Thursday, March 02, 2006


PRESENTED BY GUILLERMO JUAN PARRA who offers an introductory essay. After the introduction are 14 poems by Martha Kornblith, then an interview and newspaper article respectively by Rafael Arráiz Lucca and Blanca Elena Pantin. All English translations are by Parra.

Guillermo Juan Parra was born in Cambridge, MA. He attended Boston University and now works as a teacher in that city. He is editing an anthology of XX century Venezuelan poetry in English translation. His poems and essays have appeared in Xcp, 6x6, CARVE and The CLR James Journal.

A Woman in a Country at War: The Poetry of Martha Kornblith
By Guillermo Juan Parra

Martha Kornblith (Lima, Peru 1959-Caracas, Venezuela 1997) is among the unfortunate group of poets whose suicides influence how their work is read. When she killed herself on May 29, 1997, Kornblith left behind one book and various poems scattered in anthologies and literary magazines. I first encountered her work the year she died, in an anthology of emerging Latin American poets, edited in Mexico by the Peruvian critic Julio Ortega (Antología de la poesía latinoamericana del siglo XXI: El turno y la transición, México DF: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1997). I eventually found a copy of her first book, Oraciones para un dios ausente (Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores, 1995), during a visit to Caracas in 2001. Two other books were published within months of her death, one a collection of work written in the 1980s, entitled El perdedor se lo lleva todo (Caracas: Fondo Editorial Pequeña Venecia, 1997) and a series of newer poems entitled Sesión de endodoncia (Caracas: Grupo Editorial Eclepsidra, 1997).

Many of Kornblith’s poems inevitably revolve around her early and tragic death, as though she could see its approach for years. Suicide and death recur throughout her work, quite often in an angry and resentful manner. Her final action seems to stand as a challenge to the reader, an inevitable moment that bleeds into her verses and seals a pact. In the hands of a lesser poet, this obsession with death could become a trite or derivative symptom. But Kornblith’s poems revolve around death in the same manner as the plays of Christopher Marlowe do, with an elegant and dark fierceness that fine-tunes their language to incredible feats. There are many moments in Kornblith’s poetry when she is able to reduce her gaze to the most elemental and vivid renderings of the city and life she inhabited.

When she observes a beautiful classmate and fellow poet drinking from a water fountain, she transports her reader to a stylized and honest moment of love and lust glimpsed from within daily routine. The setting for her poems is often a single room, where the poet writes against the city and against her own fears. Other writers and artists (Plath, Kristeva, Van Gogh, Gauguin) are invoked for company and sustenance as much as for spite. This spitefulness pulsing through much of her work might reflect the vicious postmodern tones of her adopted city, to which she arrived as a child from Lima:

Saturday is a day to hate
this city
to hate this city
and its poets
until death

Caracas in the early 1990s, when Kornblith was an active member of a collective of young poets and fiction writers named Eclepsidra, was a city beginning its descent into political and criminal violence, after a decade that witnessed the dissipation of promises offered by an oil boom in the 1960s and 1970s. Two major political events could be interpreted as influencing the dark mood of Kornblith’s poems. The first of these were the massive disturbances of February 27, 1989 (known as “El Caracazo”) that involved violent protests against a sudden increase of public transportation fares imposed by then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez. These protests began in impoverished neighborhoods encircling the central valley of Caracas and quickly spread throughout the capital and into other cities. The government temporarily suspended constitutional guarantees and sent in the armed forces to quell the wide-scale rioting and looting that ensued. After several chaotic days, close to two thousand civilians were dead or disappeared and Venezuela was left in a precarious position, forced to confront its extreme poverty and social inequalities, despite being one of the world’s most important oil producers.

On February 4, 1992 a group of leftist military officers staged a coup attempt against Carlos Andrés Pérez in various cities, including Caracas. This coup attempt was led by a then-unknown army Lieutenant Colonel. Although the coup was unsuccessful, it set the stage for the political disgrace of Pérez and Venezuela’s mainstream political parties. More importantly, the failed coup facilitated the eventual rise to power of that anonymous Lieutenant Colonel, who would go on to become one of the most controversial and militaristic leaders in Venezuelan history. Added to these political complications was the sharp rise in violent crime in Caracas, reflecting a trend in major cities throughout Latin America. I would suggest these political and social tensions are reflected in even the most esoteric and private of Kornblith’s poems. In her writing, she is filtering the daily violence of her city and attempting to counter it with a precise and hard style that can sustain and dispel such pressures. The “hate” Kornblith invokes against Caracas is one born of despair and defiance. It is a hatred that exists in any worthwhile poet who confronts the iniquities and violence of the late XX century in Latin America. One finds that same stance in the work of Rimbaud or Dickinson, two poets who share with Kornblith an affinity for the notion of the poet as a being engaged in a struggle against daily reality.

