Julia de Burgos

Julia de Burgos

Though some women had entered the Puerto Rican literary realm during the 19th century and the early 20th century, it was not until the 1920s and through the 1930s that a significant number of women writers appeared, including the essayists Margot Arce, Concha Meléndez, Ana María O’Neill, Nilita Vientós Gastón and María Teresa Babín, and poets Soledad Llorens Torres, Martha Lomar, Carmen Alicia Cadilla, Clara Lair, Julia de Burgos, Carmelina Vizcarrondo, Amelia Ceide, Carmen Marrero and Carmen Colón Pellot.

Women became writers in the context of the public spheres in which they were allowed. As in the rest of Latin America, poetry and teaching were the ways in which they were allowed to play public roles. Poets were allowed access to spaces marked by the signs of emotion and subjectivity that also marked the borders for women. In reality, they were allowed access to the tender or excessive emotions of love poetry or, to its maternal counterpoint, the “lullabies.” On the other hand, poetry, a genre cultivated mainly by women, was devalued in the 1930s in comparison to the genres of the novel, essays and historical interpretation. Women were granted a less valued and, above all, less powerful space.

Julia de Burgos, meanwhile, sought from the beginning to press the boundaries of both accepted speech as well as that which was considered appropriate for women, an effort that led her to explore and incorporate in her texts previously ignored settings and experiences and to create precarious, conflicted identities. In “A Julia de Burgos” we see this rediscovery of the writing of her predecessors, from critical assessments of the doctrines that controlled women’s lives to the description of a duality that, as in many of the texts by Alfonsina Storni, is built from the unfolding of the poet. The poetic voice, identified by the pronoun “I,” is aimed at a reader represented by the “you” and by the name Julia de Burgos: “Already the people murmur that I am your enemy / because they say in verse I give the world your me. / They lie, Julia de Burgos. They lie, Julia de Burgos.”

The grammatical opposition is reiterated in the arrangement of the metered units: for each person there is a corresponding hemistich (“You, the flower of aristocracy; and I, the flower of the people”); a verse (“You were only the solemn lordly lady; / not I; I am life, strength, woman”); two verses (in the ninth stanza) or an entire stanza, in the cases of the tenth and eleventh stanzas of the poem. Around this axis of you and I, the poem unfurls the semantic fields that are identified with each person (artificial and natural, false and true, still and mobile, slave and free, aristocrat and commoner) until the culmination in the final contradiction, represented by a revolutionary uprising.

The duality dramatizes an attempt at self-definition: as pointed out by José Emilio González, the text is centered on an exploration of the consciousness and a confrontation with it. This search for identity is linked to the subject’s identification with the writing, a motif common throughout Julia de Burgos’ work: “Who rises in my verses is not your voice; it is my voice”; “in all my poems, I undress my heart.” This need to write oneself into the text, which as Sylvia Molloy notes is common among other Latin American women writers, allies them with the movement against self-denial (which is suggested here by the way that all that the poetic voice rejects is identified in “Julia de Burgos”). While setting the stage for the tensions of the new feminine subject, their problem outlines the notion of a fixed and coherent self.

De Burgos’ second book, Canción de la verdad sencilla (1939), once again distances itself from the traditional island poetry: harmony, cosmos, encounters with spirits, infinity, space, air, stars, birds, butterflies and signs that travel as a group; the eight- and ten-syllable verses are repeatedly absent. The book focuses, surprisingly, on love, represented in several poems as a world of harmony; maybe this was the work the public demanded, or a bet on the future and survival in a time marked by repression, inequality and extreme hunger. There are plenty of openings, however, for those who affirm a new symbolism. For example, she looks away from the masculine discourse: time and again the voice contemplates herself, representing a body in flight through the cosmos in which she passes, and is defined by her energy and her voyage: “Today I come near your soul / my hands yellow with birds / my gaze running through the sky / and a light drizzle between my lips.” (“Viaje alado”).118 The identification with the poetry persists: “my love looks for the unlimited, and my songs / with their backs to the static, erupt in your soul.” (“Te seguiré callada”, 56).

“Amanecida,” one of the author’s most widely read poems, develops from an initial verse, “I am a sunrise of love.” Each of the following stanzas contrasts, in the form of a dialogue with herself, the expression of surprise over expectations that do not come true, and their possible explanations:

Strange that hundreds of birds don’t follow me
pecking songs on my white shadow.
(It must be that they are surrounding, in a vigil of clouds,
the immense daylight where my soul advances.)

In this dialogue of the self unfolding, the text establishes a breach in the harmonious world created by the book of poetry. The proclaimed abundance of love, this realm promised to women, does not materialize. In the explanations that appear in parenthesis, the subject continues to affirm her faith, which finally totters when she arrives at the contradiction of the final stanza, in which, as María Solá has observed, contrary signs are presaged amid the exaltation: “Strange that man doesn’t understand me, troubled / by the simple hand that gathered my soul. / (It must be that in him night unleafs more slowly, / or perhaps he doesn’t understand pure emotion…”

In the posthumous El mar y tú (1961), and as signaled in the title of the second section, “Poemas para un naufragio,” these “contrary signs” are common. Love is no longer harmony, but destruction; the subject confronts herself in a world marked by anguish and death. The signs of plenty from the previous book are transformed into shadows that sleep in solitude, blind constellations, dead flocks of tired birds, broken daisies: “Meanwhile, the wave… / All the moss of time corrupted in an ecstasy / of torment and pain.” (“Entretanto, la ola”). The dissolution of the self is the repeated image. In “Poema de la última tonada,” the unfolding subject is wiped out little by little as emblematic objects from the earlier work are removed (“remove paths,” “lose stars and dewdrops / … / and words”) in waves. In “Voces para una nota sin paz,” the poetic voice, once again unfolded (“For Julia de Burgos. By Julia de Burgos,” says the dedication) dramatizes her desire to integrate with her interior self, far from collapse and exile: “Let me sing to you like when you were mine / and peace was the silence of my deep wave / and peace was the distance / of your name and my name.”

As in various poems by Storni, the unfolding and death are created as a response to the earlier rhetoric of love, a space in which the subject cannot yet place herself; in the end, all that is left is the writing.


López Jiménez, Ivette. Julia de Burgos la canción y el silencio, San Juan, Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades, Colección Dr. Arturo Morales Carrión, 2002 (pp 59-76).

Author: Margot Arce de Vázquez
Published: May 18, 2015.

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