Book Review

She Writes Like an Angel


Marjorie Agosín–writer, editor, human rights activist, and professor–believes in ghosts. She also believes dreams are the place where the living meet their dead and where recollection is born. Part poetry, part prose, The Angel of Memory is an astonishing work and the author’s attempt to resurrect the memory of Helena Broder, her great-grandmother, who fled Vienna during World War II and died in Chile when the author was eight years old. (In the Kabbalah, an “angel of memory” is a book, any book.)

In The Angel of Memory, Agosín blends visions and recall–her own and others’–into a harmonious whole. She speaks to us of women in hats, cousins herded onto trains, and of Helena Broder’s son, forced to crawl through Vienna’s streets scrubbing cobblestones. Her work is permeated with the musty scent of old photographs and lilacs. (I can visualize Marjorie dreaming of herself as a small blond child in a white nightgown, seated on a red satin quilt at the edge of her great-grandmother’s bed taking notes.) “Of all the days of my deliriously happy childhood I remember that day of death sealed in a great silence,” she writes, referring to her great-grandmother’s death. “They closed the shutters of the balcony, and all the birds flew away. They covered all the mirrors, and your dresser remained untouched with your hair still on your brushes.”

Although Agosín was born in the United States and has resided in this country for more than 30 years, she spent her early childhood in Chile and writes exclusively in Spanish: “The English language never took on the texture of my soul, the feel of my skin,” she confessed in an earlier book, The Alphabet in My Hands: A Writer’s Life (Rutgers University Press, 1999). Part vision, part fact, her work is routinely translated into English and published in the United States for English-speaking audiences. It appears here in the original, accompanied by a translation.

Much as her work crosses the language barrier, Agosín crosses from poetry to prose and back again as if there were nothing separating the two. From the point of view of this Jewish-Chilean-American poet, separations are meant to be bridged. She has devoted her life and her work to eradicating the spaces between words like “Jewish,” “Chilean,” and “American”; between religions, ethnicity, and gender. Her ability to communicate across barriers and cross back and forth from one identity to another gives new meaning to the word “intercultural,” acknowledges the dignity of mankind, and signals the establishment of a multicultural trend in contemporary U.S. literature. Concerned with the problems besetting minorities, the condition of exile, and the consequences of poverty and persecution, Agosín has come close to having inspired a one-woman literary movement. She is the recipient of numerous international prizes for the role she has played in promoting human rights.

The course of Agosín’s life is determined, to a great extent, by what she chooses or, as she might put it–is chosen–to write. She expresses it this way: “Poetry is a story that attaches itself to my feet, my being.” (The Alphabet in My Hands). Thus, prior to writing The Angel of Memory, she followed her feet to Vienna and Prague believing, perhaps, that if the memories refused to visit her at home she would find them at their source. Her mother was her guide, and wherever they went, Agosín picked up traces of her great-grandmother, of dead cousins and aunts. They visited her in dreams, cemeteries, and on bridges. Then she wrote about them:

“Now I do not ask myself why I have come to Vienna. I am absolutely certain that it is to honor the dead, all the dead: gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, Jews, my aunts whom I never met…”

Her poems are like prayers and, sometimes, love letters, and in mourning her dead she mourns all victims:

Julia, Sonia, Silvia, you shall not die tangled in barbed wire. you will no longer be hidden Jews without hair, without a voice…

…I ask for a second, for a century of peace and memory for every single one: the dead Jews, the gypsies, the women of Bosnia.

They are all named Julia, Sylvia, Sonia And they are all mine.

Paradoxically, while conjuring up ghosts and staring them down, this mystic poetry-prose, for which she has become known, has become Agosín’s way of trying to lay those ghosts to rest, of comprehending the incomprehensible, in this case, the horror of the Holocaust. In addition to the Holocaust, Jewish identity, man’s inhumanity to man, migration–particularly to Latin America–and the conditions of exile are among her central themes. These are overlaid with a sense of displacement and loss. In “Cartographies of Love,” written from Helena Broder’s point of view, she writes:

…The map rests on a well worn table, far away in the lost dominions of exile.

I search for my rivers disfigured and yellow in this fragile geography of exile. I cannot find my beloved Andes, scattered and blue. I find cities I loved and where I was loved. Others remain absent. These I left as if I were a fugitive. I trace places where I read my first poem, when I kissed, furtive and trembling…

…Confused, I find myself in a borrowed geography. I receive postcards at an address where I think I live and where nobody visits me.

Not yet 50, Agosín has edited and written more than two dozen books, among them collections of poetry, essays, and fiction on subjects ranging from Jewish Latina poets to Vincent Van Gogh to the nature of writing. She writes stories and biographies about family members–her mother, her father, her grandmothers–and the distinctions between family, friends, and total strangers blur. Her “family circle” widens to include the Argentinean mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the young people murdered by the Chilean military–their bodies dumped in the Atacama desert, Jewish women immigrants in America, concentration camp victims, and the Chilean apillera (folk tapestry) weavers. In a voice which is not afraid to say the obvious, to utter truths many of us would recoil from, she writes spontaneously, exuberantly, and with a great outpouring of emotion.

Her critics have accused her–unfairly, I believe–of repetition, wordiness, and over-sentimentality. Perhaps this perception is directly related to the challenge of transforming the sound of the original Spanish with its cadence and musicality into an equally melodic English equivalent, and to the problem of “translating” the Latin temperament for Anglo-Saxon readers. The first limitation is related to the structural diversity of the two languages; the second to the opposing nature of the two cultures.

English tends to be precise, crisp, terse, and incisive. I think this economy of words is harder to achieve in Spanish and, for those accustomed to English-language poetry, this might be considered a defect. (Even the original Spanish here occupies more space than its English translation.) But much of the assonance, interior rhyme, and beauty in the sound of Spanish are also lost.

The second limitation relates to the challenge of interpreting the Latin temperament. What in English may sound trite or clichéd, in Spanish, a language more comfortable with the expression of strong emotion, can sound fresh, original, and sincere.

In referring to her great-grandmother, for example, Agosín uses the Spanish phrase: “En el corazón salvaje de la noche, eres una rapsodia abandonada.” The Spanish language reader would be unlikely to object. However, the literal translation (“You are a rhapsody abandoned in the wild heart of the night…”) may sound excessive to readers of English, more accustomed to subtlety and understatement. Both shortcomings are unavoidable, however. Certainly, in the case of The Angel of Memory, they do not reflect on the translation, which is more than adequate.

While Agosín’s intensely personal poetry may be less conducive to translation into English than her essays, it is well worth reading–in any language. Her candor, her faith in the power of words to wreak change, her capacity to express both anguish and joy in rare and moving ways are unique qualities in an age marked by skepticism and despair.

Above all, it is her generous spirit that sets her and her work apart. In mining her personal life for material, Agosín writes with such intensity it is difficult to know where her life stops and where her writing begins. Some 150 years ago another writer, idealist, and human rights advocate, Henry David Thoreau, wrote: “My life has been the poem I would have writ./ But I could not both live and utter it.” Agosín has managed to do both.

Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).