On Sunday, June 22, 1947, a sonnet appeared in the Arts & Letters section of La Tribuna, the daily newspaper of El Salvador. Perfectly constructed in rhyme and meter, the poem was dedicated to the most famous of El Salvador’s poetesses of that era, Claudia Lars. The writer of the poem was Lydia Nogales, a woman whose work might have gone unnoticed that first time around, had there not been an embarrassing typo in the title. Instead of “Holocausto”, it had been typeset as, “Olocausto”. In addition, one of the country’s great literary critics, Hugo Lindo, had published an article alongside the debut submission, lauding the “gargantuan lyricism of Lydia Nogales”. Only problem was, no one had ever heard of her.
Now, for this to be the least bit of interest to us yeah-whatever, superbly worldly, 21st century readers, you’ll want to imagine society as it existed in a small, Latin American country just after WWII. Conservative, parochial, chauvinistic to a fault, the literary circle of El Salvador was small. To the country’s credit, Salvadorans enjoyed a higher than average number of poets per capita, poetesses included, and they were excellent. Poets around the globe knew and respected Salvadoran literary outpourings. But within the nation, suddenly, out of thin air, appears this full-blown poetic, feminine voice. The questions swirling in parlours and tea salons must have run along the lines of: “Whose wife is she? What kind of husband allows his woman to reveal such things?”
Ten days later, Hugo Lindo was joined by two peers, Alberto Guerra Trigueros, and Manuel José Arce y Valladares, in devoting a full page article to the poetic mastery of the mystery woman. All of them wanted to know, who is this Lydia Nogales, “mature, perfect, fine, a master of inquiry into truth, the tremors of emotion, and the technical demands of verse?”
Lydia Nogales responded by sending a longer, more complex poem—a triptych entitled “Dance of the Hours”—to Arce y Valladares along with a photograph. One can imagine the collective masculine swoon. The image showed a mestiza woman about 24 years old with a glorious abundance of black hair, fearless eyes, and a mysterious smile. At this point, another of El Salvador’s admired poets, Raúl Contreras, said he recognized the woman in the portrait. Lydia Nogales was the daughter of a socially respected couple in San Salvador, whose identity he had promised to keep secret.
The plot thickens, and of course, she strikes again! This time, Lydia Nogales sends a long enneasyllabic poem called, appropriately, “Penumbra”. Enneasyllabic means that each line contains nine syllables, a fairly rare occurrence in Spanish poetry. It’s most often seen in traditional oral verse, where repetition supports accompanying music and dance. The clues piled up. Someone with such an intimate understanding of Salvadoran rural culture could only be…
And this is when things got really crazy. All the male poets of the Arts & Letters circle began accusing each other of being the real Lydia Nogales. The accused went out in search parties to villages and towns, hoping to unmask the real poetess whose understanding of the classics defied logic—and whose earthiness, let’s face it, bordered on the unseemly.
Over the next few years, while rumours ebbed and swirled, Lydia Nogales continued to produce stellar work, and she became famous around the world. One of her biggest supporters was Claudia Lars, the Salvadoran poet to whom Lydia dedicated her first sonnet. Ms. Lars was, at this time, living in the United States and following the Nogales mystery with great fascination. Contrary to gossip mongers, however, Claudia Lars did not view her compatriot with envy or resentment. In fact, she wrote a poem in honour of Lydia Nogales. I will post Claudia Lars’s tribute in Part 2 of “The Problematic Existence of Lydia Nogales” where I conclude the story.
Meanwhile, I offer here the first two poems of Lydia Nogales in order of their appearance 67 years ago. The translation to English is mine, followed by the original Spanish. I have not attempted to replicate the original rhyme and meter. My thanks go out to the late Francisco Andres Escobar for his excellent article on Lydia Nogales and The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & Poetics, 4th Edition, for wakening me to the wonders of Salvadoran poetry.
Light that in solitude ripens ice.
River bed of thirst and curve that it initiates.
Magnet of perfection that lifts and propitiates
the inaccessible beam of my desire.
I don’t know, if in my holocaust, pleasure is grief,
a dart that wounds or a wing that caresses.
