Álvarez Writes on War Trauma, Healing

Matías Berretta, Staff Writer

On April 17, a lazy Sunday afternoon, the light of Ohio’s long-missed sun flooded through the French windows of Harvey House. The siesta spell broke as Language Teaching Assistant in Hispanic Studies Gabriela Garcia Greco picked up a microphone to greet the audience and introduce award-winning Venezuelan poet and professor María Auxiliadora Álvarez. Álvarez’s reading marked the start of a series of events by Idea(r), a project that seeks to promote Spanish-language creative writing on campus.

Álvarez framed her poetry as intimate and frugal, inviting the listeners to share the experience of the poem with her. Reading from her latest book, Piedra en: U, as well as from her sizeable anthology, Las Nadas y Las Noches, the poet spoke on a variety of subjects, from learning a new language at the expense of losing another to the irreversible aftermath of war.

At its most poignant, Álvarez’s poetry speaks of loss beyond melancholy and redemption and of surviving soldiers who open their eyes to find trauma has blinded them from a stable reality. At the same time, her words speak of healing. In Piedras de Reposo, the speaker addresses her son to impart wisdom about suffering. “Dejate ir / dejate ir,” (Let yourself go / let yourself go) she tells her son, promising that “del otro lado del sufrimiento hay una orilla,” (at the other side of suffering / there is a shore).

The reading spanned decades of work, which allowed for a rare sort of retrospection. Álvarez said that although she does not relate to some of the subjects she wrote about in her youth as strongly as she did back then, the voice of the poems was still familiar. She wasn’t aware of her poetry’s archival nature, yet she found it only natural that her experimental work builds a narrative of herself over time. As it happens, Álvarez’s narrative is quite complex.

Although she grew up in Venezuela, Álvarez spent her formative years in Brazil. By the time she returned to Venezuela at age 21, her poetry, still written in Spanish, had borrowed the structure of Portuguese and the affectation of Brazilian culture, drawing from Brazil’s concrete poetry movement in particular. Her writing didn’t fully fit into the tradition of Venezuelan poetry anymore, and she found herself a stranger in her native country. Now, a teacher at Miami University in Ohio, she is unable to answer the question “Where are you from?” Given the geographical leaps of her life, Álvarez said she feels like a “citizen of the world.”

From a young age, Álvarez chose to live an independent life, prioritizing the development of the self and creative expression above the development of traditional family structures. During a question and answer session afterward, the poet explained how her feminism has evolved over the years. She was more outspoken in her youth, yet her feminism gradually adapted, taking on a more personal and idiosyncratic quality that expressed itself naturally through her work and way of life.

The entire reading was in Spanish — Álvarez never performs translations of her work. At most, when her audience involves non-Spanish speakers, she’ll project an English translation on a screen behind her. This approach stems from the belief that language is limited by its cultural context, so a translation is not so much a replication but an entirely new creation. Álvarez said she feels like she would be reading someone else’s poetry if she were to read her works in translation. As an example, she said she grew up loving the Spanish translations of the German-language poet Paul Celan, only to fall in love again — but with what she considered to be a completely different voice — when she read the English translations of his work 40 years later.

Álvarez appeared genuinely excited to hear about Oberlin’s Translation Symposium, conjecturing that the future of literature lies in the dialogue between different languages and the cultures they carry.