It is a strange time to be reading a book called Nostalgia for Death.
It’s even stranger when you think of all the hands that worked to get this Spanish-language book from 1930s Mexico, finally translated into English during the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, and into this reader’s hands, during the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
Written by Xavier Villaurruita (1903-1950), Nostalgia For Death was ironically published after his own death. Villaurrutia was a major Mexican poet, and remarkably, one of the few openly gay writers in Latin America during his lifetime. While he worked full-time as a bureaucrat in the Mexican government, he was a prolific literary critic and playwright. Though he wrote just one book of poems, this one book exerted an incredible influence on the development of Mexican poetry. Five years after his death, the Xavier Villaurrutia Award (Premio Xavier Villaurrutia) was named in his honour, and continues to be a prestigious annual literary prize awarded to a Latin American writer published in Mexico.
Published in Spanish in 1953, this collection of poems remained untranslated into English until the 1990s. As the translator, Eliot Weinberger writes in the introduction to the English-language edition, that Villaurrutia was a poet he had been thinking of translating for years. In the midst of the AIDS crisis, Weinberger became furious over homophobic politicians and was inspired to action by American political attacks on the arts, such as conservative politician Jesse Helm’s attack on the National Endowment for the Arts.
Compiled by Copper Canyon Press, we now have the poems of Villaurrutia in Spanish and English, accompanied by 1990 Nobel Laureate author, Octavio Paz’s Hieroglyphs of Desire (translated by Ester Allen). The poems speak for themselves, but I appreciated Paz’s descriptions of who Villaurrutia was as a man, and the context of the world he was writing in.
As a reader, I enjoyed Villaurrutia’s bizarrely appropriate poems of darkness, desire and sadness during those days of March when my life in Vancouver, Canada, quickly contracted to the neighbourhood around my apartment. It felt oddly appropriate to be reading poems about “the nothing where nothing happens.”
To Go Back… To go back to the distant country, to go back to the forgotten country, secretly deformed by exile in this land. To leave the air that encases me! To anchor once again in nothing. Night is my mother and my sister, nothing is my distant country, the nothing full of silence, the nothing full of emptiness, the nothing with no time, no cold, the nothing where nothing happens.
Reading the poems, it becomes clear that Villaurrutia is a poet of desire. I can imagine him, walking through the street of Mexico City, or Paris, lonely and composing Spanish puns as he walks (such as Solo, sin soledad/Alone, without loneliness) . Good poetry is timeless, and written in the 1930s, his poems embody longing, pining, desire, eroticism. As Weinberger writes, “the erotic poem…occurs only in the past or in the future; it is memory or it is desire. It is an act of imagination that speaks to another imagination, which in turn will translate it into its own memories and desires.”
And so, Villaurrutia left us with poems open to interpretation. For Octavio Paz, he was a poet of desire whose beloved was death, amid a darkening world stubbornly marching towards WWII. For readers during the 1990s, maybe the beloved was a man and the palpable loneliness of a gay man in a homophobic society. For me, in March 2020, the beloved was simply human interaction and touch.
Nocturne: Alone Loneliness, boredom, Useless bottomless silence, I’m sunk in liquid shadows, All thought blanked out. And not even the inflection of an indefinable voice To reach the impossible corner Of an infinite sea To illuminate screaming This invisible wrecked ship
In June, during PRIDE Month, the poems took a different turn for me, as I reflect on the queer writers that led lonely, private, quiet lives, influencing literature, without recognition or fanfare. PRIDE is many things to many people, and it can also be a time to reflect on LGBTQ2IA+ ancestors. Villaurrutia didn’t live his life in our contemporary context, nor did he use our labels and terminology. Instead he was a quiet bureaucrat, who didn’t hide that he loved men, and spent his life writing timeless poetry in 1930s Mexico. That deserves to be remembered and celebrated.
Nocturne: Imprisoned Held prisoner in my mind The dream wants to escape And prove its innocence To everyone on the outside I hear its impatient voice, See its gestures, its furious Menacing state. It doesn’t know that I’m the dream Of another: that if I were its keeper I’d have set it free.
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Book Title: Nostalgia for Death/ Nostalgia de la muerte & Hieroglyphs of Desire
Nostalgia for Death translated from Spanish by Eliot Weinberger, Heiroglyphs of Desire translated by Esther Allen.
Published July 1st 1992 by Copper Canyon Press (Originally pub. 1953)
Guest Editor of #GlobalPRIDELitMonth and Writer: Anita Fata (she, her, hers) is currently pursuing a Master in Libraries and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia’s iSchool. A daughter of European immigrants, she is a first generation Canadian settler, living and working on the ancestral, traditional and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations in what is now called Vancouver, BC, Canada. Fascinated by the pitfalls of cataloguing, she also spends too much time thinking about translated literature and LGBT2QIA+ authors while volunteering at Out on the Shelves Library. Find her on Twitter @anita_if