Julia de Burgos as a cultural icon in Luz Maria Umpierre's The Margarita Poems.
One of the words Umpierre uses to describe Julia de Burgos, "idol," is often conflated with "icon," although an in-depth look at both suggests that they are not synonymous. A more pronounced difference between the terms exists in Spanish, Umpierre's native language, as noted in the Vox diccionario ideologico de la lengua espanola. In addition to its classification as a term of "representation," "idolo" is also listed under the ideological group "amor," beneath the larger category of "sentimiento," along with "amado," "amor," "ligue," and "flirt." This categorization points to the personal connection between oneself and one's idols, including a potential romantic and/or sexual desire felt toward the revered object. Along with "idol," the term "icon" is also sometimes used in this way in English, and they are often listed as synonyms. In contrast, in the Vox, "icono" is not categorized as a term of "amor," nor is it included in the larger category "sentimiento." Instead, its only other ideological grouping is under "signo," alongside words like "saial," "simbolo," and "interprete." This distinction sheds new light upon "Julia's" role in The Margarita Poems. She is not constructed as merely an emotionally charged referent, but is instead reinvented as a symbol (icon) of lesbian identity. Furthermore, I contend that "Julia" does not play the role of object of desire (idol) but rather an active subject that aids and participates in the desiring of Margarita.
While Julia de Burgos's presence as an "idol" or "icon" has not been analyzed in Umpierre's work, Burgos's role as an "influence" has received considerable critical attention. One common reading of "Julia's" appearance in The Margarita Poems is that she and the lover, Margarita, are invoked as literary muses, a traditional category normally assigned to women by male authors. Lourdes Torres, for example, scarcely mentions the appearance of "Julia," although she calls both "Julia" and "Margarita" "muses" who represent "flesh and bone women capable of shallowness, weakness and betrayal" rather than images of ideal "femininity" (159). Similarly, Roger Platizky discusses Umpierre's work as a "revisionist treatment, from a modern, feminist lesbian perspective, of traditional love sonnets and quest poems inspired by beatific women" (13). Although Platizky acknowledges the role a character named "Julia" plays in the protagonist's lesbian awakening, he does not address Umpierre's own claim that the fictional "Julia" at least partially represents Julia de Burgos. In general, critics have noted the feminist transgression implied in the humanization of female "muses" toward liberation from the patriarchal mythologization of women often found in canonical literature. Nonetheless, they tend to separate "Julia"--the fictionalized lesbian subject--from Julia--the historical literary figure--thereby severing any ties between lesbian, feminist, and poetic subjectivities that the character may personify.
Besides the analysis of "Julia" as a muse in The Margarita Poems, she has also been interpreted as a female literary precursor or a Madre Poeta who is at once praised and surpassed by Umpierre. Carlos Rodriguez applies Bloom's "anxiety of influence" theory (3) to deduce that Umpierre's wish in the concluding poem, "The Mar/Garita Poem," is to create a new poetic language that goes beyond the accomplishments of her foremother, concluding that "Julia de Burgos, la Madre, ha quedado atras" (8). Rodriguez does not address the theme of lesbian desire that the "Julia" figure embodies; he simply labels "Julia" as a model writer from Puerto Rico's literary canon without considering the issue of sex-unity (hers or the poetic protagonist's). While Elena Martinez astutely discusses various lesbian themes in the book and includes an analysis of "Julia" as a symbol of "the muse, the lover, and the lesbian self" who represents "sexual and political freedom" (76), she also asserts that Umpierre's poetic "I" ultimately must "swerve away," in Bloomian terms, from her precursors. As a literary critic, Umpierre herself has engaged with Bloom's "anxiety of influence" theory in her study of the role of Julia de Burgos in the poetry of fellow Puerto Rican authors Sandra Maria Esteves and Rosario FerrY. (4) It is thus tempting to read her creative work within a Bloomian framework. (5) Nonetheless, the need to find a voice for lesbian subjectivity in patriarchal and heteronormative spheres--the literary canon(s) of Puerto Rico and the United States that Umpierre's poetic "I" faces, as well as the societies from which she is marginalized--puts a new spin on the appropriation of Julia de Burgos, who self-identified as heterosexual. (6) Martinez argues that Umpierre's lesbian identification simply reinforces the "anxiety of influence" theme in The Margarita Poems, contending that it "highlights [...] the need to detach herself from Burgos and from other literary figures to establish her own lesbian literary voice" (68). While this is one possible interpretation of "Julia's" appearance, it does not address the manner in which Umpierre's representation of Burgos simultaneously as a fictional character and a historical precursor negotiates differences between heterosexual and homosexual identities. Also fundamental to the metapoetic "coming out" process traced in the work are the little-discussed connections Umpierre forges between the spheres of the intellect, Catholic tradition, homosexuality, and national literature and identity all through the figure of "Julia."
