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December 11, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Manuela Dreamembroiders: Poetry in Ecuador

Cristo y crucero en Quito, Ecuador

Ecuador: January 1996


1. The Cafe Libro

Ecuador: there’s as much world north of me as there is south.

Quito is shaped like a lemma, an eternity symbol, under the looming slopes of the volcano Pichincha. The left-hand lobe, north toward the touristy equator monument a half hour out of town, is Old Town, the second city of the Incas before the Spanish. White colonial buildings with blue balconies overlook narrow curving alleys. Miscellaneous–modern New Town, the right-hand lobe, pointing south toward Tierra del Fuego, features bookstores and banks, boutiques and sidewalk cafes.

I walk very slowly into New Town pondering my choices. I’m sick as a dog; that expedition in the rain with Lars down to Las Lajas iced it. [where la Vírgen appeared in a grotto to which we walked down in the rain, Lars and I the only gringos known to survive Atlantis] . I’m supposed to be in Lima in ten days to meet Becky, and I was planning to take the bus to Vilcabamba where people live to be 160 years old, then down the desert coast past the ruins of Chan Chan, where César Vallejo and his friends declaimed poetry by moonlight. Well, if I stay in Quito, prescribe myself antibióticos from the farmacia, heal my system and then fly south, the worst that can happen is I’ll get bored. The worst that can happen if I spend a week on the road is I’ll arrive in Lima with pneumonia.

In the meantime, how to amuse myself in Quito? I browse a bookstore with the unlikely name of Ele’pe’ele, where the owner finds me squirrelling the poetry shelf and tells me Ecuador’s in the midst of a poetry renaissance, I should head over to the Café Libro, there’s a poetry reading tonight. Serendipity gets you every time.

Photos of writers sustain the pillars of the Café Libro: Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, Gabriel García Márquez, Miguel Angel Asturias, Franz Kafka, Charles Baudelaire, Federico García Lorca, Bernard Shaw, W. H. Auden, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and Dottie Parker, who bears a startling resemblance to Jenny James.

I go through the many poetry chapbooks of current Ecuadorean poets on the café shelves, feeling like a bird-dog scout for the big club taking in a double-header in Pocatello. The bad poets are easy to discard, the guy who entitles his book De la Vida y del Amor, the woman who entitles hers De nostalgias y sueños. The guy with a charcoal sketch of a female nude on the cover who ends a poem with “sólo un beso, only a kiss,” the guy who breaks up the word desesperanza on the page like this:


I’m left with seven out of twenty-nine who have anything going. Tonight’s featured poet, Margareta Jacome, declaims that nadie puede apagar mi lirio, nobody can extinguish my iris, in her sueño dorado y a colores, in her golden and colorful dream. Seven for thirty. The Ecuadorean poets are batting .233.

After the reading, there’s feedback from the public. A tall brown guy named Galo Fernando Vega Pérez (born 1956) whose book is one of my seven hits, gets up and tells Jacome plainly that she should let go of being so linear, “and don’t just write about the sweet stuff, give us something salty, even something bitter, because otherwise it’s not truthful.” Margareta, her cheeks burning, thanks him bravely for his opinion. As the reading breaks up, I go over to Galo and introduce myself. He says, “I was wondering who you were.”

2. The Other Face of the Mask

Galo Vega and I sit down face to face to read each other’s work. His book, La Otra Cara de la Máscara (The Other Face of the Mask) is a 400-page melange of poetry and photographs and political cartoons and footnotes and collage and newspaper paste-up. Pretty campesinas march militantly across the page. A Nicaraguan youth lifts a raised fist. A table of statistics tracks the dwindling buying power of the minimum wage in Ecuador. Headline: 30,000 children a week die in the Third World.

Young Galo runs a marathon, graduates with cap and gown from Social Sciences; his parents, deeply Indian, shaped like the earth, smile in their Sunday best. An epigraph from Trotsky. Trust a Trotskyite to be so combative and incoherent! The poetry meanders through passionate and mundane social commentary, briefly achieving an odd prophetic tone half–buried in a flood of disjointed information:


which is to be obtained
bears your name
though sometimes you are indecision
and we don’t know
if it is dawn or nightfall
you are diffuse remembrance
and you leave us in a trance
in which the objects
take a long while
to translate themselves into words
as if
in the shadowlight of memory
we saw your movement
of snail feline whale melon
frog petroleum hummingbird tapir
you appear
and do not appear


but something
answers us


I mumble an appreciation of Galo’s overflow, situating him in my mental poetic  geography  somewhere between the Colombian Nadaists, of whom he has never heard — “Leo muy poco, I read very little” — and the immense, excessive Chilean Pablo de Rokha.

