Today’s Google Doodle celebrates Rosario Castellanos, one of the most important Mexican woman writers of the 20th century, who was born on May 25, 1925. She died in 1974.
Castellanos wrote poetry, essays, short stories, and novels. The daughter of wealthy parents who lost most of their money under Lázaro Cárdenas’s land reform, Castellanos produced work that grappled with class, nationality, and gender. Her master’s thesis, Sobre cultura femenina ("On Feminine Culture") has been described as "the intellectual starting point for the liberation of Mexican women." Wrote fellow Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco, "Nobody in her time had as clear a consciousness of the twofold condition of being a woman and a Mexican."
So today, on what would be Castellanos’s 91st birthday, let’s take a moment to talk about her work. In particular, let’s look at the title poem from her 1927 collection, Poesía no eres tú (Poetry Is Not You, published in English as The Selected Poems of Rosario Castellanos).
"Poetry Is Not You" is a response to one of the most celebrated poems in the Spanish language. That poem is by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, the Spanish romantic poet, and it’s called "Rima 21." Here’s Michael Smith’s English translation:
What is poetry? You ask
as you fix your blue eyes on mine.
What is poetry! And it’s you who ask me?
Poetry … it is you.
Read one way, it’s a romantic little piece of lyricism about a lover telling his beloved that she is so profound and perfect and artistic that she embodies the very soul of poetry.
Read another way, it’s solipsistic, a reminder that the place of the man is to create art as the poet, and the place of the woman is to inspire art as the muse, reflecting the man’s thoughts back to him rather than having her own. There are two distinct, gendered, and utterly separate roles in this relationship.
Fuck that noise, says Castellanos. In Magda Bogin’s English translation of "Poetry Is Not You":
"Poetry Is Not You"
Because if you existed
I’d have to exist too. And that’s a lie.
There is nothing more than ourselves: the couple,
two sexes reconciled in a chile,
two heads together, not contemplating each other
(so as not to turn either one into a mirror)
but staring straight ahead, at the other.
The other: mediator, judge, equilibrium
of opposites, witness,
knot in which what was broken is retied.
The other, muteness that begs a voice
from the one who speaks
and demands the ear of the one who listens.
The other. With the other,
humanity, dialogue, poetry, begin.
Where Bécquer imagines two distinct roles in the conflated artistic and romantic relationships — poet and poetry, man and woman, self and other — Castellanos muddies the self/other binary. For her, it’s in the blurry boundaries between the self and the other that poetry lies.