Living the political: Julia de Burgos and Lolita Lebron.
Lolita llego a ser Reina de Belleza y Simpatia en su pueblo natal por su cuerpo menudo, ojos sonadores y rostro inocente. En la gran urbe se desarrollo en una poetisa de valor, y con su seudonimo Violeta del Valle, varios de sus poemas le fueron publicados y elogiados. Su temperamento fogoso y nervioso en la tribuna le hicieron acreedora a una seria atencion como lider revolucionaria. (s.p.)
The aim of this essay is to discuss some of these facts, images, and writings, while addressing significant points in relation to the feminine Puerto Rican body--the diasporic-internationalist, the "sick" institutionalized body--vis a vis the "war at home" held in Puerto Rico from the 1930s to the late 1950s, a time that involved the prosecution and killing of members of the Nationalist Party. For many critics, Burgos and Lebron can be identified as "soldiers" (cadetes) of Puerto Rican nationalism. I will problematize these political insights to claim a racialized feminine body that concurs with a form of the political that I read, following Julia Kristeva, as "semiotic politics." Semiotic politics, as related to the maternal body and the chora are key formations in the symbolic. For Kristeva, modern literature and art are produced precisely at a state of radical negativity, so that the body and its drives reproduce these sites as forms of pleasure, displeasure, jouissance, or abjection. Semiotic politics thus produces a metaphorical subject who reacts affectively to the urgencies of the political. Nevertheless, she warns us that this possibility--the one centered on affective politics--puts our language too close to systems of totalitarianism, fascism or Stalinism. Kristeva's use of the semiotic in relation to the political deals with the notion of the contradictory subject as inherent to political subjectivities--and the function of esthetics and art as implosive mechanisms from which these contradictions are articulated (Sjoholom 2005: 16-22). My aim is to read Lebron's and Burgos's lives as a semiotic interpellation of the languages of the political, resulting in poetry, which serves the purpose of building a dialogical reflection on language. The poetic thus serves as an axis enabling the political to appear in critical dimensions.
Angela Davis (1971) categorizes all prisoners as political. What she describes as the "deep-seated ambivalence [that] has always characterized the official response to the political prisoner" touches the lives of Burgos and Lebron. Both poets were institutionalized in hospitals or prison in the United States: Mt. Sinai and Goldwater Hospital in 1953 for Burgos and the Federal Prison at Alderson, West Virginia, in the case of Lebron. While Burgos has not been labeled officially a political prisoner, the fact that she was institutionalized and subjected to medical experiments--albeit with her consent--puts her in a similar category with other political prisoners and racialized peoples who were subjected to the same procedures in the decades following World War II (Briggs 2002: 1-20).
Puerto Rican nationalism--the political ideology that shaped Burgos and Lebron--relied on these traditional views of the feminine, particularly the trope of motherhood.
In certain ways, institutionalization as a call for "normalization" is a type of punishment against a racialized feminine body that presents itself as "nonnormative" (1) As Davis forcefully argues,
The offense of the political prisoner is political boldness, the persistent challenging--legally or extra-legally--of fundamental social wrongs fostered and reinforced by the state. The political prisoner has opposed unjust laws and exploitative, racist social conditions in general, with the ultimate aim of transforming these laws and this society into an order harmonious with the material and spiritual needs and interests of the vast majority of its members. (1971: n.p.)
In 1898, Puerto Rico was termed a "non-incorporated territory." It became, along with Phillipines, Guam, and the Marshall Islands, "an insular case." Governed by the military and later by a few civilian U.S. governors, the island was ruled a "state of exception" by the United States. Sociocultural changes and economic improvements were completed under strong military rule and citizen surveillance. Kelvin Santiago-Valles (1994) has described the ways that people in the countryside, as well as in urban areas, resisted, negotiated, or subscribed to these new laws. Some of these infrapolitical actions included strikes, mass protests, resistance to labor, intensive migration from the countryside to the cities and then to the United States. (2) In these narratives, women played important roles in many social and political movements. Different voices emerged from the upper-middle and working classes. Women activists, such as Luisa Capetillo (1879-1922), were central to these movements as leaders, planners, or supporters. While in some traditional poetry and cultural works women were read as symbols of the conquered land, these traditional depictions of women were often used to make their presence known and to challenge traditional views. Puerto Rican nationalism--the political ideology that shaped Burgos and Lebron--relied on these traditional views of the feminine, particularly the trope of motherhood. Motherhood, as a semiotic construction, makes of the feminine, and particularly the body of the mother, a site of creativity and contestation in Puerto Rican nationalism. Land has been sold and its productivity has been remade and reworked to functionalize technologies of advanced capital. (3) Contestation to imperial power thus comes from the liminal and affective space offered by the mother chora, as in these verses from Francisco Matos Paoli's Canto de la locura:
Cuando vendra la florecita de Francisco de Asis, el de la fina humillacion en las cosas, a retener la isla jubilosa en que no moria mama, alta, alta, abrazada al luminar del dia, fuerte como los amados elementos? (1962: 230-1)