Puerto Rico's political status is a visible theme, especially in the independentista message of "The Mar/Garita Poem." The title demonstrates the deconstruction of the lover's name to represent the island's colonization, again mixing two seemingly separate categories of identity: sexuality and nationality. The word "mar" or "sea" is a traditional leitmotif in Puerto Rican literature as well as a recurring symbol in Julia de Burgos's poetry. It stands, therefore, as a demonstration of "Julia's" constant presence in the poetic voice's self-identification process. The other side of the slash in the poem's title, "garita" may be translated as "watchtower" or "lookout," and besides pointing to the iconic El Morro fortress in San Juan, it also represents the metaphorical sentry post from which the island is colonized:
Los dos simbolos islenos: el mar, mi mar, verdoso, azul, y la garita, el puente del vigia, del colonizador que observa desde el Morro la entrada de las naves la garita que evita que surga la union de las palabras "isla" y "mar." (86-91)
The poem's bilingual construction highlights the inseparability of language, politics, and identity. (7) The key to resisting both U.S. colonization ("Para separar / el Mar de la garita" 133-34) and patriarchal domination--which Luisa Valenzuela designates as another type of colonization--is to invent a new language, since "se necesitan palabras femeninas" (141). This call to arms is reminiscent of Helene Cixous's concept of ecriture feminine. Although Cixous refuses to define this language, she explains that it interrupts patriarchal discourse by emphasizing and celebrating so-called taboo bodily experiences, particularly focusing on erotic appetites, sensuality and physical sensations, and the physiological, orgasmic capacities of women. Valenzuela agrees with this strategy of disruption in her essay "The Other Face of the Phallus." She asserts that by not talking about and from their bodies, women have been complicitous in their own oppression:
We have been talked into the idea of being part of Mother Earth: the woman as the promised land or, better, as the terra incognita. And there we chose to stay, as The Mystery--even to ourselves--so as not to wake the sleeping lions, not to face all of a sudden the possible horror of our passions and our desires. [...] [W]e have been colonized to believe we do and are still unsure about looking at our own sex--our own genitals--as if that were not also a form of language. (242, my emphasis)
Cixous, Valenzuela, and Umpierre suggest that the challenge to patriarchal domination comes from the corporeal spaces traditionally considered "improper" for literature itself and about which women have been silenced. Umpierre's poetic voice wishes to express openly the lesbian desires and experiences that she has been denied by heteronormative and patriarchal society. She transgressively links poetry, historically considered "high art," to the "unmentionable" parts of the (specifically) female body that are also connected to the realm of the abject. She implores: "Llena tu boca mujer / [...] con todas las palabras / que has guardado"
en el colon, en el recto, en la matriz, en las bills, [...........] en los ovarios, en los tubos de falopio, en la vagina. (144-59)
Umpierre's focus on the taboo is similar to the recurring strategy Valenzuela finds in the writing of Latin American women, which she characterizes as a "fascination with the disgusting, in Spanish, 'un regodeo en el asco'" (243-44). More than the "disgusting," Umpierre describes all sexual encounters without censure, responding to Cixous's call for women to exploit what both authors see as the inevitable link between the body, sexuality, and writing. Cixous proclaims: "Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write your self. Your body must be heard," a decision that she describes as "an act that will also be marked by woman's seizing the occasion to speak, hence her shattering entry into history, which has always been based on her suppression. To write and thus to forge for herself the anti-logos weapon" (250).
