Teresa Wilms Montt responds to death, incorporating Catholic, pagan, and personal influences to trace a trajectory from sorrow to acceptance. At its primary level it is a record of grief, but it is also self-conscious about the beauty that can be found in this grief
Teresa Wilms Montt, In the Stillness of Marble, Trans. by Jessica Sequeira, Snuggly Books, 2019. [1918.]
Originally published in Spain in 1918, and here translated into English for the first time by Jessica Sequeira, In the Stillness of Marble is a set of thirty-five prose poems by the Chilean writer Teresa Wilms Montt directly addressed to a dead lover named Anuarí, who in reality was Horacio Ramos Mejía, a nineteen-year-old man who killed himself in front of her after his love was unreciprocated. At once tragic and personal, visionary and transgressive, these pieces, in their vital intimacy, read not only as letters to the dead, but also as incantations or prayers, expressing the passion, spirituality, and intensity of a woman who lived a tumultuous, rebellious life and refused to conform to the expectations of her time and surroundings.
Buenos Aires, 1917. Twenty-two-year-old poet Horacio Ramos Mejía kills himself in front of Chilean writer Teresa Wilms Montt, desperate to escape the pains of his unreciprocated love. In response to this traumatic event, Wilms Montt moves to Madrid and the following year publishes En la quietud del mármol (In the Stillness of Marble), a set of thirty-five prose poems directly addressing the dead poet. This is not her first work, but it moves the coy language of her two previous books into tragic, more personal territory. The poems are intimate; they read not as letters, but rather as prayers or incantations:
And when the sun spills out diamonds upon the world, then I breathe in all the flowers, I see you in all the trees, and I possess you tumbling, intoxicated with love, on the lawns of fragrant grass.
And when the moon gives its humble blessing to men, I see you gigantic, silhouetted by the sharp edges of a lightning bolt; I see you enormous, confused with the immortal, scattering your indulgence over the world, soothing the desperation of so many suffering castaways; I breathe you in the atmosphere, I imagine you in the mystery, I extract you from nothingness.
It seems to me that the world was only made to help me evoke you, and the sun to serve me as a lantern over the rugged path.
In the Stillness of Marble responds to death, incorporating Catholic, pagan, and personal influences to trace a trajectory from sorrow to acceptance. At its primary level it is a record of grief, but it is also self-conscious about the beauty that can be found in this grief, and the immortalization of the writer through her depiction of it. An ambiguity hovers in Wilms Montt’s poems between longings for the dead and reminders that he now lives on through her work, a trope used to ironically assert both the importance of a carpe diem approach, given the brevity of life, and the importance of these love notes, given that they are what will survive the vast deserts of eternity.
Wilms Montt reworked these familiar oppositions of metaphysical poetry by casting herself in the role of the poet attentive to death yet avid for life. Her intimate approach and sensuality set her apart even from other Chilean poets at this time, who were also interested in themes of death and the beauty that lingers. Writing at a particularly fertile period in Chilean poetic history, Wilms Montt’s contemporaries included Pedro Prado (Los pájaros errantes, 1915) and the group Los Diez, Gabriela Mistral (Sonetos de la muerte, 1914), and Vicente Huidobro (Las pagodas ocultas, 1916), who would for a time be her companion.
Wilms Montt was born on September 8, 1893 in Viña del Mar, Chile, into an elite, well-connected family. She was brought up by governesses who taught her all the techniques for finding a good husband. She studied languages, piano, and singing, and attended many luxurious banquets. From a young age, however, she showed a creative spirit that rebelled against the norms of her class. At an event at her father’s house in the summer of 1910, she met Gustavo Balmaceda Valdés, a direct relative of the ex-president José Manuel Balmaceda. He was eight years older than her and worked for the internal revenue service. Despite opposition from both families, the seventeen-year-old Wilms Montt joined Balmaceda in marriage, and they had two daughters.
Wilms Montt’s restlessness and her husband’s jealousy, though, were problematic for the marriage. Between 1911 and 1914 the family moved from city to city, as far apart as Valdivia and Iquique. These years of solitude were creatively productive for Wilms Montt. She worked on her private diaries and developed close friendships with many influential artists and intellectuals, such as the poet Víctor Domingo Silva. In Iquique, she published her writing under the pseudonym “Tebac” and began to develop ideals inspired by the Spanish feminist Belén de Zárraga and the Chilean revolutionary leftist Luis Emilio Recabarren. Noting this change, Gustavo Balmaceda sent Wilms Montt back to Santiago, where she remained under the care of her paternal family. Months later, she was forced into a nunnery, the Convent of Precious Blood. In 1916, after a suicide attempt, she escaped to Buenos Aires with the help of her then-lover Vicente Huidobro.