If, as Arnaldo Cruz-Malave (2007) has argued, Puerto Rico is in itself a politically queer space in relation to discourses of sovereignty, my analysis follows his argument to analyze how the semiotic-feminine shaping Puerto Rican culture and politics at this time influenced the textualities and representation of people's lives. Much has been said about Burgos's uses of natural symbols and space as erotic instances of feminine agency, and it is clear to many that this naturalization of space is precisely a rewriting of not only the imperial reappropriation of the land, but also the telluric discourse of space used by the paternalistic narratives of the 1920s and '30s. In this sense, the subject of politics, as well as the poetic subject, shares the same symbolic chora because "what the chora produces, is not a subject of the law, but a subject in process/(on trial)" where subject and object rely on incomplete processes of signification (Sjoholm 2005: 18). The matrix of intersectionality--race, gender, class--has influenced the critical/mythical interpretations of these two women in relation to the "loca/sensible" archetype--in other words, the way that they build a female excessive arche or will fueled by desire, sexuality or loss. What Freud reads as a "death drive" fuels, then, in many ways the feminine agency articulated in their political activism, internationalism, and diasporic experiences. In the case of Burgos, these connections led to a construction of a lyrical voice that asserts itself in specific flights or nothingness (la nada) (bodily, philosophical, insular). In the case of Lebron, her context resulted in a more mystical poetry, centered on what she called "visions" filled with religious symbols. Nevertheless, in both authors negativity and annihilation lead to a transformative passage into the cosmic and the universal. In the anthology Cuatro poetas cosmicos puertorriquenos (2000), Fredo Arias de la Canal selects Lebron and puts her in conversation with Francisco Matos Paoli, Burgos, and Evaristo Rivera Chevremont. Interestingly, he includes much of the "erotic" poetry by Burgos. I will argue that erotic love, here considered the basis of mystical poetry, creates for Burgos a lyrical voice. In addition to breaking with the Cartesian body/ mind divide, such a voice is intended to build what Chela Sandoval has identified as a "passionate politics," a technology of the self. I will also analyze the images and language used in the 1940's and '50s to describe their womanhood, particularly in the local press and by local literary critics. Passionate politics is connected deeply to the pursuit and production of a literary project aligned with the times; it is central to Burgos's and Lebron's aesthetic pursuits.
II. Biographies, Iconographies
Burgos and Lebron held similar life trajectories. Raised poor in the countryside, they were able to study and prepare themselves for their work as writers and political activists. Burgos worked for the PRERA (Puerto Rican Emergency Relief Administration) in Comerio and as a Normalista teacher in Naranjito. Also, she used her minimum wage to pay for her first books of poetry, Poema en veinte surcos (1938) and Cancion de la verdad sencilla (1939), selling them from door to door. She became the only female voice in a group of male poets with both local and international reputations, including Luis Llorens Torres and Luis Pales Matos. She was an intellectual with a wide knowledge in literature, arts, and philosophy. She was tall and amazingly beautiful--physical attributes that, along with her intelligence, intimidated most of these men. I remember how, in the mid-1980s, when I became a student at the University of Puerto Rico, many of my university professors discussed her personal life while lecturing on her work. This was done with a desire to posses her image and body; however, in some cases, the commentary bordered on fear. "Julita," as they called her in class, was always beautiful and lively, with a soft, but self-assured, voice, smart enough not to be intimidating and always ultra-feminine. I remember when, in my freshman year, an openly queer professor told me during his office hours that my roving, liquid eyes and skin color reminded him of the way she looked. Surprised, taken aback by the comment, I muttered a shy "Thank you." Years later, I realized that for many professors who taught Puerto Rican literature, "Julita's" image and stories were used as a way of seducing young female and male students into falling in love--not necessarily with them--but with Puerto Rican literature. I indeed fell in love with Burgos, so much so that I wrote my bachelor's thesis for Hispanic Studies on "El discurso politico-social en Julia de Burgos" (1988).
Of course, only a few will dare to discuss the fact that Burgos was the only female intellectual in a group of men, that she was a lively presence at tertulias at cafes or bars where she could hold their liquor better than her male colleagues. No one will discuss her sexuality, only her status as a divorce. When Burgos's airy longings became too earthly she became, for at least several of these men, critics and members of the intelligentsia, a type of undisciplined body, and years later an "old wench." Thus, in the Island at least, the mythic Burgos appears as a type of aerial muse--young, beautiful, in the prime of her youth. These are the images that circulate of her in our local press, literary gatherings, and celebrations. Her years in Cuba and in New York, but particularly the New York days, are represented in the biography by Juan A. Rodriguez Pagan (2000). He tells the story of loss, sadness, depression, and old age. For many of these critics, what Puerto Rico gave Julia--meaning the imaginary from which she wrote--was completely lost when she left the island for the United States and Cuba. The sea, the motif that comes with exile, connects with other water motifs in her poetry (el rio) and gives way to what Juan Carlos Quintero-Herencia has read as the archipelago, an emblem of creativity. (4) In the poem "Letania del mar," "tu" appears, then as an impossibility in the sense of a loving connection; instead, it is the poetic experience itself.
Mar mio, mar lecho, mar sin nombre, mar a deshoras, mar en la espuma del sueno, mar en la soledad desposando crepusculos, mar viento descalzando mis ultimos revuelos, mar tu, mar universo. (2008: 207)
The sea is a transformative element, invoked in the possessive--"mar mio" to imply change, found in the term and phrase "mar lecho" and "mar sin nombre." When it shifts into the "tu" (the Other) it becomes shared, multiple, an overextended hyper-reality that transcends the pain and loss of her love relationship. This transcendence of the object becomes a key element in her political activism and her commitment to nationalist and international causes.
II. Polis as Language
Burgos started attending meetings at the Nationalist Party and became a Secretary of the Daughters of Freedom, a non-partisan organization branch of the Nationalist Party, in 1936 (Toro 2010). She was living in Old San Juan when Elias Beauchamp was murdered in police quarters after the murder of Colonel Francis E. Riggs. She wrote poems to the memory of Elias Beauchamp, as well as a poem titled "Domingo de Ramos," dedicated to the Ponce Massacre, a year after it took place, in 1937. During this period she wrote several scripts for the radio broadcast of La Escuela del Aire, where she discussed many social and political themes such as poverty, inequality, and life in the countryside. In her speech "La mujer ante el dolor de la patria," read at the Ateneo Puertorriqueno in October 24, 1936, she used maternity as a symbol for urging Nationalist women not to participate in what she described as "colonial elections" when "eight of our main patriots are imprisoned." The Puerto Rican flag appears feminized as well, when she opens her speech arguing that "Nuestra Bandera se tiende hoy mas gloriosa que nunca porque cuando una mujer se abraza a sus pliegues tendra que pasar por todo su cuerpo aquel que se atreva a profanarla y ultrajarla" (Burgos 1936: CIII). This intimate and queer embrace passes from the erotic to the maternal when "the purity of maternity" organizes fraternity. When read without the the flag as subject, the phrase "cuando una mujer se abraza a sus pliegues" talks about self-love and pride of womanhood as forces against the rape of invasion and colonialism. This form of revolutionary politics, or what Kristeva calls "archaic revolt," concerns "subjective diacrony and denotes a primary, affective relation to otherness [....] It decenters the subject, as it relies on the transformation of the phallic law or reference beyond the ordeal of power" (Keltner 2011: 124). This fact produces a type of trans-Oedipal identification where the "father of the law" is avoided or displaced, and the subject opens up to distinct dispositions in the symbolic (Keltner 2011).
Puerto Rican masculinist depictions of Nationalism will erase these trans-Oedipal identifications to organize them only through the Law of the Father, which exists as self-sacrifice. In other words, the discursive production of Nationalist politics will rely on "maternal women" and "virile men," as well as on "family collectives" for revolutionary politics. Burgos and Lebron will negotiate both forms of the subject and discursive formation in their lives and work.
Unlike Burgos, she was able to construct a myth about her place as "madre de la Patria puertorriquena."
Lolita Lebron was born and raised in Lares. She went into exile, as Burgos did but for different reasons. Work, poverty, and a bad divorce took Lebron away, while Burgos went into exile--first to New York and then to Cuba--led by her relationship with Jimenez-Grullon. At the same time she traveled with the clear aim of opening her intellectual horizons. The failed romantic affair with Jimenez-Grullon is only part of this story, as Burgos was able to study at the University of Havana and became, during these years, a true diasporic intellectual, acquiring languages and knowledge that she incorporated into her late poetry and her journalistic work in the United States. Some of these poems were written in Cuba, (i.e. "A Rafael Trejo" and "Las voces de los muertos"). They touch on Caribbean-diasporic and international themes, such as the fight against the Machado dictatorship in Cuba and the Chinese revolution. Lebron arrived in Connecticut, and then New York, where she worked in factories, and began her militant participation in the Nationalist Party. Unlike Burgos, she was able to construct a myth about her place as "madre de la Patria puertorriquena." This occurred after the attack on Congress in 1954, when she was taken into custody and given a sentence of 52 years in prison. She went through several emotional crises in prison, had mystical visions and encounters, and wrote letters and poetry that in many ways describe the liminal instances of the loss of language under torture and despair. In The New York Times (Knowles 1954), it was stated that
Particular attention was given to Ms. Lebron [sic], who was dressed stylishly with high heels and bright red lipstick. Piercing the confusion were the screams of the Puerto Rican woman: 'Viva Puerto Rico!' She emptied the chambers of a big Luger pistol, holding it in her two hands, and waving it wildly. Then she threw down the pistol and whipped out a Puerto Rican flag, which she waved but never did manage to unfurl fully.
Freed by President Carter in 1981, after serving 25 years in prison, Lebron was able to return to Puerto Rico, where she became a symbol of the struggle against the U.S. Navy in Vieques, and was involved in many other protests against the U.S. Lebron's poetry and letters expose the mystical tone of what she calls "her visions," usually connected to religious images of apocalyptic undertones. Nevertheless, while for Lebron's poetry the suffering body-in trance is the source for her mystical-spiritualist visions; in Burgos' Diario we see a philosophical detachment from her body in pain.