As a metapoetic lesbian voice, Umpierre's "I" seeks a new language not only to express her subjectivity as a woman, but also to represent her homosexuality within dominant, heterosexist constructions of puertorriquenidad and, more specifically, within literary history. She sees the existing linguistic codes as insufficient for her groundbreaking endeavor. The invention of a language with which to liberate and triumphantly write her complete self into subjectivity is one of the objectives of "The Mar/Garita Poem." An experimental, anti-logos "Jerigonza," technically defined as "gibberish," is scattered throughout the poem in which she aims to "crear nuestra historia" (103).
"The Mar/Garita Poem" calls for Puerto Rico's and women's liberation from colonization, while its focus on a specifically female community in the repetition of the words nosotras and nuestro emphasizes coalition building among women writers and readers. It is the triumph of the lesbian/Latina/Puerto Rican/poet subject and her creation of an accepting space as symbolized by the "isla amazonica fibre / en el exilio / aqui en mi cuerpo, / que hoy se llena de libertad y luz / con la llegada del mar / y la desplasmacion de nuestro idioma inventado" (259-64). In this image, the "garita" has disappeared and the "isla" is reaffirmed as a positive space, a gynocentric, metaphorical homeland that is tied not only to gender, but also to the body and, by association, sexuality ("cuerpo"), as well as to a new form of poetic expression ("idioma inventado"). As the poetic voice proclaims, "hemos creado nuestro logos interno / con su desorden que salvara / ya de la soledad al mundo" (218-20). What Umpierre labels "our logos" is expressed by language that springs from women's bodily experiences--including the experience of lesbian sexuality--linguistically liberated from patriarchal censure and control.
The word "libertad" in "The Mar/Garita Poem" is thus charged with multiple meanings, simultaneously representing political, feminist, sexual, and poetic freedom. Arnaldo Cruz-Malave asserts that Umpierre and other gay and lesbian Puerto Rican writers are indebted to Julia de Burgos for this strategy:
[F]ollowing the example of Puerto Rico's most influential female poet, Julia de Burgos, they have [...] conceived this uncovering of their sexual self as a search for a free and authentic national space. Conflating their self with the colonial body of the island of Puerto Rico [...] they have set out to liberate both the sexual and national geography of their identity. ("Toward an Art" 227)
This calling forth of "Julia" in the course of claiming and voicing lesbian identification is seen immediately in the first poem of the collection, "Immanence." "Julia" is ritualistically summoned to help the protagonist embark on her coming-out journey, which is portrayed as a rupture from mainstream society as symbolized by the "middle America" state of Ohio: "I am crossing / the MAD river in Ohio, / looking for Julia / who is carrying me away / in this desire" (1-5). The river, another key symbol in Burgos's poetry as seen in the famous "El Rio Grande de Loiza," is recontextualized and stripped of the masculinity and heterosexuality that Burgos ascribed to it in her poem. Instead, the river becomes a broader symbol of sexuality in general and will later be reappropriated as a symbol of lesbian desire. The capitalized word "MAD," scattered throughout the poem, could be read as "insane," a label imposed upon the poetic voice by heternormative society and which she ultimately reclaims, as I will illustrate.
