Uruguay Poets

Uruguay: Turning the Poetic Map Upside Down

Uruguay, with a population of only 3.3 million people, is the smallest Spanish speaking country in South America. It is nestled—or squeezed depending on your point of view—between its larger Spanish-speaking cultural “big brother” Argentina and giant Portuguese-speaking Brazil.

But for such a small country, it has always produced a startlingly high number of fine poets. The international prominence of Uruguayan poetry stretches from the Uruguayan-born Isidore Ducasse, the Comte de Lautréamont (1846-1870), whose book Les Chants de Maldoror served as inspiration for the French surrealists to Julio Herrera y Reissig (1875-1910) whose work influenced the development of Spanish language poets from César Vallejo to Pablo Neruda to the poets of the Generation of ’45, a group which included Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Amanda Berenguer (1921-2010), Idea Vilariño (1920- 2009) and Ida Vitale (1923- ) whose legacy still casts a long shadow over South American writers. Within this group, Berenguer, Vilariño, and Vitale are part of a strong line of Uruguayan women poets starting with the early poets Juana de Ibarbourou (1885-1979), whose image appears on the Uruguayan $1000 peso note, and Delmira Agustini (1886-1914) and continuing in an unbroken line through the Generation of ’45 to the present. Whenever I read an anthology of Latin American poetry that is woefully short of women poets (which is too often), I think that all the editors needed to do was go to Uruguay.

However, until the last few years, Uruguayan poetry has been difficult to find in English translation. This has started to change and to change rapidly. There has been a new edition of Benedetti, Witness: The Selected Poems of Mario Benedetti (White Pine, 2012) translations by Louise B. Popkin; two collections of the surreal prose poems of Marosa di Giorgio, Diadem: Selected Poems (BOA Editions, 2012) translations by Adam Giannelli, and The History of Violets (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), translations by Jeannine Marie Pitas; my own The Invisible Bridge/ El Puente Invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) and more. In addition, there have been several new anthologies, Contemporary Uruguayan Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg, PA, 2010), Hotel Lautréamont: Contemporary Poetry from Uruguay (Shearsman Books, Bristol, United Kingdom, 2011), Touching the Light of Day: Six Uruguayan Poets (Veliz Books, 2016) translations by the Uruguayan poet Laura Chalar; and the anthology I edited, América invertida: Anthology of  Emerging Uruguayan Poets, which has just been released by University of New Mexico Press. That anthology paired twenty-two Uruguayan poets under forty with American-based poets who are also translators. It was a project that I hoped would lead to more translation and that expectation has been met with collections published or forthcoming from five of the young poets in the anthology. Victoria Estol, Karen Wild Díaz, Paula Simonetti, Martín Barea Mattos and Javier Etchevarren.

But that still leaves many wonderful Uruguayan poets and poems to be translated. For Drunken Boat, I selected fifteen living Uruguayan poets. This time, unlike with América invertida, there were no age restrictions. The poets included here range in age from Ida Vitale who, at 93, is the last poet left alive of the Generation of ’45, to Karen Wild Díaz who, at 32, represents the emerging poets writing and living in Uruguay now. Each poet was paired with their own translator who was either familiar with the poet’s work or with Uruguayan poetry. As a non-Uruguayan, I am leery of summarizing the country’s history, but I know from my own experiences how little is known about Uruguay outside its borders and how little it resembles the Latin America of most readers’ imaginations, so I will go over a few of the basics, explaining their effect on Uruguayan poetry as I go.

Uruguay has the fewest people per acre of land of any country in South America, with vast stretches inhabited by the beef cattle that have long been the backbone of the Uruguayan economy. People often told me there were 4 cattle in Uruguay for every person (12 million cows for 3 million people, more or less) and I have driven long stretches seeing only cows. But this can be misleading. Uruguay is also an urban country. More than half, 1.7 million of its 3.3 million people, live in the capital Montevideo. The political, educational and cultural life of the country is centered there. This is certainly true of poetry. For Uruguay, Montevideo = Paris. Poets are born in Salto, Tacuarembó, Artigas, Melo but tend to end up living and working in Montevideo. This has made it the center of poetic life. Many nights during the fall, winter and spring, there is not one, but two or even three book launches or poetry readings in Montevideo at the same time. But there are always exceptions. Circe Maia was born in Montevideo, but has lived and worked nearly all her life in Tacuarembó, making her the opposite of the more typical Washington Benavides, also from Tacuarembó, or Mario Benedetti, from the nearby small town of Pasos de los Torres, who live or lived in Montevideo. And there are thriving communities of poets in the smaller towns such as Colonia de Sacramento, Maldonado and the border towns of Artigas and Rivera among others, organized more easily, and made more visible, now thanks to social media.

