|Remembering Julia by Manny Vega in East Harlem.|
Pablo Neruda, said that she was destined to be the greatest poet of the Americas. So how did Julia de Burgos end up dead and anonymous on a Harlem sidewalk in 1953 at the age of 39?
A broken harmony
that hops over its dementia
on the cushion of time.
Julia's tale begins in her native Puerto Rico with her birth on February 17, 1914. A strong-willed woman born into poverty she nevertheless rose above her circumstances and went on to university to become a teacher. Julia was an ardent Puerto Rican nationalist who also pushed for the rights of women. In 1936 she gave a rousing speech in defense of women's rights, La mujer ante el dolor de la Patria to the Puerto Rico General Assembly.
How they want to lay her down,
the long-dead mortals!
She also had two weaknesses — men and alcohol.
It was these weaknesses that fueled the poetry of Julia de Borgos and her peripatetic lifestyle. She was first married at age 20 and divorced by age 23 in 1937. Her poetry had already been published in select journals in Puerto Rico and her standing in the literary community was burgeoning. Her first volume of poetry, Poemas exactos a mi misma, coincided with her divorce. Two more volumes of poetry, Poema en veinte surcos (1938) and Canción de la verdad sencilla (1939) were published before leaving Puerto Rico.
Desire detached from achievement.
de Burgos followed another lover to Cuba in 1939 before arriving in New York City in 1940. Following this failed affair — one that is said to have inspired her greatest poetry — de Burgos married for the final time in 1943 before divorcing in 1947. The latest heartbreak fueled her downward spiral of depression and alcoholism.
The madness of my soul
it lives in the restlessness
in the disorder
in the imbalance
of things dynamic,
in the silence
of the free thinker, who lives alone,
in quiet exile.
Her last years were spent in and out of New York hospitals owing to ailments of the psyche,the liver and her vocal chords. The only poem that she ever wrote in English Farewell from Welfare Island was written from a hospital bed in February 1953. She was found unconscious on East 105th Street in Spanish Harlem on July 6, 1953. She died later that day — age 39 — and interred in an unmarked grave for paupers.
Strong harmony broken
that of my soul:
broken at birth;
today more than ever she plants
her innate rebellion
in stanchions of strategic leaps.
Her whereabouts in death were eventually tracked down. Her body exhumed, she returned to Puerto Rico and to the respect and reverence she so dearly deserved. Publishers Weekly wrote that, "de Burgos was ahead of her time in grasping connections between history, the body, politics, love, self-negation and feminism that would later prove to be the foundations for writers like [Adrienne] Rich and [Sylvia] Plath."
(The verses of the poem throughout this article are from Julia de Burgo. My Soul. Fragments of the poem — in both Spanish and English — are immortalized in Manny Vega's Remembering Julia mosaic on East 106th Street and Lexington Avenue...one-half block from where she died.)