If "influence" (teacher/friend) is not an entirely adequate label for this summoning of "Julia" in The Margarita Poems, then, does the reinvention and invocation of "the greatest Puerto Rican woman poet" (Umpierre, "In Cycles") classify her as an idol, a term that often carries religious connotations? Jose Esteban Munoz's concept of "disidentification" provides the critical tools necessary to unpack Umpierre's use of religious imagery in this lesbian "coming-out" manifesto. The unexpected melding of sexuality and religious spirituality plays a key part of lesbian disidentification in the work. According to Munoz:
Disidentification [...] neither opts to assimilate within a structure nor strictly opposes it; rather, disidentification is a strategy that works on and against dominant ideology. Instead of buckling under the pressures of dominant ideology (identification, assimilation) or attempting to break free of its inescapable sphere (counteridentification, utopianism), this 'working on and against' is a strategy that tries to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance. (11-12)
Thus, although Catholicism could be considered a heteronormative and patriarchal system of beliefs that traditionally condemns homosexuality and relegates women to a subordinate social status, through "disidentification" Umpierre does not have to fully reject the undeniable religious influence of her dominant culture(s). Instead, she can reappropriate Catholic images and rituals, transgressively reinscribing them with new (lesbianized) meanings.
As already indicated, The Margarita Poems chronicles the process of transformation from a socially repressed to a publicly outspoken lesbian who triumphs by teaching herself to say the unspoken, the unspeakable, or what Cherrie Moraga called "lo que nunca se paso por mis labios" (Umpierre "In Cycles" 1). In "Immanence," the poetic voice's lesbian awakening (rebirth) is symbolized through the specifically Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation":
I am traversing this river MAD, crossing myself against the evil eye, hectic, in movement, my narrow body covered with pictures of women I adore or I desire, armies of Amazons that I invoke in the transubstantiation or arousal that will bring my Julia forth. (23-35)
The poetic voice simultaneously evokes a traditional superstition (the "evil eye"), the Greek Amazons, and Catholicism. Thus, Umpierre does not reject dominant ideology in favor of the counterhegemonic; rather, she uses both elements inside and outside the mainstream at the same time in the disidentification process. In her use of the term "transubstantiation," Umpierre makes a boldly heretical move, since a (lesbian) woman figuratively takes on the body of Christ, claiming and inhabiting "sacred" space in order to literally embody her corporeal/sexual desires ("arousal"). Since Catholic doctrine would marginalize this poetic voice and reduce female sexuality to the function of procreation, her appropriation and rewriting of its rituals demonstrate the element of "disidentification" that Munoz describes as "the hermeneutical performance of decoding mass, high, or any other cultural field from the perspective of a minority subject who is disempowered in such a representational hierarchy," an active stance that he considers "revisionary" (25-26). Such an identificatory move not only indexes a cultural moment, image, or figure but rather changes it to represent the perspective(s) that it would normally exclude and/or condemn altogether.
The poetic voice explains in "Immanence" that the "deity" invoked through this reappropriated, redefined, and lesbianized "transubstantiation" is not Christ but rather "my Julia." The very title of the poem, "Immanence," suggests a connection between "Julia's" invocation and "idolatry," since "immanentism" may refer to the belief that some god or spirit (here, "Julia") pervades everything in the universe, (8) and the worship of such an "idol" is a defiance against sacred images and figures. In this case the Catholic deity is presumably replaced with that of a (female) figure from secular culture, as "Julia" is reconstructed to replace the heterosexist, patriarchal God offered by Catholic tradition.
While Umpierre links religion, sexuality, and national literature in this invocation of "Julia," however, the precursor does not serve as a "false god" who is excessively or uncritically worshipped, remaining only in the interior, a figment of the poetic imagination, an unsubstantial representation that never materializes. After the first poem, "Immanence," "Julia" transitions from a passively adored (immaterial) object, or idol into the position of (material) active subject. Beginning with the second poem, "Transcendence," "Julia" becomes a participant in the formation and performance of lesbian identity. Through "Julia's" summoning in the opening poem, the poetic voice is able to move beyond, or transcend the taboos of heteronormative society and "come out" in the second poem, which begins with this proclamation: "He regresado a la ciudad / a soltar a Julia" (1-2). As Umpierre's poetic voice moves from the private space of the so-called "closet" to the public space of "outed" homosexuality, "Julia" simultaneously shifts from an "idol" existing in a private, one-on-one relationship with her adorer to an "icon," a more public, shared signifier whose meanings may be rendered from collective interpretations and group identifications. (9) This active transformation of "Julia" from "idol" to "icon" mirrors not only the poetic voice's "coming out," but also her desire to form feminist coalitions for social change.
