Reviewed by Jessica Sequeira
It seems a terrible irony: a poet who primarily dedicated her work to a Beloved, one whose verses seem written with joy and melancholy rather than malice, is born with a surname that means hate. But no, already it’s a mistake to start from signification. Let’s think into this a different way, starting with sound: Yoo-nees-o-dee-o. A lovely name, a euphonious name. One that is particularly fitting, given that so many of Odio’s poems are based on impressions of the senses, especially sounds: fluttering birds, tinkling bells, whistling, laughter. A “Petite Symphony” as the name of a poem has it, innocent pipings from a ‘private childhood’ that Odio builds for herself.
Even the more knowing womanly murmurs inhabit a utopian child’s world. Is this regressive? Is it unfeminist? Does it matter? Odio was a mystic, an individual itinerant outside the system, at first unrecognized but eventually rediscovered, translated and inserted into a system of female poets, or so the introduction to the translation would have it. As with her name, however, there is a terrible irony in this kind of academic positioning. Odio was born in Costa Rica in 1919 but lived for three years in the United States, which she disliked, “in particular, the Beats, Pop Art, and feminism,” as translator Keith Ekiss informs us. She then moved to Mexico City, where she wrote essays, poems, and literary criticism, and was eventually inducted into the Rosicrucian Order.
Odio desired a return to feminine mystery, precisely what Beauvoir attacked. Her poetry is a poetry of absolute surrender, of delivering herself over to the sensual abstraction of a Beloved, not necessarily anyone in particular. There is no irony or humor in this stance; she might well be talking about God. Indeed, she writes lines such as “glorify him / and exalt him with me. / Until our sacred mouths / are quieted / thus shall it be” (83). In other places she speaks of a “Man” (capitalized), whom she addresses as “Comrade.”
The first poem is a letter to the Mexican poet Carlos Pellicer, written in a highly elevated style:
Today, The June Hour, I present to you various things that belong to me: a drop of sun; a blue I found on the street, the second half of a swallow; the mantle of an earth-colored insect; a great many diamond-like dreams. Do you like these celestial objects? Do you accept them? (17)
A similar list of intangible offerings goes on for about a page. Pellicer’s response to these non-monetary gifts is not printed in the translation. But one can imagine him, or versions of him, different Beloveds answering this letter as well as all the poems that follow. He might write between the short phrases that she sets down; he might fill in the poems; he might insert his replies and jokes. The poems appear to invite precisely this response; they breathe with their short lines and ample spaces. They are not incomplete, but they are one-sided.
Where is the “coral boy” of whom Odio dreams? One of the epigraphs to her poems is from her own work; the poetry folds in onto its own phrases. This is a too-silent shore. Odio’s poetry is a poetry of aloneness, occasionally painful, often calm. This can give it strength as a solitary declaration (the essence of lyric poetry) but it also means that there is no tension, no story, no interaction.
Perhaps this sounds harsh. There is a beauty in these lines, and in this yearning for love, expressed through easy gestures. And there is something attractive about this natural turn to dreaming, to possibility, to the calm contemplation without stridency of what might be: “a sleeping fold of angels” (27). Odio’s poems are sleeping in this sense, existing forever in a childlike state that is not unformed in a negative sense or missing vital elements (just as a child is not missing anything) but which remains in an expectant state of waiting. The poems read like the prelude in this life to an eventual existence in music. Indeed, in “Prologue to a Time Without Place” Odio orchestrates various ideas about the “weightless and solemn” beginnings of the world (89).
The lack of focus on physical material for reminiscence gives these poems a peculiar airiness, from their repeated allusions to angels, to their mentions of “regions of air,” to phrases like “I arch lightly over / my flowering stone heart” (35, 33). Though some of the poems touch on the erotic, at a linguistic level they remain so weightless that the body is never truly present. This is a language of the spirit: “Become what rises behind the dawn / become the orchard’s mood and not the burning hand that touches it,” writes Odio as a reminder to herself (93). In “Portraits of the Heart,” Odio also questions her desire to write, and creates her own unique mythology. There is an “internal angel” hiding behind God, which her language affirms by creating a “secret history”; her language is in turn affirmed by the “affirmation of the air” (97). In “I Asked the Women of the Field,” Odio longs over and over for some primitive origin, with a “lord of groves and cities” (81). Hope is glimpsed as well in the freshness of the Hudson River, which cascades over a full page in descriptions of its flowing, sending, revealing, rushing, soaring, taking, tolling, biting, falling, climbing and so forth, as well as in the Statue of Liberty, or as Odio refers to her in “The Bronze Lady,” the “mistress of morning time” (99).
A handful of poems flip Odio’s usual addresses to the Beloved to hint at the arrival of the paradisaical Golden Dawn for which she has been hoping. “The Husband Sings to His Love” is written from the perspective of a male, and “Absence of Love” speculates on a fulfilled state in which she fears that her Beloved will disappear: “What will it be like not to find you in the distance / to arrive at your body like food / gathered at the warmth of a necessary and lost grace?” (67). The majority of the poems, however, draw on the poet’s significant sensuous capacities to speak of the ethereal and absent.
What is the purpose of writing, and writing poetry in particular? Odio’s poems are a fascinating representation of the spirit that does not fit neatly into earthly categories. The poet’s mysticism led her toward a special kind of solitude: “She died alone at home on March 23, 1974, her body undiscovered for days after her death, her funeral sparsely attended,” read the final lines of Ekiss’s introduction. Alone, yes, but let us hope communing with the angels.
Odio, Eunice. Territory of Dawn. Selected Poems. Tr. Keith Ekiss, Sonia P. Ticas, and Mauricio Espinoza. Fayetteville, New York: The Bitter Oleander Press, 2016.