The Lady of Elche by Amanda Berenguer Translated by Kristin Dykstra
pp. 123 | March 2023 |
Originally published in Spain in 1987, this bilingual edition of The Lady of Elche finally brings Berengeur’s characteristically profound collection of poetry into English for the first time. A dynamic figure in Uruguay’s cohort of experimental poets known as the “Generation of ‘45,” Berengeur spent most of her life contributing to the Southern Cone’s most ambitious poetic movement, beginning with the publication of her first book, A través de los tiempos que llevan a la gran calma (1940), and culminating in Materia Prima, a posthumous anthology published in 2019.
In The Lady of Elche, lyrics ebb and flow across the page, reflecting the seaside environments they depict. Whether off the coast of Punta del Diablo in Uruguay, or floating amid a tumult in the Mediterranean, Berenguer’s poems are sonorous and dynamic and defined by strikingly sensual images (“each fig one obscene violaceous labium”). Often, Berenguer places an “Amanda” within her poems, as both a self-referential narrative technique, but also a way to crack open historical and societal trends in Uruguayan society. Other poems bridge intensely personal confrontations with near-hallucinatory visions, as in the closing lines of “June 24, Saint John’s Day”:
the cold dark night
laid a phosphorescent chrysalis
and four-leaf clovers grew
tiny torches of chlorophyll and fire
marking the Montevidean place
in the June solstice
where I flame and crackle
and freeze and am consumed
Many poems span multiple pages, and the verses build momentum across stanzas, only to release, reset, or disperse the accumulated energy. Throughout the book, a quiet violence underpins even otherwise intimate moments:
you and me sitting at the table
in the hall’s long belly
as if inside a napping crocodile
swampy between the stereo background sound
and plastic honeysuckle branches
the pistil of 9 a.m. light
filtered through its open mouth
and our teeth were also the teeth
of the animal
or of the firmament in its sapphire snap of jaws:
we fit one inside the others
like meshing gears
Translator Dykstra’s gift for imaginative interpretations imbue the book with a propulsive urgency. This edition also features an abundance of instructive paratext, including an image of the bust of La Dama de Elche herself in all its limestone glory, and “Notes on the Original Spanish Text”that are rich with philological excavation (she unearths a missing dedication to scholar and poet Luis Bravo, for example). An illuminating “Translator’s Note” explains how Dykstra adheres largely to Berengeur’s literal intentions, but occasionally she will employ “an unexpected register in order to draw out more of the sensory qualities within an English-language landscape: ‘rose’ instead of ‘pink, ‘violaceous’ where ‘purple’ might have done.” These insights add further dimensions to the work, new layers to appreciate.
The standout supplemental material is a fascinating essay, “On Names and Namelessness,” in which Dyskstra unpacks the subtitle to Berenguer’s collection: “The Vocable Is the Voyage.” Here, we learn how Berenguer prioritizes “the form of the word (vocable) over a set meaning,” how she subverts gender norms by placing “her self-portraits into space not traditionally available to women,” and reclaims colonial narratives by alternating the “centering and decentering of Spain.” Lastly, Dykstra details the historical significance of The Lady of Elche sculpture to Iberian identity, including the fact that “she” may not even be a woman, after all.
The combined talents and efforts of poet and translator elevate an already admirable and praiseworthy project into an indispensable vessel of recovery for an unparalleled voice of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Diego Báez is a writer, educator, and abolitionist. He is the author of Yaguareté White (UAPress, 2024). Poems and book reviews have appeared online and in print, most recently at Freeman's, The Georgia Review, and Booklist. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.