Poems Written Under the Skin: Eliana Maldonado Cano

*This article originally appeared in Luna Luna.

Eliana Maldonado Cano (Medellín, Colombia, 1978) studied petroleum engineering at the National University of Colombia, and she currently works in the field of Geoscience Consulting. Her poems have appeared in Punto Seguido, Quitasol, Prometeo, and Los Papeles de Babel. She participated in the 11th International Poetry Festival of Medellín (2006), and her poem “Fuera del Paraíso” (“Outside of Paradise”) won first place in the Jazz-eros poetry contest through the National University of Colombia (2005). The following poems are translated from her first collection, Bajo La Piel (Under the Skin), published in 2007 by Hombre Nuevo Editores.

Bajo la Piel is a small book, only about as tall as my hand. It is divided into four parts, translated as: 1) The Body Owns Reason; 2) The Soul Owns Madness; 3) The Earth Owns Those Who Walk; and 4) Dreams, Uncertain Truths.

The first poem of the collection, “La Manigua” (“The Jungle”), is epigraphed with a quote from Laura Victoria, pseudonym of Gertrudis Peñuela, a popular early twentieth century poet whose work is also characterized by a strong erotic tone: “Come closer,/ Bite my skin/ With your dark hands.” Cano’s response or extension of this lure-to-feast clearly plays with the familiar trope of the female body as a landscape, something to be wary of and, where possible, tamed. She closes with a menacing tone:

Ven, acércate mas,
cartographia mi paisaje,
no tengas miedo,
ya no quedan fieras
en la manigua.
Come, come closer,
map my landscape,
don’t be afraid,
there are no more beasts
in the jungle.

Throughout the collection, Cano plays with, scorns, accepts, kills and rebirths familiar metaphors for women’s bodies. From the first poem, then, the reader enters into a discussion of desire, earth-toned or half-dreamed, with the object – the satisfaction, the truth – never quite reached.  

Tengo sed,
sed de tu saliva
de tu sudor
de tus cálidos fluidos.
Tengo hambre,
hambre de tu piel
de tu lengua
de tu carne ardiente en mi garganta.
Muero de inanición,
qué hacer
qué hacer con esta hambre
esta sed
esta fatiga de no tenerte.
I’m thirsty,
thirsty for your saliva
for your sweat
for your hot fluids.
I’m hungry,
Hungry for your skin
for your tongue
for your flesh burning my throat.
I’m dying of starvation,
what to do
what to do with this hunger
this thirst
this exhaustion of not having you.

Cano’s poems tend to be short and slim, simple and open in language, musicality and rhythm. These are poems of body and desire, often quite explicitly so. In the two-line piece titled “Abro las piernas,” for example, the speaker quietly summarizes the rise and fall of an intimate encounter

Abro las piernas
tan llenas de mis hijos
y tus muertos.
I open my legs
so full of my children
and your little deaths.

Her poetry tends to convey a strong taste for eroticism, often drawing metaphors from biblical and natural worlds in order to create a poetry of deep sensuality, where both the body and the reader emerge as the main actors in various encounters. As hissed in the abovementioned“La Manigua”: “Come closer, / closer... don’t be afraid” (17). At the same time, sometimes the body is broader, geographical or historical. Sometimes it’s a body dreamed or imagined, scripted or reinvented, sought but not quite reached; it is a body living, hunted, or dead. It is a body abandoned or sacrificed – someone else’s, hers, or your own.

Ella huele a sal
a sudor
a deseo
Ella inspira carne
Ella es simplemente
Un aroma
Un tormento.
She smells of salt
of sweat
of desire
She breathes flesh
She is simply
A scent
A storm.

The interplay of desire and objectification is a constant tension, or “red thread,” throughout the book (“Hilo rojo,” 34). The speaker sometimes toys with the idea of being objectified: “I am your object of desire/ faithful four-legged table...” (“Objecto de deseo,” 19), or relishes it, describing her own smooth skin and dark hair. At other times, the speaker appears to accept being conquered, as in with the closing lines of “La Conquista” (31), where the question is hinted at but not fully asked: “Where and when will you conquer me, / [and] change my language.”

At other times, the speaker pushes against objectification, with a hint of violence:

Golpe de Suerte
Doy la espalda a mi enemigo,
sé que observa mis pasos quedos,
cada movimiento de mis brazos,
como un tigre, todo su cuerpo
se tensa frente a la presa,
me acerco
siento su aliento,
el cuchillo,
la sangre que mana,
el cuerpo que cae,
lo miro largamente yacer en el suelo.
Al final para mí
la vida,
la noche negra.
Stroke of Luck
I turn my back on my enemy,
I know he watches my soft steps,
every movement of my arms,
like a tiger, his whole body
tenses before his prey.
I approach
sensing his breath,
the knife,
the blood that flows,
the body that falls.
I watch it lying on the ground.
Finally for me:
the black night.

The two main threads, the visceral and the dreamlike, carry throughout the collection.

Eliana Maldonado Cano’s second poetry collection, Lunas de sombra (Moon Shadows), was published by Sílaba Editores in 2010.