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Sister, Stranger (1981-1984)

by Christopher Whyte
An often-quoted emblem poem by Maria-Mercè Marçal entitled ‘Divisa’ proposes a useful mode of entry to her work. In it she lists three gifts of fate: having been born a woman, of working-class origins and a member of an oppressed nation. If these factors offered her the chance to be a rebel on three different counts, Marçal refrained from adding, at this early stage, a fourth of crucial importance, equally determining for her career - her wholehearted and head-on engagement with lesbian sexuality.

Marçal died from breast cancer before she could reach her half-century. She did not survive to offer us her commentaries on the more complex, troubling realities that would follow the gaining of autonomy for Catalunya and the campaign to normalise the use of her chosen language throughout the Principat (the Catalan-speaking territories with the exclusion of Valencia, the Balearic Islands and the area beyond the French border). Her poetry has a powerfully oneiric and utopian quality on the social, linguistic and sexual levels. It shows the influence of May 1968 in France, as well as of the heady days after Franco’s death when, one after another, official restrictions on the use of Catalan were lifted, and it seemed as if almost anything were possible. She talks of glimpsed, envisaged paradises of self-realisation, lunging at new-found freedoms which were beyond the wildest dreams of her mother’s generation.

In lexical terms, Marçal’s poems are experimental and defiantly classical at one and the same time. She respects linguistic norms and standards, while favouring words that have little relation to either the dialect of the Catalan periphery close to Lleida where she grew up, or the often mongrel forms of colloquial urban speech. In this sense, too, hers is an imagined poetry for an imaginary audience, demanding that we make the effort to enter her world and accept its terms.

Therefore it would be a mistake to look for descriptions of well-known corners of Barcelona in her work, for familiar characters from Catalan daily life, or apposite comments on political and social developments. Marçal draws amply on both folktale and fairytale because she is convinced these offer access to deeper levels of impulses and drives which dictate everyday behaviour while remaining concealed underneath it. Her concern is to give expression to that which has been silenced and which, perhaps, continues to be silenced in more familiar and conventional modes of speech. An important part of what clamours for expression in her work is sexual arousal and plenitude in the absence of a discernible masculine presence (‘Your sex and mine are two mouths’). If the masculine is identified with authority, both in the family and in society, and with language itself, in the sense of what one is allowed to say and what can reach articulation, then Marçal faced the challenge of inventing a new language for her poetry. To this extent, entering Catalan literature at the precise historical moment when she did was a colossal advantage. The language was regaining domains it had been banned from for centuries. This could only be done successfully if invention and imagination were given free rein.

The Sister, Stranger giving its title to her fourth collection (La germana, l’estrangera (1981-1984)) is both her newborn child and another woman loved and lost. The book has the form of a triptych. Twenty-four poems concerning her daughter’s birth and infancy (‘In desire’s healing scar, in shadow’) are followed by fifty-one focussing on Mai. This is the woman whose name means both ‘May’ and ‘never’, and whose ‘Land of never/May’ is the title of the opening section, a delirious sequence of fourteen sextinas which carefully recreate a form inherited from the troubadours, while at the same time dynamiting it.

Marçal’s poems to her daughter Heura (‘Ivy’) have a precedent in Marina Tsvetayeva’s to Alya, which Marçal may or may not have had knowledge of. Marçal’s translations of Tsvetayeva’s celebrated ‘Poem of the End’ was a collaborative effort carried out with the constant assistance of Monika Zgustová. What makes it so outstanding when set alongside translations into English, French, German or Italian is Marçal’s determined acceptance of the challenges posed by Tsvetayeva’s phonetic and semantic pyrotechnics. Though having no knowledge of Russian, she again and again comes up with devices, assonances, echoes in her Catalan which can endow her version, at least in part, with the huge emotional and technical charge of the original. If this is an achievement few are in a position to appreciate, that makes it no less admirable. Having learned from her publisher that the book had sold four copies in the course of the preceding year, Marçal quipped that she planned to invite this select audience to a favourite restaurant for a celebratory dinner.

