The Uruguayan poet Delmira Agustini (1886 – 1914) equals the lover to a dark landscape in “Nocturno” (“Nocturnal”). Every image of beauty is tainted, filled with suspiciousness. There, the poet reveals herself:
Yo soy el cisne errante de los sangrientos rastros,
voy manchando los lagos y remontando el vuelo.
(“I am the wandering swan of the bloody trails,
I go staining the lakes and rising up in flight.”
Translated by Alejandro Caceres, Selected Poetry of Delmira Agustini: Poetics of Eros).
The swan is an important literary device for Modernismo, the first autochthonous Spanish-American literary movement. Delmira Agustini, a Modernista herself, twists the image to make it her own: the swan is not a passive object anymore -the recipient of desire- but an agent capable of creation and violence. Her work is placed in the conflictive space between the traditional XIXth Century structures and new ways to deal with modernity, both in literature and society. She rejects the idea of women as passive subjects of the male gaze and claims ownership of her own desire. Her poems are full of rich metaphors that challenge gender roles; they also display certain eroticism that pushes moral boundaries.
I have the strange privilege of participating in a Latin American literature class this semester at LaGuardia Community College, not as teacher nor student, but as a witness. Here I am, navigating the maze of buildings and floors to find the right room, to seat and see, and to reflect about teaching Latin American literature in the context of Community College. It’s still early, and the students are still figuring out how much reading they would have to do at home; if they can get away with not buying the book or if they have to participate in every class. It’s barely the second day of class and they meet Delmira Agustini. Among the awkwardness and eagerness customary of each beginning, they start to read the poems of Delmira Agustina, delving into their images and revealing new meanings. Reading “El intruso” they discover the meaning of a “llave de oro” silently opening the lock of the poet’s room. Reading “Las alas” they start raising questions about freedom and about women’s roles in the Uruguayan society at the beginning of the XXth Century. They learned about how Delmira Agustini defied social conventions -she was the first woman to get a divorce in Uruguay- and about her tragic end -she was murdered by her ex-husband and lover.
I see how the students -a majority of women- engage positively with the content. It’s still early in the semester, but I see why starting with Delmira Agustini is so productive. Her level of legibility allows introducing basic concepts of textual and literary analysis; her alliance to Modernismo is useful to present the literary movements in Latin America. Perhaps, what’s most important about her is the capacity of challenging social order, something that the students acknowledged and appreciated. Delmira Agustini had the opportunity to speak and dared to do it, occupying spaces that were traditionally denied to people like her.
From the sidelines, I pay attention to the students. They’re mostly first generation immigrants from Latin American countries. I gauge their reactions and can’t stop thinking about those who don’t speak. What does a silent student mean for us, teachers? How to evaluate the nature of that silence? Is it because of shyness? Because of lack of interest? Is our responsibility as educators to make that student speak? Are we giving that student the tools or the right environment to speak? The class is over. We close the book. They leave. It’s just the first week of the semester, but I can’t help thinking about them. What would happen if, as Delmira Agustini, they dare to speak?