Existential Pain of Alfonsina Storni

On the 25th of October 1938, Alfonsina Storni, one of the most prominent Latin-American poets of the modernist period, drowned herself at La Perla beach in Mar del Plata, Argentina. She was born in 1892 of Italian-Swiss parents, Alfonso and Paulina, in Sala Caprisca in Switzerland. When she was four years old her parents decided to move to San Juan in Argentina, where her father owned a beer factory. From then on her life became stigmatised by many traumatic and painful events that would later reflect on her poetry.

Her early childhood in Argentina passed under ill fate of her parents’ attempts to first stay in the beer business and then to run a small café in Rosario. Both of these enterprises were unsuccessful and at the age of thirteen Alfonsina was forced to take a job in a hat factory. A year later she was offered a position by José Tallaví’s theatre company. “She toured the country for one year before quitting when she found herself unable to tolerate the stress of acting and the upheavals of life on the road” (Diane E. Marting, Spanish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book). This experience revealed her delicate and rather introverted nature, which with time augmented even more. “She had always been emotionally unstable, suffering bouts of depression and paranoia, and nervousness at times to the point of breakdown, and she reacted to her personal tragedy by avoiding her old friends and withdrawing into herself.” (Janice Geasler Titiev, The Poetry of Dying in Alfonsina Storni’s Last Book, Hispana, Vol. 68, No. 3, September 1985). Her introversion had a serious affect on her private life and pushed her towards decisions, which made her circumstances even harder – like falling in love at the age of nineteen with a married man, with whom she got pregnant, and not even trying to make him help her in any way.  Instead, to avoid becoming a ‘burden’ to her lover, she decided to move to anonymous Buenos Aires.

Perhaps this experience left a burning mark on her soul, as she referred to men as el enemigo ‘the enemy’. In her poetry she would combine a profound longing for love with feelings of disillusionment and disgust for the world that put women in the submissive position against men.  In a poem ‘You Want Me White’ she expressed “the feminine resentment against the lack of understanding from merely comfort-seeking man…” (Munk Benton, Recurring Themes in Alfonsina Storni’s Poetry, Hispania, Vol. 33, No. 2, May 1950). This poem is a kind of testimony to her inner yearnings for freedom and equality. In it she criticises the society for glorifying its men without passing judgement on any of their doings, whilst simultaneously expecting its women to be pure, almost virginal, and thus deprived of a chance to experience life in a more profound way. However, this kind of attitude was not exclusive to her poetry. “In her important poems Storni is the contemporary cosmopolitan; she sees nature, the city, the sea, human relationship, not from the standpoint of any particular country or continent but as the land of reality seen through a poet’s imagination and vision, anywhere on this planet. No special knowledge of any particular country with its traditions is necessary to understand her poetry.” (Benton)

In mid 1930s Storni got diagnosed with breast cancer. From then on her health deteriorated very quickly and so did her mental state. “Her eighth and last book of poetry [Mascarilla y trébol]… contains some of her best work and perhaps her most original approach to form… the content of the poems is depressing and occasionally confusing… making her readers confront the doubts and disillusions about the value of life itself which she herself was facing.” (Titiev).

Alfonsina left her room after midnight on October 25th and headed towards the sea. The next morning her body was found at La Perla beach. Her pain was simply too heavy to carry and, as she had done it before to her lovers, Alfonsina withdrew herself from the sight of the living for one last time. Her grave was later inscribed with her 1925 poem ‘Pain’: “I want one day in late October/To walk the border of the sea… It is nothing but forgetfulness for me.”    

YOU WANT ME WHITE

You’d like me to be white as dawn,

You’d like me to be made of foam,

You wish I were mother of pearl,

A lily

Chaste above all others,

Of delicate perfume,

A closed bud.

Not one ray of the moon

Should have filtered me,

Not one daisy

Should have called me sister.

You want me to be snowy,

You want me to be white,

You want me to be like dawn.

You who have held all the wineglasses

In your hand,

Your lips stained purple

With fruit and honey

You who in the banquet

Crowned with young vines

Made toasts with your flesh to Bacchus.

You who in the gardens

Black with Deceit

Dresses in red

Ran to your Ruin.

You who keep your skeleton

Well preserved, intact,

I don’t know yet

Through what miracles

You want to make me white

(God forgive you),

You want to make me chaste

(God forgive you),

You want to make me like dawn!

Run away to the woods;

Go to the mountain;

Wash your mouth;

Get to know the wet earth

With your hands;

Feed your body

With bitter roots;

Drink from the rocks;

Sleep on the white frost;

Renew your tissue

With the salt of rocks and water;

Talk to the birds

And get up at dawn.

And when your flesh

Has returned to you,

And when you have put

Your soul back into it,

Your soul which was left entangled

In all the bedrooms,

Then, my good man,

Ask me to be white,

Ask me to be snowy,

Ask me to be chaste.

-Translated from Spanish by Marion Freeman and Mary Crow (from El dulce dano, 1918)

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