Now it’s Galo’s turn to tear into my work. He likes my poem “Cafe Tortuga” set in a restaurant in Cabo San Lucas where young gringos grow old in their straw hats with silk sashes, sucking on pepsi to all the blonde laughter, while across the alley young Mexicans grow old hauling concrete up the incline, and besides that each of them owes us billions of newly printed American dollars. “That’s complete, yet tender,” Galo says. “A political bomb. But here, look at this line…”

“Old hotel? ¿viejo? the adjective old is shit!” Galo sputters. “You have to take it out! You have to spill out the guts of the word!” He points to a poem I wrote in Ecuador in 1988. “These four lines, about the Indians wearing Swiss watches, that’s your whole poem right there!” How many times has someone opened the sprawling mass of Galo’s manuscript, pointed to a few coherent lines, and said “right there, that’s your poem, throw away the rest of it”?


“Tienes que estar jugando la vida,” Galo insists, fixing me with a furious gaze. “You’ve got to be playing for your life.” What does he think I’m doing, crossing into his country on a foot-bridge over the Carchi River? Galo shakes his head. “Pero la juegas mal. But you’re playing it badly.” What a pleasure for Galo to measure and debunk a live poetic representative of North American imperialism!

3. Footsteps Through Quito

Lake Yahuarcocha, north of town, is named for how the water ran with blood when the Incas came in as conquerors, to rule Ecuador for barely a generation; but all the Highland tribes speak Quichua to this day, except for the Cañari, who never forgot the massacre of Yahuarcocha.

The Spaniards might as well have come from the moon, with their pale, stiff, stylized saints. But in the late 17th century, contemporary with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, there’s an unexpected flowering. Intimate detail co–exists with vast scope in the anonymous Indian artists of the Quiteña school. The Virgin dances on the globe of the world amid a shower of stars. There are fantastic metaphoric Trinities: Jesus, the Old Man and the Bird way up in the clouds. Or bearded Nobodaddy and the wounded Son lean their foreheads together. Or simplest of all, a shining silver triangle glittering on a sunburst.

Raúl Pérez Torres (born 1941), who runs the publishing program of the Casa de Cultura behind the museum, welcomes me into the Ecuadorean mainstream. This is where readings, workshops, and publications get organized in Quito, and then everybody bitches about getting left out. Sound familiar? “Galo Vega gave you his chaos, I mean his book?” Raúl asks, and everyone smiles knowingly.

Raúl Pérez Torres introduces me to Edgar Allan García (born 1958), named after Poe, who started writing in a taller set up by the left–wing party to create a revolutionary cadre of writers, which was a big joke, because neither Edgar Allan nor anyone from that workshop is affiliated with anything political anymore. Simón Zavala (born 1943) has got the archive of the poetry of Ecuador in his head. When I ask if there are any interesting women poets, Simón comes up with 29 names without missing a beat. At home he’s got 4,000 volumes of Ecuadorean poetry written by fifteen hundred poets. If 23% of them are any good, that’s nine hundred books I ought to read.

Simón Zavala and Edgar Allan García tell me the story of the twentieth century in Ecuador. Just as elsewhere, a Vanguardia with an attitude burst on the scene in the twenties. The lead poet was Jorge Carrera Andrade (1903–1978).


Machine-gun of words,
the typewriter fires against the invisible sentinel of the bell-tower.


The rattle and clatter of keyboard and the bell of the carriage return defiantly proclaim the hot language of the new technology against the ageless skyline of the colonial city. I can’t imagine a Colombian poet in the time of Los Nuevos writing (or admitting it) a poem on the typewriter!

{The Colombian poets never had an avant-garde revolution in the 1920’s — think of Joyce, Eliot, Rilke and Vallejo all writing their masterpieces in the same year of 1922 — Colombian poetry remained flowery and very traditional at least until the sicxties.}

As Andrade aged, his poems shrank into delphic nuggets, oracular alephs grasping infinity in a brief span of lines:


Walnut: compressed wisdom,
miniature vegetal tortoise,
the brain of an elf
paralyzed for all eternity.


Alfredo Gangotena (1904–1944) went to France and wrote in French, with excess of rhetoric and tortured sighs. Gonzalo Escudero (1903–1971) went to New York on the heels of José Eustacio Rivera, and transposed the modern city into the Andean landscape of his childhood:


This is my cordillera.
Crags of skyscrapers.
Blind condors of three-motor planes.


The wave of poets in the forties and fifties was politically militant and declamatory. César Dávila Andrade (1918–1967) gave voice to five centuries of Native oppression in an epic litany of atrocities. Jorge Enrique Adoum (born 1926) went into exile, lived in China, and only returned a quarter of a century later. He writes in long lines, struggling with philosophical inquietudes. Here Adoum takes on the hygienic language of postmodernism:


I think in this moment she is the only woman on the earth
and she will kill herself leaving us all widowed: after
all it is Sunday afternoon.
(I know that “poetry enunciates spatial and chronological simultaneity
of the possible and the impossible, the real and the fictitious,”
but what about desperation as the structure of the poem? what
about the days left to us, phonemes of stammering life?)


By the sixties, the dominant group was Los Caminos, placidly following the orthodox Marxist grandiloquence of Filoteo Samaniego (born c.1908), painting the Andes and the Galápagos in odes which overdosed on Pablo Neruda. In 1968, the Tzántzicos, which means headhunters in Jivaro, pals with the Colombian Nadaists, burst on the scene, calling for a rupture with the past. Over the last thirty years, these groups have broken into a welter of subgroups. I would need a month here to get down to the layer where personal animosities and literary gossip reveal the tectonics of the culture.
An old Tzántzico who has a new bilingual book out is Ulises Estrella (born 1940). In Peatón de Quito (Footsteps through Quito), the poet wanders the streets of Old Town, “walking/ surprised to be me,” perceiving the centuries all happening at once in this city of saints and fools, the 16th-century “Juana the Liar” who swept the floor with her own face and proclaimed “fraudulent prophecies/ delightful miracles/ raptured ecstasies,/ exaltations,” and the 17th-century Quiteña Virgin “with ten blinking stars/ in her hair of ringlets/ five of fear/ five of illusion,” Ulises Estrella makes his local vision universal, singing in the voice of the woman who sells miscellany in the street:


espumilla fresco mandarina calcetín
panuelo mango amuleto arete lotería mentol
y flor


fresh meringue tangerines socks
handkerchief mangos amulets earrings lottery menthols
and flowers


I’m also catching the outriders of a new generation. Jetzy Reyes (born 1964), whose book bears the wonderful syntax–bending title Lluevo (I Rain), follows the melody of sexuality and mortality down a page turned open field:


fountain of sweetness and spittle
wings in my mouth I look for trembling matter in the dust
my voice plays with crystals
and fails
confetti the crown
the rain gallops in my instinct tonguetears
animals without pores screech me
in fainting whirl the willows shake lines of poetry


Then there’s Edwin Madrid (born 1961), whom I’ll briefly meet five months from now, hurrying back through Quito on my way north. In Edwin’s prose-poem, the poet is a magician who pulls a shining golden egg out of his hat at his poetry reading. The egg cracks open to reveal a miniature angel, wings whirring like a hummingbird, who with a magic wand makes bad luck disappear forever. Everybody applauds. That’s the end of his poem, so he closes his notebook, goes out for a walk, and gets hit by a truck. That’s the end of his poem.

4. Manuela Dreamembroiders

When Nelly Córdova Aguirre (born 1942) was a little girl, her family spent the summers by Laguna San Pablo, near the volcano Imbabura, above Otavalo where they weave the most wonderful sweaters in the world. “So of course I used to play with the Indian children,” Nelly says. “I went into their houses, I went into their lives, I loved them. And somehow I grew up without the racism that’s so common around here.”

When she took on the project of a bilingual book of her own poems in Spanish and Quichua,, she found she had to modify the dense, angular, postmodern poetic language of her earlier work, because there was no way it would go into Quichua. She worked with a translator, Ariruma Kowii, who’s the only published Native poet in Ecuador. “And you know — how do I put this — the gulf that an indigenous person must cross to become a poet is such that his own work is quite awkward.” Nelly and Ariruma read out loud to each other, modifying their versions until they had something that would work in both languages.

Nelly teaches Administrative Sciences in the Ed. Dept. at the main university campus in Quito, and she has the formidable brass exterior I associate with women of color who are heavy movers: successful bureaucrats in the Oakland Public Schools, for example. There’s a brave amateurism to her presentation as a poet: the bio on the back cover notes that she is the author of the official school hymn of the Colegio Americano, where expats and upwardly-mobile Quiteños send their kids. Some of her work is earnest and simpy-sweet, but her best poems transcend these limitations. Manuela, an Indian woman, an embroiderer, puts the resonance of her life into the birds and flowers of her blouses, calling up a deeper voice:


Manuela dreamembroiders.
The splendor, in the hands, reborn.
The sweetening of love in every blossom.
And in the depth of the unstained blouse
the breasts flowering like moons
with agonizing stamens
from so much edging of false gardens.


In the universities of Europe and North America, professor–poets put texts on semiotics in a blender with comic books, drop the shreds onto a page, and explain — as long as you’re up could you get me a grant? — that they’re experimenting with language. Nelly Córdova Aguirre is experimenting with languages, allowing the deep speech of the Ecuadorean earth to teach the modern tongue to sing. Nelly pushes the Spanish syntax as far as it will go toward Quichua, which effortlessly takes on compound verbs. Watch this couplet clarify across three tongues:


Manuela meadowembroiders.
Mistembroiders Manuela.


Manuela bordalomas.
Bordanieblas Manuela.


Pampasirac Manuela.
Puyusirac Manuela.


No accident that the source of this flowering is woman’s work. Manuela, doubly despised as Indian and woman, sister to the Indian women who put forth their word at the Diálogo in San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas, goes farther within, within Nelly Córdova Aguirre’s voice, within the Quichua within the Spanish, embroidering new suns to shine upon us all.


Manuela mistembroiders.
Meadowembroiders Manuela.
Woman pathembroiders in the air.
Riverembroiders within dreamembroiders.
Farther within newsunsembroidering.


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