With a few exceptions, Spanish is the language of poetry in Uruguay. There is no existing, culturally distinct indigenous population. Uruguay has a sad history in this regard, one people regret now. In 1831, the remnants of the native Charrúas were lured into a ravine named Salsipuedes (ironically “Get out if you can”), on orders of Uruguay’s first president, Fructuoso Rivera, and slaughtered. In 1833, the last four surviving Charrúas were taken to Paris, France, where they were exhibited to the public. They died there. When I was in Uruguay in 2011, the street signs on the avenue named after Rivera were often covered over with stickers reading “Salsipuedes” and there are many poems that address this sad history, but it does mean Uruguay, unlike many Latin American countries, does not have a separate native language poetry.

This history also means that Uruguay is a country of immigrants, of people who came from Spain, England, France and even Russia. Approximately one fourth of Uruguayans are of Italian descent and Italian has had a strong influence on Uruguayan ríoplatense Spanish. Indeed. Uruguay, like neighboring Argentina, has often been accused by other Latin American countries of thinking of itself as European. One of the popular rock band El Cuarteto de Nos’s best known songs, “No Somos Latinos” makes fun of this (or celebrates this—depending on your point of view), with lyrics like: 

In Columbia they call me “gringo”/ and German in Santa Domingo./ In Honduras, Panama and Venezuela/ they have no idea where Uruguay is./ I prefer to talk with a Swiss philosopher/ than a Guatemalan Indian and have more in common with a Romanian than with a mestizo Bolivian.

There is also a small but culturally important Afro-Uruguayo population, descended from freed slaves, that is centered in Montevideo. It’s influence has been strongest in music, but music and poetry have always been closely connected in Uruguay. Virginia Brindis de Salas (1908–1958) and Pilar Barrios (1889-1974) were two important Afro-Uruguayo poets.

Literarily, Uruguay has always felt close to European countries, especially to France, to England (Shakespeare is important and many poets have translated him) and, more recently, the U.S.. When I asked the young poets in América invertida to list the non-Uruguayan poets who had influenced them, the list included César Vallejo, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Celan, Antonin Artaud, the Montevideo-born French poet Jules Supervielle, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Fernando Pessoa, Constantino Cavafy, Ted Hughes and a list of Americans starting with Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Ezra Pound and Charles Olson. The most commonly cited non-Spanish language poet was Walt Whitman.

The majority of Uruguayans are nominally Catholic, but since 1916 Uruguay has had complete separation of church and state. For example Santa Semana, Holy Week, which is the center of public religious displays in most of Latin America, in Uruguay is the nearly always called Semana de turismo, basically Spring Break Week (though Easter is in the fall in the Southern Hemisphere). Schools close for the holiday and everyone is encouraged to travel into the interior of Uruguay for gaucho and folk festivals though, when the economy is good, they often chose to hop a ferry to Buenos Aires to shop instead. Religious imagery or language is rarer in Uruguayan poetry than other Latin American poetry or in the U.S. Though Selva Casal, in her poem here, “Christ is a tortured man” uses that central figure of Christianity to explore all the violence man does in the world. There is also an important and visible Jewish community, centered in Montevideo, which includes survivors of the Holocaust as well as more recent immigrants from Argentina. The grandparents of poet Laura Cesarco Eglin, whose work is included here, were Holocaust survivors, something she writes movingly about this in her second book Sastraría.

Through most of its modern history, Uruguay has also been a more middle class country than most in Latin America, with less income inequality. Uruguay pioneered universal, free education in the Americas and, since the 1870s, it has had compulsory primary education. It has a higher literacy rate (98.5%) than the U.S. and the rate for women is even slightly higher (98.9%). This, and the relative income equality, are often cited as the reason for the large number of women poets. Uruguay’s years of greatest prosperity—and democracy—in the last hundred years were during WWI, WW II, and the Korean War when Uruguay was a country at peace and sold goods to those who were not.

This is where the life of the first poet featured here in Drunken Boat joins this thumbnail history. The Montevideo where Ida Vitale and the other Generation of  ’45 prospered for two decades was a democracy, open to art, journalism, and criticism. But as the economy worsened after the Korean War and into the 1960s, Cold War political trends, already evident in other Latin American countries, arrived in Uruguay. The military seized power in 1973. Uruguay soon had the highest per capita percentage of political prisoners in the world. Emigration from Uruguay rose drastically, as large numbers of Uruguayans looked for political asylum throughout the world. Most of the Generation of ’45 writers were forced into exile. In 1973, Ida Vitale fled to Mexico City for political asylum. Other poets returned to Montevideo when civilian rule and democracy were restored in 1983, but Ida Vitale did not. She currently lives in Austin, Texas. When Uruguayans read poems written during this period, they are always looking for hidden language, hidden meaning. And even with a poem written later, such as Vitale’s “Armar a un conejo”/ “To Love A Rabbit,” it is easy to see the rabbit in question as Uruguay as much as an uncaring pet. “They gave you a rabbit./ Let you love it/ without explaining/ that it’s useless to love/ what pays you no mind.” Alfredo Fressia (1948-) , though two decades younger than Vitale, also left Uruguay, in his case for Brazil. Though he returns to visit, he has never returned to live. His poem “Tarjeta postal”/ “Postcard” reflects on this heartbreaking truth: “Night view of downtown/ Montevideo, I don’t recognize the violet/ air of the streets . . . I won’t die in Montevideo”.

The dictatorship changed the lives of Ida Vitale and Alfredo Fressia, but it is a wound that runs through all the generations of poets included here, down to the youngest. Circe Maia lost her teaching position and her husband was sent to prison, an event she writes about in her autobiographical novel, Un Viaje a Salto/ A Trip to Salto (Swan Isle Press, 2004, translated by Stephanie Stewart). Many other Uruguayans, including the poet Tatiana Oroño, lost their jobs during the dictatorship and were unable to work or teach. None of the other poets included here born before 1980, Selva Casal (1930- ), Jorge Arbeleche (1943- ), Luis Bravo (1957- ) or Silvia Guerra (1961-) escaped the effect on their lives, work or education and that is reflected, at times, in their poetry. Even the youngest poets included here, Javier Etchevarren (1979- ), Fabián Severo (1981- ) and Karen Wild Díaz (1984- ), who have lived most of their lives in a post-1983, post-dictatorship world of democracy, have had to deal with the ongoing political and personal repercussions of living in a very small country where, for example, the former Tupamaro guerrilla leader José Mujica can serve as a senator with and run for president against Pedro Bordaberry, the son of the former president Juan María Bordaberry who put Mujica in solitary confinement.

But democracy did return to Uruguay. Poets like Luis Bravo and Martín Barea Mattos cast a witty and at times satirical eye to contemporary Uruguayan life. Boom and bust capitalism made poverty and inequality seem even more unfair and Javier Etchevarren responded by writing about growing up in poverty in Montevideo, “My mother saved us all three of us from hunger,/ that voracious emptiness/ that attacks children in broad daylight” while Fabián Severo wrote about what it was like to grow up poor and isolated on the northern Brazilian frontier, “Every five years/ they come and promise bread.” Virginia Lucas, Melisa Machado, and Karen Wild Díaz all turned their attention, in one way or another, to the place of women in Uruguayan society, to what their bodies mean to them and what is done to women’s bodies. Tatiana Oroño writes about poetry itself, and her poem about writing a poem, to me, says everything about how Uruguayans approach being a poet:

in place of peeling an orange
writing the poem:
                                   scalp
                                   I take
                                   without wrecking havoc
                                   cleanly
at the hour that I live.

The title for América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets is taken from the 1943 drawing of the continent upside down by Joaquín Torres García, whose work was just the subject of a major retrospective exhibit, “Joaquín Torres García: The Arcadian Modern,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Founding his art school, Taller del sur, in Montevideo, Torres García said it is “the School of the South because  . . . we now turn the map upside down, and then we have a true idea of our position”.  I will close with that quotation, with the idea of the poetry of Uruguay in plain view, not hidden, but visible at the top of the poetic world where it belongs.

Jesse Lee Kercheval
Folio Editor
August 2016

Jesse Lee Kercheval

Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of fourteen books of poetry, fiction and memoir as well as a translator, specializing in Uruguayan poetry. Her translations include The Invisible Bridge / El puente invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia. She is the editor of América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets and a recipient of a  2016 National Endowment Fellow in  Translation.