Entering an Open Doorway: Marjorie Agosín’s Las Islas Blancas / The White Islands

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Reviewers who have strong feelings about particular kinds of poetry and the format in which they are published risk repeating themselves. I do and I have, so I am grateful to begin this piece with a quote from Gabrielle Bellot, who in a recent Lit Hub post wrote, “Language begets language.’’ She was writing about dialect and its permutations, but she also illustrated my conviction that bilingual editions of poetry are especially enriching.

Las Islas Blancas / The White Islands, by Marjorie Agosín, is a book of remarkable beauty, passion, historical integrity, and grace, and its facing translations provide a worthy way of going deeper into what she says. Agosín, who teaches Spanish and Latin American studies at Wellesley, set out to document what happened to Jews when they were expelled from Spain. The translations are by Jacquline Nanfito, and it makes perfect sense that we learn, first, of “Su voz” (“Her voice”). The voice is that of a nameless woman who, in a few short lines becomes bravely, elegantly immortal as Agosín gives the power of speech, which is a kind of name, to anonymous exiles :

Su voz,
Un rezo muy antiguo.
Un canto como una fragancia.

Asi ella llegaba a casa,
Su voz cantaba sobre
Los pueblos blancos.

De los vendedores de almendras,
Del te de rosa.
De la fe de la miel.


Her voice,
An ancient prayer,
A song like fragrance.

That’s how she would return home,
Her voice singing above
The white villages.

Of the sellers of almonds,
Of rose tea.
Of the faith of honey.

Agosín’s poems, though quiet and seemingly simple, linger with an interior elasticity that does not break. “I only wanted to write about them,” the next poem declares in its title and first line, to ‘‘[n]arrate their fierce audacity.” Agosín, a native of Chile, has lived in the United States long enough to know that President Obama has expanded the word “audacity,” and given countless people rhetorical permission to be fierce with it. In this case she is talking about a group whose religious traditions include those with ‘’prayer books laminated in gold,” a line that sounds exalted in Spanish: “Con libro de rezo cua lamina de oro.”

All the poems take their titles from their first lines, as a kind of encouragement to enter an open doorway.

When she taught me

To look at the sky in the evenings
To name the stars, she said :
Your daughters will be called Luna and Estrella.
They will be as bright as the firmament.

“Firmament” is a Biblical word meaning sky. It is used in the Old Testament, usually in a vastly reassuring way. We are listening to a speaker who is in exile, and is not afraid of it. So when she comes to “That dawn”:

On the island
When they first marched
The men
Then the women followed by the children
I asked for solace from a seashell
She had indeed returned from the clear zone of my feet

I asked myself if I could immerse myself deeper inside her

And this seashell received me
It was the house of my memory
And in that gray solitude of the island without them.

Interiors of seashells rarely fail to evoke memory, and here the memory, the gray of dislocation, of a people on a forced march, their clothing most likely as weather-washed or as grubby-gray as solitude itself, is the fabric of uncertain exile. In this case the Spanish expulsion of 1492 led many Sephardic Jews to islands near Greece and the Balkans, where, when Agosín visited, their culture was fading. Since that expulsion, until now, and into a future number of years we cannot calculate, more men, women, and children will face this same gray solitude. It is hard, and necessary, to bear witness to this, and Agosín does it again and again, raising the dead with her music.

Joy amid exile can arrive in the most mundane repetitions, as in “The sun changed colors”:

The sun changed colors
The moon enamored even the most elderly,
The tomatoes blushed with joy upon seeing you pass by.

Book reviewing can be an act of free association, the way other readings can be, and “The sun changed colors” reminded me of Anne Frank in her naively sensual, doomed adolescent eloquence, finding pleasure in thinking about a boy. Other poems bring to mind a call to calm at the worst times, a calm both difficult and essential to imagine:

The joy on the islands was deep

Always in search of the sun.

We played in the direction of the clouds that graced the bay.
In the distance the wind also invented languages
The sun awakened in our glance
There was no confinement or exile
Just the time of the islands
Monotonous and abundant
Sovereign and simple.

There are many layers in this piece. The first two lines are delightfully childlike. The third line announces how an imagination of necessity invents new language and enriches existing experience. Later, “[s]overeign and simple,” rules transcend the unsettling reality. Sovereigns, after all, are rarely simple, and in affecting the lives of exiles they can be horribly capricious and complex.

Painfully soon the ugliness resumes, as Agosín continues with “She has returned to the white island”:

To the tables of the cafes
Where only the wind settles in among the empty chairs

After they went away
It seemed that only the void seethed
Among the alleys
It seemed that all was restless and rotten

All of them have already left

She too returns like an abandoned one
To an abandoned island
Not even the lightning bugs returned
And the light of her gaze is lost among so much emptiness

They say that she has returned to the white island
Not to die
Not to discover
Only to remember.

So many striations of meaning. This poem is very much the opposite of the emptiness the narrator claims. “Only” is imperatively facetious, but allows space for memory.

Pero tan solo recorder.

Only to remember.

In Spanish, this phrase is uncharacteristically harsh on the ear, and like every line in this volume it displays a finely calibrated sense of the place of sound itself, in memory and in the present. This is noble, compelling, and timeless, as is every page in this extraordinary book.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →