Ulalume Gonzalez de Leon (1932-2009)

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.

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, with its epigraph “after ‘Anatomy of Love’ by Ulalume Gonzalez de Leon.” Since her death in 2009, 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 1932 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 age four, studied at a French Lycee, and earned her bacchelauareate (equivalent of a high school diploma) at age fifteen. With a government scholarship, she studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, and finished 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. After they 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 an inspirational leader 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 poem. 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. She spent the last years of her life in a clinic for Alzheimer’s patients. 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 Mexican 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 Plagio 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 individual poems from Plagios, and to pursue funding to publish the entire collection. Sixteen Rivers Press, a non-profit poetry publishing collective located in San Francisco, California, has agreed to be the American publisher and distributor.

 

Three Poems

Acto Amoroso

: dos se miran uno al otro
hasta que son irreales
entonces

cierran los ojos

y se tocan uno al otro
hasta que son irreales

entonces
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
sera
para siempre
la segunda vez.

Después,
corregida,
aumentada,
la primera vez
será nada.

Después:
siempre en vez de
siempre en vez de
siempre en vez.

Pavese said

The first time
never was.

The first time
will be
forever
the second time.

Later,
changed,
grown larger,
the first time
will be nothing.

After:
always instead of
always instead of
always instead.

Palabra

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

 

Word

Uttered word
so alone
so naked:
go back to dressing yourself in the unsayable.

 

About the Translators

Translators
DSC04815_2
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.

 

 

 

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