Claribel Alegría: A Human Presence

Laura Sonderman

BPR 44 | 2017

In 1948, after three years studying in the U.S. with Juan Ramón Jiménez, Claribel Alegría published her first book of poems, Anillo de silencio (Ring of Silence). Over her nearly seventy-year career, she has written steadily and courageously. Alegría’s poetry acutely portrays the devastation of the world around her, while simultaneously seeking delight in a community of sound and surprise. With each poem, Alegría encourages each of us toward the difficult, humble choice to remain human, to remain simply one among many.

Alegría calls us to consider a world where the population has grown from around two billion to over seven billion just in her lifetime. This number of people is, even for the best of conceptualizing minds, difficult to fathom. And this inability to conceptualize the possibility not just of an other, but of such a multitude of others who can never be known in any intimate way, courts ignorance and hubris, invites apathy and fear, and at its worst, continues to enable acts of hidden, hideous violence. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries remain soaked by the cowering, defensive questions “Who do they think they are?” and “Who will notice if someone goes missing?” To these horrendous questions, Alegría never fails to respond simply and clearly with “Someone,” and “I will,” as in the last twelve lines of “Aquarius”:

That is all I have left
to be able to look at the world without suspicion.
Only that, my Aquarius,
to soften the blows
and give me the measure
of all those who leave
and return to their sea,
and of those who lose their way
and die on the dunes.
My one refuge,
do you understand?
And it is so easy to destroy it.

Alegría is a poet determined to witness all that surrounds her, yet her poems register as guests moving hesitantly into the dark and delicate spaces of the grieving: “Let me come into your grief,” one of her earliest poems begins, “I won’t break the silence.”

Translated, along with “Aquarius,” by Margaret Sayers Peden, “Let Me Come In” is a twelve-line poem consisting of three brief four-line stanzas. The first stanza requests the invitation, offering the host humble gifts, “fresh roses for scent / And my love like a lantern.” Alegría draws a space of acknowledgement not just for the host, but for the feeling of grief itself. The second acknowledges the depth of “your dark skies” and offers a larger light: “the fire of stars, / birds aflame / and kingdoms of white clouds.” Alegría’s poetry recognizes unspeakable grief and also illuminates protective boundaries to surround the grieving. The poem persists: “Let me come in, / I’ll wait until you open for me,” until the turn of the final two lines makes clear the ring of a shared grief’s protection: “I am alone in the shadows / and the whirling of the wind bites.” Even Alegría’s earliest poems bear witness to the determination of those who would recognize their own loneliness and, with it, turn outward toward a community of grief, love, and honesty.

Alegría also refuses to back down from the cliché that poetry is untranslatable. She has spent her life building relationships both as a translator and a writer in translation. Her English translators have included her husband, Darwin "Bud" Flakoll, her daughter Maya Flakoll Gross, as well as Margaret Sayers Peden and Carolyn Forché. In an interview for the documentary Poetry of Witness, Forché speaks of her attempts to translate Flores del Volcán (Flowers from the Volcano) and reveals the strength of Alegría’s commitment to the possibilities of deep and lasting exchanges through acts of literary translation: “[I] discovered that my problem was not language, my problem was [that Alegría] was writing out of her childhood memories of military dictatorship, political oppression, political disappearance, and these were things I knew nothing about.” When Forché explains that her problem translating Alegría stems not from a lack of knowledge of the language but a lack of understanding of the political situation, she is revealing a fundamental problem when considering content and form, the political and the personal. How and where do they separate?

One of Alegría’s most searing and memorable responses to this problem is found in “Little Cambray Tamales,” a poem of a determined hospitality written in the form of a recipe. Sixteen ingredients include “a fry of conquistador helmets / three Jesuit onions.” The ingredients will make five hundred thousand “little tamales,” the population of El Salvador at the time the poem was written. “Put everything to boil / over a slow fire / for five hundred years” the poem teases, “and you’ll see how tasty it is.” The poem stirs through this unsettling list as the realization stirs within readers: conquest and violence are always implicated in that which we love about the domestic. Quaint forms erupt with the memories of violence. The reader, like Forché, is encouraged to learn and remember, not to fail to translate, not to look away.

With the same insistence, Alegría’s poetry is nearly always published in facing-page Spanish and English for English-speaking audiences. The books invite readers to participate in both languages, to open the pages of Woman of the River and read through the alphabet in “Documentary” as “A de alcoholismo, / B de bohío, / C de cárcel, / D de dictadura, / E de ejército, / F de feudo de catorce familias.” One may read haltingly and unknowingly, but one is invited to participate in the poem-making, to find a dictionary or a friend and begin. “Come, be my camera” opens the poem of over one hundred short lines. Subtly ironic, the poem employs filmic language to arrange images of life and death, hope and despair. “Focus,” “shift to a long shot:” “A contrast:” the poem instructs. Readers of “Documentary” become more and more implicated the further they read. Just before the halfway point of the poem come the narrative lines, “Besides coffee / they plant angels / in my country.” The image surprises with its insistence on the precariousness of life and labor. To emphasize the awful mundaneness of a people in constant mourning, Alegría writes:

A chorus of children
and women
with the small white coffin
move politely aside
as the harvest passes by.

There is a flexibility to Spanish syllabics around which Alegría dances masterfully, and for this, I wish everyone could experience the poems in her first language. An Alegría poem usually contains lines that remain below ten syllables and a stanza that rarely breaks. On the page, each line looks bone-thin, but the poem often either lengthens down the page (or, as in “Documentary”) as a growing testament to the body. Others are like small boxes, especially her earliest and latest poems, hovering around the octosyllabic romance meter and the hexasyllabic “romancillo.” Consider “Yo-pájaro” from the as-yet-untranslated Otredad (2011):

Quiero seguir volando
quiero seguir cantando
hasta que el zarpazo
de la muerte
me derrumbe.

“I want to continue flying,” Alegría writes, “I want to continue singing / until the blow / of death / knocks me down.” Alegría builds a single sentence in which the first two feminine rhymes give in to the slanted “zarpazo” and finally fall to the two shorter lines with the rhyme of “muerte” and “derrumbe.” Here, we find the beautifully fragile framework of determination and humility within which Alegría crafts her verse.

Consider, finally, two brief poems entitled “Mi flecha” (“My Arrow”), one from Anillo de Silencio and the second from Otredad:

Es de oro lo flecho de mi anhelo,
dibuja su volar en el espacio,
llega seguida o las reglones altas
y enciende con su canto las estrellas.
No se rompe jamás. Va recta siempre.

This first poem dances confidently around hexameter, but, due to the flexibility of accent in Spanish syllabics, also hints toward the stresses of iambic pentameter: “Gold is the arrow of my desire,” it begins, ending triumphantly with “It will never break. It always goes straight.” A more subtle, still earnest poem reflects on and responds to this earlier, determined arrow:

Siempre quise ser fleche
que alcanzara su blanco
recta y segura
pero mi viaje es curvo
y repetidas veces
se extravía mi fleche
y se doblega.

In English, the poem can be translated as:

I always wanted to be an arrow
that reaches its target
straight and certain
but my journey is curved
and multiple times
my arrow gets lost
and gives in.

But Alegría does not give in. Instead, her poems still move like arrows, connecting writer to reader, translator to translated, someone to another. Still writing after seventy years, Alegría sings every detail of the fragile life, grieving with her arrow pointed toward hope and toward beauty.