Arrival in the city led her to embrace her autonomy as a woman and writer. She began to collaborate with the magazine Nosotros, which also published work by Gabriela Mistral and Ángel Cruchaga Santa María. In 1917, she published her first two books. The first, Inquietudes sentimentales (Sentimental Doubts), consisted of fifty poems with surrealist features, while her second work, Los tres cantos (Three Songs), explored eroticism and spirituality. Both books enjoyed great success in Argentine intellectual circles. In 1918, Wilms Montt moved to Madrid. There she published two works widely recognized by Spanish literary critics: In the Stillness of Marble and Anuarí.
When Wilms Montt returned to Buenos Aires in 1919, she published her fifth book, titled Cuentos para hombres que todavía son niños (Stories for Men who Remain Boys), in which she evokes her childhood and some intimate experiences in a fantastic key. She continued to travel across Europe, visiting London and Paris, but maintaining her residence in Madrid. In 1920, she reunited with her children in Paris, but after their departure she grew gravely ill. During this crisis, she consumed a high dose of Veronal and, after a long period of agony, died on December 24, 1921. She was twenty-eight years old.
Why does one speak to the dead? The dead cannot talk back; they can only listen. Perhaps there is something about the act of writing to the dead, just as there is in praying, something sacred that is not simple consolation but an opening of oneself to new possibilities. Wilms Montt’s text might be read as a familiar psychological journey, almost adhering to the Kübler-Ross model: grief of the loss of a loved one, transmutation of the dead person into symbol, and renewed attention to self. Of course these three stages are undergone in Wilms Montt’s own key of anguish and irony, and experienced as writing. They create afresh events as widely experienced as love and death.
Grieving comes first. Before reading Wilms Montt, one might imagine that she writes to purge herself of the horror and perhaps culpability. After all, this man shot himself in front of her out of despair because Wilms Montt did not return his love. Yet notably, while the text expresses disbelief and sorrow, as well as feelings of resentment, longing, desire, and loneliness, there is never guilt. Wilms Montt accompanied her “Anuarí” (an invented nickname) in a sensual way, and this is also the way she misses him. Her descriptions are curiously unsentimental, for all that they claim to be so. The most heartfelt phrases are brutal declarations of eroticism, such as “My mouth is thirsty with lust” and “I came to your niche, to your narrow and wretched cavern, with the desire to turn myself to velvet, to bundle you up, to wrap you in myself, to give you an impression of love.” Wilms Montt portrays herself as alone in this luxurious grieving, this frantic distress. She even hints that she is judged for such extended unhappiness. This setup is filled with irony, as if Wilms Montt herself is now the victim, the one to be pitied.
At some point, a transmutation takes place: the living person is abstracted. The word “Anuarí” is a fiction, and as an invocation reiterated a full sixty times within the text, its presence displaces the initial direct address to the dead man, to transform him into an emblem. This is the first step of both art and acceptance. The concept of Amor (love) is idealized beyond the person of Anuarí, even if the dead man’s name calls it to mind. The dead becomes almost a pagan idol, his memory worshipped as a god in place of the living person. In a provocative section, Wilms Montt falls asleep with photos of Anuarí and a steel statue of Christ. “We are siblings, we are united in the only noble causes of life; now we hold one another in an intimate embrace, mutually binding ourselves to the only truth: death. Christ and I blend together in the impossible,” she writes. Anuarí has become a symbol of sorrow and longed-for resurrection. This transmutation makes possible such profane mystical identification with Christ.
Reading In the Stillness of Marble, the real tragedy seems to be not death itself—for in death one is close to God and the beyond, all enigmas are revealed, and peace reigns—but rather the fact that Wilms Montt has not died as well. What she expresses is jealousy of the dead, and a desire to perish:
Anuarí. To reach you I would suffer the transformation into grass, bird, animal, sea, cloud, ether and, finally, thought. To reach you I would unite myself to the secret force that inflames the winds, and would cross the infinite like a meteor, though it were only to brush against you, like those celestial bodies brush the surface of the sky.
In her early text Iniciación (Initiation), part of the diaries she kept but did not publish in life, Wilms Montt refers to herself from the position of a dead person, which she describes as a pleasant dream or blissful oblivion. This text is autobiographical, and in it she describes herself in the third person in language remarkably similar to that of In the Stillness of Marble.
To dream without cease, enclosed within the walls of marble, smooth and clean, of a tomb; to dream for all eternity. She will remain still, with the rigidity of dolls, and her soul will breathe in the perfume of her favourite flowers, the flowers with which her sisters will have crowned her head. The peace of death will climb slowly up her feet, to arrive silent as the tide . . . She will be wrapped with the serenity of velvet . . . Then she will discover the secret of that voice that murmurs enigmas to her heart . . . that voice that comes from beyond life.
Death itself, the condition of death, does not frighten her. She concludes, “To die must be something like sinking into a warm bath during frozen nights.”