Burgos's poetry and reflections, particularly in her Diario written in Mt. Sinai, have a philosophical, humorous, and even matter-of-fact tone--even when she is discussing illness or death. Rodriguez Pagan, in his biography Julia en blanco y negro, seems perplexed when he tries to interpret what he describes as Julia de Burgos's "11 dark years" in New York (2000: 343). I believe this fact tells us more about Rodriguez Pagan's nationalistic agenda--in which exile is seen as a site of the dead--than Burgos's in New York and her state of mind in her final days. What links some of these writings together is that they reflect on the technologies of war, health, and torture and how they have influenced the lives of Puerto Rican women, what Laura Briggs has seen as the need "to discover how science, medicine and social science have produced racial difference through descriptions of and interventions upon women's bodies, particularly through their sexuality and reproduction" (2002: 15). At the same time, even in dire circumstances, the writing does attest to complex forms of negotiation, where complicity, agency, and resistance are enacted, even when their bodies are imprisoned, tortured, or exploited. (5)
Burgos's Diario covers a period of two weeks in Mt. Sinai Hospital, from April 13 to April 30, 1948, when she was examined and diagnosed with liver disease. Even though the diary indicates that she spent most of her time alone, her language is very descriptive, sometimes poetic, mixing the daily check-ups of the hospital with memories of literary influences such as Jose de Diego and Antonio Machado. She thinks about her depression, but longs to feel better. Her body becomes--as in most of her verse--a site to be observed and scrutinized:
En esta prision donde la ola adolece hasta de alas cosmicas, son las horas con su Tic Tac siniestro, las que tienen la palabra, y a ellas me entrego, sin escapatoria. Pienso ahora en el gran tesoro que es la mente humana. Soy materialista y comprendo que son las celulas y los tejidos acomodados en distintos organos y estructuras hasta posponer la forma denominada, en el hombre, los que forman el asta de la vida entera. Pero hay un poder que rige esta maravillosa maquinaria. La mente. Si no fuera por ella. Que seria de los enfermos del cuerpo! (Rodriguez Pagan 2000: 416)
Me entran a un pabellon frente a la avenida. Miro los arboles todavia desiertos de hojas. Esqueleticos de fuerzas y tristes de no producir nada, de parecerse a mi. De mis divagaciones me saca la clasificacion medica del sitio donde estoy. Electroencephalography. Comprendo enseguida el termino; se trata de mi cerebro. A nadie de las que estan conmigo le han hecho este examen. Lo supe cuando regrese a mi pabellon. Todo el mundo comenta sobre mis cabellos erizados y empastados. El examen fue interesantisimo. La curiosidad me llevo a preguntarle al medico de que se trataba. Este muy grave, me dijo que era para determinar el grado de actividad del cerebro, y otras cosas mas. Cual seria el resultado? Quien sabe si he roto records de una cosa o de la otra? Mi pobre cerebro que no le cabe mas un pensamiento! (2000: 415)
Obsessive self-inquiry, already present in her lyrical poetry, acquires a phenomenological character in these quotes, when her body and her mind become objects of study. She understands that, in the hospital-prison where she is at the moment, she is an "exceptional object" of study, "the only one" who is getting this particular test done. She writes about herself from a distance but also approximates the scientific language that characterizes her as a study (in encephalography) and "reorganizes the machine that is her body" and "look[s] at the degrees of activity on her brain." Her final question "Who knows if I have broken any (brain) records!" does not appear at all as the words of a victim but of someone who creates agency, by understanding the vulnerable position she is in. In another instance, she hears a diagnosis, again another way of renaming her, this time with a diagnosis of acute liver disease, "Luego concluyeron algo asi como que soy: A very good case of psirosis (sic)" No se de que se trata. Son las 6:15 PM" (2000: 416).
Here, Burgos distances herself from the doctor's renaming of "what she is," the state of her illness at that moment, when she argues, "No se de que se trata." The marking of her body as a "very good case" points again to what appears to be exceptional in relation to her status as a body invaded by illness. Rodriguez Pagan suggests in his biography that in some of these hospital stays, Burgos signed voluntarily to be subjected to a series of medical tests that sometimes lasted months. In fact, as her hepatic condition deteriorated, she had to come more often to the hospital (2000: 384). In this case, she did not see herself as a victim of the medical establishment; she embraced a more philosophical, and even matter-of-fact relation to institutionalization. Having only a few family members and friends to look out for her and visit her, she might have seen hospitals as a solution for homelessness. She discovered the hospital library and was able to be left alone to read and write when she was not under the scrutiny of nurses and medical doctors. She even comments on how her body is less swollen, asserting that "she is eating better and losing weight" (2000: 380). It could be argued, in other words, that Burgos' was making the best of her situation.
A close reading of her poetry and writings in prison conveys images of fire, horses running, and crushing her body and rays of light burning her body and spirit.
As soon as Lebron was taken to Alderson State prison, she started to have visions. While we don't know what type of physical tortures she received while in prison, or if women political prisoners received the same forms of "gamma rays" and other x-ray therapy while incarcerated, as has been proven in the treatment of Pedro Albizu Campos in the early 1960s, many of these physical tortures have a history, in the U.S. federal prison system, as it has come forward in recent experiments with isolation, sound deprivation chambers, or sexual and religious body shame after 9/11. (6) A close reading of her poetry and writings in prison conveys images of fire, horses running, and crushing her body and rays of light burning her body and spirit.
In her letter to President Dwight Eisenhower, "A Message from God in the Atomic Age," which warns about the dangers of creating an atomic arsenal, Lebron mentions how she started to have her mystical visions as soon as she was incarcerated. As Roig Franzia writes,
JESUS CHRIST CAME TO HER, and He was huge. From her bed in a Washington jail cell, just hours after her assault at the Capitol, Lolita watched the luminous vision--the first of her life--transfixed. Jesus was tall and thin and dressed in radiant clothes. Before she could comprehend the scene, a horse came into view. An immense horse. It began to stomp Jesus. She was horrified, overcome by emotion. "I came to understand that Jesus was being attacked by the powers of the world," she says. Later, after she was shuttled to a prison cell at Alderson, W.Va., to serve a 56-year sentence, she built an altar and waited for nighttime, when the visions returned. She began writing them down, first on toilet paper, then in notebooks that years later would be transcribed into volumes of poetry. She calls it "her period of light." She tells of her prison cell bursting into Messianic flames, of presidents' faces magically lifting off coins and bills, of silk flowers speaking to her. (Roig Franzia 2004: 3)
In her final days, the feud with her granddaughter Irene Vilar, author of The Ladies' Gallery: A Memoir about Family Secrets (1998), put Lebron in the spotlight in a negative way, as issues of mental illness and family abandonment were exposed. (7) Her heroic resistance to the U.S. Navy occupation in Vieques, as well as the warm reception that she received once she returned to the Island, was interwoven with the family feud. The family memoirs are rooted in secrecy; in the case of Vilar, she witnessed the suicide of her mother Gladys Myrna, when she was only eight years old. The tragedy was portrayed by close family members as an "accident," but even so haunted the family narrative. At eighteen, residing in a mental hospital in Syracuse because she has tried to kill herself, she wonders if the death drive is an inherited "condition"--a biologically or a socially induced one. As she recalls the scene when her mother opens the door of a moving car after a family wedding, the narrative goes back to the inaugural moment, when the death drive started. As the narrator argues, the Nationalist battle phrase "I did not come here to kill. I came here to die," the phrase her grandmother muttered before walking into the congressional gallery in 1954, sits with all the women in her family, like a spiritual call (Vilar 1998: 3). Puerto Rican news about the attack on the House of Representatives represented Lebron, along with her three conspirators, as a "rebel," a "communist," and a madwoman. (8) They also used her writings--particularly her poetry--to recreate a type of "delirious speech" that contrasted with her feminine attire, beauty, and makeup. (In figure 1, Lebron appears defiant, her face distorted, in an image inserted next to the fallen bodies of Clifford Davies and Ben Franklin, two of the Congressmen shot in the incident. The picture, clearly taken after she explained her decision to attack American politicians, embodies an aggressive and unruly femininity.)
In figure 2, Lebron's children, Gladys Myrna and Felix, appear close together with their mother's sister. Over the image one reads the caption, "Esperan confiados" (They wait [for their mother], trusting in her return). The article entitled "Hijos esperaban regreso de Lolita Lebron a PR" portrays Lebron as a "crazy" nationalist who could only relate to her children through words or poetry, rather than through genuine nurturing:
"Para ti yo seria brisa acariciadora con ternura de luna y de sol, con frescura de montana y ternura de valles; con arrullos de pajaros y canciones de mar" sigue diciendo la senalada lider del ataque de la Camara de Representantes de Estados Unidos, a su hijita, que es fruto de su primer matrimonio en el barrio Castaner de Lares, y que actualmente cursa el septimo grado en un colegio catolico de Utuado. (ElImparcial, jueves 4 de marzo, 1954: 3).
Poetry appears in the article as a type of deferred and liminal language, not as an authorized, lettered discourse. While the daughter attends Catholic school, the mother "abandons her" for her political commitment, and more so, because she is an offspring of her first failed marriage. The tone of shame against the mother-divorcee is intertwined here with the poetic. The publication of these verses, published in El Impartial as "En la patria," reflect on the dubious claims of poetry,
Para ti yo seria poetisa / para que en mi verso el astro de tu amor se reflejara / y naciera para ti mi poema perfecto; / para ti yo seria fuente cantarina / para que llenaras tu nubil copa de fragancias; / y en mi te cantaras y te inspiraras[...] para ti yo seria martir, / para que en mi calvario florecieran limpidos horizontes / para salvarte y conducirte impoluta al Mas Alla ... / Si tal poder me fuera dado / seria para ti latido vivo de Esperanza, / esencia de gloria y amor; / Y todo porque nunca como yo, / tu fueras triste, / y alegres fueras siempre como un amanecer. (1954: n.p.)
In figure 3, entitled "Un poema a su hija," Gladys is seen giving copies of the poem to a journalist working for El Impartial, Manuel Munoz Rivera. The inserted image appears to indicate the authority of the displaced daughter, as well as that of the poetic text, to Munoz, who becomes a symbolic corrective father/authority figure. Poetry, coming from the voice of a mother who abandons her children, is nothing more than an extreme proof of antimotherly feelings, oversensitivity, in summary, a symbolic deference of her mother's "death drive."
Many critics have written about this philosophical duplicity in Burgos's poetry, particularly in her canonical A Julia de Burgos, " a poem that uses contrasts to reflect on the masquerade of the bourgeois woman.
Burgos's biography has also been connected to a type of "death drive" in which not only shattered romantic dreams but the will to be creative, to think, and to connect is what writes the sentence for the writer. If traditional womanhood defines itself in the will to live for others, the woman who lives for her own creation, spirit, or cause signs a death wish. Many critics have written about this philosophical duplicity in Burgos's poetry, particularly in her canonical "A Julia de Burgos," a poem that uses contrasts to reflect on the masquerade of the bourgeois woman. Burgos, the poet, aspired to the poetical and philosophical transparency of emptiness, of deconstructing not only the self, but also the word, into its minimal sonority. Verses such as "sencilla como la nada" or "la nada de nuestros nunca cuerpos" are not only a call to the abolition of bourgeois feminine values but also a challenge to the dubiousness of a body/spirit split. This "nothingness" is material in itself, and shares with some of the contemporary philosophical currents of the time a deep connection to philosophies of vitalism (Henri Bergson) and phenomenology (Edmund Husserl). In her poetry, amid its modernist echoes, exists much of the avant-garde experimentalism that critics will read easily in Luis Pales Matos or Jose de Diego Padro. Julia's traditional iconography has organized a series of images of her face, many of them evoking melancholy. She appears alone in many of them, in others with her sister Consuelo or with Juan Isidro Jimenes Grullon.