Marçal’s utopia is not idealised. What concerns her is the opportunity to dig deep and ferret out all instincts and desires, even the most forbidden and destructive. The words ‘blood’, ‘salt’ and ‘serpent’ recur again and again, as does the ‘mirror’. This familiar lesbian trope (‘I looked at myself in the mirror and saw you/ - it was no help shattering it in a thousand fragments’) also crops up among the poems to Heura (‘Your pain:/ my guilt, in the mirror… Your guilt:/ my pain in the mirror’), just as a ‘Berceuse’ is inserted among the poems to Mai (‘Sleep, my love, have no fear./My left hand/ has a tight grip/ on the right hand of the assassin’), implying that the relationship between the three wings of the triptych must be organic rather than casual. The triumphant infatuation which animates the first eight sextinas (‘I will speak your body, book of wonders’) is necessary as a counterweight to the despair and loss of the third section (‘I’m not sure if this ossuary/ of slowly rotting/ dreams time has gathered/ in clumsly shovelfuls/ can be the foundation/ of any house’) yet disaster had struck as early on as the ninth sextina (‘On setting and clearing tables’) where, having spent eight hours waiting for Mai to arrive for lunch, the speaker finally abandons her home.

Marçal had familiarised herself with an impressive range of feminine predecessors, fertilising that inheritance with a dynamic and active dose of surrealism arriving most probably from Foix through Joan Brossa. If she quotes Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and Renée Vivien (inspiration for her prizewinning novel The Passion According to Renée Vivien), Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath are equally present. What gives Marçal a distinct advantage with respect to such writers in French or English is that she is not “only” a feminist or “only” a woman, but can shatter the chains of all four oppressions mentioned above at one and the same time. Her poems are events in the life of the Catalan language, projected far into a future that language is still struggling to reach.

The images Marçal finds for birth are comical (‘As if emerging all of a sudden from the – totally/ empty – hat of the Great Conjurer/ you appeared/ alive/ between my thighs’) and disconcerting (‘As if a shark wrenched one of my hands off/ then all at once spat it out onto the beach/ and its fingers moved in response to commands/ that had no connection with my will’). There are no forecasts of conventional family life. The father is dismissed summarily (‘He is present. Me too. Mingled in a face… And absent too’). This mother has no intention of assuming the role of educator, inducting her daughter into the world of society and its conventions. She longs instead to be her fairytale companion (‘I’d like to set off to Lilli-/ put on your behalf/ my saddlebags full of law-/ defying songs’). Refusing to use ‘the tamer’s whip/ which, nonetheless, I keep in the cupboard’, she begs to become, however briefly, a baby animal herself, even if the figures of the childkiller and the impostor (‘Should she block your exit/ with her loving, brutal body/ then you must not hesitate to kill her’) also demand a place within the sequence.

In returning to the sextina, Marçal evoked the fountainhead of western amorous poetry. She insists, however, in her preface, that rather than ‘a technical exercise’, what attracted her was ‘the recurrent, cyclical pattern by which, as it progresses, the poem returns again and again to its original premises, reconsidering them’. A sextina must have six stanzas of six lines each. The line-final words in the first are reorganised in the second, and so on, according to a predetermined pattern. Then all six recur in three lines at the close. In Marçal’s hands the effect is surrealistic, erosive of meaning, suffocating and obsessive. It is as if, through her choice of form, the poet were criticising and interrogating the amorous obsession and collapse the poems themselves describe.

‘Congealed Blood’ (but the word could also be translated ‘curdled’, or ‘captive’), the third section of Sister, Stranger, is a prolonged threnody of loss: ‘Missing you is like a knife’s sharp edge. /Time cannot dent it, nor rust throttle it./ The knife-grinder sharpens it every morning./ My blood knows no other way to pass’; ‘Like a snake, I’ve sloughed my skin seven times,/ and still I slither round the marble of your name’; ‘I’ve finally breached the seven/ doors, the seven haughty/ boxes, hermetically sealed, / so as to embrace you, Mai./ And when I thought I had you,/ salt of my blood… all I found was a heart,/ my own, embalmed.’ The Land of Mai has become the Isle of Mai, unreachable, a deformation of Baudelaire’s Cythère. The two former lovers are united in war, in a pact of blood that can never be staunched. Formally these poems are extremely varied, with sonnets that rhyme and others that don’t, yet the tone is uniform, unchanging.

Marçal’s poetry refuses to be contained by any of the definitional boxes we might force it into. Lesbianism. Feminism. Surrealism. Resurgent nationalism. Linguistic renovation and experimentalism. She embraces all these issues, confronting them with equal intensity. What brings us back again and again to her poetry, however, is its fearless determination to make us face aspects of the speaker’s self, no matter how unpalatable or hard to integrate into conscious thought and social life, which are also aspects of ourselves. Once awakened, they refuse to go away. The harmony of utterance in her poetry offers us hope that we may not, in the end, be destroyed by them. Looking into the mirror her eyes are drawn to so relentlessly, we contemplate ourselves.

Budapest, April 2008
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