Como no podía permitirse estudiar en la Universidad, empezó a leer por su cuenta y se hizo miembro de la Asociación de Escritores Revolucionarios, que veía con buenos ojos a los autodidactas.
Estaba orgullosa de ser socia del Ateneo de Madrid, donde todos los hombres de la vida política, artística y literaria debatían asuntos relevantes. El Ateneo estaba a tiro de piedra de las Cortes (en la calle del Prado); a veces los políticos no tenían más que cruzar la calle para seguir hablando de lo suyo. Decidida como estaba a instruirse, Rosario se convirtió en una asidua de la Biblioteca y allí la fotografiaron para un reportaje especial de la revista Estampa sobre la nueva generación de creadoras (soñaba con publicar un libro). Fue una de las entonces relativamente pocas mujeres del Ateneo, presidido en aquellos momentos (entre 1933 y 1934) por Miguel de Unamuno.
Su gran oportunidad como periodista le había llegado el 8 de diciembre de 1933 cuando entrevistó al poeta y ensayista republicano Antonio Machado, con la intención de que este se pronunciara sobre los deberes del intelectual en tiempos de crisis. Los dos se encontraron en el Café de las Salesas (en la calle que hoy se conoce como Conde de Xiquena), núm. 17. Se trataba del café favorito de don Antonio, donde los camareros sabían todos cómo le gustaba el café y dónde se sentaba. Cuando el fotógrafo Alfonso les hizo la foto a los dos, sentados en la mesa , quedó eternizada la imagen de una mujer orgullosa y contenta del trabajo que había hecho. El poeta, en cambio, con el sombrero puesto, miraba benévolo pero discreto como si tan solo cumpliera con un trámite. Se echaba de ver que el poeta estaba acostumbrado a que le retrataran y la joven periodista, no. Esta no estaba segura siquiera de dónde había que sentarse para el retrato. Se quedó en un sí y no: se la ve sentada en la esquina de la foto pero a cierta distancia del gran hombre, dejando un hueco entre ellos donde hubiera cabido otra persona. En el fondo del espejo, demediado y algo cadavérico, como dice Andrés Trapiello, esperaba muy tieso el camarero Braulio.
Muchos años después alguien se encargó de recortar la famosa foto de Alfonso. (Esto lo descubrió Trapiello al dar con el negativo de la foto original). Así se eliminaba ese ambiguo espacio que la periodista había dejado a su lado, que la separaba modestamente del entrevistado. Pero por desgracia se eliminaba también el pequeño papel de Rosario del Olmo y con él la huella de una vocación femenina. El recorte de la foto, con su nuevo encuadre, realza la semblanza de Machado como retrato, según ha visto también Trapiello, y no como mero registro de un acto puntual. Alfonso captaba de esta manera una imagen que definía al gran poeta en su singularidad.
Pero en la hemeroteca se conserva la prensa con la foto original y se puede consultar la foto y la entrevista tal y como se publicaron en su día. La periodista tenía motivos por congratularse. Antonio Machado reconoció que en tiempos como aquellos años treinta, con la República en apuros, y la derecha en el poder, el escritor bien podría decidir usar su pluma para defender una causa. Machado se decantaba por la creación de una “comunión cordial” entre los ciudadanos. Llevándose bajo el brazo ese mensaje Rosario del Olmo, la joven comunista, se daba por satisfecha. Y esa es otra cosa que la foto íntegra nos permite sopesar.
Posdata: Rosario del Olmo estuvo unos quince años encarcelada después de la guerra por su actividad política. Murió olvidada en Madrid en 2000.
“Deberes del arte en el momento actual” [Entrevista a Antonio Machado por Rosario del Olmo], LaLibertad, 12 de enero de 1934, p. 5]
“Las mujeres en el arte” [por Emilio Fornet], Estampa, Núm. 324 [Madrid], 24 de marzo de 1934 [Mujeres retratadas: Delhy Tejero, Rosa Chacel, Maruja Mallo, Rosa Arciniega, Sara Hernández Catá, Rosario Velasco, Rosario del Olmo]
Mendoza Martín, Irene. “Rosario del Olmo: Periodista politizada” in La Historia, lost in translation?: Actas del XIII Congreso de la Asociación de Historia Contemporánea, ed. de Damián A. González Madrid, Manuel Ortiz Heras y Juan Sisinio Pérez Garzón (Cuenca: Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, 2017, pp. 3065-3076. PDF en https://www.academia.edu/33124477/ROSARIO_DEL_OLMO_PERIODISTA_POLITIZADA
 No tenemos una lista completa de las mujeres ateneístas, ni mucho menos, pero a lo largo de los años han ido saliendo nombres (Emilia Pardo Bazán, Concepción Arenal, Carmen de Burgos, Blanca de los Ríos, Clara Campoamor, Victoria Kent, María Lejárraga, Margarita Nelken, Rosa Chacel, Carlota O´Neill, Carmen Martín Gaite y otras).
A great many people have written about Penelope –poets, playwrights, and critics alike. In the Odyssey the queen waits anxiously for Ulysses in Ithaca, as he pursues a long, digressive voyage home after the war in Troy. Along the way, superhuman women entice him or hold him in thrall: a nymph (Nausicaa) a witch (Circe), deadly sirens… They all wish to keep him from his return, to ¨bind” him to them, but Ulysses cannot be held back indefinitely from reunion with his faithful wife.
For many centuries this was the basic plot –a plot to appeal to women, says Pura Nieto. How did Homer’s Penelope bide her time while Ulysses was away? Her chief goal was apparently to remain Ulysses’ wife, even as a swarm of ambitious suitors pressed her to remarry, arguing that her husband surely lay dead somewhere. Not surprisingly, a great deal of the commentary on the text celebrates Penelolope’s patience (some would say her hardheadedness) and her loyalty; some portion, however, remark on her intelligence (her metis), for she devises a trick to keep her suitors at arm’s length. It is a ruse that famously has to do with weaving.
Penelope swears that she will choose a new husband from among the suitors once she has finished making a shroud for her father-in-law on her loom.. Yet every night when she is by herself she secretly unravels the weaving she has done that day, and she continues to do this for nearly four years, so that her advances are always negligible. This trick has been commented on as a way to suspend time, which is measured tangibly in the accumulation of the web (the weft) on the loom.
