Territory of Dawn: The Selected Poems of Eunice Odio
Translated by Keith Ekiss, Sonia P. Ticas and Mauricio Espinoza
The Bitter Oleander Press
A review by Christopher Bernard
It has often been said that modern man is in need of a new religion, of a new God, that the old religions and old gods, apparently resurgent throughout the world, are in fact in a battle to the death with a vision of the universe offered by modern science that differs so greatly from that of the Great Axial age from which most of the world’s great religions emerged that they cannot hope to remain relevant for long.
Either they will die, or they will destroy the scientific vision of the world, and by so doing, since they will find themselves unable to renounce the instruments of power science has made possible (though, to be consistent, they should renounce both subatomic theory and nuclear bombs, the theory of evolution and the internet, climatology and drones – but when has a fear of logical inconsistency ever stopped a martinet more powerful than a schoolmaster?), they will destroy the world, or, if not the world, civilization, and thus bring the human experiment to a spectacular end, to say nothing of the Final Judgment that a number of religions have long portended.
There is another way to our own suicide, and that is through a form of radical secularism fomented by the scientific worldview itself, a view purportedly hostile to religion of all kinds—seeing religion as irrational, intellectually presumptuous, morally hollow, hostile to knowledge, reason, and humanity—and yet which turns out to be itself irrational, cruel, presumptuous, hostile to reason, humanity, and even science.
Today the sciences themselves are discovering that the human mind is inescapably irrational, in its drives and its aims, and the attempt to rationalize human beings (as several generations of the rationalist insanity of communism proved only too conclusively) will only destroy us.
Modern technological civilization, based on the instruments and cunning of science, has invented more ways to destroy the human species than religion ever imagined: we have invented the technology of hell without the cold comfort of an eternity of suffering. All we have gotten as compensation for our pains is the certainty of annihilation for ourselves and eventual extinction of our species and then of all life on Earth, a waste of emptiness in a morally senseless universe.
The secularists have created an anti-religion that, paradoxically, has all the negative aspects of religion with few of its positive attributes: an unprovable, and thus itself irrational, view of the world without the comfort of transcendence, of a god and a god’s meaning; without Purpose, Value or Hope, though with an infinity of little purposes, tiny values, and scrambling, futile hopes. The secularists behave toward the religious needs of men and women as many Victorians behaved in their own time toward sexual needs: they deny their existence and, as a result, become dishonest with themselves and cruel toward others: neurotics, hysterics, canards of the folly of reason, caricatures of their own humanity.
Many of our greatest thinkers have suggested that we need an entirely new religion that either embraces the scientific understanding of the world or, perhaps more shrewdly, renders that understanding irrelevant while feeding our spiritual hungers, above all the hunger to understand the universe as a definable, meaningful whole; as a place in which we have a significant part to play, with meaning, purpose, value and hope, for us, for other living creatures, for the world. To deny that hunger is the first step in murdering the soul, first your own, and then, more ruthlessly, your neighbor’s.
The profoundest spiritual crisis the world has seen since the chaining of the human spirit to the seasons of seeding and harvest, and the glittering dooms and thralldoms of civilization—which prompted Buddha to seek enlightenment, Zoroaster to dream of Holy Fire, and Abraham to wander the desert in search of his God—has been the cracking open of the egg of the world and the vertigo of power caused by the scientific revolutions, the Enlightenment and the industrial and technological revolutions of the last three centuries.
That crisis has goaded some of the most sensitive minds of the modern era on a quest for a new enlightenment, the discovery, and creation, of a new faith: mystics and poets such as Thomas Traherne and William Blake, proto-modernist mystics such as Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Whitman, Nietzsche (philosopher-poet and would-be founder of a new faith), and, over the last century, poets such as Pound, St.-John Perse, H.D., and Robert Duncan, to name only a few.
Costa Rica’s great—some call her greatest—poet, Eunice Odio, is someone I only became aware of some years ago through my friendship with a poet who has become her translator. She seems to have long been an unheralded member of this group. She seems to have spent a major part of her life in a spiritual search that led her, gropingly, to create the basis for a new religion in an epic poem, The Fire’s Journey: a myth about the creation of deity, the world and humanity, and of the poet as the child of that newly emergent God.