In summoning "Julia" to help her express her desire for Margarita, the poetic "I" must first openly accept and perform her lesbian self "in this transubstantiation / or arousal / that will bring my Julia forth" (33-35). In addition to the reappropriation of the Catholic term, equating "transubstantiation" with "arousal" also suggests that "to change or transform" for the speaker means to "become aroused," that is, to express her lesbian desires. The phrase "my Julia" is a further indication of the "disidentification" process since the poetic voice is literally claiming ownership of Julia de Burgos's posthumous image for her own use, thus adapting the historical woman's image to meet her particular identificatory needs--seizing a canonical heterosexual figure from Puerto Rican literary history and changing her into a lesbian icon.
Another important moment of transformation occurs when the poetic "I" adopts the form of Julia, thus converting "Julia" into a physical entity, the active subject, and a voice as well as a body through which lesbian desire will be enacted. Following the search across the "MAD river" for her "Julia," a written "(pause)" signals this moment of conversion in which the poetic voice no longer simply identifies with but actually changes into Julia, rising from the dead (i.e., repression) like Lazarus, again reconfiguring a traditional religious symbol:
I am Julia, I have crossed the river MAD, I have come forth, new lady lazarus to unfold my margarita, my carnal daisy that buds between my spread out legs. (96-104)
If "[t]o disidentify is to read oneself and one's own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that is not culturally coded to 'connect' with the disidentifying subject" (Munoz 11), the lesbian poet/protagonist disidentifies with both the self-identified heterosexual poet, Julia de Burgos, and the Biblical character Lazarus. She performs her sexuality as and through "Julia," a transformation symbolized by the man who was resurrected in a miracle performed by Jesus, according to Christian mythology. She has carved herself a space for a double ventriloquism act, since she can now speak of her sexual desires through the mouths and images of two unexpected symbolic figures. Thus, the poetic voice achieves self-awareness and self-acceptance as seen in the triumphant and celebratory ending of the poem:
I touch my petals: "I love me, I love me not, I love me, I love me not, I love me!" (107-12).
Women's masturbation as a form of revenge against patriarchal objectification and repression--learning about and taking control of their own bodies, sexual experiences, and pleasures--is another strategy suggested by Cixous. She metaphorically links masturbation to self-exploratory "feminine writing" that proclaims the "beauty" and "secrecy" of women's bodies and female sexuality (246). Similarly, while masturbation traditionally is considered a private act, Umpierre's poetic voice invites the reader to participate in her moment, making this "taboo" and secret sexual experience a shared one.
It is also interesting to note Umpierre's use of flower symbolism throughout the collection. Historically, according to Michael Ferber, "[f]lowers, first of all, are girls. Their beauty, their beauty's brevity, their vulnerability to males who wish to pluck them--these features and others have made flowers in many cultures symbolic of maidens, at least to the males who have set those cultures' terms" (74). One could argue that Umpierre disidentifies with this classic symbol (flower = female), wresting the sexual connotations of the symbol (purity, virginity, susceptibility to male lust) away from literary tradition. In addition, Umpierre's reappropriated version of the flower symbol depicts the woman literally and metaphorically "plucking" herself, while desiring another woman, thereby taking men out of the sexual equation completely.