The Eclepsidra group was a collective of young writers centered around Venezuela’s oldest university, the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas. They were originally inspired to form their own collective after several of them participated in a writing workshop with the poet, historian and editor Rafael Arráiz Lucca, himself a member of previous collectives of young writers in the 1980s (centered around the Tráfico and Guaire groups) who made urban reality the focus of their poetics. Like their predecessors from the 1980s, many writers in the Eclepsidra group chose to include the vicious and contradictory nature of Caracas into their work, moving beyond surrealist or telluric approaches to poetic composition. Kornblith received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from UCV, where she studied at the Escuela de Letras. At the time of her death, the Eclepsidra collective had more or less dissolved but their legacy can be seen in the editorial venture they founded and which continues to publish poetry today. Among the Eclepsidra members are the novelist Israel Centeno* and the poet and editor Carmen Verde Arocha, two of Venezuela’s most influential contemporary writers.

Kornblith’s poetry is ultimately grounded in love as an ideal that exists but cannot be fully attained. Whether she is writing about a beautiful boy in one of her classes or lamenting her own fear within Venezuela’s unstable political landscape, Kornblith imbues her language with a precision and austerity that evoke a devotion to a poetics of love. This devotion was, unfortunately, not enough to sustain Kornblith. The act of writing poetry in a city as violent and convoluted as Caracas in the late XX century can be an absurd task. Reading and translating Kornblith in the decade after her death, I want to remain faithful to her fierce and implacable poetics that challenges the vicissitudes of the city. In that challenge, Kornblith’s poems glow with a love of language and a deep awareness of the futility of poetry in a struggle against economics, politics and the doubts that assail any poet who dares to look closely at the world. As she writes in one of her posthumous texts, the poem will exist within and despite the continuous assaults of daily existence. The poet assumes her place within imagination, building up a reservoir of silence, memory and love to sustain her amid the perpetual crisis that seems to characterize Latin America today:

I'll be a woman in a
country at war
thinking of you

When reading Kornblith’s poetry, one gets the impression she never quite adjusted to the frantic and violent nature of Caracas. As a Peruvian-born, Jewish Venezuelan poet, her work is distinctly tied to a multiplicity of selves that is quite common to Latin America. The intense solitude and despair that inhabit many of her poems could perhaps be traced to cultural and historical aspects of her race, class and gender in Latin America. But to reduce Kornblith to her Jewishness, to her position among the middle class of Caracas, or to her being a female poet, would be simplistic. While translating Kornblith into English I have tried to listen as closely as possible to her voice on the page, to the Caracas rhythms of her Spanish, to the sharp tone of her anger and to the tender clarity of her laments. One can find a brave willingness to remain faithful to the ideal of the poem in Kornblith’s writing, no matter what losses or disappointments might be encountered.

I have translated fourteen of her poems into English, along with an interview with Kornblith published in 1994 by Rafael Arráiz Lucca (Caracas, 1959). I have also translated a newspaper article by the poet and editor Blanca Elena Pantin (Caracas, 1957), published several days after her death in the Caracas daily El Universal. I can only hope my English versions remain true to Martha Kornblith’s tough, beautiful verses.
—Boston, February 2006

(* Israel Centeno is one of several Venezuelan writers active in the blogosphere today. He can be read at and


14 Poems by Martha Kornblith

Prayers to an Absent God (selections)

That's why we dedicate our books
to the dead.
Because we carry the hopeless conviction
they listen to us.
We, accomplices to
less innocent careers,
believe we will be gods
in other worlds
because we think happiness
is the miracle's distance
when we dream of one word,
when we watch airplanes rising.


That's why I became a poet
because time passes slowly in solitude.
Isn’t it merely a dangerous moment
maintains our composure?
Doesn't madness depend
on our single, fragile chord?
Doesn't she lean on one term alone,
on the exact term,
that saves
or damns us?


The street is full
and there’s a woman
in the depths of her room
who weeps alone.

She loves a man
who writes theories.

She recalls the day
full of last goodbyes.

It’s nighttime,
and outside
it rains on me.