Keith Ekiss, in collaboration with Sonia P. Ticas and Mauricio Espinosa, did English readers a signal service in translating the second part (called “The Creation of Myself”) of that monumental work several years ago.
Recently, the same trio of poets and translators published a little volume of Odio’s poetry, Territory of Dawn: a choice, beautifully translated, selection of her poems, from some of her earliest up to a few years before her lonely death in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
This book may be an even better introduction to her poetry than the fragment from her epic, as the poems explore more widely her most intimate themes—the aches and exaltations of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, friendship’s delights, love’s anguished radiance, the beauty of chance and meaning in the natural world, where meaning is established in the very being of existence, explored through the unalienable liberty of the imagination, discovered to her by the audacities of the Surrealists, of which she is (in her delicate surrealism), in the broadest, most useful sense of the term, a formidable example:
Why shouldn’t I bare my feet
in a house where alphabets ascend
from lip to word, and ghosts of mint
serve green tea and blossomed shadows.
—“If I Could Open My Thick Flower”
. . . I . . . remember, beneath my childhood,
in a secret April with inhabitants
a door of blue carpentry
through which sometimes my mother began
her lips began
her arms which parted from the waves
her voice in which the afternoon
barely fit with my two legs that ran
unsettling the air.
—“Memory of My Private Childhood”
With the daily rounds of a dove
that returns from dawn
the ballerina dances
in the breeze of the world,
in her waist a chained island
and her foot travelling
to a cloud
on a swallow.
—“Suite of the Illuminated Ballerina”
Odio shows, in her poems, many aspects of the eternal child, marveling at the world, distrustful of the adult world of matter and compromise, politics and commerce, enemies and conflict, true to her psychic needs and to her senses:
I descend further
into the regions of air
which impatiently await the letters of its name
to be born perfect and inhabitable.
—“Declensions of the Monolog”
She visited the United States in the late 1950s and found it frightening, “a highly-polished disaster”; yet she also turned against the brutal materialism of communism, at that time the only credible alternative to the psychotic vacuities of capitalism (now, of course, we know better; there is no alternative: we must go mad—and die), when by doing so she alienated many in the literary and artistic community in Mexico, where she lived for most of her life.
She paid the usual price of integrity: isolation, condescension, being ignored, until she was safely dead and no longer a threat to the living. She died alone in Mexico City, her body found only days later, “her funeral sparsely attended.”
She could laugh at the absurdities of the human world:
The teacher, leaning on a cosine,
throws inside a lily a tiny square-root sign
and the lily raises to the fifth power
an uncertain number on the board.
The nine changes place against the body,
the sulphurous zero makes haste,
skeptics goad the one
whose shape is the spheres’ delight,
and the rhombus slips off the pyramid.
. . . the walls die of atrocious whiteness . . .
How high the failure against the dream!
How methodic the dream of chaos!
And for all the wild dreams of her spirit, she knew a thoroughly earthly love:
like white nocturnal animals
gather where my soul beats softly.
like a deep silver piano
trills by my side
simple as when alone the sea
arranges shipwrecks of fish and wine
for the water’s next season.
Not least of the book’s joys is a letter Odio wrote to the Mexican poet Carlos Pellicer two years before she died, and which is included near the front of the collection, after Ekiss’s warmly informative introduction:
I present to you various things that belong to me: a drop of sun; a blue I found on the street, the second half of a swallow; the mantle of an earth-colored insect; a great many diamond-like dreams. Do you like these celestial objects? Do you accept them? Is it because you felt them in your eyes before the first round moon of March appeared in your childhood?
What answer can one possibly make to such enchanted questions but a grateful if sweetly bewildered “¡Pero si . . .!”
Christopher Bernard’s new collection of poetry, Chien Lunatique, will be published in May of this year. He is also co-editor of the magazine Caveat Lector.