As previously mentioned, "The Mar/Garita Poem" concludes the lesbian feminist awakening by exploring the process of creating a new language with which to write about her newly recognized lesbian and feminist vision for social change:
Explosions in my poet's brain. Observant of the Muse's burial, of her language, nightwatching for years to see her words emerge to dismember the patriarch, to destroy the colonizers tools, to crush the merchants of her pain, undressing herself from dogmatic lies and religious guilts. (37-44)
On the surface, this excerpt seems to support the interpretation of Julia as the cause of the poetic voice's "anxiety of influence," since the "Muse's burial" could represent an acknowledgement of the literary foremother's failed attempts at combating patriarchal systems of oppression and the "new" poet's desire to move beyond her efforts. Nonetheless, later in the poem it is revealed that the precursor is not completely left behind, as Bloomian critics would suggest, just as Catholicism was not totally abandoned. One image that suggests the incorporation of the foremother and religious tradition, rather than their destruction, again relies on the symbol of Lazarus: "How does one bring Lazarus forth / without being the funky Jesus Christ / without believing in / religious myths?" (49-52). If "Lazarus" again represents the revived, now "out" ("born again") lesbian figure who, through this poetic journey, has learned to voice her sexual identity, then the "funky Jesus Christ" stands in for "Julia," who has been established as the "deity" that aided in the poetic voice's transformation. The expression "being the funky Jesus Christ" (in opposition to "believing in") suggests that "Julia" has transcended idol status. The poetic voice has become "Julia" in order to fully materialize as, or give form to, her lesbian self. This rebirth would not have been possible "without believing in / religious myths," suggesting again that the dominant religious belief system and literary canon were not abandoned but rather reappropriated.
When I asked Umpierre about Bloom's theory of influence in an e-mail interview, she remarked: "I do not think we destroy our foremothers but build on them as an eternal chain of empowerment" ("Answers for you"). Similarly, in her poetry, examples abound of the incorporation of literary foremothers rather than their Bloomian destruction or desertion. Umpierre's "new," liberated, lesbian poetic voice does not suffer from an anxiety of influence that would force her to terminate her precursors. Instead, the foremothers remain important, active members of a feminist literary community. They are the "mujeres sabias / que me prestan / sus letras, sus alfabetos" ("The Mar/Garita Poem" 177-79, my emphasis).
Umpierre's cooperative vision of women's writing is expressed in "The Mar/Garita Poem": "I must invent a language / to heroinely save hers or / we will perish" (55-57, my emphasis). Without both languages--the precursor's and her own--social change against patriarchy will not be possible, an idea that is also illustrated by the repetition of the verb "hilar," "to spin." Traditionally considered "women's work," spinning thread here represents the metapoetic vision of weaving together past and present voices, experiences, and strategies toward collective goals of political liberation and a feminist revision of literary history:
Debemos generar nuestras metaforas para poder hilar, hilar en fino, hilar, hilar, hilar al mundo, unir, unir, crear brocado el tapiz que salve a nuestras musas. (70-78, my emphasis)
The objective is to "save" the foremothers, not to destroy them as in Bloom's paradigm. Instead, the trailblazing of the feminist lesbian voice in The Margarita Poems is indebted to--not hindered by--the literary tradition she inherits. This is never clearer than in her direct naming of some of the precursors who have helped her in her coming-out journey:
Julia de Burgos, Marjorie Agosin, Marge Piercy me han prestado sus palabras, y la mar ha llegado a mi puerta ya hoy mi isla ya tiene su mar y su lenguaje. (238-45)
As Julia Alvarez explains, the "isla" that Umpierre's metapoetic voice has created is not "the original one in the Caribbean, it is an internal island, but liberated from all colonizing influences and built of community, friendship and nurture" (6). Again incorporating the foremothers into this liberation project, it is significant that the poetic voice in "The Mar/Garita Poem" dubs herself the "nueva JUANA DE LA CRUZ," demonstrating the call not to abandon traditional icons, symbols, and images, but to reinscribe them, infusing them with new, transgressive meanings. (10)
Recalling "disidentification" as the process of working within and against norms at the same time, then, Umpierre "works within" heteronormative society by choosing a known, canonical, self-identified heterosexual figure from Puerto Rican literature (Julia de Burgos) to symbolize and voice her lesbian subjectivity. She goes against the norm, however, by reinventing "Julia" to have lesbian desires: "Julia / who'll lose her mind / over your glorious vulva, / my Margarita" ("Immanence" 36-39). To this end, Martinez notes the double meaning of the verb "to come" as both an invocatory chant and a verb that indicates sexual climax, thus expressing "[t]he conjunction of sexuality and poetic inspiration" embodied in "Julia" (76):
Come, Julia, come, come unrestrained, wild woman, hilarious Julia come Julia come forth. (59-63)
Martinez alternately identifies "Julia" with the poetic voice and with the lover, Margarita. Although she does not expand on this point, it once again demonstrates the idea that identities are not fixed in The Margarita Poems. In addition, at times all three women appear simultaneously: the protagonist, Margarita, and Julia together, engaging in a type of poetic lesbian menage-a-trois. Verbs such as "leaving," "shedding," and "forgetting" again highlight the active decision to transform herself into a "new" person and the acceptance of a subsequent "new" identity as a lesbian:
leaving possessions and positions, shedding my clothes, forgetting, oh, my name, putting my life on the line, to bring my Julia forth, lesbian woman, who'll masturbate and rule over my body, Earth, parting the waters of my clitoral Queendom, woman in lust, who'll lose her mind and gain her Self in want, in wish, in pure desire and lust for the rosie colored lips covered with hair of Margarita, my yellow margarita. (11) (75-86)
Julia is more than a "muse" in The Margarita Poems because she is an active participant in sexual encounters; she becomes a vital part of the process of lesbian identity formation and is, herself, identified as having lesbian desires and acting upon them.