Because it’s Friday,
and you’re leaving.


This memory astride eternity's breadth,
that absent presence,
that memory that disrespects the body
(death leaves without saying goodbye).
This anguish of inability,
that asphyxiation.


At times
we must
come back to memories
to annul recollection,
annihilate vestiges,
other lives,
salute old bonds,
decapitate ancient papers,
founder anew,
so they might say again
and not have,
not possess anything.


That poet who stares at me.
Every night
he leaves class,
explains a verse,
shoos the flies away from the water fountain,
drinks a sip,
shakes off his blue jeans.
And he keeps doing this, always
the audience cheers,
and he searches his pockets,
sinking his forehead into the theater box
while I think:
and the blank page.


I've seen a poet write
about poetry's uselessness.
They become, at the end of their lives,
chaotic and telluric,
they reflect on the cosmos,
they denigrate the poem, for the right reasons,
while their hands shake
over the glass of whisky
and they return to the initial torment
that expands now into our dedications.
They sleep over their book covers
but they no longer conspire, like others in the salons.
Good and visionary
they never confess their disaster,
they are above the end of the world.
They weep because the word has become stupid
and they wonder if the wait has been legitimate.


Today I finally learn
you don’t need
an intimate beginning alone,
the conclusive word
that will link
and tie it all together,
that to write a poem
(sweet and sated enclave)
you need to establish
in the stanzas
a place that might hold
our silences.
Nor are maxims enough,
final and belated gesture:
(this occupation, the most
innocent of all)
love must install
itself in slight embrace
and knot the words together
(nor does it go very far).
You must decipher
the exact measure, the needed link
where hypotheses arise,
enter the decisive point
where the verb crosses
the stare.


you finally open,
quick as a kiss
planted in the dark,
that way of anticipating
phrases that have to do
with time.
That sad knowledge converges within you
(I accuse a lone melancholy),
you have that illustrious manner of appearing
submerged within the intertext,
but it's crucial to delay
these verses of time,
you reached the end impeccably
(your discourse awaits, avid for hours).


I remain, staring at the word,
the ruins my first verse opened,
only things speaking themselves forever and never,
there will be no more talent emerging from the fragments,
only the others' letters announce a disaster.

(Translated from Oraciones para un dios ausente, Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores, 1995)


Family Saga

In all houses
there will always live a poet
with a sister (who isn’t a poet)
who will always tell her
to write a biography
of their family.
In all houses
there will live a poet
—crazy, by the way—
like those that sustain
their own despised biographies
amid dire suffering:
They sighted past autisms
women who speak gnarled words
jump at midnight.
In all houses
a distant cousin will exist
—who lives in a another country—
and who searches (in English)
the family’s genesis.
Years ago, he met
this schizophrenic relative
(So quiet, so withdrawn—he said—)
(“So quiet, So withdrawn”)
He didn’t recognize her in the last photo
(“lucía tan diferente”)
(“She looked so different,
so attractive, so outlocked”)
In all houses
there will live a sister who is a poet
—crazy, by the way—
who searches her own disdained
(the one we know already)
In all houses
there will live a sister
who will ask her poet sister
to write the history
of their family
This poet (the house lunatic)
will eventually become part of this saga
on the day she leaves the telephone
at the edge of dawn.



To go one Saturday

To go one Saturday
afternoon to a bookstore
without realizing
how dull we were,
plagiarizing even
curses and suicide.
To go one Saturday to the
to copy Sylvia Plath
or the closest neighbor.
Although, either way,
almost everything always converged
in misfortune
it was an argument
to suddenly encounter
a current of vision
and run back to my house
to write a poem
about this city
I hate so much.

Saturday is a day to hate
this city
to hate this city
and its poets
until death



I have lost the world.
It is my own disappointment
I seek.
It’s Tuesday
I read Kristeva
(“melancholy is sterile
if she does not evolve into a poem”).
It’s Tuesday
and one month ago
my left hand
burned in live flesh.
I met a doctor
I loved madly.
That man washed
my blood
that man cleaned
my burned skin
That man knew
my lament
but that lament
was not a lament
that came from within
it was a different
an outside lament.
It’s Tuesday
I read Kristeva
(“I inhabit the secret
crypt of a wordless
To him I dedicate
“Love can arise from pain,
the profoundest love.”

It’s Tuesday
and I read Kristeva:
“melancholy is
a perversion,
it is up to us
to lead her into
words and life.”