In one image re-published in the anthology Obra poetica I (2008), Burgos poses in black riding clothes and boots next to the poet Luis Llorens Torres, who is wearing a traditional white linen suit with a tie (figure 4). Two other unidentified women are wearing dresses, and one of them, in a white dress, stands next to Julia. Another unidentified woman close to Llorens is wearing white riding pants. Burgos is taller than Llorens by more than two inches. It looks like she came from horse riding with her unidentified woman partner. Here Llorens becomes the icon of traditional patriarchal power, whereas Burgos, due to her physique and attire, becomes its subversion. Thus Burgos's material existence--her sexualized body--subverts the construction of Burgos the poet, who usually appears as a fragile body.
Poetry, a material representation of language but also a transcendent construction of the self and the other, reads the self as a philosophical projection of the social and the political. In Burgos's poetry, the lyrical voice remains connected to the body as a material conscience extended into the social-universal; in Lebron, it touches on mystical love and desire and the longing for the land that has been lost to American colonialism. Poetics and politics are organized in a visionary quest for a utopian future.
IV. Passionate politics and the return to the land
Maternity and a telluric re-conceptualization of nature and the land, as well as a discourse of mourning for the bodies lost in the war against the U.S. presence in Puerto Rico, are some of the themes present in Burgos's and Lebron's poetry. While in Lebron's poems there is a mystical voice that organizes itself in a longing for unity with the messianic-divine (i.e., God, the Virgin Mary, Pedro Albizu Campos), in Burgos's writings nature becomes the means whereby the social is constructed. In "Es nuestra la hora" the call to revolution is organized through a series of rhetorical questions that are organized in a litany or a prayer,
Ya se acerca el grito de los campesinos, y la masa, la masa explotada, despierta. Donde esta el pequeno que en el raquitismo deshojo su vida? Donde esta la esposa que murio de anemia? Donde esta la tala que ayudo a sembrarla, la que hoy esta muerta? Donde esta la vaca? Donde esta la yegua? Donde esta la tierra? (Burgos 2009: 173)
The lyrical I maintains a paternalistic tone that wants to wake up the masses and have them take political action--namely, to see "Alli esta tu muerte" and to get closer: " Acercate!" (2009: 175). In "Anunciacion" the land is covered with sugar cane, and the "motin conspirado en el fondo del alma de la tierra" wakes up to the sound of the sugar cane train,
Norte-cana. Sur-cana. Este-cana. Oeste-cana. (2009: 198)
The land is mute, but the sugarcane harvest moment opens up the possibility of revolt: "Enero en brasas / de rojas asonadas libertarias" (2009: 199). In this poem, Burgos reads the collective of the labor force ("brazos y machetes") as the energy that leads to revolution and then to universal freedom. Contrary to the capitalist machine subverted by the agency of the female or collective black body in Luis Pales Matos' poetry, in Burgos's lyrics the silent collective is redeemed only by direct revolutionary action. For Burgos, the future of the Antilles echoes the goals of the Antillean Confederation and the words of Betances. In the poem "A Rafael Trejo," the spirit of martyrdom present in Puerto Rican Nationalism is also part of the struggle against the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado,
Yo vislumbro tu espiritu anudando las islas, las Antillas que juntas o se mueren o salvan. Las tres sufren cadenas, las tres rezan y lloran, y las tres, encendidas, romperan su desgracia. (2009: 210)
For Lolita Lebron, Nationalist martyrdom is connected to a form of transcendence. When she argues that she is "willing to die," she becomes a transcendent/messianic body in her poetry. God, the Virgin Mary, and the mystical rose are alchemical symbols of exaltation, desire, and transformation. In most mystical poetry, there is a longing of unity with the divine expressed through sexuality and the body, as occurs in Lebron's poem, "Oye mi voz que a ti clama,"
Oye mi voz que a ti clama desde mi prision de LUZ la que has llenado con tus RESPLANDORES! Mira mi corazon! Derrama en el tu caricia! Tocalo con el dulce FUEGO DE TUS OJOS! Es tuyo. Hecho de tu propio latido. Nacido de tu amor. Nos amamos con la ternura de tu caridad. Yo siento el susurro de tu beso en el aire. En el aire LUMINOSO de tu sonrisa. Nos gozamos a solas en el silencio de tu quietud. Que grande vida me das! Tu oro del cielo lo llevo en mis OJOS! (Arias de la Canal 2000: 4)
Lebron's mystical poetry is exalted, filled with exclamation signs, as the only grammatical punctuation signs, and with capital letters to simulate screams. As Evelyn Underhill (2011) has argued in her canonical work Mysticism, love as the language of mystical unity is expressed through sexual metaphors. In Lebron's verses, feminine sexual energy and desire push men into revolutionary and political action:
Vive el Ave Maria! Vive Dios! Palante! Palante varon! Venimos ARDIENDO las hembras! Con pasion ! Con pasion! Con pasion! Aleluya! (Arias de la Canal 2000: 3)
In the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz the final connection with the mystical Other (in Lebron's case, the messianic figure of Pedro Albizu Campos) happens through the gaze, and touches on the return to the land as an instance in which a fruitful marriage (talamo) restores the garden (tala, huerto) or the fruits of labor.
