The Body as Muse

Alaíde Foppa’s Poetry of Flesh and Bone

Alaíde Foppa de Solórzano

Essay and translations by Dana Delibovi

The body is unruly. It breathes and bleeds without our permission. Societies impose rules to control bodies, from standards of beauty to medical recommendations. People often chafe against these rules. A prime example is today’s body positivity, which resists values that promote thinness and dieting. The wild body wants its way.

The Guatemalan poet Alaíde Foppa de Solórzano (1914–1980) extolled this wild, wayward body. She praised it in her work, Elogio de mi cuerpo (To Honor My Body), a collection of 18 short lyric poems published in 1970 in a volume illustrated by Elvira Gascón. The book caresses with words the body and its functions, from the luminous eyes to the trekking feet. Noticeably absent is the brain, as if to say that honoring the body means ignoring the mind and its tricks. Foppa shuns philosophy’s intractable debate over the connection or union of the mental and physical; she has no use for the mind-body problem. The body, and the body alone, is her muse.

Translation’s physical impetus

I began translating Elogio de mi cuerpo in 2021. As often happens when I pick a writer to translate, time and reflection reveal motives for my choice that were not apparent to me at the outset. I’ve recently come to see two very physical motives that drove me to translate Foppa’s celebration of the body.

One of these motives is kinship. I gravitated to Foppa because she, as well as some other poets I have translated, feels like family. Like me, Foppa had ancestry in continental Europe, but wrote in the idiom of her home in the Americas. She was born in Barcelona to an Italian-Argentinian father and a Guatemalan mother, and was educated in the humanities in Belgium, France, and Italy. In the 1940s, Foppa immigrated to Guatemala, where she married and had five children: four with her husband, the socialist and activist Alfonso Solórzano, and one with Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, professor of philosophy and Guatemala’s first democratically elected president. In 1954, following a CIA-backed coup against Arévalo’s elected successor, Jacobo Árbenz, Foppa and her family fled Guatemala for México. There, she taught at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and constinued to speak out against Guatemala’s repressive regime. In 1980, on a return trip to Guatemala, she disappeared and was presumed murdered by a death squad.

My second motive in translating Foppa’s Elogio is a nascent desire to be kind to my own body. A few years back, I began to realize the costs of a life spent treating my body merely as decorative housing for my mind. I felt the pain of controlling the body and trying to make it acceptable in society. I had been on a diet since age 14, took exercise as a grim duty, tried every skin cream imaginable, yet still arrived at retirement age chubby, clumsy, and crinkly. I was sick of the whole project, and finding Foppa’s work was a balm. Here was a poet who loved the parts of her body unconditionally. I wanted, finally, to feel the same about every lowly part of me:

Los pies

Ya que no tengo alas,
me bastan
mis pies que danzan
y que no acaban
de recorrer el mundo.
Por praderas en flor
corrió mi pie ligero,
dejó su huella
en la húmeda arena,
buscó perdidos senderos,
holló las duras aceras
de las ciudades
y sube por escaleras
que no sabe a donde llegan.

The Feet

Since I don’t have wings,
my feet—
that dance and won’t stop
traipsing the world—
have to suffice.
My light foot raced
through prairies in flower,
left its print
in wet sand,
hunted for lost paths,
pounded on hard
city sidewalks. Now,
my foot mounts stair-steps,
ignorant of where they lead.

The body is wise, not dogmatic

Foppa’s brilliance was eulogized by the great Mexican prose stylist, Elena Poniatowska (hailed in a ¡VIVA! in this issue), who described her open, expansive spirit:

[Foppa’s son] Julio remembers: they are reading some poems, his arm around his mother’s shoulders. Confronting her children’s out-and-out anti-religious positions, Alaíde reads a Psalm of Solomon and shuts them up. Alaíde has engaged in a permanent battle against dogmatism and absolute assertions. To clarify this stance helps her children, but what moves them most is that she reads them poetry, embracing them.

Tactile, maternal love—the very antithesis of dogma—mattered to Foppa. This is the essence of Elogio. Foppa touched with love 18 parts of the body, as tenderly as if they were children. She gave them hugs, told them stories, delighted at their adventures, and soothed their pain.

Los ojos

Mínimos lagos tranquilos
donde tiembla la chispa
de mis pupilas
y cabe todo
el esplendor del día.
Límpidos espejos
que enciende la alegría
de los colores.
Ventanas abiertas
ante el lento paisaje
del tiempo.
Lagos de lágrimas nutridos
y de remotos naufragios.
Nocturnos lagos dormidos
habitados por los sueños,
aún fulgurantes
bajo los párpados cerrados.

The Eyes

Small, calm lakes
where the spark in my pupils
where there is room
for the whole
majesty of day.
Limpid mirrors
ablaze with joyful color.
open to the slow
landscape of time.
Lakes fed by tears,
lakes of remote shipwrecks.
Nocturnal, sleeping lakes
where dreams lurk,
under closed eyelids.

This poem is a fine example of the quirky wisdom that arises as Foppa embraces the body. The eyes are lakes where fire, reflected, ripples, where the “shipwrecks” of our hopes have been seen and lie submerged. Foppa always finds what is unusual in existence, and reflects it in a robust image. The poems in Elogio are short, but they have heft and richness. Foppa reminds me a bit of Emily Dickinson, a poet of few words who catches what is downright astonishing about the world.

