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lydia nogales image


The sister with no name, the sister
who crosses all paths,
she told me once that flesh
can never be converted to essence,
that only the spirit succeeds
in ascending to the altitude that dreams,
that in every hidden pain
a star ignites the crying out,
that pure crystal of the deep pond
is broken thus in curling waves,
yes, beneath the shade of forest
early leaves kiss each other,
that some days are curdled by shadows
and nights that blind.
The sister with no name, the sister
whose hands are made of wax
told me that at the sound of rain
sick roses grow delirious,
that wind, cloud and sunbeam
seek each other, touch, and are ignited,
that the river who loses its banks
at the end of the road finds them,
that in all things is hidden
a divine and eternal soul,
that there’s something better than forgetting:
the cold quietude of the stone,
that the sleeping water of the pond
ignores the thirsty sand,
that only while in form
does sojourning light palpitate.
The sister with no name, the sister
who affirms and denies all things
spoke to me of eyes without light,
she spoke to me of steps with no path,
of loathing returned to ash,
of the pallid kiss that freezes,
of a nocturnal sunrise that only
clear pupils contemplate,
of the interior howl, of the teardrop
fallen to earth.
The voice of the sister with no name,
her red eyelids burn me,
my hands, dyed by the moon
tremble like bird’s wings;
my mouth is knotted to silence,
the crazy question seals me.
What happens after anguish?
Who lays out his sign in the fog?
Where is life extinguished,
and where does life begin?
Behind the invisible curtain,
what is there to hope for?
The sister with no name, the sister
of momentary silken contact,
the sister who knows everything
does not know how to voice her reply.
An echo of sad music
smudges the blue of her absence;
a faint tick-tock in the shadow
pushes the rolling hours.
Prison that holds my anxieties!
Dread of the night that’s coming!
I don’t see the sister with no name,
but she is nearby…
The dawn, the dawn, the dawn!
I felt her opening a door…

The poem you’ve just read, published in El Salvador in 1947, was written by a woman who didn’t exist. Her name was Lydia Nogales. As her poems continued to land on the desks of befuddled editors at La Tribuna, her identity took on flesh. She was being read, her name spoken across Central America and in Argentina, Peru, Spain. Men and women of letters were accusing each other of being Lydia Nogales. Some poets claimed to have seen her in person, this woman who didn’t exist.

While months of debate turned into years, the Spanish-speaking world was reaching consensus. “She has to be a woman. She can’t be a man! She writes like a woman…so feminine!” El Salvador’s esteemed poetess, Claudia Lars, wrote a tribute in verse to her poetic sister, adding, “Lydia Nogales lives and will live forever in her magnificent sonnets. By virtue of her verse, she has taken her place, definitively, in our poetry and in the poetry of America…in the field of true art (and I, too, entered that field barefoot and reverent) there are no rivals or competitors. There is inspiration, beauty, a message from the divine or the occult, a broad light or small for this stubborn night of the world…”

How strange it must have felt for the creator of Lydia Nogales to stay silent while people claimed that poor Lydia lay dying in her home near the volcano Lamatepec. How strange it must have felt to watch his literary reputation eclipsed by something that began as a lark, a trick, perhaps, to play on his local compatriots. For Raúl Contreras, a 51-year-old poet, staid, conservative, a member of the Salvadoran Academy of Language, had created a being greater than himself. He had created Lydia Nogales.

Not until November 3, 1954, seven years after the publication of her first sonnet, was the identity of the poetess revealed. Hugo Lindo, her first champion, spoke at a conference in Santiago, Chile, of “the beautiful reality” that finally, after years of debate and speculation, has culminated in the absolute affirmation that Lydia Nogales is Raúl Contreras.

Contreras, for his part, quietly admitted to the authorship by submitting an anthology to his publisher, which included a sonnet by Lydia Nogales, entitled “The Useless Journey”. Whether there was rancor or humiliation in the wake of the disclosure, I don’t know. Some time later, Contreras described Lydia as “someone who existed without existing”. He called her his spiritual daughter.

