“I went writing your name on leaves of Amaranth,” begins “Language Without Words” from Oneiromancy, the newly translated collection by Winétt de Rokha. These poems, translated by Jessica Sequeira, are a fascinating addition to the history of Latin American modernism.
Originally published in 1942, the poems in Oneiromancy capture the surrealist explosion and the early modernist object fascination. Winétt de Rokha was often overshadowed by the fame of her husband, writer Pablo de Rokha, one of Chile’s four most notable poets. But this collection demonstrates a wholly modern voice whose concerns would persist across the century and resonate, still, today.
Her observations evoke the early modernism of Argentina’s Martin Fierro Magazine. But there is, from the start, a more insistent leftism. She co-edited with her husband the Chilean Communist and Anti-fascist magazine Multitud. And within that context, expressed a resonant solidarity with social protest and social justice, seen also in this collection in poems celebrating the Popular Front and the “Mothers Against Fascism”. She writes,
Damp town, town fragrant with acacias and cardinals,
on your somber back a century rests and stretches.
There is the worn-out and always mended skirt
of the girl with the little pitchers…when she raises her hands, reddish from the autumn sun,
she illuminates the afternoon.
It’s covered with dried flowers.
With images and objects, embedded in language, de Rokha draws on the modernist tradition of expression through examination. The little pitchers speak, even as they evoke the surrealist image of Messalina and her jars, popularized by André Breton’s Arcanum 17. This fascination, the object within the system of reference, moves within modernism from Gertrude Stein to Brazil’s Neo-Concretist movement of the 1950s. Other poems fall more centrally within the surrealist and symbolist mode:
The joy of thinking beyond the wind,
of being the red seagull that turns amidst suns
while the others, grey,
paint white the surface of the ocean.
De Rokha demonstrates the anti-colonialism that would become famous in later Latin American avant-garde traditions, perhaps most famously in Oswald de Andrade’s Cannibal Manifesto, and Flavio de Carvalho’s “City for the Naked Man.” There persists across 20th century Latin American modernism, a tendency to incorporate indigenous myth and practice as a rejection of the corporate and military vision of the world. This tendency itself has obvious colonial baggage, but de Rokha mirrors her contemporary avant garde milieu in evoking the Mapuche of Chile. She writes of totems, “What pedestal of quicksand/ held up your primal and desolate naked body?”
One of the most compelling aspects of Winétt de Rokha’s collection is the way she gives voice to a women’s modernism in Latin America. There is a sense of unfinished business with this work. And uncertainness, she writes, “And as I am afraid of not recognizing myself,/ I threw them beneath the hair of the sun,/ with madness, with human misery.”
This writing, resonantly modern and intimate in its passions and insecurities, must be recognized within its proper standing in the history of the Latin American avant garde. Winétt de Rokha is not a writer to be overshadowed or known mainly by the association to her husband, but a voice to be taken in full consideration on its own well-deserved merit.