On November 2, 2023, the great Uruguayan poet, critic, and translator Ida Vitale celebrated her one-hundredth birthday. Vitale’s centenary is a celebration for all of us. Her unique voice and spirit of experimentation has produced a literary treasury that has only grown richer with the years.
Vitale was born in Montevideo, and came of artistic age as a member of the Generación de ‘45. She is the last surviving member of this arts movement, which included the writers Mario Benedetti, Idea Vilariño Romani, and Juan Carlos Onetti. Also among the Generación de ’45 was the writer Angel Rama, Vitale’s first husband and father of her two children; the couple eventually separated, and Rama passed away in 1983. Vitale married for the second time to Uruguayan poet Enrique Fierro. At the time of their marriage, Vitale was 40 and Fierro was 22, yet she outlived him.
Vitale spent many years of her career abroad. Following the 1973 Uruguayan coup d’etat that installed a civic-military dictatorship, Vitale and Fierro sought and received asylum in México City. There she met Octavio Paz, who hired her at the journal he founded, Vuelta; this position led Vitale to other work as an essayist, translator, and teacher. In 1989, Vitale and Fierro moved to Austin, Texas, which was their home until Fierro’s death in 2016. By then, Uruguay was again a republic, and Vitale returned to Montevideo, where she now lives.
Along the way, Vitale published over 30 works of poetry, prose, and translations. Her work crosses multiple genres, and she experimented with unusual forms, such as the her novel in prose poems, Byobu. She won the Premio Octavia Paz (2009), the Alfonso Reyes Prize (2014), the Premio Internacional de Poesía Federico Garcia Lorca (2016), and the highest honor in Spanish-language literature, the Miguel de Cervantes Prize (2018).
Given her recognition and influence in Spain and Latin America, it is surprising that Vitale’s work is not better known and more often translated in the US. I only discovered Vitale in 2021, when a colleague, Liliana Dorado, introduced me to the poetry of her fellow uruguaya. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Vitale combines many different threads—image and irony, surrealism and pragmatism—in the fabric of her poems. For example, in her short poem, “Destiny [Destino],” the strange machinations of “carnivorous gods” give way to the true, down-to-earth source of our fates—our own blindness and inability to listen. In “Exiles [Exilos], surreal images—the exiles trek toward the ember of sundown and their fearful glance “lies down like a dog—build to a climax written in the plainest of terms: since no one returns the exiles’ gaze, it merely dissolves, unmet and lonely. In what is perhaps her best known poem, “Fortune [Fortuna],” Vitale melds feminism to delicate, bittersweet longings:
…No ser casada en un negocio,
medida en cabras,
sufrir gobierno de parientes
o legal lapidación.
No desfilar ya nunca
y no admitir palabras
que pongan en la sangre
limaduras de hierro.
Descubrir por ti misma
otro ser no previsto
en el puente de la mirada.
Ser humano y mujer, ni más ni menos.
…Not to be married in arrangement,
measured in goats,
suffer the rule of relatives
or legal stoning.
To no longer march
nor admit words
that place in blood
To discover for yourself
another being unexpected
on the glance’s bridge.
To be human and a woman, nothing more nothing less.
Excerpt of translation by Katherine M. Hedeen and Victor Rodríguez Nuñez.
The stylistic hallmarks of Vitale’s writing are care and inventiveness in diction. The critic María José Bruña Bragado described these features of her poetry: “The world of Vitale revolves around the word and finding its right use, with maximal precision and originality in combination.” Bragado quotes Vitale herself, who has stated that: “Language should be at forefront of poetry; language is the theme. What moves me to write is language, the search for language that has not already come to be.” Vitale’s poem, “The Word [La palabra]” according to Bragado, exemplifies the poet’s “verbal magic and exactitude”:
fabulosas en sí,
promesas de sentidos posibles,
Un breve error
las vuelve ornamentales.
Su indescriptible exactitud
splendid in themselves,
promises of potential meanings,
A simple spell-check
turns them ornamental.
Their indescribable precision
Translation: Dana Delibovi and Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno.
Note: Ariadnes (ariadnas) are a genus of butterflies. In Vitale’s Spanish, the 4 words in the center of the poem differ only slightly in spelling, so that she can call the difference “un breve error (lit: “a brief error”). In English, preserving the meaning required words with bigger differences in spelling, so “un breve error” was rendered as a “simple spell-check,” to denote the havoc of automatic spell-check when one mistypes a letter or two.
Vitale continues to write and speak. Just this year, she participated in La Feria Internacional del Libro, across the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires. A new selection of her poems in English translation by Sarah Pollack was published this fall. Director María Arrillaga recently released a documentary, Ida Vitale, on the artist’s life and work.
There is no reason for Vitale to retire. She likes her work and believes in keeping on with it. Her writing—and indeed, her life—remind us to persevere, to express our creativity to the last, and to remain open and willing to experiment. As Vitale said in a 2019 interview:
“[My work is] the same as if I had made many sweaters because I liked to knit…I did it because I liked it. I have always worked; when I gave classes, I was passionate about giving classes, and when I translated, I was not writing but it also delighted me to translate. The important thing is that whatever you do, you do it over the course of a long time, and that, in addition, it allows you to change.”
Well said, Ida Vitale, and well lived.
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