On this wonderful subject there is much more to say. Some have speculated on what the pattern of the weaving looked like. Others have explored weaving itself as a symbolic activity. At least one modern artist has seen in the story of Penelope’s ruse an emphasis on process over finished product. It has been argued , too, that the process of weaving and unweaving is akin to oral composition. But for moderns working on texts and, in particular, narrative, the weaving and unweaving has fired a different imagination and a “Penelopean poetics” of re-vision. (See Barbara Clayton for this argument.)
I am not a classics scholar; so I am not proposing, as a philologist might do, to comb through a text that Hellenists have puzzled over, or to pick out new readings from the words of the classical tradition. Nor am I a specialist in the history of weaving or its representations. My field is modern Spanish literature, and it is from a commitment to this area that I have pondered the voice we hear in Ítaca (1972) by Francisca Aguirre. (I tell myself this every once in a while in order to rein in my ideas.) And so I return to the text itself. Aguirre’s book, which was recently reissued, is a “new” Penelope’s account of what she thought and felt while Ulysses was away and what her marriage now is and how she salvaged it. The fact that it is titled Ítaca suggests that she invites us to see her place in the world, too, as part of a collective condition and it is a bleak one, of silence, waiting, and entrapment.
Penelope has always commanded attention as a figure, but this implies that she is static or simply someone who is moved but does not move anything herself. Lately, however, several distinguished Hellenists have turned their lenses again on Homer and on the status of ancient Greek women–as they are represented in texts– and Penelope is one of them. She has a “web trick”, says Barbara Clayton. She is a creator, her “text” is her weaving. Is this activity a lost –in the sense of overlooked –tradition that is the equivalent of writing? What does it mean that Aguirre slips so easily between the concepts of text and weaving?
But let me take up the question from a different angle. Does the interchangeability in our critical vocabulary of the two concepts –texts and weaving– become our blind spot? As Kathryn Kruger observes, we speak constantly of weaving stories, spinning a yarn, tying up loose ends (as weavers do with the weft on the loom), but we also make unreflective use of phrases that suggest a deep and unapparent connection between words and thread art: a plot unravels, an idea is made up out of whole cloth, threads are composed in electronic communications. And we consult websites and build networks with the like-minded. Roland Barthes reminded us in the early 70s that a text is, etymologically, a texere, a weaving. But is this a reversible axiom? Is a weaving also a text?
Some would like to emphasize that they are, and in particular feminist critics, like Kathryn Kruger, who argue that weaving in all of its tangibility was and is for many early peoples a form of communal and individual expression. The trouble with this idea, however, is that the metaphorical identification of a weaving with a text (or a text to a weaving) suppresses the differences between the kinds of expression each one offers. If we look to origins, in the hope of arguing that our vocabulary for texts comes from weaving –a women’s domain– we are at an impasse. The late classical scholar Ann Bergren assures us that it would be impossible to determine –within Greek culture, anyway– which of these terms came first.
But Aguirre’s poetry is enunciated entirely from Penelope’s standpoint, from a deep identification with her. In that sense, it turns the Homeric Penelope –a consummate weaver– into a poet in her own right.
And so, the first thing we can say about Penelope, if we open Ítaca (1972), is that the poet has taken advantage of this singular ambiguity and slippage to give verisimilitude to the idea that her Penelope is a poet who has voiced the meditations we read on the page.
Yet at the heart of this poetic text, and missing from the discussions I have seen, is the question of what Penelope had on her loom, a work that in Aguirre’s Ítaca is referred to as a “manto perdido”:
Fue un manto de palabras
inútiles y hermosos como son
los hermosos consuelos que ahora
me prodigas, Ulises. (Aguirre 2018, p. 49)
I do not think this is simply a question of the poet honoring the Homeric Penelope as a weaver. In Aguirre’s text we are invited to reflect on this creation and its loss and, I would suggest, to see a paradox in it. The predicament to which it points — of having been an unrecognized creator of words/texts– has, after all, as Victoria Reuter observes, an autobiographic parallel in Aguirre’s life. She had an early ouevre which she destroyed.
Nonetheless, we would be selling the poem short if we were to limit its meaning to autobiography or if we were happy simply to read it against the Homeric text.
The making and unmaking of the “mantle” and, ultimately, its loss refers us to cyclical creation and destruction. And this is the territory of myth. This is a field we need to venture into.
Kathryn Kruger points us in that direction when she begins her essay titled “The Clues” with a retelling of a myth of the Sioux people:
The Sioux Indians tell a story about an ancient woman who lives alone in the wilderness weaving a blanket strip for her buffalo robe. A black dog curls at her feet. Nearby a kettle hangs over a fire, filled with a soup made of berries and roots. When the soup boils over, the dog barks to rouse the woman from her work. She hobbles over to the fire and stirs the soup, but as soon as she turns her back, the dog leaps up and unravels some of the threads. Eventually the woman returns to her loom and resumes beating the design into the warp, row by row. Again the soup boils over, and agian the dog barks, The woman gets up, stirs her dinner, and as day follows night, weaving follows unravelling. Time moves slowly through the centuries while the old woman makes unhurried progress on her loom. It is said that when she completes her blanket the world will come to an end.
Something of that great legacy remains, vestigially, in Aguirre’s book. I read it as a vindication of a different kind of creativity, one which women have cultivated since time immemorial, but also as testimony of the poet’s wish –and the wish of many thinkers, especially women– to bridge the gap that lies between threads and words.
In other words, the emphasis is first on difference and then on spanning the gap between them.
Wilcox, John. “A Reconsideration of Two Spanish Women Poets: Ángela Figuera and Francisca Aguirre”. Studies in 20th Century Literature 16, 1 (1992): 65-92. Avaialable as article 5: https://doi.org/10.4148/2334-4415.1291
—. Women Poets of Spain 1860-1992. A Gynocentric Vision. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
El viejo sueño de poder tejer con seda de araña empieza a materializarse en el siglo XVIII cuando un francés, François Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire (1678-1761), miembro de la Sociedad Real de Ciencias de Montpellier, consigue lavar, cardar y preparar hilo a partir de las pupas de araña. No sólo eso sino que diserta sobre los experimentos y el tratado resultante, dado a la estampa en 1710, es traducido y llega al conocimiento del Emperador chino. Por primera vez en la historia algunas damas de alta alcurnia gastan medias hechas de tan fabulosa seda — de un color grisáceo—, entre ellas la duquesa de Borgoña y la mujer del emperador Habsburgo Carlos VI. Pero el proceso es largo y complicado. Saint Hilaire descubre que las arañas no conviven unas con otras; al contrario, se comen entre sí. Se sigue investigando. Un jesuita español, Ramón María de Termeyer (Cádiz 1737-1815), está al acecho. Expulsado del Paraguay, pasa a vivir a Milán, donde sigue experimentando tranquilamente en casa, hasta convertir su domicilio en un “nido de arañas” (alberga unas dos mil) que inquieta a los vecinos. Pergeña un aparato que se ha descrito como “una especie de guillotina”, o cepo, que permite sacar el hilo del bicho vivo y consigue fabricar un par de guantes que luego regala al monarca Carlos III. (¿Qué habrá sido de ellos?)
La última pieza en esta historia nos remite a la isla de Madagascar, donde abunda la especie Golden Orb Weaver, una araña del tamaño de la palma de la mano. Allí el historiador del arte Simon Perry y su socio Nicholas Godley, inspirados en el ejemplo más próximo que tienen, de un tal Padre Camboué, que trabajaba a finales del XIX, montan una especie de granja-fábrica en la isla donde —cómo no— tejen un tapiz amarillo con la seda de un millón de arañas.
Estos tejidos han sido expuestos en los museos del mundo como las rarezas que son: una mezcla de lo científico y lo fabuloso.  Un reportaje del 2012 en The Guardian nos asegura que el manto amarillo confeccionado con este hilo y que fue expuesta en el Victoria & Albert Museum, es digno de los cuentos de hadas: “La tela es tan ligera que ¡no sabes si el manto lo llevas puesto o no!” 
We will always leave our lives unfinished. And, that, in a nutshell, is the problem with autobiography. We will never be there to have the final word on what we did and what we said while we were alive.
Among the things my aunt left unfinished were notes about her life, and my sister, to whom they had always been entrusted, scanned them and left for me via DropBox. My aunt once said she hoped one of us would help her tidy them up since we were both trained to write. My sister, as the last one to speak to her, promised to see what she could do, and I am trying to do my bit to keep that promise. Yet I feel that it is an impossible task.
Off and on I have been working on memories of my own, even though I balk at the sense of closure that seems to go along with life-writing (and which Cervantes so famously had the galley-slave Ginés de Pasamonte grumble about. When this reprobate was asked about how his autobiography was coming along, he replied: How can you finish a life-story if your life isn’t over?). Well, it sounds brutal to say so, but you can consider your life is as good as over, can’t you, and then proceed to evaluate what you did or did not do. You can write posthumously, if you are cold-minded. Or, as many have observed, you can write as if you had turned into a different being, a saint or a scoundrel. The striking thing about my aunt’ s notes is that she was not at the end of her life by any means when she signed her writing off. She wrote when she was fifty-six or fifty-seven and she went on to live until the age of ninety-three. Of course, she could not know how much time lay before her, but how could she feel life was behind her? (I rule out the second possibility, which is that she became a different being.)
And yet, I am not surprised. With all the arrogance of youth, I had sometimes thought that her life was well and truly over because of irrevocable decisions she had made somewhere along the line. Don’t misunderstand me. That sentence sounds unfeeling, but in fact I worried a great deal about my aunt as long as she lived. And although our relationship was stormy –she was meddling and I was equally headstrong in defending my friends and my ideas–, the last time I spoke to her we rose to the occasion. It was her birthday, and it turned out to be her last. My sister was the facilitator. She had made the trip up from Florida to visit my aunt in her nursing home in upstate New York and she called me in Belfast on her cell phone so that my aunt could talk. I owe my sister one last photograph to mark that occasion. It was an ordinary conversation –How are you? Don’t work too hard! I miss you!–, but the emotion was spontanteous. The look on her face in the picture my sister sent me almost immediately afterward was one of someone still pleading for her love to be accepted.
Her memoirs in and of themselves are sketchy; they are full of dashes and interjections, as if they had been jotted down quickly or as if she thought she would go back to them one day. I am fairly certain that if she had really had my sister or me beside her to pore over them we would have teased out a clearer story. When, for instance, the Spanish poet Concha Méndez (1898-1986) expressed the wish to tell her life story, to say ‘I too have lived’, her granddaughter considered the conversations between them oral history and made tapes to let the conversations meander, until eventually everything got said. But my aunt had never had any formal lessons in writing and she would not have realized that you needed to have an interlocutor clearly before you in order to pick out and shape what you recalled. Neither did we. (Here is the literary critic kicking in.) So I am disappointed that my aunt is not digging deep. She is not giving us enough detail. I am sure that this is because she does not know who her audience is and how she can engage them. “If anybody is interested,” she says. She makes a great effort to be positive, as if she thought she ought to be cheerful. But this starts to ring untrue when it does not go beyond generalization. And I am disappointed. There is little here to justify my conviction that she had a story to tell if she could only summon the courage to do so. I can see my aunt struggling to reveal some of her hopes and regrets, but they get the better of her and she has gone to her grave with them. I will never know how she became what she was or how she remembered moments that I had found, for better or worse, as her inquisitive and unforgiving niece — the eyes and ears that took everything in–, unforgettable.
She and my mother were twins and the oldest of four, but unlike my mother she was introverted; she was like her mother, she says, and therefore more likely to keep things to herself. As soon as she had any money in her pocket, she wanted, I suspect, to make up for not going to college. Reading was one way to do it. When I came back East from a year at Oberlin, I left some of my books with her and she displayed them on her shelves as if they were hers. And so Descartes’ Meditations found their way into the front room beside Michener’s Iberia and Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. I never had the heart to take it or any of the other books back. No, I remembered that my aunt had given me my first grown-up book, an anthology of children’s verse with old-time English classics. And that thanks to her I began to form an ear. There was “The Highway Man” with its galloping refrain –“The highway man came riding, riding/up to the old inn door” and Walter De La Mare’s silvery “shoon”, beside the well-meaning voice of Joyce Kilmer, which I eventually thought was corny: “I think that I shall never see/ a poem lovely as a tree.” Nobody else gave me books. (When my father came back from the service he brought only what he considered the basics into our home: a huge Webster’s Dictionary that needed its own lectern, a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s complete writings, Lincoln’s speeches.. the essentials, to his mind. A big Catholic Douay Bible, I think, was more for show.) Though secretly my family was proud of my reading skills, most of the time I was invited to get my nose out of whatever book I was reading and to pay attention to what was on my plate.
But my aunt subscribed to reading clubs and put the classics, historical fiction and hagiography all indiscriminately within reach: I could choose from among Thackeray and Somerset Maugham, Daphne Du Maurier and Mary Stewart, Tolstoy, Solzhenytzin, and the deeds of the Little Flower of Jesus, but we never talked about any of them and I do not know whether she ever found the time, between her job and her housekeeping, to read those books herself. My aunt often looked exhausted. And smaller and smaller every year. Or, was that just me, outstripping her in height? She needed to feel creative. And so she tried to take up painting once and set up a kind of atelier in the basement, but she did not know how to mix colors. Then she became a collector. She pestered my father to find her antiques when he went on forays into country estates, with the result that he was always forced to sell something to her –a tapestry, a jar, an old doll– at cut-rate prices, forgoing the profit he could have made by selling them to a real client. Was nursing really her “calling”, as she says, or is it only as much as she could wrest from a family that did not encourage girls to learn and do and have dreams? (I could be forgiven for thinking that. Yet one day I discovered how much she admired Florence Nightingale. She kept an album devoted to her and I pondered its cuttings with curiosity when I had no shame and pried into her things, behind her back.)
I hear the reticence in her voice when she talks about her schooling. Nobody answers her questions when she is in high school; they had little patience for the Italian children in town. There was prejudice. The words “dago” and “wop” were still around when I was young, I can vouch for that. But she does not blame anyone in particular for her invisibility. And she is not trying to say she overcame any obstacles. Yet I am struck by the fact that this woman who was practically a mother to me, who had no children of her own and who was a constant presence in my childhood and youth, was more of a heroine to me than she or I realized.
How is it I have found so many more enigmas in her life than she will let on? So much more to marvel at? Is it because she took us places when I was little? Made them seem grand? Rose gardens? Lilac festivals? Downtown Canandaigua! With its stately Main Street leading to the lake, the pride of the little city, where there were picnics and rollercoaster rides. (And flying saucers and bumper cars.) My aunt sometimes took me to work with her at the Clifton Springs Sanitarium where she was an L.P.N. [Licensed Practical Nurse]. I had never been in such an august old building before. The fact that it was full of people she was helping to operate on meant nothing to me. I admired what to my eyes was a very fine estate (which can now be toured), with acres of lawn, a private library, a mosaic labyrinth –with life and death at its heart– and a Tiffany window of the Last Supper in its Episcopalian chapel. I owe her my first trip abroad, for she took me and my grandmother on a pilgrimage to Quebec and St. Anne de Beaupré one summer when I was ten or eleven. If this journey was conceived as an act of piety, I can only say I fell distractedly in love with the old quarter of the city and was –as I still am–rather indifferent to cathedrals, except for their vaulted ceilings and stained glass. I do not recall that my mother or my younger sister and brother went with us, which seems natural enough, for my mother was not religious the way my aunt and grandmother were, and my siblings were “a handful”, as everyone said.  A picture in the family album reminds me that I was being groomed to be Our Lady’s flower girl at the local parish. When my aunt had extra money she indulged her appetite for religious images and bought us saints’ relics and scapulars. (How I regretted losing a bit of Saint Teresa’s nun’s habit crocheted into a little medallion. I thought that was an omen of some sort.) Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Teresa of Ávila, the infant Jesus of Prague, resplendent in a red brocade mantle… These sacred images presided over her dresser drawers, in her pirate’s cave of a room, and costume jewellery was laid at their feet.
I now read what she says about her twin sister (my mother) and I know it is not the whole truth. They dressed alike, but they were not inseparable. My aunt says they were “very close”. But in middle age they sat on opposite sides of my grandmother’s living room and scowled at one another. They talked through me: “She’s impossible. There’s no reasoning with her.” “My high school days were not happy”, my aunt remarks, but that may not have been about school alone. All her life she would have heard that her sister was beautiful and that by implication she was not. (These things were said aloud as if children did not have ears.) My mother was more “filled out” and could strike a mock pose as a bathing beauty, circa 1940, but my aunt was ” skinny as a rail”, a “Skinny Minny”. This handy fact allowed me to raid her closet when I was a teenager. She couldn’t figure out, if she and my mother were twins, why their bodily endowment should be so lopsided. But my aunt had a theory. She said that one of them got more nourishment while in the womb than the other. In any case, it was my mother who was sought out as “the life of the party”, while my aunt may have been a “wallflower”. But in her notes the twins are in perfect harmony until –oh, tell-tale moment– my mother meets “a good fellow”. (Here I read more avidly, sure that a secret jealousy will be divulged. But my aunt never says my father’s name and the fact that he is anonymous in her story and alluded to so stiffly tells me that she never really warmed to him, no matter how many antiques he found for her. )
She says very little about the youngest brother in the family, who guarded his privacy jealously, and nothing either about her middle brother, but in the second case that is easier to account for. They once had a fight that made us all duck under the table to avoid the words being thrown like plates. It was Easter Sunday. No names were mentioned –it was just “you and her”– , but I knew the outbreak had to do with a young girl my uncle had fallen hard for and nobody else liked. He gave her perfume —My Sin by Lanvin–and he even had a ring for her. Though an Italian man is capable of bluster, I am sure that my uncle’s threats came from a wound. From a deep and angry grudge. Something that had cut so deep that near the end of his days, when he had to go to a nursing home, he announced that he did not wish to go anywhere near where my aunt was.
After living under the same roof all their lives! It was a story for Edith Wharton to tell, an even more twisted Ethan Frome! He could have said, If she’s going to heaven, I’m going to hell. But he was literal. What on earth had my aunt done? Was she engaged in later life in an expiation of some sort? Was that why she never insulted him back and why she avoids talking about him?
My sister assures me that my uncle ultimately relented, but I have never seen such a look of pain on my aunt’s face if the subject came up.
I wanted to read more about my grandmother, whom I adored and followed around like a puppy dog; her house was my house until I was a teenager. Didn’t she know how to do everything, from making pasta and ricotta pie to reading fortunes in a Mason jar? But my aunt describes her with more pity than admiration. She was a woman alone, my aunt says; she had had no help raising her daughters; nobody had ever taught her how to do anything. This comprehension does not sound like praise to me. And I wonder that my aunt doesn’t see how unfair she is being. My grandfather, she says proudly, went to night school for a time, (before funding ran out from the town, which did not want to pay the electricity bills). But was that ever in the cards for my grandmother? It seems my aunt was more interested in finding out who her grandmother was, back in Italy, a woman whose face she had never seen, for the family had no pictures. She is proud to report that my great-grandmother was a baker and –from the looks of it– maybe a kind of wise woman as well, who knew home remedies and was called on sometimes to assist doctors. Ah, there my aunt surely found a connection. (With my crumb of information, I now know why my grandmother had an old domed oven in her back yard, when nobody else did.)
My aunt is a little less laconic on the subject of her father: he was “handsome” and “gentle” “worked hard” and was a man of “principles”, of “honor”. And thus she chooses to forget his hard drinking. She attributes a mythic earlier life to him that is beyond anyone’s ken. When he was still a “boy” (of 14, she says) he ran away to New York City and was on his own for a time. My aunt loves that part of the story: she wanted heroes, too. I tried to imagine my grandfather knocking around Little Italy like a newsboy, and again I turn to my literary references. “¡Qué vida! ¡Qué movimiento!” A Uruguayan artist who was in lower New York in those years, peddling his designs for wooden toys, professed love at first sight. (Soon that would cool.) It was all so democratically about making money. “Pues, en América”, he says, “hay que hacer cualquier cosa, ya que allí todo tiene el mismo valor. Para un americano lo importante es que un hombre trabaje y gane–la clase de trabajo no tiene importancia” [What life! What movement! In America you have to do something, anything, because one thing is as good as the next. For an American the important thing is that a man works and earns –the kind of work does not matter.]* I wondered what kind of work my grandfather had done, exactly, to earn his passage back and forth from Italy? That must have cost a pretty penny. Time would soon reveal him to be a resourceful man. On his second journey he had a family on the way. According to my sister, records place him and his wife on Ellis Island, where it was noted that my grandmother was pregnant and sick throughout the crossing. (My aunt notes with skepticism that the journey was supposed to be their honeymoon.) Thus the twins and my mother– were born on American soil.
In due course my grandfather went to work on the railroad and that took them upstate to Manchester, which was an important railroad town at the time (the second largest transfer point in the country, my aunt says–a fact–, until diesel engines and tractor trailers came along). She remembers how proud her father was when their next children turned out to be boys. I wonder about that. Though she doesn’t say so, I think she could only have had that perception when she was older and seen that boys counted for more than girls. Oh, there were “restrictions” on her –she mentions these more than once, without saying what they were, as if we all knew. That is the kind of thing, I thought, that could eat at the heart of love for one’s mother.
But what can I, as a literary scholar, make of all this? I contend that you cannot write a story about your life –not even memoirs in bits and pieces– if you do not have enough self-love and maybe –yes– a frame through which to interpret your experience. My aunt had neither. She mourns that she was not the “most beautiful” or the “most intelligent”. I hear her apology for all the years that she was probably put down. So isn’t her lifewriting bound to be still-born –caught somewhere in the ellipses and unfinished sentences? Or do I see things askew myself, through feminist truisms and a memory filled with childish alarm, that punctuates the ordinary and has no insight into the faith that carries us through the everyday? God forgive me, I cannot help having a theory. And it is this: my aunt sat down to write when she thought her life was drawing to a close, when she was in her fifties.
That was, I recall, how women of her generation alluded to “the change of life” and it was always with a sense of doom. She and my mother whispered gossip constantly about the women they knew who were having D&C’s [dilation and curettage of the uterus, as I learned when I was in college] and who were worried about having a child so late in life.
Small-town America was probably not talking equal rights in the 1920s and 30s when my aunt and my mother grew up. During the Depression (a time my aunt will not even mention! I have only my mother’s recollection of eating horsemeat), who would have dared to dream? By the 1970s that had all changed, but it did not affect her. Feminism was for an elite, for the universities and big cities, and if it came home to a small rural town it was in the person of an arrogant young woman who swore she would never be a housewife (or a nurse or a schoolteacher), and left it at that.
Around her, around them both, lay a town that one of them knew had been much more important and bustling than it was in the 70s. Manchester is a “ ghost town”, she writes sadly, because she knows it wasn’t always so. She puts it down to the closing of the railroad. Maybe she really did love history, because she points to this economic calamity as any historian would. While I, with my more limited vision, bewailed the fact that the children could not keep the grandparents’ house and property as they deserved.
Life began for my aunt –I can see her face light up– when she left home at the age of twenty or so. She did not go far. It was enough to be away. She went down to the southern border of the state to live with cousins in Sayre, Pennsylvania, another railroad town, like her own, that had drawn Italian immigrants, only a good bit bigger (with many thousands of people). There she found work in a factory making shirts for men in the Navy. She was part of a war effort and that stint, ironically, had given her a chance to emancipate herself. When she lives for a time with cousins in New Jersey, she is proud to say she came to know life in “the City” (just like her father ). I know that when you live in such a small town –the Manchester I grew up in had only memories of a movie theatre– you are convinced that life lies elsewhere. And you are proud to say you have known greater things. Rochester filled a gap. It had the industry to support a big population –Eastman Kodak, Bausch and Lomb. And it had a lively Italian community. Whenever my grandparents wanted authentic food –provolone, olive oil, prosciutto– they drove to “the city” and made a day of it, for there were cousins to visit there, too.
But why was I always writing a story in my head about my Aunt Mary? Why did I expect her notes to answer my questions? Or at least the big one: why did an unmarried woman who took care of her parents in their old age, also agree to live with her two brothers, who were unmarried and to take care of them too? These things happened, she would probably have said, they weren’ t planned. But that is to beg the question of how they were allowed to happen.
Two things seem clear: she wanted more than anyone else in the family (as far as I could tell) to place herself with respect to her ancestors, to the family that had been left behind in Italy when her parents (my grandparents) emigrated. Nobody else ever expressed curiosity about them. Years ago Marshall Berman, I think, said that part of the American dream involved this forgetting where you came from, this sense that one’s life was a tabula rasa once you committed to your life as an American. That used to drive me crazy. But, unlike all the others, and that includes even my cousins, my aunt travelled to Italy to find the forgotten branch of the family and to see how they lived. She stayed for nearly half a year in Rome. It was her way of saying, I did things, I was enterprising. I have had my chances in life to be happy –even if I did not take them. But maybe it was also a way to find a place in the world if you grew up feeling nobody had paid attention to you. Marriage might have changed that. For a woman growing up after World War II, to marry and have children was the script that everyone followed, if they could. To have this absence at the core of her life is something she feels defensive about. It needs to be filled with people, with a sense of another life somewhere (that had gone on without her). But she also wants to say, I chose this. It was not for lack of opportunity.
If you pick up a pen to write (or if you type on a screen, for that matter), eventually something will emerge and ask you to see it for what it is. So a piece in the puzzle of her life eventually falls into place. She faces a truth. And she narrates as close to the bone as she can: she had one early love, which ended after her friend came back from the war; but around 1950, with the sense that time was passing, she became a nurse. She fell in love with a doctor –someone she worked with– and she never told him. Oh, I think I know the way these things go. He probably never said “I love you” either. If I dig a bit in my memory I can take a good guess about who the man was, even though she does not say more about him here, except that he married somebody else. When I was eight going on nine, my aunt often entertained a boyfriend in our home — with my father still in the service it was just us kids and Mom– under the pretext of babysitting us and letting my mother go out once in a while. The doctor was Korean –maybe he was on some sort of a visiting internship after the Korean War?–and I always supposed he would go back to Korea one day, as he eventually did. My aunt must have known that, too. Late in life my mother was very unkind about my aunt’s affair. She claimed –scandalously, to my ears– that she had once walked in on their lovemaking, and that they were doing it “the Oriental way”, whatever that meant. I cannot tell you how that imprinted on me.
Oh, my mother could be heartless where my aunt was concerned. She might have realized –as I do now– that this affair was almost too late for my aunt. She was well into her thirties, and by the time they were forty women tended to think that childbearing was behind them.
My aunt had other suitors, even then, but none were a match for the tall and dark Dr Moon, I guess, either in good looks or culinary or erotic skill. She would grimace and look away if the topic ever came up of why her other boyfriends simply did not pan out. “They only want my money.” (She said that of men she had met in Rome.) “At my age I don’t want to be told what to do.” As far as I could tell, either reason was valid. My aunt had a lot of money in the bank and she bossed others around, so she wasn’t going to be bossed around herself, was she?
The other thing she tried so hard to get down on paper was much less interesting to me until I realized that it is almost always the women in the family who cared about genealogy: she offers a string of names of great aunts and uncles and their offspring, of people that I had barely heard of, much less met, as if she had drawn on an archival treasure. You could see from the leaves she pencilled in along a vine that she was struggling to reconstruct a family tree that to this day has remained all but invisible. She wanted to be able to write a name on each leaf. And she left blank leaves, of course, as a kind of picture frame. One fact scrawled in the margin, however, stood out, like a leaf blown loose.
It had always been said that my grandfather’s older sister emigrated to Argentina around 1920, around the same time my grandparents went to New York. I assumed that this mysterious ancestor had gone to Buenos Aires (and been swallowed up in the throngs in the Palermo quarter ), but I was wrong. They might have stopped there but their peasant instincts evidently sent them out into the country, to where there was work. My aunt had scribbled “Argentina” at the top of the page and next to it a word that looked like “Chubuta”. There is no such place. But Google suggested “Chubut” instead and I realized that the name had probably been handed down like that in the family, with an Italian lilt added to it. Yes, it must must have been “Chubut”, a province in Patagonia.
So cold a place, so different from their little town near Rome, and yet not unlike the extremes of upstate New York. Somehow a young woman named “Ciardi” had gone there to live with her husband and they had made a life for themselves. I have often wondered who she was, but I assume the young woman’s name had dropped out of circulation. If she was married, her children would probably have used her name after their father’s name (e.g Armando Battista Ciardi), as was the Hispanic custom. But that second name would only be good for a generation. As soon as they married, their offspring would come into possession of a different maternal surname. Only the father’s name would be constant. A woman’s maiden name was bound sooner or later to disappear.
Chubut is where another invisible tree had grown. My aunt was trying to pencil in the leaves one after the other, to draw them, and to call the names she did not know up out of the darkness. Like “petals on a wet black bough…”** That is what she was trying to do.
*Joaquin Torres-García, Historia de mi vida. Montevideo: Arca, 2000.
**Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd:/ Petals on a wet, black bough.”
There she was, caught by surprise as she crossed the unmown lawn. She looked glumly at you and your mother, the unexpected guests. She felt so exposed. You had driven up from the City on your way to Boston to where your sister lived, and found her in Hurleyville, the sleepy little town in the Catskills where she was working that season as a waitress. How did you know where she was? She hardly recognized you without your fatigues and that long shock of sandy hair that fell over your forehead. Yes, you still had the intensity of a Russian dancer but in other respects you did not look at all like the boy who had one day spirited her away to a concert (“I have two tickets to hear Leonard Cohen,” he said, waving them in the air, as her friends looked on. “Does anyone want to go?”). In those days you were an apostle of Raoul Vaneigem, the situationist who had lured some of the activists away from more conventional left-wing groupuscules. (She had been so taken with Vaneigem’s premonitory words, they were underlined them in her mimeographed copy: “Love is bound to shipwreck in a capitalist economy”).
She was conscious, as you stood there that day on the lawn of Tessie Cohen’s run-down bungalow colony, that you were all (except for your mother) the focal point of an odd ceremony. It was, she sees now, a sign of the times, like circus tents being lifted when it was time to leave town. The tenants of the colony filed past, dragging their feet, on their way to the second shift—all the busboys and waiters and dishwashers, many of whom she knew by name— and she wanted to disown them all. You made introductions. “This is my friend R—-. She’s a waitress at the hotel.” And your mouth kept going while she stood stiffly in the grass in her white uniform and nurse’s shoes. Was this surprise visit so that you could see for yourself she had not realized any ambitions, intellectual or political? You wanted a picture, you said.
Maybe it was just a way out of an awkward situation, she thought. But, trained to look beneath words, any words, she dug deeper to find a kernel of truth in what you said. She thought, You wanted a picture because you realized that you didn’t have one and you felt the want of one. Yes. That was it!
She weighed the request. It made her feel miserable under the circumstances but it was, like everything she had ever known about him, pragmatically ambiguous.
He could mean what he said, she thought, which is to say, he could take his picture and then file it away like a deteriorated memory. Or else this ceremony and the picture-taking was all just a pretext, he really did still care. He had come looking for her: how did he know where to find her? Had he done research?
And he had found that she was still involved with the boy she had met on the rebound, after the two of them had split up. (Yes, the boyfriend was standing beside her.) He couldn’t possibly be OK with that. But he had to save face and throw up a screen of small talk in front of his mother. Yes, that was it!
But then her heart sank: hadn’t she spoiled it all over again? Wasn’t that the corollary of her explanation? She felt sick. Even as she knew that this boy she had not gotten over, who lived in and ultimately belonged to a world she had not been asked into, was never one hundred percent sure of what he wanted. And that maybe all he ever wanted was what he could not have. He had been interested in her when she belonged to a group that he wanted to belong to. Yes, the situationist, the one who brought the gospel from Paris, had wanted to be a leader, on however small a scale, and she had been the trophy, on however small a scale.
His mother said nearly nothing, except that her son had been admitted somewhere to study photography (ah, la société du spectacle). And that he was saying goodbye to friends and family in the East. You could see she was good at smiling.
Of course, she too found the right face too for her old friend as he adjusted his lens and got her in the frame. But, mind you, she did not smile to be pleasing, the way you once said she and every other woman had been trained to do. She smiled to make it look like it was a fine sunny day in the mountains, her dilapidated bungalow was a vacation camp, and far from having to leave shortly to haul trays from the kitchen to the hotel dining room and back, she was on her way to the beautiful green hills that were still a resort for the well-to-do.
She thinks back on it now and an odd scene intrudes on her memory. She is with her father upstate, fishing. He is happy. And so is she. On the bank of the creek a silver bass flings itself in the dirt one last time and finally lies still.
It was then she heard the shutter click on the two of you.
Only my mother looks good in family pictures. She is a smoldering Italian beauty. I sit in the middle between her and my grandmother, with her downturned mouth, on the old chintz-covered sofa in my grandmother’s house, where I grew up. My mother looks as if she has just woken up; there is a blanket over her knees. My grandmother has come in from the kitchen, wearing one of her old dresses, and the flesh on her arm hangs like a dewlap as she hugs me. I am not pretty but I look like her and that is enough: dark eyes, shadows under my eyes (sleepless at the age of seven). I have my favorite dress on, the one with the faded shamrocks, but it is chilly and they have made me put a cardigan on, which spoils the dress. The season has worn on. It is probably late August, too soon to light the furnace, though in upstate New York you almost needed it by then. I have that look on my face that children often have when they are patient and complying and hope for the best. The picture is for my father who is in the service. Only my mother lifts her chin in defiance.
Small numbers of Individuals meeting in real time and in physical space once created institutions and entities and projected an audience for their expertly crafted words (newspapers, universities, churches, labour unions, guilds of one sort or another… community groups). You might say that they stood behind the messages in the press or books somehow, and conceived of who their audience was, so it was clear that you could form some sort of an idea of who you were addressing when you “spoke.”
(You could also expect to be answered –eventually–and with a certain amount of care, of reasoned argument. Someone might —in writing, if given the space and an invitation—debate with you and attempt to question the veracity or persuasiveness of what you say. This could go, back and forth, like a shuttlecock, for a length of time. And your reputation —because you signed your real name— would be on the line.)
But now with Twitter none of this was terribly clear. Some said this was democratic, meaning there were very few filters. All you needed was access to a computer or other device — a tablet, a smart phone—and some minimal technical skills. Tweets could be messages emitted for an undifferentiated mass. The tweeter could not possibly know all the people who read them. Well, not knowing them was, perhaps, the point: that would allow the tweeter a freedom that they did not have beyond the screen. People would try to carve out niches in that cliffside, have a stable audience. And they thought they could control that by curating what sort of thing they talked about. But Twitter would be predicated on the audience being made up of the kind of person who was happy to say, Yeah, Right. Or No way. You didn’t want an answer from them. Not really. At best, a brief expansion on the point showing your agreement.
Twitter (and other social media sites) would also make use of algorithms to choose who would actually see your messages (always, inevitably, more than one’s official number of followers. The company would see to it that you were mentioned: X likes this. X retweeted this. They want to grow your followers for you.) Twitter was perfect for the world ambitions of a despot, who might not draw any distinctions between his fans in Twitterworld and the people whom he was supposed to represent politically. At least, not until he became aware that there were growing numbers of people who were disenchanted. Who would not cast a real vote for him.
The Twitter audience was often an irascible, disloyal mass. They were moved one way and then the other by emotions, by definitive and vehement stances on the part of the “author.” You didn’t have to use your own name. You didn’t have to own up to what you said. You didn’t have to know anything or be concerned about the truth of what you said. You were in the world of doxa (Greek, “opinion”) to the highest degree. And by opening an account you had a license to vent that was uncurbed by any sign you might perceive on the face of a real interlocutor. Could there be a look of alarm, distaste, a cocked eyebrow? There was an emoticon for that but you were sealed off from its effects. Yes, that absence of response was also implicit in writing. But, again, there were filters on that: there were editors! sponsors! Now, you had none. So let it fly!
If it takes hold, if it catches on, if it turns out you have your finger on a pulse, you might coax masses of angry or otherwise disgruntled readers to shift from one spot to another like hornets or a swarm of bees. That was known as a trending topic.
But you better make sure you know what you want to do with those worked up bees. They are ready to sting. And they can even organise amongst themselves.
