Kathryn M. Mayers's Visions of Empire in Colonial Spanish American Ekphrastic Writing is an intricately conceived, densely composed study of how instances of ekphrasis in colonial-era writing expressed strains of resistive criollismo. Mayers's reading of ekphrasis—defined broadly as the written representation of visual artifacts—argues that the genre opened a discourse in Spanish American literature counter to Iberian-oriented structures of power. Her thesis is dynamically transatlantic in its scope. As the book presents it, examples of ekphrastic expression in Spanish poet Luis de Góngora's writing manifested opposition to concepts of centralized power. Mayers asserts that similar expressions were penned by Spanish American authors Hernando Domínguez Camargo, Juan de Espinosa Medrano, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Their ekphrastic writing, Mayers maintains, reveals ideologies articulating Creole social and political positions. Mayers suggests that their use of Gongoristic word-pictures expressed a unique position in relationship to the European metropolis, as well as to non-European groups in Latin America.
Chapter one explains the nature of ekphrasis and its critical history, offering insight into how the technique manifested in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as a contestation to established power structures. It is here that Mayers lays out her multilayered thesis that combines interpretations of ekphrastic works, with a comparative approach to Góngoran-styled writing, with an examination of Creole self-articulation. Mayers's second chapter carefully considers Góngora's implementation of ekphrasis in his poetry, arguing convincingly for how it contradicted the philosophical assumptions of imperial colonialism. It is this encoded position, moving counter to prevailing thought, that Mayers maintains could have proven appealing to Creole writers in Spanish America. She uses the chapter to define three types of ekphrases that Góngora employed in his poetry that contested centers of power: the cornucopia (depictions of abundance), the icon (representative imagery), and the portrait. These emerge in the writings of the three colonial authors whose works are examined in the balance of the book.
In chapter three, Mayers implements this comparative analysis in examining the representation of cornucopiae in Colombian poet Domínguez Camargo's Poema heróico a San Ignacio de Loyola, an epic, baroque-style poem treating the life of the Jesuit order's founder. A background discussion of the poem's interpretation as a Gongoristic work and then as nationalistic literature gives way to Mayers's insightful reading of the poem's depictions of scenes of abundance. As Mayers explains it, Domínguez Camargo's enumerations of natural products and animals distract readers from the linear epic narrative of St. Ignatius's life. This abundance, Mayers argues, is simultaneously ascribed American origins. Mayers contends that in this sense Domínguez Camargo's cornucopiae function as did Góngora's, "[challenging] the discourse of empire … [and inflecting] this literary challenge with a distinctly American political character" (73). While this "ekphrastic recalibration and resemanticization" of the epic form installs the Americas at its center, Mayers is quick to point out it does not completely upend prevailing Peninsular-determined [End Page 485] social stratification. The forced Amerindian labor that produced the cornucopiae appears as a stylized representation in the poem, resulting in the disarticulation of the European-origin Creole from subaltern groups.
In chapter four's reading of Peruvian Medrano's Apologético en favor de don Luis de Góngora (1660), Mayers asserts that the elaboration of two icons in the text "places Creoles at the symbolic center of Spain's Peruvian empire by endowing them with a brand of moral authority that peninsulares themselves did not enjoy" (88). Written against the historical backdrop of conflict among Spanish colonizers, as well as between colonizers and Amerindians, Mayers contends that Medrano's description of a popular sixteenth-century emblem of a dog barking at the moon follows in Góngora's tendency to reproduce and parody such images. Through what Mayers terms the "fractalization" of the icon, its central theme—a foolish dog barking in vain at the wise moon—is complicated. It suggests the author...