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Miriam's Daughters: Jewish Latin American Women Poets

Edited by Marjorie Agosín.

Santa Fe, New Mexico: Sherman Asher Publishing, 2001. $16 paper.

Reviewed by J.C. Todd

***** The bilingual anthology Miriam's Daughters: Jewish Latin American Women Poets gathers together twenty-eight Jewish-Latina who offer their visions of diasporic culture. Edited by Marjorie Agosín, a prolific writer, anthologist and human rights activist, this collection is organized around four themes: lineage; religious traditions, rituals and prayers; post-Holocaust memory; and images of Jerusalem. The translations from Spanish and Portuguese are, for the most part, competent and engaging; occasionally they are remarkable in conveying the original poems into fully imagined poems in English, particularly in the clarity of Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman's translations of the poems of Luisa Futuransky and Alejandra Pizarnik's “Linterna Sorda/ Deaf Lantern,” in C. D. Wright's and Lida Aronne-Amestoy's taut rendering of Myriam Moscona's “Jardín de Auschwitz/Auschwitz Garden,” and in Stephen Tapscott's impeccable tonality and diction in his translations of Gloria Gervitz's poems, especially the selections from “Yiskor.”
***** Like Moses' sister Miriam, whose presence Agosín evokes in the “Foreword,” the poets anthologized here are bearers of memory, similar to the grandmother of Jacqueline Goldberg's “Luba I ” as translated by Joanne Friedman:
I take on
her legacy
of bankrupt ages
the sorrowful craft
of abandonment
Her dead ones. . .
Displacement and loss are familiar themes in literature of the Jewish diaspora, yet in many poems in this anthology there is also a sense of enormous gain through the complexity and startling newness of language and sensibility infused by two, three or more interwoven cultural perspectives. For example, in Ruth Behar's eloquent “El Cementario Macabeo in Guanabacoa/ The Jewish Cemetery in Guanabacoa,” the vibrancy of transculturation is apparent:
There is the grave
in Hebrew letters
that speak Spanish
words of love and loss.
Ay kerida, why so soon?
In the final stanzas, after the speaker finds the grave of a young cousin whose mourning parents fled Cuba, she discovers that:
Your criada, the black woman
who didn't marry to care for him,
tends his grave.

. . . .

Your family left you, cousin,
so thank God for a black woman
who still visits your little bones.

***** It would be easy to read these lines merely as ironic social comment, but they suggest instead the myriad forms of human connection sustained despite dislocation and displacement, human connection that, like water from Miriam's well, has healing power. Untangling an implied narrative, one finds amid the separations of physical geography the connections of a geography of the heart. The buried son or grandson of Jews who emigrated to Cuba, possibly fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, is left behind when his parents flee Castro's Cuba. By asking the speaker to find and photograph his grave, the parents seek to ameliorate the pain of a double displacement; not only have they migrated but also they have dislocated themselves from the grave of their young son, abandoned him. Yet, in death, the child has been taken in by a native Cuban, once a servant to his parents, who tends his grave. Death has made him a permanent resident of Cuba while his parents remain displaced, “. . .rich now in Miami,/ but not a penny for Fidel.”
***** Surprising images of the convoluted layering of culture occur in the best of these poems, culled from eleven Latin American countries. This characteristic alone makes Miriam's Daughters an important anthology for Jewish, Latin American, comparative literature and women's studies. Furthermore, transculturation contextualizes holocaust memories in unexpected ways in poems such as Sarina Helfgott's “Los Trenes/ The Trains” and Angelina Muñiz Huberman's “La Cascada de la Muerte/ Cascades of Death.” Equally valuable is the mix of poets who are better known in America, such as Behar, Huberman, Ana Maria Shüa, Alejandra Pizarnik and Agosín herself, with poets who are not as well-known, such as Helfgott, Elvira Levy and the Sephardic poet Julia Galemire.
***** Despite its breadth and ground-breaking focus, despite the virtuosity of some of its poetry, this anthology contains a few troubling inconsistencies and omissions which, had they been included, would have assisted readers in locating more work by the poets. First is an inconsistency in attribution of source; in some of the poets' biographies publication acknowledgement for the Spanish originals is noted; in others it is not, nor is the omission explained. Thus the reader cannot gauge whether a poem's appearance in the anthology is a first publication, nor can she depend on the biographies to trace prior publication. A selected bibliography of journals and collections in which these poems originally appeared would have been a helpful addition to an anthology which intends to collect and preserve a genealogy of transcultural voices. Finally, brief biographies of the translators would have honored their role as agents of cross-cultural connections and the endless variation and hybridization of idea, image and expression that is, of itself, among the finest gifts of literature of diaspora and literature in translation.
***** These are points of scholarship, however, not of poetry. With Miriam's Daughters Agosín has illuminated a new and necessary area of Latin American and Jewish studies. One hopes that the anthology will stimulate interest in the work of the poets that leads to increased scholarly attention and further translation.