I’d like to close this piece with two thoughts. One, I feel a kind of sadness, knowing that Lydia Nogales can never really take her place among the great female poets of the twentieth century, even though, for seven years, she was one. Then again, I realize that Raúl Contreras must have been a magnificent man to be brave enough, in a culture larded with machismo, to rise above and find his Lydia Nogales. We all move within a greater version of ourselves; not all of us are able to give it voice.

Finally, I would like to leave you with the tribute that Claudia Lars wrote to her poetic sister, when Lydia Nogales still breathed and vitalized the world. English translation first, followed by the original Spanish. You will also find the Spanish version of “Penumbra”, enneasyllabic and sublime, by Lydia Nogales.

Girl of the word of pure water
open rose, sudden and weightless;
lonely sister, the colour of snow,
changing your whiteness to live flame.
I am here, with your initial sweetness
with your age and no yesterday, perennial and brief;
and within the interior heaven that your voice disquiets,
I raise the palm branch of virtue and height.
Giving my golden bee, my dense grape,
I left by blood the immense land
suffering the question and the throb.
Does the ash in what has died illuminate?
Strange bride of awakened love
I am the lover of love that sleeps!

Niña de la palabra de agua pura.
Abierta rosa, repentina y leve;
hermana soledad, color de nieve,
cambiando en llama viva su blancura.
Estoy aquí, con tu inicial dulzura,
con tu edad sin ayer, perenne y breve;
y en cielo interno que tu voz conmueve,
alzo la palma de virtud y altura.
Dando mi abeja de oro, mi uva densa,
fui por la sangre de la tierra inmensa
sufriendo la pregunta y el latido.
¿Alumbra en la ceniza lo que ha muerto?
i Extraña novia del amor despierto,
yo soy la amante del amor dormido!


Raul Contreras (1896-1973)

Raul Contreras (1896-1973)


La hermana sin nombre, la hermana
dijo una vez que la carne
jamás se convierte en esencia,
que solo el espíritu logra
subir a la altura que sueña,
que en cada dolor escondido
enciende su llama una estrella,
que el puro cristal del estanque
en ondas rizadas se quiebra
si, bajo la umbría del bosque,
las hojas tempranas lo besan,

que hay días cuajados de sombras
y noches que ciegan.
La hermana sin nombre, la hermana
que tiene las manos de cera,
me dijo que, al son de la lluvia,
deliran las rosas enfermas,
que el viento, la nube y el rayo
se buscan, se tocan, se incendian,
que el río que pierde su cauce
al fin del camino lo encuentra,
que en todas las cosas se oculta
un alma divina y eterna,
que hay algo mejor que el olvido:
la fría quietud de la piedra,
que el agua dormida del charco
ignora la sed de la arena,
que solo palpita en la forma
la luz pasajera.
La hermana sin nombre, la hermana
que todo lo afirma y lo niega,
me habló de una fuente imposible
que calma las bocas sedientas;
me habló de los ojos sin lumbre,
mehabló de los pasos sin huella,
del ascua tornada en cenizas,
del pálido beso que hiela,
de un alba nocturna que sólo
las claras pupilas contemplan,
del grito interior, de la lágrima

caída en la tierra.
La voz de la hermana sin nombre
los párpados rojos me quema;
mis manos, teñidas de luna,
como alas de pájaro tiemblan;
atada al silencio, mi boca
la loca pregunta me sella:
¿qué sigue después de la angustia?
¿quién traza su signo en la niebla?
¿en dónde se apaga la vida
y en dónde la Vida comienza?
Detrás del telón invisible,
¿hay alguien que espera?
La hermana sin nombre, la hermana
de leve contacto de seda,
la hermana que todo lo sabe,
no sabe decir su respuesta.
Un eco de música triste
empaña el azul de la ausencia;
un fino tic-tac en la sombra
empuja las horas que ruedan.
¡Prisión que retiene mis ansias!
¡Pavor de la noche que llega!
No veo a la hermana sin nombre,
Pero ella está cerca…
¡La aurora, la aurora, la aurora!
Sentí que se abría una puerta…


© Elaine Stirling, 2015
The beautiful painting of a Salvadoran woman is by the artist Karlisima.

Elaine Stirling is the author of the novel Daughters of Babylon and the novella Dead Edit Redo. She is also the creator of the heteronym/pseudonym Alain C. Dexter who published a book of glosas, medieval form poetry, called Dead to Rights.