Exquisitely Evocative

In Braided Memories, Marjorie Agosín pays homage to her great-grandmother, who escaped Nazi-dominated Vienna and made her way to Chile.

Exquisitely Evocative

A prevalent theme in Marjorie Agosín’s work is memory and oblivion. Many of her poems celebrate fast-disappearing Jewish customs or Jewish communities decimated by exile or war. In Braided Memories/Memorias Trenzadas, she memorializes her great-grandmother Helena by retracing Helena’s steps from a vibrant European capital suddenly turned hostile to a new home in Chile, where a beautiful palm tree with outstretched arms awaits her in the garden.

Agosín weaves images, emotions, and memories into a tapestry that brings Helena Broder to life. She does not simply recount Helena’s trajectory. Rather, she conjures up moments that allow the reader to sense — indeed, almost to experience — Helena’s emotions at different times. The “braids” of the book’s title evoke not only Helena’s beautiful hair, but also Agosín’s entwining of breathtaking metaphors and word-pictures.

Yet the book is as much about Agosín’s journey as it is about her great-grandmother’s. In her 60th year, the poet traveled to Vienna, where she explored the house filled with magic and memories where Helena once lived, the avenues and parks where she strolled, and the Jewish cemetery where her husband, Isidoro, is buried.

Agosín evokes the sinister Viennese streets, but also the warm Chilean sun, the beauty of the local flora, and the sounds of the sea and of an unfamiliar language — all of which would have been strange and extraordinary to Helena. Throughout the collection, the fleeting scent of lilacs is a constant, a reminder of life and beauty amid the turmoil and destruction. In the end, Agosín’s search for her great-grandmother becomes a journey of self-exploration.

Braided Memories is divided into four parts. In the first, “You Call to Me from Dreams,” Agosín reveals how the memory of Helena invaded her consciousness: “The wondrous world of dreams beckoned me, / beseeching me to find you...”; “From death, your voice, / from the depths of the frozen ground you call, / from the memory of your sky you summon me.”

The memories tumble into the poet’s awareness in a disorderly fashion: “You glide between hazy chronologies, / withered landscapes, / broken countries.” And yet, Helena’s voice is “like a sweet bell” that jingles unrelentingly.

Part II, “Capricious Vienna,” evokes the horror of Nazi-dominated Austria: “I have come to Vienna to find you. / All I hear is the echo of tortured voices.” Agosín’s images of the house where Helena lived are heartrending: “I visit your house. / I touch the iron banister where your hand once rested. / I amble through desolate rooms. / Others appropriated your possessions… / Others have sat in your house and watched the sunset from your window.”

Splendorous Vienna has become “Dark Vienna, / somber Vienna, / Vienna where the dead howl,” a place where “It is always night” and the lilacs die of sadness. In the emptiness, the poet feels her great-grandmother’s presence: “I sit on an empty bench. / Soon you arrive at the place of absence.” In the park, “You sit next to me, a graceful ghost.”

The section concludes with images of escape. A suitcase filled with keepsakes (photographs of the dead, a Passover Haggadah, a Torah) waits by the door. Helena descends the stairs, illuminated from within by God’s hand and from without by fireflies.

Everywhere around her, glass shatters: “The Night of Broken Glass sliced into your soul, / glass showered your face, / history shattered, / the world came crashing down.” At last, she is on the train that will take her to the port, whence she will begin her journey to a new life.

Part III, “Chile, A Star at the End of the World,” recalls Helena’s arrival in Santiago. Before a “soporific blue” sea, Helena stands in her silk gloves, her smile “like a crescent moon,” listening to a “musical language” she does not yet understand. Caught in a web of memories, Helena clings to the Jewish rites that bring her solace. She “never spoke of victims or victimizers,” only of “reticence and virtue.”

Yet Helena is haunted by memories. She inhabits a dark room full of secrets, a room where “witches appeared after teatime,” and owls and ghosts hide in the corners. She lives in silence, yet taught Agosín “how to speak with the dead, / to choose the right words, / to leave glasses of wine before the vacant places.” Helena shared with her great-granddaughter the beauty of the Sabbath rituals that gave form and meaning to her existence.

In part IV, Agosín evokes her own return to Chile from the U.S., where she lives, and her encounter with the reality of Helena. By embracing Helena’s life, the poet finds a sense of peace and wellbeing: “Gray becomes blue.” In the garden, where Helena’s son once planted lilacs for her, the “resplendent palm tree” still stands. As always, in Agosín’s poetry, joy conquers desolation, and love conquers the shadows.

For Agosín, rescuing the past is an obligation. Without the evocative power of poetry, the struggles and suffering of Helena and millions like her will be forgotten, and their memories will dissolve into nothingness: “I am now your memory,” Agosín avers.

Beautifully translated by Alison Ridley, this bilingual edition is as satisfying in English as in Spanish. The photographs by Samuel Shats complement the text wonderfully. Like Agosín, Shats eschews the narrative, opting instead for the evocative. Rather than tell Helena’s story chronologically, his photos capture moods, memories, and moments.

Braided Memories is certainly one of Marjorie Agosín’s best poetry collections. Reading it, we feel Helena Broder’s warm and familiar yet magical presence, almost as if we had actually known her.

[Photos courtesy of Samuel Shats.]

Bárbara Mujica, a professor emerita at Georgetown University, is a novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Her latest novel, I Am Venus (Overlook Press), explores the identity of the model for Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. Her previous fiction includes the international bestseller Frida, based on the relationship between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Sister Teresa, based on the life of Teresa of Ávila. Her collection of stories, Far from My Mother’s Home (Spanish edition: Lejos de la casa de mi madre) focuses on the immigrant experience. Mujica has won several prizes for her short fiction, including the E.L. Doctorow International Fiction Competition, the Pangolin Prize, and the Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award for short fiction. Three of her stories and two of her novels have been winners in the Maryland Writers’ Association national competition. I Am Venus was a quarter-finalist in the 2020 ScreenCraft Cinematic Novel Competition. Her latest book is Religious Women and Epistolary Culture in the Carmelite Reform: The Disciples of Teresa de Ávila, scheduled for publication this fall by Amsterdam University Press.

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