Ulalume Gonzalez de Leon (1928-2009)

I first read Ulalume Gonzalez de Leon’s work in Michael Benedict’s international anthology of the prose poem, published in 1978. Linda Scheer’s translation of Gonzalez de Leon’s poem in 15 parts, “Anatomy of Love,” mesmerized me. I fell in love with the language, and to explore her imagery and vocabulary, I experimented with the seventh part, “la reserche du corps perdu”: the search for the lost body. I dismantled the language, organizing the words by parts of speech; then I began combining them in new patterns, rather like the process of recombinant DNA, to create a kind of “mutant” poem. This became “Lost Body,” the title poem of my first collection.

Twenty years later, I wanted to read more of Gonzalez de Leon’s work. I googled her name, and the first entry that came up was my name. I had no idea how this could be, until I realized that the only reference to her name in English on the Internet was my poem, published in 1993, with its epigraph “after ‘Anatomy of Love’ by Ulalume Gonzalez de Leon.” Since her death in 2009, scholarly articles, a Wikipedia entry, and a website are now available, though they are all in Spanish. Because the English translation programs make only marginal sense, I offer this brief biography and my translations of three of her poems.

Ulalume Ibanez was born in 1928 in Montevideo, Uruguay, the daughter of two poets, Roberto Ibanez and Sara de Ibanez. Her parents gave her the incantatory name Ulalume, inspired by the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe and the musical names of African-Caribbean ocean deities. She was a precocious child who began writing poetry at a young age, studied at a French Lycee, earning a scholarship to study literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, finishing her studies at the University of Mexico.

In 1948, she married painter and architect Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon and became a naturalized Mexican citizen. Together they had three children, Berenice, Diego, and Sofia. Though they later separated, Ulalume kept her husband’s name, which she felt gave her a closer tie to her adopted home of Mexico.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Gonzalez de Leon was part of a generation of women writers experimenting with  language and challenging the traditional identities of women, marriage, and relationships. She published essays, stories, and poems, and worked on the editorial boards of  the journals Plural and Vuelta , under the direction of Octavio Paz. She also translated the work of Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes, Lewis Carroll, and e.e. cummings.

Gonzalez de Leon believed that everything had already been written, and that each writer is actually rewriting, reshuffling, and reconstructing a part of the one great work. This idea of stolen or reworked language is so important to her that when her collected works were published, she chose the title Plagio: Plagiarisms.

Ulalume Gonzalez de Leon died in 2009 of respiratory failure, a complication of Alzheimer’s. Her poetry earned her many awards, including the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize, the Flower of Laura Poetry Prize in 1979 (the Center for International Studies) and Alfonso X Prize. Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz called Ulalume Gonzalez de Leon “the best Mexicana poet since Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz,” recognizing the visionary quality of her work.


Translation Project

In December, 2013, John Johnson, Nancy Morales, and I began a project to translate the poems of Plagios into English.

In the prologue to Plagios, poet Octavio Paz said of Ulalume González de León that her language “is a geometry, a configuration of lines that are signs creating other signs, other shadows, other splendors of design. . . . a geometry of air.” Translating her poems into English presents a challenge because, in Paz’s words, “if we seek to touch them, they disintegrate.” Nonetheless, her work resonates so deeply, it is our goal to bring these poems into English equivalents that retain the original complexity and delicacy of her language, though perhaps confirming through our efforts the poet’s assertion that everything, including translation, is an act of creation.

We have obtained permission from the publisher/copyright holder to translate and publish Plagios, and in 2018, we received an NEA Translation Fellowship for the project. Sixteen Rivers Press, a non-profit poetry publishing collective located in San Francisco, California, has agreed to be the American publisher and distributor. The first volume of Plagios/Plagiarisms is scheduled for release in April 2020. Volumes two and three will be published in 2022 and 2024.


Three Poems

Acto Amoroso

: dos se miran uno al otro
hasta que son irreales

cierran los ojos

y se tocan uno al otro
hasta que son irreales

guardan los cuerpos,

y se sueñan uno al otro
hasta que son tan reales
que despiertan
dos se miran

Love Making

: two look at one another
until they are unreal
and then

they close their eyes

and they touch one another
until they are unreal

and then
they shelter their bodies

and they dream one another
until they are so real
they awaken
and see themselves:
two looking.


Dijo Pavese

La primera vez
para nunca fue.

La primera vez
para siempre
la segunda vez.

la primera vez
será nada.

siempre en vez de
siempre en vez de
siempre en vez.

Pavese said

The first time
never was.

The first time
will be
the second time.

the first time
will be nothing.

always instead of
always instead of
always instead.


Pronunciada palabra
tán sola
tán desnuda:
regrésate a vestirte de indecible.



Spoken word
so alone
so naked–
go back to dressing yourself in the unsayable.


About the Translators


Terry Ehret, one of the founders of Sixteen Rivers Press, has published four collections of poetry, most recently Night Sky Journey from Kelly’s Cove Press. Literary awards include the National Poetry Series, California Book Award, Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize, Nomination for the Northern California Book Reviewer’s Award, and five Pushcart Prize nominations. From 2004-2006, she served as the poet laureate of Sonoma County where she lives and teaches writing.


Nancy J. Morales, a first-generation American of Puerto Rican parents, earned her Bachelor’s degree from Rutgers College, a Master’s in teaching English as a Second Language from Adelphi University, and a Doctorate in Education from Teachers College at Columbia University. She has taught at Dominican University and College of Marin, California State University, Sonoma, and other schools, from elementary to graduate levels.


John Johnson is an award-winning poet whose work has appeared in many print and online journals, including BOXCAR Poetry Review, Clade Song, Triggerfish Critical Review, and Web Conjunctions.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: