Translators’ Note

Ulalume González de León is a poet, translator, essayist and story writer who died in 2009. The recipient of prestigious literary awards, her poems and translations regularly appeared in journals beside the works of Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, Milan Kundera, Czeslaw Milosz, Susan Sontag and others. Octavio Paz said she was “the best female Mexican poet since Sor Inés de la Cruz.” Her work has been, and continues to be, the subject of academic treatises and popular reviews. A Google search of her name today finds 36,000 results. And yet, she is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. Since the early 1970s, when she first began publishing, only a handful of her poems have been translated into English.

In her book, Indentidad y memoria en las poetas mexicanas del siglo xx (Identity and memory in Mexican women poets of the 20th Century), Gloria Vergara says that González de León “transforms the poetic material to give a place to the fragmentation and indefinition of the body,” what she calls an “itinerant identity,” an identity in constant dialogue with the world, constantly changing. For Vergara, González de León’s poetics are an endless journey, “a spiral and a flow of inverted mirrors; networks that never end mark us in the paradoxical task of naming ourselves through the ineffable.”

In his introduction to Plagios, a compilation of poems by González de León published in 2001, Octavio Paz reflects on the poem “Written Garden”:

The starting point is the act of writing: there is a remembered garden that brings forth, on the page and in the mental ear, an imagined garden. Between the garden we remember and the garden we invent is an uninhabited space.

As Paz tells us, Ulalume’s poems are diaphanous, a “poetry to see…” But if we try to touch them, “they disintegrate.”

Hers is a poetics of disappearance [which] unfolds into its opposite: appearance. But what do we see? Not the reality seen nor the reality imagined or remembered. We see a third reality, although we cannot describe it, there, quietly before us, like the fronds moved by the invisible wind that blows among the leaves… A reality without density, without body or flavor, more form than idea, more vision than form. The eyes see but their visions dissipate, mined by the imagination, which is not—like memory—one of the forms assumed by time.

In 2014, Terry Ehret, Nancy Morales and John Johnson began translating the poetry of Ulalume González de León. For John and Nancy, who were unfamiliar with her work, it was the beginning of a wonderful adventure. For John: “Ulalume’s poetry reminds us over and over that we live in a world of others, among the words of others, and that we are all participants in the act of meaning-making, which is above all a pleasure.” For Nancy: “This project has been an incredible exploration into the creation of meaning from words. It has stretched us and given us new perspectives and ways of owning our voices while living in harmony with the voices around us.” But for Terry, who discovered González de León many years ago, it was an opportunity to fulfill an abiding desire:

In 1982, as a graduate student, I first discovered Ulalume González de León in the iconic text Prose Poem: An International Anthology, edited by Michael Benedict, which featured a long poem of hers, “Anatomy of Love.” Instantly, I was enthralled by the language: richly erotic imagery blending anatomical and scientific vocabulary in an unconventional syntax; and to discover just how this poem’s magic worked, I experimented with one section, “la recherche du corps perdu” (the search for the lost body). I dismantled the language, organizing the words by parts of speech; then I reassembled them in new patterns, rather like the process of recombinant DNA, to create a kind of “mutant” poem. This became “Lost Body,” the title poem of my first collection.

Most of all, what drew me to this poet is a sense of the ephemeral nature of identity, how dependent it is upon the ever-shifting ground of language and memory, and a quality Octavio Paz described as “a geometry of air.” Translating her poems has been a goal of mine ever since first discovering her, though it is challenging because, in Paz’s words, “if we seek to touch them, they disintegrate.” Nonetheless, John and Nancy and I hope to bring these poems into an English that retains at least some of the complexity and delicacy of her Spanish originals.

Terry Ehret, one of the founders of Sixteen Rivers Press, has published four collections of poetry, most recently Night Sky Journey from Kelly’s Cove Press. Literary awards include the National Poetry Series, California Book Award, Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize, Nomination for the Northern California Book Reviewer’s Award, and five Pushcart Prize nominations. From 2004-2006, she served as the poet laureate of Sonoma County where she lives and teaches writing.

Nancy J. Morales, a first-generation American of Puerto Rican parents, earned her Bachelor’s degree from Rutgers College, a Master’s in teaching English as a Second Language from Adelphi University, and a Doctorate in Education from Teachers College at Columbia University. She has taught at Dominican University and College of Marin, California State University, Sonoma, and other schools, from elementary to graduate levels. Currently she is a board member for the Northern California Chapter of the Fulbright Alumni Association, and teaches Spanish to private clients.

John Johnson’s poetry has appeared in many print and online journals, including BOXCAR Poetry Review, Chaparral, Clade Song, Triggerfish Critical Review, and Web Conjunctions. He is a long-time student of the Spanish language, and has studied letter-press printing with Iota Press of Sebastopol, producing chapbooks and bilingual broadsides.