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© Patricia Tagle de Rokha

Can one part of the mind stay awake, while another dreams? How do daytime impressions filter and condense into meaning? What is the link between the consciousness and unconsciousness at the personal and collective levels? Oneiromancy, the study of dreams, asks questions about the sleeping mind and its layered meanings; rigorous scientific technique is applied to abstract and nebulous material. Such a study has a partly practical purpose, as the hidden stuff of the mind is valuable in creating prophecies for the future about the essence of the individual and about history.

A long, rich tradition of dream interpretation stretches from the Greeks to the Indians, from mystic Jewish Kabbalah to the books of the Qu’ran. But beyond the great systems, many individual forays have also been made into dream science, to build up a powerful personal arsenal of symbols. The work of Chilean poet Winétt de Rokha is a marvellous example.

Winétt wrote several books of poetry in her life, but today she is still best known for being the wife of Pablo de Rokha, one of the ‘big four’ in Chile along with Neruda, Huidobro and Mistral. Winétt met Pablo after she wrote him a letter to say that she liked his work, and he fell so deeply in love with her words that he came to Santiago to ask for her hand. Her father refused, but Pablo persisted in his affections, and even challenged him to a duel. Impressed, her father let him marry the girl.

In addition to being a mother of nine children and an active co-director of the anti-fascist publishing house Multitud, Winétt wrote four collections of poetry. Her work includes a variety of registers, from more straightforward poems in a feminine voice, to political poems, to cryptic surrealist poems. Oniromancia [Oneiromancy], her penultimate book of poems before the modernist volume El valle pierde su atmósfera [The Valley Loses Its Atmosphere], is highly visual and dreamlike, as its name would suggest. In it Winétt builds a personal mythology with a lush linguistic palette and restless imagination.

Many of Winétt’s poems take on political and specifically Chilean themes, with references to the Araucanía region in the south where the Mapuche people had a long history of struggle against the Spanish colonisers –and later the Chilean government–, along with invocations of the copihue (Chilean bellflower), the Spanish Civil War, the Russian Revolution and the Popular Front as a response to the worldwide tide of fascism. ‘In the wheat fields of democracy / the copihue of heroism burns and the victorious beating of American drums can be heard, / let’s rise up with the heroism of the crowds / mingled with the shouts of those hungry for liberty, / before the treacherous presence of the fascists,’ comes the rousing cry.

Even this poem, however, Winétt refers back to her self as a mother, and in later poems the ‘I’ seduced by ‘children by the bucketful’ and a ‘simple healthy home, flowering with pure herbs and larks’ must contend with not only a dark political situation, but also the obscure moments of domestic life, her struggling emotions finding expression in a transfigured, glimmering language sieved out of dream.

Oneiromancy is a short book of poems, and not necessarily a happy one. A great deal of pain is compressed into its pages. In fact, at times it is almost unbearably difficult to read and translate; part of the ‘true story’ behind the text, so far as it matters, is the affair of Winétt’s husband Pablo with a beautiful Ecuadorian woman visiting Chile. This affair seems to have affected her with particular intensity, and the observation and aftermath bear their influence on its pages.

In a sense, this is a book that attempts to understand what has happened, in language that while not entirely cryptic, does obscure the event. Perhaps one can think of Winétt’s poems as an act of conservation, fragments of present emotion outlining a dream of happiness that had not yet come, either for her personally or for the society in which she lived. In the publications for the literary journal she co-wrote with Pablo, also called Multitud, the two opined on current events and looked for patterns and progress in history; Winétt’s attempts at divination and interpretation form part of the same search for happiness, one that can be both personal and collective.

This utopian dream of happiness is what Winétt’s granddaughter and a small but passionate band of others are trying to discover today. The de Rokha Foundation, on Holanda Street in the Santiago neighborhood of Providencia, makes its home in a house with a large front grille, across the street from a gas station. Over the last few years, since I began this translation, the foundation has been under constant construction, in permanent creative flux, undergoing renovations from the development of its library to the opening of a downstairs gallery space to exhibit artwork.

Patricia Tagle, the one who runs it, is an energetic woman with bouncy curls and an enormous smile. Like so many of the de Rokhas, she is an artist, with a fully de Rokhian spirit. Her paintings, based in intuition, are a swirl of vibrant colours; a wonderful example can be found on the cover of this book. When Patricia showed me the work of another de Rokha child, beautiful and elaborate puppets with round white faces wearing soft costumes covered in adornments, I recognised a similar aesthetic of soft playfulness, a love for fantasy and invention that runs in the family.

Winétt’s poems are influenced by Chilean folktales she heard as a child and stories of other landscapes, and her poems feature the figures of Huan Li T’ou, Eglantina and Monita de Palo. This last romance has several versions in Chile and Argentina, but here is one of them: A king falls in love with his daughter María and wants to marry her. She does not wish to, and so gives him a few seemingly impossible requests. First she asks him to make her a dress with all the stars in the sky. Then she asks for a bunch of singing goldfinches. In league with the devil, he is able to make good on all of these demands. Desperate, María orders a monkey suit made, and escapes wearing it. She is found by a nice young man who takes her to his mother’s house. The ‘monkey’ helps around the house, and in secret goes to church in the dress covered with stars, along with a flock of goldfinches. There, the young man falls in love with her. Eventually it is revealed that the monkey is María, and she and the young man get married with a party that lasts for days.

Perhaps Winétt turned to myth as an alternative to the fact-seeking of her Irish grandfather Domingo Sanderson, who dedicated himself to erudite subjects of the Enlightenment and Counter Enlightenment. Fascinating as these topics are, buried in his yellow papers of the occult, he forgot how to live. Winétt rebelled, though not entirely. Like her grandfather she was on a quest, and believed that some occult meaning exists beyond the surface of things.

Winétt wrote Oneiromancy at home in 1942. The same year that she published it, her husband Pablo published his Morfología del espanto [Morphology of Fright]. The hidden dialogue between their works was another occult element, the works of the two writers in constant conversation, building up their own private world of mutual reference; the two bodies of poetic work are in direct dialogue. A recording exists of Winétt reading at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. His voice is deep; hers is rich, its tone assured. What most draws the attention is how similar the cadence of the couple is.

The second essay of Pablo’s book ‘Lengua y sollozo’ [Language and Cry] begins this way: ‘Overcoming errors and afflictions, Winétt with her worldly accent makes possible the great tragic and sublimely heroic magic of art, with which man constructs the anxiety and unity conceptualised by Cervantes, Job or Aeschylus, and links what is antagonistic.’ After Winétt died, her distraught husband included touching sections in his works Fuego negro [Black Fire] and Acero de invierno [Winter Steel] that speak of how important she was for him, not just in raising their children but also as a kind of symbol for everything that they had worked towards together. He never truly recuperated from her death.

Winétt’s subtle and imaginative scenes move between inner worlds and social life, and take on big themes like the meaning and shape of history in a delicate and personal style. Her visionary landscapes, even if they are set against a tumultuous social backdrop, operate in a different register than the combative style of her husband’s directly political poetry. Winétt’s work, which we are proud to present here, demonstrates that she transcends the role of muse and feminine support to which she has been relegated, and that she deserves the full attention of scholars and translators, along with those who read in search of beauty.



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