(Translated from Papel Literario, El Nacional, 15 September 1996)


When the government falls

When the government falls
I will be habitually alone.
Since I will have postponed
the shopping
—as always—
from taking so much time
to imagine you,
my pantry will be
and I will saunter without
or relatives, or neighbors
or pain killers, alone.
I will be a woman in a
country at war
thinking of you

(Translated from Sesión de endodoncia, Caracas: Grupo Editorial Eclepsidra, 1997)


Martha Kornblith: A Poem is Merely Good for Being Happy
By Rafael Arráiz Lucca

When Martha Kornblith's eyes look they speak. Few glances reveal so clearly the tense dialogue provoked by the world's contradictions, but few eyes such as these announce the honey of victory. If the battles are arduous, the gains are definitive. As difficult as it is to learn how to walk, a memorable poem's light can reach the page in the same manner. Martha Kornblith is the author of "Jesse Jones."

"I'm an average person, but I have a firm conviction about poetry. Maybe this comes from my happy childhood, from the riches I had, from the good people that surrounded me. One is made by one's childhood. I lived within a house, a block in San Isidro. My childhood in that city where I was born is something I always remember. Later, I spent two years in Rio de Janeiro, but life there was harder than in Lima. Although Rio's beauty is incomparable, Lima was the place of my happiness.

I never went to the beach in Rio. I felt uncomfortable, uprooted. I think my poetry is born out of that discomfort, out of that fantasy-laden and solitary world. My texts come from my wanderings at the ocean shore. Like all teenagers, I dreamed of being someone important. I wanted to be an actress in Brazilian telenovelas. So, I dreamed. This verse of mine comes from those years: I tend to fly like a wounded dove / through an endless beach.

I arrived in San Bernardino [Caracas] when I was eleven. I ended up living in a competitive, snobby atmosphere that valued money very much and dismissed inner values very much. That was all very hard."

And it was this relentless carnival which contributed to the birth of the poetic word: That was a poem I made to save myself, to show to many people and to tell them: read this and stop bothering me. But after I did that I realized poetry doesn't save anyone. What you can accomplish with a poem is that someone will laugh out loud in your face. You can't buy an apartment in New York with poetry, nor can you travel every year to Europe. Poetry only allows us to gather together in a workshop, to have fun and be in contact with beauty. No one is saved by poetry. It's merely good for being happy.

"I don't have that tragic vision of poetry. For me, it's a great pleasure to write. If, for example, I wake up on a Saturday depressed and bored, not knowing what to do with my life and I suddenly manage to write a text. Well, that day is already something else, it's a day that flowered. I hate those torn people who walk around suffering with a poem in their hand. I don't like it, it annoys me because the poem is my happy self."

Chance or hidden laws often create situations which don't have an explanation that follows the rules of logic. Martha Kornblith began to write poems without knowing, exactly, that this is what she was doing. She was looking to save herself from others and from herself, and what she was really doing was writing a text. To undress: Whoever rids himself of everything, whoever is ready for loss, is also ready for winning. Rafael Cadenas has lost everything and has gained everything. It's as though depression turned into something else. It's as though sadness and being deprived helped fertilize the spiritual life's earth. But what was once a hidden inclination within the tracery of chance ends up being a function (a pleasure) to help face the world's vicissitudes. Living in Caracas is a terrible fate. I would like to live in a beautiful city, but I wouldn't be able to leave this place. I'm very scared of starting over again. However, the other afternoon I was driving along the Cota Mil highway and the sky was wonderful and, suddenly, I thought that at my 33 years, I sometimes forget we're covered by a sky and the sky is inexplicable. The sky is chance, it is God. All this, while I was driving in the car, made me remember some verses by Yolanda Pantin that expressed my feeling: I am close to the world outside myself / it is a miracle this sky exists.

But a woman who can look at the sky and remember the words of another one who also looked upwards, glances around herself and makes less complacent judgments. She worries about the attitude of many of her generational companions: They look for status before talent; they like to go to readings so that people will recognize them. They like prizes too much and this annoys me so much because, really, I think prizes deteriorate and alienate. But the greatest damage they inflict is they create characters. It's as though we were surrounded by characters instead of people. There are also many who think being a poet means going into a bar to get drunk, but that's how the sensibility for appreciating a good poem ends up being lost. And then you read great praises in the press for some books that are trash.

