We do not live in vain

Translator Jeannine Pitas visited Selva Casal in Uraguay in 2013. Her translation of Casal’s No vivimos en vano (We do not live in vain) will be published in 2020 by Veliz Books.

Wedged between the large countries of Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is a nation not frequently discussed on the world stage. Other than World Cup successes or political action to legalize marijuana, this land of three million people—half of whom reside in the capital city of Montevideo—rarely makes the news. In some respects, no news is good news. With a long tradition of free, public education for all —including women—Uruguay is a country of artists, thinkers, and poets. Selva Casal, whose poem “The arms of the earth can’t hold me” appears in Shenandoah, is one of many highly educated Uruguayan women whose writing made an impact in the twentieth century. In some cases, these women have continued to write in the twenty-first century as well; three of Casal’s sixteen books were written in the last ten years.

I came upon Selva Casal’s work while completing translations and academic research on another Uruguayan poet, Marosa di Giorgio (1932–2004), who happened to be a good friend of Casal. By the time I met Casal in 2013, I’d already translated four books by di Giorgio and received some recognition for her writing in the U.S. While Casal shares some of di Giorgio’s poetic characteristics, such as a baroque literary style that teems with images and a Blakean religiosity that truly approaches a marriage of heaven and hell, there are marked differences between the two. In some ways, it seems that Casal’s work is a harder sell to U.S audiences than di Giorgio’s marvelous, fantastic landscapes. Perhaps it is because the Casal poems I have chosen to focus on—her 1975 book No vivimos en vano (we do not live in vain), whose publication was seen as a denunciation of the dictatorship and cost Casal her job as a professor of sociology at the University of the Republic—tells a story that we think we already know and probably would rather forget: the story of violence, of lust for power, and of humans’ terrible inhumanity to one another.

Indeed, this theme abounds throughout her work. “The missiles are pointed at my heart,” she proclaims in one poem, which is the title piece of her 1988 collection. Other titles, such as Mutilated Man and Living is dangerous, offer similar sentiments. When I visited Casal, I was struck by the contrast between her warm, grandmotherly personality and the stark brutality of much of her writing. But for her, there is no contradiction; humans are all simultaneously kind and cruel, vengeful and forgiving, foolish and wise. This perspective was gained from her upbringing in an educated family (her father was also a poet), her career as a penal lawyer, her marriage and family life with its joys and sorrows (including the death of her adult son), and the experience of living under Uruguay’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.

For me, Casal’s poetics approach unites the documentary and the lyrical; her poetic “I” is a witness to the horrors of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as well as an incisive yet compassionate observer of human nature. Over the past decade, I have found myself privileged to be part of a small but growing group of advocates for Uruguayan poetry in translation. As many of that country’s most prominent poetic voices—such as Amanda Berenguer, Roberto Echavarren, Circe Maia, and so many others—are being rendered in English, I am determined to bring Casal’s voice to the table. While I ultimately intend to compile a large volume of selected works, I am beginning with the book that once brought fear to a tyrannical government. Casal’s We do not live in vain is a message that we need to keep hearing, and I am delighted to share part of that message with you.

A close-up of Uruguayan poet Selva Casal, who lives at home with her spouse, Arturo Eguren, and, despite needing twenty-four-hour care, continues to write and paint each day.

The decorations in the Casal–Eguren household reflect their politically progressive leanings.

When I first met Selva, she told me not to tell others that she was a painter as well as a poet. “One needs to have a secret activity,” she said. But now she is happy to show her paintings as well.

Selva’s spouse, Arturo Eguren, is a children’s book author.

Selva is holding her 1975 book No vivimos en vano (We do not live in vain), which was read as a denunciation of the Uruguayan military dictatorship and resulted in her losing her job as a professor of sociology at the University of the Republic.

When I asked Selva and Arturo the secret to a long and happy life, they said, “You need to laugh a lot. That’s the key.”

Jeannine M. Pitas is a writer, teacher, and Spanish-English translator living in Iowa, where she teaches at the University of Dubuque. Her translation of four books by Marosa di Giorgio, published as I Remember Nightfall by Ugly Duckling Presse, was shortlisted for the 2018 National Translation Award. Her most recent poetry chapbook, Thank You For Dreaming, was published by Lummox Press in 2018.