Various contrasts are apparent in the work of Julia de Burgos: the precociousness of her genius and the misfortune of destiny; the sense of humanity and of nature; the suffering of her country and her own existence. Depth and simplicity, the awareness of femininity and the submission to “Eros,” dialectic prudence and emotional disturbance go hand in hand in her poetry.
Julia de Burgos burst onto the literary scene with Poema en veinte surcos (1938). It is a vital book, closer to nature than to the aesthetic theories that certainly never interested her very much. In the book she raised her voice against the exploitation of workers and in affirmation of her Afro-Antillean heritage. She insistently seeks both her identity and that of her people; repudiates classism and stands up with iconoclastic rage against the values and constraints that the patriarchal society imposed on women. But above all that, the triumph of the book is the Eden-like, nearly voluptuous sense of the land, along with the presence of “Río Grande de Loíza,” which may be the island’s most iconic poem, even more iconic than El Yunque or the pitirre (gray kingbird). An icon, certainly, that is painful, as the last four verses of the poem proclaim:
Río Grande de Loíza!…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.
These verses reflect her political-historical conscience which followed the lines of Pedro Albizu Campos and was drawn from feelings of justice and freedom. That could mean racial, worker or political… racial freedom was called mixed race. Julia saw the mixing of the races as the genesis of a cosmic race, that is, the race of a future brotherhood. Her poem, “Ay ay ay, de la grifa negra,” is one of the most beautiful, critical and conciliatory of all that is Afro-Antillean, as it suggests here:
Ay ay ay, that the slave was my grandfather
is my sadness, is my sadness.
If he had been the master
it would be my shame…
Ay ay ay, that my black race flees
and with the white runs to become bronzed;
to be one for the future,
fraternity of America!
Freedom for workers was called unionization. The union was a creation that lent power and overcame fear. In her poem “Desde el puente Martín Peña,” she protests those who enjoy huge salaries based on the sweat of the workers and incites and harangues the workers to rise up and rebel, as they did in Russia: Workers! Shake off your fear. / The naked land is yours. A revolutionary and neo-Romantic air permeated this first phase of her literary work, which certainly went beyond simple ornamentation and fermented commitment and the seeds of justice and truth. As with other great poets, she shows the will to change and improve; or, something that’s just the same: an ethical awareness. The last six verses are a kind of letter to her titled “A Julia de Burgos,” a poem that is highly dramatic and could be adapted to the stage, that represents the conflict between what is and what should be, and that displays more than any other poem her will to be the best she can be:
When the multitudes run rioting
leaving behind the ashes of burned injustices,
and with the torch of the seven virtues,
the multitudes run after the seven sins,
against you and against everything unjust and inhuman,
I will be in their midst with the torch in my hand.
These feelings of rebellion and freedom surpass the limits of the island’s concerns, as shown by her diatribes against Hitler, Mussolini or Franco. In the case of the latter, she strings her thread in the needle of César Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, with whom she screams in unison:
Eighty thousand men dead
on the field of battle!
Fascism against the people!
People in defense of Spain!
I think it is appropriate to note, if only in passing, that Julia recognized her spiritual and artistic roots in Spain, as she made known when speaking about and from Cuba in June of 1940:
Though Cuba, if not the Americas, freed itself from the embrace or the yoke of Spain, it could never free itself from its soul. The soul of Spain is also in its art. If the institutions solely responsible for the protest no longer exist, why not admire the spiritual and artistic course that the Motherland left running through our land for forever?
The Trujillo dictatorship was also the target of her darts, in contrast to the supposed admiration for dictators by Albizu’s nationalistic followers. For Julia, of course, it was not that way. For her, his name became a curse.