Perhaps these friends are the same ones who don't talk to Martha Kornblith because she is very reserved, she is silent. They're the same ones—Martha maintains—who on the one hand don't talk to her and on the other write the words silence, uneasiness and who act as though they were helpless. They're the same ones—Martha says— who read Pound and Eliot and who brandish a type of imported uneasiness, of imported helplessness. While credible and intelligent verses definitely exist, there are also many false voices and that bothers me. I sometimes buy ten literary magazines and don't find a single poem. Months go by and I don't find the poem I would have liked to have written.

My Poets are From Here

At the age of nine, Martha Kornblith had already read The One Thousand and One Nights but her father didn't know this. One day he brought it to her as a gift and Martha, so as to not disappoint him, thanked him and kept quiet. She reread it years later and couldn't put it down. Perhaps everything began there.

Then Jules Verne arrived, with his offer of other lives and other experiences and later on a poet and priest who inspired more than a few in the sixties: Ernesto Cardenal. I was in love with the Marilyn Monroe poem and I read it and read it until I memorized it.

But in these days marked by uncertainty, Martha prefers the voices of her closest neighbors: I'm not going to look for Anglo-Saxon influences. If I want to enrich myself, I look for an everyday reading among the poets of Guaire and Tráfico.* I look for a text by [Armando] Rojas Guardia, by [William] Osuna, by Yolanda Pantin or by Blanca Strepponi. Many young poets seek out very distant writers. Some of them even say in their poems that they're tired from so much traveling and, actually, they've never been out of the country.

(* Translator's note: Guaire and Tráfico were two poetry groups that emerged in Caracas in the early 1980s. Translated from Rafael Arráiz Lucca, Conversaciones bajo techo, Caracas: Editorial Pomaire, 1994.)


Kornblith’s Choice: Wearied by Fear
By Blanca Elena Pantin

El Universal
1 June 1997

In a moment on Thursday, May 29th, Martha Kornblith (Lima, Peru, 1959) decided to commit suicide. Some found out about her death through an announcement on the lower left-hand corner of the obituaries page of the newspaper. Read in that manner, it was a brutal piece of news. A poet, author of the books Oraciones para un dios ausente (Monte Avila Editores, 1995), El perdedor se lo lleva todo (Fondo Editorial Pequeña Venecia, going to press) and Sesión de endodoncia (unpublished, soon to be released by the imprint Vitrales de Alejandría), Kornblith belonged to the Eclepsidra group along with Israel Centeno, Carmen Verde, Abraham Abraham, Fernando Scorcia, Iván Crespo, Miguel Angel de Lima, María Milagros Pérez and José Luis Ochoa.

Trained in the poetry workshops of the Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos, Kornblith participated—as did the majority of the members of Eclepsidra—in the workshop directed by Rafael Arráiz Lucca between 1990 and 1994, first in the building of the Galería de Arte Nacional and later in the house belonging to Monte Avila Editores, when the author of Pesadumbre en Georgetown was the director of the publishing house located in La Castellana. When they publicly announced the birth of the group in 1994, they announced: “We are joined with Rafael by the ties of friendship and by an acknowledgement of his work as a poet and editor but that doesn’t mean we depend on him. On an aesthetic level, we feel closer to Terrenos but never to Balizaje. Rafael hasn’t served as a guide. All of us direct the workshop.” Soon afterwards the workshop dissolved and Eclepsidra suffered a division with two central arms. One led by Israel Centeno and the second by Carmen Verde. The first assumed the direction of the fiction collection for the Grupo Editorial Eclepsidra (it later made itself completely independent under the name Memorias de Altagracia) and Verde the poetry collection (Vitrales de Alejandría).

A desperate and painful book, Oraciones para un dios ausente anticipates Kornblith’s tragic determination. In one of the poems she tries to confront Adorno’s sentence on the impossibility of writing after Auschwitz. Against the philosopher’s sentence she proposes the vision of Günter Grass: “You have to use that suit / over and over / and never wear a new suit. You have to live off the urine / of poorly-washed kidneys.” Kornblith remembered all of this when she was going to write a poem. And then she wrote her own:

There was nothing to talk about,
except hunger’s conversations
the impossibility of abstraction.
One had to walk
with a well-sharpened pencil.
And write:
don't write poetry
or envy the silk of the synagogues.
I say it today
wearied by fear.

Wearied by fear like Miyó Vestrini, like Sylvia Plath, like Alfonsina Storni, like Alejandra Pizarnik, wearied by fear, Martha Kornblith decided her death.

(Translated from Blanca Elena Pantin, El Universal, 1 June 1997)


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