Yo se que me MIRE en tu mirada y vi mi corazon entre tus LLAMAS como ROSA DE LUZ de ti emanada. [???] Oh RELUMBRAR de cumbre y de montana en el hondo suspiro do me amas! Tu voz tan dulce de ternura tanta en mis petalos susurra como alas. Nos amamos, oh flor! Que hermosa TALA nos aguarda al apuntar el alba! (Arias de la Canal 2000: 6)
In the poem entitled "Si puedo volvere," it is not the messianic body but the Island/nature that shifts, as a lover opening up to the reception of the lyrical voice. Return and transformation is only possible through words, turning the island into a feminine chora/origin of "rosacarne." There is the symbol of the mystical rose, an emblem of the Virgin Mary, transformed here in its material-labor, that is, its reproduction. Again, it is the agricultural product "la cosecha" that closes the poem, turning the symbol of the "rosacarne " into a spring feminine ritual:
Yo se que las frondas tiemblan al roce de tus mimos y que dejan caer SENOS de dulzura para la SED saciar. Tu eres el poema del inmortal abrazo, del beso eterno, del temblor santo. Oh tu, misterio! con el brazo del infinito abarcando los ASTROS. Eres buena. Eres ancha e indescriptible como el atomo de que te formas. Tu eres el poema inmortal de los dioses del verso. En ti los oceanos nacen y corren por tus designados rumbos; y en tus RIOS las raices del FRUTO TOMAN SEMEN ... y se abre en dia de plenitud. En imagen de cielo florece en ti la vida: Y en rosacarne y en aire triunfador nacen cosechas. (Arias de la Canal 2000: 258)
The natural symbols and metaphors present in Burgos's poetry--rivers, worms, earth--are also used to symbolize, in a similar fashion, death and philosophical transformation:
Los GUSANOS lisonjeros como "reyes" en sus te mplos van y vienen en la celebracion de la vida. Hay verdes GUSANOS hechos de frescas hojas, encresponados como mi traje. (2000: 260)
V. Semiotic politics
The eminent intertextualities in Burgos' and Lebron's poetry are connected to a traditional post-modernista poetics, as occurs in the work of Alfonsina Storni, Gabriela Mistral, or Pablo Neruda, who are strongly influenced by their political commitments to Nationalism and decolonization. Political futurity as a discourse of possibility organizes the affective return to the motherland as a sacrificial but also pleasurable ritual. What Luis Munoz Marin will label, along with the U.S. Congress, as "terrorism" or "fanaticism" was passed into the state of exception law in 1948 with the Ley de la Mordaza, two years before the Nationalist insurrection and the National Guard's bombing of the town of Jayuya in October 1950. Pedro Albizu Campos's house arrest, and later his incarceration in La Princesa prison in Old San Juan, led to several political responses, among them the attack on the President's Blair House, and years later the attack on Congress led by Lebron and three male companions.
If, as Walter Benjamin has argued, revolutionary or messianic time is oftentimes opposed to "homogeneous empty time," the discursive battles around the representation of Nationalist leaders or of poets-activists such as Burgos have organized themselves into describing a form of destructive hubris in the collective. Even though, Nationalism instilled forms of traditional Hispanic legacies, restoring a paternalistic, family-oriented rhetoric--it had, in its call to political action, a form of semiotic politics that in the late 1950s and early 1960s was completely repressed by Luis Munoz Marin and the PPD. Rene Marques, the leading intellectual figure in the isla, shows this contradiction when he understands the moral commitment of Nationalism and the lure of the messianic leader in the figure of Albizu Campos in his short story Otro dia nuestro (1990 ). In this story, the repeated phrase "Maestro, tiene usted rostro de Cristo" (1990: 115) reflects on the morally dangerous character of messianic politics. The body of the master is frail and old, and is dying slowly. Marques will criticize openly albizpista and also munocista rhetoric in his award-winning play, Un nino azulpara esa sombra (1976 ) and in La muerte no entrara en palacio (1970 ). The poster for Un nino azul para esa sombra, created by Rafael Tufmo, portrays the climax of the play, when the child protagonist is poisoned and ends up crucified in a tree at the window of his modern San Juan apartment.
The conflation of messianic politics and U.S.-sponsored and economicbased colonial modernity proves absurd for Marques. Here the new generations are the ones who are being sacrificed in the name of an ideology that holds "false truths" or precepts. Marques was also critical of the discourse of sacrifice as the only alternative for local politics.
I do believe that while Lebron embraced the image of the sacrificial "true-real" of politics, Burgos placed herself in the ambiguous context of the displacement of the signifier.
Terrorist politics, as Sjoholm argues, "is an unconscious desire for strength and authoritarian structures, rather than emancipatory demands. Such a desire brings us back to the arms of an archaic, phallic mother" (2005: 36). As the "true-real" of politics, terrorism anticipates a desire to sacrifice instead of embracing "a fleeting, disappearing law" that relativizes the ontological "truth" of the political (2005: 37). I do believe that while Lebron embraced the image of the sacrificial "true-real" of politics, Burgos placed herself in the ambiguous context of the displacement of the signifier. Both are representations of a form of semiotic politics, where a new subject, the subject of poetry, emerges as heterogeneous, transformative, creative, and in contact with its memories, affects, and drives (2005: 45). The poetic subject is, in a way, a form of dissident subject that through language embraces pleasure and at the same time disavows the mother while exploring possibility.
During these years, while Pedro Albizu Campos' returned from Atlanta to the explosion of the Nationalist revolt (1947-1950), Burgos and Lebron were in exile in New York. Burgos will dedicate some of her poems and radio plays, as well as her publications in Pueblos Hispanos, to seek solidarity for the Puerto Rican nationalists. In these poems and writings after her arrival in New York in 1942, she will return to the telluric tone of her earlier poems in the 1930s, but with strong Pan-American consciousness to address the plight of decolonization,
Ese camino real abandonado! Esa nina que va descalza tumbando mariposas! Esa manana amarga que se lava la cara en el arroyo! La tradicion esta ardiendo en el campo! La esperanza esta ardiendo en el campo! El hombre esta ardiendo en el campo! (2009: 110--Campo 1) Water, among other elements, will make possible the transformation/opening of the body and language into a semiotic signifier: Yo fui el estallido de la sierra y el rio, Y creci amando el rio e imitando la sierra ... Una manana el aire me sorprendio en el llano: ya mi raiz salvaje se soltaba las riendas! Palidas ceremonias saludaron mi vida, Y una fila de voces reclamaron la prenda. Mis labios continuaron el rumor de las fuentes Donde entrano mis anos y abasteci las venas. De ahi mi voz de ahora, blanca sobre el lenguaje, se tiende por el mundo como la dio la tierra! (2009: 54--Agua, Vida y Tierra)
It is only after the transformation of the material body that the root as rhizome is able to disperse and multiply itself. These external flows become internal fluids remaking a new voice, one "blanca sobre el lenguaje." While Burgos returns to the materiality of language and the transformative detachment of the self, Lebron's mystical imagery and visions subverts the ontology of the political to embody a type of medium spiritual lessons for her life in prison and her futurity. The fatherland becomes a motherland--a pleasurable but also destructive force to be both challenged and embraced. While Lebron's poetics are organized around a romantic longing that will reveal itself in mystical exalted tones, for Burgos, the poetic is transformative at its core and in its reproducibility. To contest and rewrite Burgos's and Lebron's so-called tragic or heroic biographies in a new light, it is important to see them as creative political subjects whose embrace, rejection, and negotiation of the political generated forms of radical alterity, subversion, and creativity.
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(1) New research on Julia de Burgos's various political commitments in the Nationalist Party in Puerto Rico, on her letters, and as a journalist for Pueblos Hispanos in New York, sheds light on her life, sociopolitical commitments, institutionalization, and late years. See Centeno Aneses (2014), Merced (2014) and Perez Rosario (2014).
(2) I am following James C. Scott's use of infrapolitics as he defined it on his book, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1990), when he defines infrapolitics as "the hidden transcripts, unorganized, clandestine or evasive practices of the working class and the underclass."
(3) From 1898 to 1934 these changes were centered mainly in sugar economies (Ayala 1999).
(4) Juan Carlos Quintero-Herencia's new book project, Efecto archipielago I(:) Poeticas, politicas j sensorium en el Caribe, explores the poetics of language and space in the Caribbean archipelago.
(5) Many of these New York hospitals conducted unethical experiments on minorities, mostly women and children. After 1945, they were mostly related to warfare: the experiments included radiation, injections of plutonium or mercury in the blood, or invasive studies of brain function. Goldwater Hospital, located in Roosevelt Island (then known as Welfare Island), was a research facility that first served as a chronic diseases research facility. Sometimes consent was given by the patients, but much of the time they were not informed. In Goldwater, during World War II, conscientious objectors volunteered to be used as guinea pigs for secret experiments on malaria and extreme cold. Tylenol was partially developed there. Eventually, the south side became a nursing home, while the north side evolved into a respiratory care, hospital, and rehab facility (Giraudet 2014).
(6) Judith Butler (2004) and Colin Dayan (2007) have analyzed prison torture and its connection to the slave narrative and colonialism.
(7) Several themes, including abandonment, addiction, and family secrets, are also explored by Irene Vilar in another memoir, Impossible Motherhood. Testimony of an Abortion Addict (2009). Impossible Motherhood reflects on the possibility of understanding the woman's body as a site of creation and life. She subverts the traditional roles of motherhood in relation to nurturing and caring. At the same time, writing becomes a site of creation and possibility.
(8) See The New York Times, March 2, 1954, and ElImparcial, marzo, 1954. While The New York Times described Nationalists "as prone to violent struggle to achieve their cause" in the local news in San Juan, El Imparcial kept changing the language from "nacionalistas," to "terroristas," to "facinerosos" to describe the act, a language which supported the PPD (Popular Party) campaign against Nationalism and Pedro Albizu Campos.
The author (email@example.com) is Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Literatures and Cultures in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. She is the author of Travestismos culturales: literatura y etnografia en Cuba y Brasil (Iberoamericana, 2003) and of Writing Secrecy in Caribbean Freemasonry (Palgrave Mc Millan, 2013). Currently, she is developing a new research project on "virtual Caribbean bodies" which explores the relationship between racialized bodies, media technologies, and globalization in contemporary Caribbean societies.
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|Publication:||CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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