Just as "disidentification" is described by Munoz as a "survival strategy" for marginalized subjects, in The Margarita Poems the poetic subject is rejected from society at least partially because of her sexuality. At the outset of "Immanence," for example, she is running away from those who label her as "sinful, insane and senseless, / a prostitute, a whore, / a lesbian, a dyke" (10-12). Disidentifying with Julia allows her to express openly her desire for Margarita and experience an awakening that facilitates her confrontation with society. In "Transcendence," she embraces the "negative" labels society has given her, reappropriates them, and readies herself against the same society that marked her as an outcast: "He vuelto a la ciudad, / [...] / a rozar mis tetas contra / los cuerpos de la gente en las calles / [...] / aver al pueblo hablar de mi en las calles" (12-19). She decides to rebel, appropriating so-called unacceptable actions--"despeinarme," "desgrenarme," "no banarme," and "olvidar"--acts that indicate purposeful nonconformity. According to Martinez, "the speaker presents herself as a madwoman who, breaking with canons of conduct, returns to 'unleash Julia inside of herself'" (77-78). In this context, "madness," or "locura," is accepted and celebrated as freedom from social prescription.
In The Margarita Poems, the fictionalized figure of Julia de Burgos is neither simply invoked as an "influence" nor blindly, uncritically worshipped as a false god or "idol." Her treatment is not uncritical at all, but rather strategic. In other words, Umpierre's poetic voice consciously and transgressively fashions the biographical Julia de Burgos into "Julia," a representative or symbol of, and an active participant in the performance of lesbian / metapopoetic / Puerto Rican identity. In Virginia Woolf Icon, Brenda R. Silver uses the term "icon" to connote the claim to "ownership" involved when individuals or groups appropriate cultural figures for their own identificatory ends (27). She refers to the reconstruction of known figures in order to inscribe them with a wide range of symbolic meanings as "versioning." In the process of iconization, the people whom Silver notes are treated as society's "monsters"--those who are marginalized on the basis of social categories like race, gender, sexuality, and class--strategically lay claim to culturally recognizable and accepted figures in order to represent, and therefore validate, their own subjectivities. Similarly, through "disidentification," "Julia" is turned into a metapoetic lesbian icon in The Margarita Poems, as a "coming out" voyage is aided, rather than hindered by, elements of hegemonic society.
