Night Fires and Circular Memory: The Poetry of Lucía Estrada

*This article originally appeared in OOMPH Press, and was syndicated by Luna Luna. 

In the next two posts I will be exploring the poetry of Lucía Estrada, whose work I discovered while hiding in the Biblioteca Virgilio Barco in Bogotá, Colombia.

I was hiding from rush hour in a city that seemed to have the relentless pace of a hunt. I’d arrived for an extended stay in Bogotá the previous week, and extranjera that I was, my instincts for maneuvering myself through it were weak. My home city of Toronto seemed pastoral in comparison.

Additionally, in adjusting to the language immersion, I had quite helpfully gone mute.

So I retreated to the library, where I could avoid my shyness about speaking the language while still reading as much of it as I craved, with a plum view of the mountains that make a dark half-circle around the city. I’d been using poetry as a way to enter the language since I started to learn Spanish in earnest, and being based in Bogotá was a good reason to start exploring la poesía colombiana in particular. Admittedly I didn’t have a syllabus to go by. In the poetry section of the Biblioteca Virgilio, I just grabbed an armful of slim volumes and spent several afternoons with them.

One of the volumes was Lucía Estrada’s Fuegos nocturnos (Night Fires). I was struck by the fine balance of depth and brevity demonstrated throughout her poems. “El Círculo del Poema” was the first of Estrada’s poems that I encountered:

El Círculo del Poema (Fuegos nocturnos, 1997)
Cada poema abre otro silencio,
recorre las estancias últimas
de la palabra
para volver al todo.
Se precipita en el vacío
después de circular
de mano en mano,
de labio en labio
hasta que no queda ningún vestigio
de la sangre que acuñó su moneda.
Cada poema
un desafío al ojo atento
en el instante justo
de la caída.
The Circle Poem (trans. E. Paskevics, 2015)
Each poem opens another silence,
surrounding the final utterances
of the word
to return to the whole.
It begins in the void
afterward circling
from hand to hand
from lip to lip
until no trace remains
of the blood that coined its currency.
Each poem
a challenge for the attentive eye
in the precise moment
of the fall.

Fuegos nocturnos was published when Lucía Estrada was 17 years old. Since then, she has emerged as one of the most celebrated contemporary female poets in Colombia. Estrada has produced seven volumes of poetry since Fuegos, most recently Cuaderno del ángel (Medellín, 2012) and Continuidad del jardín (Medellín, 2014). Her work has been anthologized throughout Latin America and she holds a number of awards, including both the Premio de poesía Ciudad de Medellín (2005) and the Premio Nacional de poesía Ciudad de Bogotá (2009). Between 2003-2007 she was on the organizational committee for the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín, and she is an editorial member at the Spanish review Alhucema de Granada.  

Although the majority of Estrada’s poems are quite short – you could hold each poem in the palm of your hand – they move slowly and deliberately. Each space between the words holds its own particular weight:

La máscara de hueso (from El círculo de la memoria, 2008)
La máscara de hueso
se niega a revelar
                                    si los rasgos que oculta
                                    son los de un dios
o los de una bestia
                                    o si de ambos que, tras la muerte,
                                    continúan combatiendo
                                    por una misma corona.
The Bone Mask (trans. E. Paskevics, 2015) 
The bone mask
refuses to reveal
                             whether the features that it conceals
                             are those of a god
or those of a beast
                             or of both, which, after death,
                             continue fighting
                             for the same crown.

Estrada has developed a style characterized by narrow or flexible poems that evoke surreal imagery with sparse line structures. She often uses punctuation sparingly. In translating her work into English, it’s challenging to replicate the spaciousness of the lines, and to develop the same cadence – the fleeting yet measured rise and fall – of each poem.

In my next post I’ll explore some of the main themes that have shaped and reshaped Estrada’s poetic work since her initial publication of Fuegos nocturnos.

*Part II can be read over at the OOMPH Press blog.