Rio Grande de Loiza! . . . Great river. Great flood of tears.
The greatest of all our island's tears
save those greater that come from the eyes
of my soul for my enslaved people.
Julia de Burgos, from "Rio Grande de Loiza"
Julia de Burgos (1914-1953) is for me the bedrock of Puerto Rican poetry. For the past few years, I've been living with and marveling at the work in Song of the Simple Truth, an excellent bilingual edition of her complete poems (Obra poetica completa) compiled and translated by Jack Agueros and published by Curbstone Press (1996).
I am eager to recommend the highly lyrical, turbulent, commemorative, socially conscious poems of this key Spanish-language poet who published only two books in her lifetime, an heir to Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda (she knew his Twenty Love Poems by heart) and Alfonsina Storni, who, she said, had the "tragic sense of life." She was a proto-feminist ("the desire to follow men warped in me"), a Puerto Rican independentista and a devoted internationalist. She was painfully well-acquainted with poverty and deeply interested in social and political problems. She also insisted on thinking for herself.
"The madness of my soul/ cannot repose," she declared in the poem "My Soul": "it lives . . . / in the silence/ of the free thinker, who lives alone. . . ."
De Burgos's most well-known poem, "Rio Grande de Loiza," links her childhood river ("My wellspring, my river/ since the maternal petal lifted me to the world") to the sources of her art ("and my childhood was all a poem in the river,/ and a river in the poem of my first dreams") and the grief of her native island. One of my favorite poems of hers, "To Julia de Burgos," splits herself off into the intimate who writes and the social person who bears her name. It is reminiscent of Borges's marvelous prose piece "Borges and I." De Burgos's strategy of attack is to divide herself in two: "You are like your world, selfish," she declares, "not me/ who gambles everything betting on what I am." She shows how one part of herself can be claimed by the world, but the other truer part can be entirely free ("You are the cold doll of social lies,/ and me, the virile starburst of the human truth"). Her poetry comes from this inner spirit -- "I belong to nobody."
The spirit of freedom and independence flashes through de Burgos's work. She was destined to build something that cannot be ruined, something of her own that lasts.
I'm going to make a seawall
with my small happiness. . .
I don't want the sea to know
that pains go through my breast.
I don't want the sea to touch
the shore of my earth . . .
I have run out of dreams,
crazy from shadows in the sand.
I don't want the sea to look
at blue mourning in my path . . .
(My eyelids were auroras
when the storm crossed!)
I don't want the sea to cry
a new rainstorm at my door . . .
All the eyes of the wind
already cry me as dead.
I'm going to make a seawall
with my small happiness,
light happiness of knowing myself,
mind the hand that closes.
I don't want the sea to arrive
at the thirst of my poem,
blind in the middle of light,
broken in the middle of an absence.
(All quotations are from Julia de Burgos, "Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems," compiled and translated by Jack Agüeros. Curbstone Press. Translation copyright © 1996 by Jack Agüeros.)