The moon is hanging like a sickle in the sky and the residents of this neighbourhood in the centre of the city are hurrying to the shops to see if they can make any last-minute purchases. Carlos has joined their ranks. He is hoping to find the few essentials we have run out of and need for supper: butter, juice… We need fresh parsley, too, but that is always tricky. You are not supposed to buy parsley; you ask for it after you have ordered all the other fruits and vegetables, because there is no charge for it. The market is just a little out of the way for a cold evening. The local chino will not have any produce, but he is our go-to place of choice now that we live post-gentrification and have seen so many traditional shops close. We will do without parsley. Carlos is going to the chino.
As I look out the window I see that the chino’s street is still caked with ice. He hasn’t been so lucky. Today is the fifth or sixth day —I’ve lost count— since the snowstorm that hit us last Friday subsided. Being an American, I would have expected snowplows to come out immediately. But it was only this morning that our street was cleared. Of course there is a row —conducted chiefly in the social media—over the inaction, with the local government —city and community—seeking in vain to shift the blame on to the central government. I wonder what the chino is making of all of this. Is he sneering inwardly, thinking that they would have handled all this much better in China? I do not doubt it. When the news of Covid 19 broke, back in February he was the first in the neighbourhood to wear a mask. We thought he was exaggerating. And then when he saw that his customers were not following suit, he quickly shut his doors. Carlos remembers him gesticulating furiously about the nonchalance of madrileños. Yet a few doors down the block another shopkeeper, a young woman, shrugged when I commented on the chino’s disappearance. “This government… What do you expect? Nobody knows what to do.” I really did not want her to go on. I loved the old-fashioned household goods she sold— baskets and linen kitchen towels —and she was breaking the illusion of bonhomie. So I did what I sometimes do to head off a political impasse: I said. “Well, I´m not from here.” But in a few days she also closed.
Today, however, was a good day to stay at home and collect myself. Because every day since the American elections has been nerve-wracking. Probably Americans at home do not understand how closely events there have been followed here. At least that is what you might conclude from reading the papers. There was seldom a day when the elections and their fallout were not in the headlines and leading the foreign news (pp. 2-3). I have come to admire how shrewd some of the correspondents are.
But now it is as if the clouds have lifted. For how long we de not know. I can almost forget that I have to wear a mask if I go out of doors and stand as far from others as I can.
Work goes on, such as it is. I sent off some translations (ones that pay), opened the newspapers, and for the first time in a long time felt I could afford only to glance at them. Because the anxiety of American politics —the mob attempt on Congress on January 6th and Trump’s impeachment— is behind us, no matter what trouble lies ahead. Although I have never sympathized with the Republicans, I feel a strange comfort now in knowing that not all the lawmakers in that party have abandoned their principles. There is some hope and it was tangible when ten members of Congress crossed the aisle. (Or do they say that only of the Senate?)
My luxury today was to sit down and tie up loose ends. I reviewed the translation I had done of Religio, for it is going to be published! That entailed going through the several files I had allowed to accumulate on my laptop. I was half-afraid I would find a swarm of variants to deal with —and have to decide which one I really liked— in order to finalize the text. Will wonders never cease? I decided I would go with the original submission. The variants all fell away like husks.
And when Carlos comes back from shopping I report my happiness, “You are in English now!” And tell me how on earth you ever wrote those words. I joke, but deep down I mean it.
He never saw the variants; I spared him that. I remember that I must have driven one poet to distraction when I constantly changed my mind about the final draft of the translations I had done. We went back and forth over the years! Though she was unfailingly polite with me, she found it necessary at one point —no doubt out of exasperation— to say that all I was proposing to her now were metrical variations. At the time, as I stared at that carefully composed message, I thought: Well, yes! Wasn’t that the point? I wasn’t translating prose, after all! Really!
But of course in time I came to see that I had been asking for the impossible.
It was always a matter of trusting one’s own ear. The translator places her bets.
Through my window I can see that the sickle moon in the sky, looking like the letter D, is really a crescent moon. I will tell Carlos I have made my decisions.
I would not mislead anybody. I have not taken on anything so ambitious as a translation of all of Rosalía de Castro, nor have I even produced more than a sample. But I have a long acquaintance with her poetry and I am so taken with its rhythms and its daring that I have come to hear some of the poems in English. And that is almost always where I start from as a translator, from hearing a voice. After the work of reading and interpretation, after weighing the meanings of words (so changeable through time!) and considering how sound and stress and lineation affect them, then a voice can be heard a voice speaking English with its own cadences and demanding some recollection of voices of the past. Translation of a poem is always a bit serendipitous. Rosalía, whether writing in Spanish or in her maternal Galician, has an oral tradition behind her for which there is no equivalent in English and which, like all oral poetry, has vanished. When it has survived on the printed page it teases us with a different world-view that we are hard put to reconstruct.
But with these caveats- in mind –or, rather, despite them– I translated three poems that I had marked with a star when discussing them in class. I asked students to bear in mind that Rosalía de Castro grew up in a rural setting, and that even though she was of the middle class, she made the social concerns and outlook of the Galician peasants, and especially, the women, her own. “Tecín soia a miña tea” (the translation of which I posted earlier on 28 August 2020) is best imagined as the point of view of a Galician woman whose husband has emigrated. In Follas Novas she refers to women who are left alone as the “widows of the living”, for in the middle of Galicia’s great famine in the 19th C., the “man of the house” might be gone for years and sometimes never return. Emigration to America was a way Galician men found a living up until the early 20th C.
In the absence of men in the household, the rural speaker evokes a life of toil and loneliness. But notice that she does so by calling on medieval motifs: the faithful turtledove, for example, or the appeal to nature to correspond to her sentiment.
In the other poems I have translated –“Cando penso que te fuches” or ” Cada noite eu chorando pensaba”– the persona is different, more erudite and more ironic, and the poems derive their force from the contrast between the modern woman’s expression of loss and the collective motifs found in medieval songbooks, such as lovers’ separation at dawn, or the rejoicing in the night as the time of meeting. There is thwarted desire in the lament, even if its open expression would have been taboo in the poet’s day. The modernity of the voice does not stem solely from its irony but from its inflection of collective sentiment: its raising of soidá [soledad] to a mystery of lonely resignation over what never came to be.
Image: from Bestiario, Luis Seoane and Alberto Girri, 1976
Three poems from Follas novas, 1880 (trans. from the Galician)