A vertex of light? A novice sunrise
tattooed by horizons for its flight?
Ardent at the root: my sound intact
filters a brightness of lantern yet to be
on every thorn of the abstract rosetree,
and in vertigos of abysses and of height
pain burns me, sealing the pact
of ash with pure ember.
Luz que en la soledad madura el hielo.
Cauce de sed y curva que se inicia.
Imán de perfección, que alza y propicia
el faro inaccesible de mi anhelo.
No sé si, en mi holocausto, el goce es duelo,
dardo que hiere o ala que acaricia…
¿Vértice de la luz? ¿Alba novicia
tatuada de horizontes para el vuelo?
Ardiente en la raíz; mí son intacto
filtra un claror de lámpara futura
en cada espina del rosal abstracto.
y en vértigos de abismos y de altura,
se me quema el dolor, sellando el pacto
de la ceniza con la brasa pura.
Dance of the Hours
The sign of departure…but when?
The inexorable flight…but how?
My wings are still made of lead
and he who awaits my arrival is still waiting.
Thus whoever laughs, is thereby singing
the useless part of life that I take on.
If now and then the garden appears,
I give my sweet wisdom to the roses.
Because I know that the time is opportune,
spread out toward sun, wind and moon,
I await miraculous signs…
and before the fragile fear of leaving
I entertain the deception of life
sowing stars and weaving roses.
Weaving roses and sowing stars…
but deception hooks up with vision,
like sound, in the dawn that blunts,
the clear tints and beautiful shadows.
In this openwork of my actions
entangled between my hands is the question:
Who gave me the song? What voice points me
toward the good road and the golden footprints?
I don’t take notice if this lamp that burns
—a sad lamp with cowardly light—
will illuminate my ice in the void…
I only know that, spread out toward sun and wind,
across the dance of hours I feel
the illusion still sings, and the song is mine.
The song is mine and the illusion still sings…
I pulse in my veins and in my thirst foaming.
Vertical desire, that subtracts and adds
the shout that rises from the mud,
and the lead of my wings is not magnetized…
and a double eagerness of transparency and mist
crystallizes my voice, when the humidity
of silences oozes from my throat.
The song is mine…luminous shadow
net for the nocturnal butterfly
that, in deliriums of sunlight, awaits the flame!
How can I leave if the flight intimidates?
I don’t know. But I test the departure
dressing the illusion in wings made of wax…
Danza de las Horas
El signo de partida…pero ¿cuándo?
El vuelo inexorable…pero ¿cómo?
Todavía mis alas son de plomo
y el que espera mi arribo, está
Así como quien ríe, así cantando
la parte inútil de la vida tomo.
Si algunas veces al jardín me asomo,
mi savia dulce a los rosales mando.
Porque sé que la hora es oportuna,
tendida al sol, al viento y a la luna,
aguardo las señales milagrosas…
y ante el frágil temor de la partida,
entretengo el engaño de la vida
sembrando estrellas y tejiendo rosas.
Tejiendo rosas y sembrando estrellas…
Pero el engaño a la visión se junta,
como son, en el alba que despunta,
claros los tintes y las sombras bellas.
En este deshilar de mis querellas
se enreda entre mis manos la pregunta:
¿quién me dio la canción? ¿Qué voz me
el buen camino y las doradas huellas?
Yo ignoro si esta lámpara que arde
– lámpara triste de una luz cobarde –
alumbrará mi hielo en el vacío…
Sólo sé que, tendida al sol y al viento,
sobre la danza de las horas siento
que aún canta la ilusión, y el canto es
El canto es mío y la ilusión aún canta…
Pulso en mis venas y en mi sed espuma.
Anhelo vertical, que resta y suma
el grito que del barro se levanta.
y el plomo de mis alas no se imanta …
y un doble afán de transparencia y
cristaliza mi voz, cuando rezuma
humedad de silencios mi garganta.
El canto es mío… ¡Sombra luminosa,
red para la nocturna mariposa
que, en delirios de sol, la llama espera!
¿Cómo partir si el vuelo me intimida?
No sé. Pero yo ensayo la partida
poniendo a la ilusión alas de cera…
© Elaine Stirling, 2014