It isn’t often that you find in print a review of a book that is only a few dozen pages long—even if it is a book of poetry. Chiqui Vicioso’s collection consists of 44 (mostly very short) poems which House of Nehesi in St. Martin have cleverly and carefully published in a trilingual volume with a detailed introduction by Daisy Cocco De Filippis and English and French translations of the Spanish original by Judith Kerman and Fabian Badejo and Camille Aubade and Daniella Jeffry respectively. Even then, the full collection—tidy, inviting but also distinctly compact—comes to roughly 100 pages or so. Can much of substance be told (in three different languages!) in such reduced space? The answer is an unwavering, resounding and conclusive “yes.”
Sherezada “Chiqui” Vicioso is a prominent Dominican poet, playwright, activist, intellectual. She emigrated to New York as a teenager, graduated in sociology and education from CUNY and Columbia University, stayed in the city until she was 32—by then she had lived half her life in the Big Apple—and finally returned to her homeland in 1980. Her second collection of poems, Un extraño ulular traía el viento (1985) established her as a singular literary voice in the region but at the same time she developed her career as a social developer and feminist activist working as Director for Education at Pro Familia and collaborating with the UN and UNICEF in women-related issues in the Dominican Republic.
She gained recognition simultaneously in both aspects of her life, earning the Golden Caonabo prize by the Dominican Society of Writers in 1988 and the Gold Medal of Merit for Outstanding Women of the Year by the Department for the Advancement of Women in 1992. I say all this not to regurgitate a CV that can easily be found online—these facts are highly relevant to Eva/Sión/Es, just bear with me one more minute: Vicioso’s prolific production includes 19 books between 1981 and 2005, but through the ’90s her focus shifted towards playwriting (Whish-ky Sour earned her the Dominican National Theater Prize in 1997), and critical writing about female authors (Julia de Burgos, Salomé Ureña).
In 2005 Eva/Sión/Es was first published by the fabulous and sadly defunct magazine Anales del Caribe, a multi-lingual publication by Cuba’s Casa de las Américas which promoted culture across the region. Vicioso’s path—not only her career, but her life—to that stage had taken her along the strands that constitute the central concerns of her poems: literature, of course (not for nothing does the collection begin with an epigraph by the revered Cuban writer José Lezama Lima), but also the fabric that holds society together (crucially, the fragment by Lezama Lima that opens Eva/Sión/Es comes not from his seminal experimentalist novel, Paradiso, but rather from his 1957 collection of essays, “America’s Form of Expression: Myths and Classical Weariness”), and indeed, in this respect, not just any old society but specifically the society to which she belongs. In other words, Chiqui Vicioso’s work can be seen as the transcription of a lifelong quest for her place in society, the place of her kind (women, naturally, but also Dominicans, Caribbean people, diasporic people, double immigrants)
This quest is evident from the beginning in her collection, from the very first fraction of the title, as a matter of fact—a title that fragments the word “Evasiones” (“Evasions”) into the separate entities that constitute it: Eva, (the origin myth, sinful and all), Sion (a transliteration of Zion, of course, the promised land), and Es, far more evocative in the original Spanish than in the French and English translations as the third person construction of the verb to be. Thus, in Spanish, “Evasions” can also be read as—derives from—“Eve Sion Is”. The archetypal first woman, is, then, the promised land (and the sexual connotation here is taken by Vicioso in stride) in a world where Old World traditions (myth and religion are, after all, two sides of the same coin, separated by the impenetrable wall of faith) blend to form something entirely new—a world of its own, with its own rules and its own logic, where, for instance, “it was normal / to encounter birds / in the roots of trees.”
Vicioso’s Eve encompasses all women but also cuts across all cultures: she incorporates elements of Hebrew, Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Cabbalistic references, Voodoo spirituality and Christian heritage to give shape to a woman who clamors, above all, for her own individual essence. In the first part of the collection this essence points towards the sexual drive in Eve, “the mortal curiosity of my longings,” which guides her, inevitably but also smoothly, to the fertility with which womankind is identified and revered in so many cultures: Eve, the primal woman, thus becomes Gaia, the fertile Earth, but as soon as Damballah, the Father Creator, consummates the act of creation, Eve/Gaia falls into a self-destructive spiral of dissatisfaction that ultimately energizes her quest for her essence.
Because Vicioso will not confine her Eve solely to the role of fecund womb—if the potency of Man is associated with the exultant movement of the foamy sea, Woman soon comes to long for the stationary safety of land, cocoons herself into an island and tirelessly travels the Seven Seas to find the place “where my other self awaits me.” That place, of course, is the Caribbean, where Eve once again experiences the ecstasy of love but is also forced to transcend the sterility of memory—in other words, the effects of time. And so, Eve turns into Sherezada, Vicioso’s alter ego, who lives through the thousand and one nights “with poetry as the only shield.” Sherezada/Chiqui/Eve sings and stands for everywoman, she is “a Moorish prisoner / sold as white / Geisha who drags / her sequestered feet / Nanny / servant girl / prostitute / laborer of the Free Zone.” She embodies every culture, every tradition, every place previously mentioned in the poem, and bears herself upright, challenging, victorious, proud despite the sorrow and the struggle that has come. She is Eve, who even when ravished engenders “the blood of liberation.” She is Zion. And thus, life, mindless of human laws or decrees, places Eve by the side of Adam, not so much restituting the balance of Eden but performing the miracle of erecting instead, “from the ruins of weeping” a new “Paradise / free of edicts” that once and for all drags us to freedom.
Chiqui Vicioso’s journey through 44 short poems from the myth of origin to the redemption of a new beginning makes for a tough but rewarding read. The huge number of allusions to cultures and concepts that will remain alien to most readers almost turns the collection into a stepping stone to look beyond it, rather than a compendium where knowledge is to be found. Nevertheless, the essential elements of the symbolism articulated in the book are incorporated in the details of each poem. The greatest challenge for readers, then, might be not to be fazed by the unknown, not to shy away from a text that throws so much at you. For those who prevail, the perfectly balanced structure of the collection and the effusiveness of its ending will be the reward—perhaps something less ambitious than total liberation, but let’s be honest: we were never going to get that simply from reading a book in the first place.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday February 28th 2015.