Claiming the Canon: Magda Portal’s “Hope and the Sea,” translated from Spanish by Kathleen Weaver

By Honora Spicer

“I’m here on the threshold of your eyes” (105), Peruvian feminist and activist Magda Portal writes in “Absent Glances,” in her 1927 Hope and the Sea (Una esperanza y el mar), translated by biographer Kathleen Weaver. This collection of poems aims to bring Magda Portal (1900-1989) into sight. It is enclosed in paratexts that situate the work in biographical and literary contexts and claim Portal’s centrality in the Peruvian vanguardist canon. Weaver’s preface presents the work within a linear historical narrative of the poet’s life, and the collection is followed by an essay on Portal’s wider literary projects by Portal biographer Daniel Reedy. Their urge is to intervene into a received canon and uplift a poetic production most remarkable as a remnant of a literary woman’s life deeply engaged with social and political movements of 20thcentury Peru.

Hope and the Sea is historically significant as a juncture between Portal’s younger poetry, dominated by a Modernist and Romantic aesthetic, and her later, more overtly socialist, and politically committed verse. The text was first published by feminist intellectual Mariátegui at a time when Portal was part of the intellectual circle in Lima surrounding the literary journal Amauta. Its publication coincided with Portal’s first forced exile from Peru in 1927, after which she became a founding member of Peru’s APRA party (American Popular Revolutionary Alliance). Portal broke with the APRA party in 1946 over political and feminist critiques meanwhile continuously resisting exclusion from masculine cultural circles. Although throughout her writing career Portal revised and made discreet specific references to her own personal life, this volume makes transparent the challenges she faced as a woman artist and activist.

The commentaries situate Portal’s poetry within a lineage of feminist leaders and writers. As Reedy notes, “voices and actions of other women became models that Magda consciously or unconsciously imitated: Russian socialist and Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontay; Spanish anti-fascist and communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria; and French-born Flora Tristán Moscoso, a woman of Peruvian parentage, whose action-oriented life and socialist-utopian writings intrigued Magda” (151-2). Kathleen Weaver’s translation is an extension of that project of stewarding a canon of women writers. Weaver first intersected with Portal’s work as a co-editor of the anthology The Penguin Book of Women Poets in 1979 before writing a biographical study with selected translations, Peruvian Rebel: The World of Magda Portal (2009).

The first part of the collection moves through mural-like, theatrical depictions of the plight of Modern industrial workers, as in the poem “Proletarian Song”: “men panting over machines/ the groan of pulleys” (29). Other reflective lines make implicit reference to more domestic and gender-based oppressive systems Portal lived and wrote within: “I want to lose myself from myself” (65) the poetic voice suggests. Recurring images of hands and arms bind together the outward-looking first section and a more internal and melancholic second section, “Parade of Glances,” dedicated to Portal’s then-lover Serafín Delmar.

The tone of Hope and the Sea is characterized by bombastic idealism and the invocation of a litany of abstract nouns (often in capital letters): Freedom, Life, Hope, Friendship, Solitude, Chance. It is lyric poetry that takes its themes from awe towards natural phenomena (especially in relation to the sea) in expectable tropes and often simplistic metaphors. At other moments, the romantic impulse leads to tender, less expected lines: “tonight when the moon drops its anchor in my indifference” (43). The verse in Hope and Sea often takes the form of short lines and phrases with few punctuation marks, at times interrupted by typographic extensions of words across the page.

Weaver’s translation conveys Portal’s consistently sentimental tone, with sensation prioritized over direct, line-by-line rendering. The imperative “Envuélveme en tu palidez,” which might otherwise be translated along the lines of “enclose me in your pallor” in English takes on vivid romanticized imagery: “Bathe me in your ashen rays.” (122). The poem “Ausencia” (“Absence”) opens, “embriaguez de dolor y de amor” (114), but Weaver’s translation here and elsewhere makes a grammatical shift to verb form, rendering the opening line with a full sentence: “misery and love intoxicate me” (115).

Portal’s Spanish often functions through proximities not directly connected, such as the opening to Final Invocation to the Moon, “mariposa de luz/ Noctámbula incolora” (120), while the English translations seem to aim towards greater grammatical convention: “sunlight’s butterfly is nocturnal now” (121). This happens not only through additions of verbs, but also through the inclusion of possessives: in Canto 5, the unsteady proximity of “nuestro amor aventurero/ brújula cerebral” is glossed over through a possessive’s apparent resolution of the nature of the lines’ connection: “our errant love’s/ cerebral compass” (133). It is evident that Weaver is a translator comfortable moving around within Portal’s poetry, arriving at opulent renderings that often nevertheless portray a commitment to tone. Weaver’s holistic approach to the translation portrays a sense of interplay and lineage as a means of honoring women’s verse.

Hope and the Sea is published by Dallas-based Dulzorada Press. It is the sixth book in a catalogue of Latin American literature in translation and follows three publications translated by editor José Garay Boszeta. The appearance of this collection is a statement of intervention into the canon of Latin American poetry. Its contextual materials, which include Weaver’s description of meeting Magda Portal in Berkeley in 1981, attest to a long lineage of intentional stewardship of women’s poetics inspired by Portal’s own fierce advocacy, beginning with the book’s initial publication in 1927. The most arresting aspect of this work is the political context within which it was composed, whose specificity and full consequence always feel just below the surface, just behind the “threshold of our eyes” in the poetry itself. This is best read as a collective shepherding of an historical artefact of 20thcentury Latin American poetics.

Portal, Magda. Hope and the Sea. Translated by Kathleen Weaver. Dulzorada Press, 2021.

Honora Spicer is a writer, translator and experiential educator, with an MA in History from Harvard University (2015) and a BA in History and English Literature from Oxford University (2013). Her poetry, essays and translations have appeared in Tripwire, Asymptote, Latin American Literature Today, World Literature Today, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She has published poetry and non-fiction in translation by Victoria Guerrero and Tilsa Otta. 

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