Translation demands the right touch

Translating Foppa evokes a physical response: I feel that I am massaging, piercing, bending the work. I sense the cells of Italian and Catalán and the sturdy ligaments of Guatemalan and Mexican Spanish. I sketch the anatomy: veins of assonance and rhyme, sinuous lineation, bones and tissues of a strong structure. The voice of the physical vibrates in Foppa’s language.

La boca

Entre labio y labio
cuánta dulzura guarda
mi boca abierta al beso,
estuche en que los dientes
muerden vívidos frutos,
cuenca que se llena
de jugos intensos
de ágiles vinos
de agua fresca,
donde la lengua
leve serpiente de delicias
blandamente ondula,
y se anida el milagro
de la palabra.

The Mouth

Between lip and lip,
how much sweetness
my mouth holds
open to the kiss.
This treasury of teeth
bites into vivid fruits.
This bowl fills up
with intense juices,
lithe wines, and fresh water.
Here the tongue,
mild snake of delights,
undulates softly. Here
the miracle of the word
weaves its nest.

But the poetry of the Elogio, like the body it acclaims, can be opaque and recalcitrant for the translator; it looks simple on surface, but teems with complexity within. Translating the title of the collection proved to be my first challenge. “Elogio” is usually translated “praise,” but that English word lacks the gravitas of the Spanish, with it’s etymological relation to elegy and eulogy. A tinge of the funereal feels right for a translation of Foppa’s text about her body, since her disappearance and murder are such meaningful parts of her story. For Foppa, as her biographer Gilda Salinas has noted, “death begins with life”— the two are inseparable, and Foppa’s death followed a big, wide-open life. Foppa’s body, once vibrant and alive, becomes the mortal body abducted and killed. So I have selected “to honor” as my translation of Elogio, to connote respect for the body in death as well as in life: “To Honor My Body.”

Another hurdle in the translation has been to capture the density of the poems in Elogio—a quality that seems very appropriate for a close, intimate focus on individual parts of the body. Spanish, unlike English, does not require a pronoun as a subject—the verb is enough. To mirror Foppa’s compactness in my translations, I made two decisions early on. First, I choose to make free use of image-rich fragments rather than complete sentences. Second, when I did use a sentence with a verb, I tried whenever possible to pick a chunky one-syllable verb closely associated with sense perception, rather than “to be,” “to exist,” “to become.”

The last of my challenges has been the use of adjectives. In translating from Central American writers—from the Baroque to the modern—I often struggle with their very liberal use of descriptors. In Spanish, adjectives provide musicality, but they can easily become tedious in English. When one of Foppa’s poems serves up a feast of descriptors, her rich Spanish could become gluttonous English. Recasting adjectives to avoid overload in English has therefore been a goal of my translations. To do this, I have employed several strategies: preferential selection of short adjectives; teaming up long, Latinate adjectives with one-syllable words; and reworking the text to remove descriptors and express their meaning with verbs.

My sense of kinship with Foppa, as well as my changing kinship to my own body, complicates all of these challenges in translation,  but also motivates their resolution. Because Foppa’s work evokes the ancestral, I experience familial feelings like guilt and a sense of disloyalty when making the nonliteral translations needed to capture Foppa in English poetics. Because her work evokes body-consciousness, I experience shame and dysmorphia as I am forced to think about my aging frame. Yet hereditary and bodily kinship pushes me onward and endows me with a willingness to do what’s necessary to translate well. The process resembles my relationship with my own appearance, years of control, finally giving way appreciation for the uncontrollable body. It also resembles my relationships with my blood relatives—guilt for living differently, but determination to make our connection work despite the differences. Translation is ultimately a relationship, as a poet I translate, Francesca Gargallo, has remarked. And through it all is love, that most necessary emotion for the translator.

La sangre

Secreto corre el torrente
de mi sangre rápida.
Inmenso es el río
que en subterráneos meandros
y nutre el ámbito
de mi vida profunda.
La cálida corriente
que me inunda
en la flor de la herida
se derrama.

The Blood

The swift torrent
runs in secret.
this river
meanders underground,
to nourish and ripen
the savannah deep in my life.
The warm current
that floods inside me
spills itself
in the flower of the wound.

* * *


I am grateful to Julio Solórzano Foppa for permission to translate and publish poems from Elogio de mi cuerpo and to Liliana Dorado for ongoing Spanish-language insights.

Read more:

Foppa’s books are difficult to obtain. They are expensive to purchase and available in few libraries. Interlibrary loan may be the best option, provided the library will lend these rare books. Some work is available on websites, such as ScribD;  much of the web presence of Foppa’s work may be in violation of the copyright, which is still held by the Solórzano family.

  • Foppa, Alaíde. Aunque es de noche. Ciudad de México: Costa-Amic, 1959.
  • Foppa, Alaíde and Elvira Gascón. Elogio de mi cuerpo. Ciudad de México: Litoarte, 1970.
  • Foppa, Alaíde. Las palabras y el tiempo. Durango, México: Malpaís Ediciones, 2018.
  • Poniatowska, Elena. “Alaíde Foppa.” Debate feminista, (Año 2), vol 2, 1990, pp. 1-15.
  • Poniatowska, Elena. “Alaíde Foppa: 31 años después.” La jornada, 21 Oct. 2012.
  • Rossi, Annunziata. “Una semblanza de Alaíde Foppa”. Debate feminista (Año 11), vol. 22, 2000, pp. 104-108.
  • Salinas, Gilda. Alaíde Foppa. El eco de tu nombre. México City: Grijalbo, 2002.