The second book of poems by Julia de Burgos was titled Canción de la verdad sencilla and was published in 1939. It represents both change and continuation from Poema en veinte surcos. The change is both tone and content. In the first, a tone of protest frequently stands out; in the second, the joyous and euphoric expression of the encounter with the self and the joy it brings. Poema en veinte surcos is, in a way of speaking a socio-politically tense “ad extra” book; Canción de la verdad sencilla is, more of an “ad intra” book of poetry, or in other words, focused on the effusiveness and joy and the analysis of a loving life. She moves from earthly concerns to the rising flight of love to the higher spaces of dreams. The Canción... is not exactly erotic, because more than eroticism erupts from each verse, but rather the “mysticism of love.” It breathes an air of the prime of life and within it blows the breeze that scents the words and populates them with winged rumors and harmony. The poet defines herself in the role of the loved, as “a simple truth to love you” (from “Poema detenido en un amanecer”); and love, at the same time, as her entire existence; an entirety that her lover also owes. She confesses: “My love, I was nothing until you made me.” Also: “To your life I am… / high tide and gull / in it I quaver / and grow…” (from “Alta mar y gaviota”). Her lover magnetizes, polarizes and centers her and focuses her as if he were her absolute. If she were to part from him she would be alone, completely isolated in the world, with nobody. It is as if they had melted together some way so that now they were less two than they were one. This, in fact, she confesses:
He and I are one.
One and the same forever in wounds.
One and the same forever in awareness
One and the same forever in joy.
Truly, Canción de la verdad sencilla takes Julia de Burgos’ loving conscience and projects her as an unconditional lover. She wishes she could pull her lover out of space and time and make the moment in which they live eternal, as in the poem “Azul a tierra en ti.”
However, despite the differences, this book represents continuity with the one before. The poem “Yo fui la más callada,” for example, matches up with “A Julia de Burgos,” just as do “Yo misma fui mi ruta,” “íntima” and “Confesión del sí y del no.” The same is true with “El rival de mi río” and “Encuentro del hombre y el río,” which joins and recasts, in a way, “Río Grande de Loíza,” the main branch of her locus amoenus.
The third book of poems, published posthumously, was titled El mar y tú. (1954) It was written between 1940 and 1941. In 1942, Neruda, whom Julia had met in Cuba, read it, praised it and promised to write a prologue. The book was not published until after her death, however.
El mar y tú, which revives Julia’s adventures and mishaps with Isidro Jiménez Grullón, consists of three significantly different parts. The first, which is seen as an extension of Canción de la verdad sencilla, represents the highest expression of her encounter with her man. In it, Julia is transported “beyond the islands” and “beyond the sun.” The poem that made “emotion eternal” is titled, appropriately, “Poema de la cita eternal,” that is, platonically, date in the afterlife, after the crossing of the sea where all the rivers die. Love is still has a full future, as in “Velas sobre el pecho del mar,” which is the title of the first part.
The second part — “Poemas para un naufragio” — signals the sense of catastrophe that presages the approach of the “flood of sorrows” that is to overcome the poet. The verse “Everything to be dreamed has died in my eyes” (from ¡Oh lentitud del mar) represents the beginning of her decline and steady deterioration. Julia, who had said she was nothing without him, steers toward annihilation, which worsens after the rupture in June, 1942. Her poem “Dame mi número” is a kind of an advance obituary, a ritual of dispossession. Different is “Poema para mi muerte,” which is, more than existential, prophetic and visionary, and no doubt written before the crisis. Later, after a moment of peace, as a result of her marriage to Armando Marín, she irretrievably falls into feelings of emptiness and abandonment. Nearly losing her grip, and more isolated than ever from the world, her personality becomes unhinged. Various works of hers attest to this. Two are noteworthy: “Poema con un solo después” and “Farewell in Welfare Island.” The former, despite its openness to hope in the ending, is etched with anxiety and spoils; in other words, it expresses a psychology of danger. The second, dated February of 1953 and, therefore, her final poem, represents, rather than a new game of hide and seek with herself, her final relinquishment: of the language as a sign of her own identity.
In the final analysis, the identification between poetry and anthropology is a constant in Julia de Burgos’ work, except at the final moment. Her poetic self and her existential self are always closely linked. As a result, her poetry becomes an ethopoeia, a description of a person’s character, actions or customs, which we rate as pathetic and glorious; a type of evolved self-portrait, but exempt from narcissistic display. Finding herself in poetry served as a kind of curtain call, but not as effective therapy.
Julia de Burgos is without doubt an authentic poet. For her, the fundamental and founding truth of life is love. Without it she is empty and silent. Love is the formula for her liberation self-creation.
Ciordia, Javier. Julia de Burgos entre el río el mar. Mairena: Veinte poetas puertorriqueños del siglo XX, p 131-137, Año XX No. 45-46, 1998. San Juan.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 15, 2014.
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