cortland Review, Louisville Review, Rattle, and other places. His translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Words Without Borders and other journals. He is an Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.