Wilms Montt’s earlier and later works, sadly separated by only a few years, are continuous in form. The fragmentation of In the Stillness of Marble is similar to that of Wilms Montt’s previous writing in her diary, especially those parts recorded when she was trapped in the Chilean nunnery. Of the diary, literary critic Ruth González-Vergara writes that it is “at once a ludic form of exercising memory and of looking back on pleasant moments as a palliative to the stigma of being prisoner. There are flashes of irony and humour, not free of sensuality, that at times develop into a certain frivolity despite the sacredness and severity of the atmosphere.”
As with the nunnery, the cemetery. Despite the gravity of the situation, In the Stillness of Marble avoids solemnity in large part due to its own self-awareness in the acting-out of grief. As the dead finds rest as representation, we enter the final stage, in which Wilms Montt herself becomes the poem’s focus. The book arcs from Wilms Montt’s distress to her consciousness of the consequences of this distress. She alludes to attentions from other men. Her own beauty is repeatedly evoked. Grief takes on a theatrical quality, a vanity that both fascinates and troubles. Her red lips, her forehead, even her cold body draped over the tomb assume a certain seduction. Once again, Wilms Montt enters unexplored and uncomfortable territory. What is the seductive quality of grief? Here the living erotic body is continuously juxtaposed with the still corpse, to make the reader feel not only that the writer’s grief is absurd in its intensity and longevity, but also that the poet ought to accept the invitations of the healthy young life around her.
The insinuation is that Wilms Montt’s own existence has come to a halt; it, too, is still as marble. If she continues to grieve, she will herself become dead in life—an escalation of the tragedy. She must move on. The balance between personal feeling, duty to oneself, and societal expectation is delicate. Wilms Montt’s own beauty takes on a special importance, used as an apologia, a justification, an escape hatch from the drudgery of grieving. The deeply romantic idea here is that beauty is above moral constraints. Beauty can be cruel; for beauty, anything is possible. The prologue by Guatemalan journalist Enrique Gómez-Carillo, an infamous dandy, props up this idea with his slavish declarations of admiration, referencing Wilms Montt’s “curse of beauty.”
Wilms Montt’s book, Anuarí, was published in Madrid the same year as In the Stillness of Marble, 1918, with a prologue by the Spanish writer Ramón del Valle-Inclán. The text of Anuarí is different from that of In the Stillness of Marble, even if the style and theme are similar, and the two can be read as companion pieces. Precisely because of this similarity, however, there is some confusion. In the introduction by González-Vergara to the 1994 version of the complete works, Anuarí is listed as a disappeared edition, and we read that: “The book of poems Anuarí has been impossible to find in Chile, Argentina, Spain, France, and the United States, for which reason it does not appear in the present edition. Verifiable news about its existence allows one to harbor future hopes. Part of the prologue by Valle-Inclán is known.”
In the edition of the collected works of Wilms Montt called Lo que no se ha dicho (What Has Not Been Said), released by Editorial Nascimento in 1922, a text called Anuarí does appear, but the poems correspond to those of In the Stillness of Marble; two poems have also been combined into one. Unfortunately, this book remains the one on the Memoria Chilena page for Wilms Montt’s work, which has resulted in re-editions that replicate the error. In 2016 the confusion was clarified when the Chilean editor Alquímia used an edition printed in Madrid to publish the correct version of Anuarí, which was originally signed with the pseudonym Teresa de la ✝.
The ghostly rewriting of In the Stillness of Marble in the form of a second text, so similar it has misled even academics of her work, suggests that the theme transformed into an idée fixe for Wilms Montt, one that she did not feel she could exhaust in a single book. The spirit of Anuarí continued to haunt.
A poem with “marble” in its name suggests eternity, and In the Stillness of Marble is a fixing of the sensuous movements of life into timelessness. The cool hard substance is the materialization of the immortal, and its universal presence in majestic buildings from the Taj Mahal to the Palace of Versailles haunts Anuarí’s tomb like a holy spirit every time Wilms Montt presses her head and lips against it. She has transformed the tomb she caresses into an architectural monument. The stillness of marble could have multiple interpretations—the Immobility of a Dead Beloved, the Immortalized State of Poetry, the Impasse of One’s Life. For Wilms Montt it refers to all three—the eternity of her lover, the memorial of this book, and the standstill of her own life, which she must overcome.
In the Stillness of Marble is a work that explores quietude, yet uses its own lyrical propulsion to generate kinetic motion. To write to the dead is a process of self-invention, self-affirmation. It is a way of defining oneself in contrast to stillness, as a living being; it is a way of affirming existence through negation, with a greater complexity than simple acceptance. Wilms Montt romanticizes death as she does beauty, as a stillness to be admired, an occult face concealing secrets. At the same time, her own prose poetry makes clear that life with its heat and movement is also to be admired. The contradiction here, and in the attitude of Wilms Montt, is what gives this work such vibrance: quietud is engaged in a vital tangle with inquietud. - Jessica Sequeira