When I asked Umpierre what Julia de Burgos means to her personally, she revealed that she feels a deep connection to her precursor:
She was a disabled woman. I am a disabled woman also even though my disability is different from hers. Both of us have been denied positions because of our disabilities. (12) [...] However, I do not wish to play the victim and that is why I chose to represent Julia in TMP as a powerful Lesbian woman who comes back from the dead. (my emphasis)
Umpierre's comment encapsulates the very point I have argued--Umpierre's reappropriation of Julia de Burgos, her rewriting of "Julia" as a "powerful Lesbian woman who comes back from the dead," demonstrates the process of (re)constructing a cultural icon to represent a marginalized identity that no longer wishes to be a passive, silent victim of heterosexist repression, particularly in the literary sphere. Umpierre dares to resurrect the popular Puerto Rican literary icon Julia de Burgos and to reclaim her as "one of her own" (i.e., not only a Puerto Rican, a woman, and a poet, but also a lesbian). In this metapoetic "coming out" work, Umpierre defiantly "outs" Julia de Burgos, converting her into a lesbian icon named "Julia" and thereby challenging patriarchy and heteronormativity in her community-oriented, metaliterary feminist project.
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(1) Umpierre calls The Margarita Poems "an answer" to Chicana lesbian writer Cherrie Moraga's Loving in the War Years: "First of all, I needed to say, to speak 'lo que nunca paso por mis labios,' that which I had not uttered, and which was being used as a tool in my oppression by others, murmured behind closed doors, brought up as an issue to deny me my rights by those enemies who read my poetry too well. What I needed to verbalize is the fact that I am, among many other things, a Lesbian" ("In Cycles" 1).
(2) One of Umpierre's epigraphs is from a poem by Burgos, "Ruta de sangre al viento": "Cuando ya no te acunen margaritas / porque me van siguiendo, [...] / [??] Con que amor, amor mio, cuidaras de mis versos?" (Obra poetica 240-41). Taking this poem away from its original heterosexual context and infusing it with a lesbian resignification of "margarita," while maintaining its original metapoetic connotation, is the beginning of Umpierre's reappropriation of Burgos that will take place throughout the work.
(3) Bloom's "anxiety of influence" theory postulates that "strong poets" engage in a paternalistic battle with their literary forefathers because their feelings of inadequacy lead them to fear that the only way they can become poets in their own right is to eradicate or invalidate their precursors.
(4) See "la ansiedad de la influencia en Sandra Maria Esteves."
(5) One possible rereading of the appearance of Julia de Burgos in Umpierre's work would be through the feminist revision of Bloom's theory that Gilbert and Gubar undertake in The Madwoman in the Attic. As Martinez has noted, Umpierre does forge a female literary community in her dedications to female poets, the metapoetic appearances of Julia de Burgos, Sor Juana, Marjorie Agosin, Audre Lorde, and others, as well as the inclusion of female readers in the use of "nosotras" in the call to action for women's liberation. An amendment of the "anxiety of influence" theory in order to acknowledge the feminist implications of The Margarita Poems toward rescuing and revalorizing female literary role models is one critical approach that still needs to be explored. I address this issue briefly in my dissertation.
(6) Many of Burgos's poems describe a relationship between the poetic voice and a male lover. The theme of male-female love is, in general, prevalent in her poems. Many scholars have related this to Burgos's biography. See, for example, Cuchi Coll.
(7) For a discussion of the "interlingual" code employed by Umpierre, see Martinez.
(8) Encarta World English Dictionary.
(9) For a discussion of the collective function of cultural icons, see Wayne Koestenbaum, Brenda R. Silver, and S. Paige Baty, among others. A synthesis of these and other studies may also be found in my dissertation.
(10) Notably, Umpierre often removes the title "Sor" from Juana Ines de la Cruz's name, perhaps signaling the redefinition of the Mexican poet's traditional image.
(11) Although not germane to my argument, it is interesting to consider the symbolism of the color yellow. While a "margarita" or "daisy" is a white flower with a yellow center, "yellow" can also be used as a symbol of "queerness," as explained in Casell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit.
(12) Umpierre is referring to Burgos's purported alcoholism and depression. Umpierre talks about her own advocacy work for the emotionally disabled and all disadvantaged peoples on her Web site, http://www.luzmaumpierre.com. For more on the life of Julia de Burgos, see Yvette Jimenez de Baez and Isabel Cuchi Coll, among others.
Betsy A. Sandlin
Sewanee: The University of the South
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|Author:||Sandlin, Betsy A.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2003|
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