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Isolation and Independence

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
pp. 21-22 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0052

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Uruguayan poet Delmira Agustini (1886–1914) is considered the first woman poet of Spanish-American literature. Her innovations left a legacy for such twentieth-century poets as Gabriela Mistral, Alfonsina Storni, and Juana de Ibarbourou and beyond. Now, we have an homage and splendid literary biography, complete with photos, by the literary scholar and professor Cathy L. Jrade. This is a welcome start to the series from Yale University Press. Envisioned by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, general editor, the plan is for a collection of studies to focus on iconic artists and authors of Spain and Latin America “grounded in thorough and original scholarship…accessible to the educated nonspecialist.” Anyone interested in Latin American poetry will look forward to this series, for there are few biographies and translations of Latin-American poets whose names are not already familiar to North-American ears.

Much has been written in Spanish and English about Agustini’s poetry in articles, dissertations, and texts on modernism in Latin-American literature. However, only one other biography on Agustini exists in English, which was published in 2009 by William James and entitled Dependence, Independence, and Death: Toward a Psychobiography of Delmira Agustini. Of note is a play about Agustini produced in Chicago by Judy Veramendi. Jrade’s credentials reveal her passion and scholarship for not only Latin-American modernist literature but for Delmira Agustini’s work in particular. She was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for her research, entitled “Delmira Agustini: A Modernist on her own Terms, 2004–2005.” She has also published numerous articles in English and Spanish on Rubén Darío, the founder of modernismo of which Delmira Agustini only recently has been recognized as a part. The preface tells us that it was while teaching a class that she became convinced Agustini’s work had more depth and intricacy than had been admitted into the previous critical discourse.

The first chapter brings us into the life and times of the period and briefly tells us about Agustini’s life. She lived in the city of Montevideo until her life was cut short by her murder. Filing for divorce after barely two months of marriage, Agustini secretly met with her husband in a hotel room he rented. On July 6, 1914, he shot her and then himself. The circumstances are unknown—rendered on stage or film, this tragedy would yield rich drama. An example of her independence, filing for divorce, though legalized in 1907, was a “dramatic break from normative behavior.” With in-depth discussions of Agustini’s four volumes, one posthumous, Professor Jrade, also the translator of her poetry, exposes the layers of literary complexity poem by poem. Professor Jrade here fully elucidates the skill behind Agustini’s stature within the modernismo movement. Revealed are her obsession with writing and her “accomplished and dynamic” language, a language that expressed a desire for freedom that existed in the liberal laws but not in the world of her experience.

Agustini combined what became her interpretation of modernismo and its symbols, such as the swan, with the creation of a female persona who was the antithesis of the passive Latina: an assertive sexual being intent on empowerment. Modernismo was a distinct movement reflective of the growing desire of Latin America for an identity separate from Spain and its traditional romantic literature. It originated with the Ecuadorean poet, Rubén Darío, who is recognized as among the greatest Spanish language poets since the seventeenth century. It is widely argued that it was because of Darìo’s energetic advocacy that Agustini became celebrated in literary circles from early in her career. But according to Jrade, “[o]ne can hardly ignore the reluctant praise Darìo bestows on women…[or] his tepid endorsement” of Agustini’s collection, Los calices vacios (The Empty Chalices) published a year before her death. He reviewed this third volume of poetry saying, “Of all the women writing poetry today, none has impressed my spirit as has Delmira Agustini, for her soul without veils and her heart of flowers.” He also refers to her in the review as “esta niña bella” (this beautiful girl). She presented herself as...


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