Women’s History Month: Marjorie Agosin on The Light of Desire

Marjorie Agosin's The Light of Desire is a lengthy, passionated poem based on the Song of Songs.

In the early 1980s, Chilean poet, professor and dear family friend Marjorie Agosin wrote a literary analysis of legendary countryman Pablo Neruda.

Later, she co-authored a book that was a compilation of letters between her and dear friend Emma Sepulveda.

She has written books that are collections of interviews, edited anthologies about human rights and emerging female Latin American writers and told the story of her mother and father’s sides of the family.

She has written the literature of witness to the victims of femicide on the border town of Ciudad Juarez and channeled Anne Frank and Holocaust survivor Zezette Larsen.

Now, in The Light of Desire, the enormously prolific and generous Agosin has turned her mature and considerable passion to love.

Not just any love, though.

Grounded in the Song of Songs, this is an erotic, natural, female, present love.

The love Agosin’s narrator describes is filled with seeming contradictions but whose meaning appears to be enhanced by them.  The love is animated by individual and collective memory but lives ultimately in the moment.  It is painful and ultimately pleasurable, silent yet noisy, connected intimately to nature and natural elements but also a distinctly human experience, and simultaneously profoundly spiritual and physical.

The Light of Desire contains many of the major themes of Agosin’s work: the centrality of memory; the importance of history and tradition; the significance of female experience and voice; and the meaning of faith.

While I have read a little more than a dozen of Agosin’s books, I have found that reading her almost inevitably requires looking at the form, the language and metaphors, and the content she is illuminating.  With each of her works, Agosin is making personal and political statements about what constitutes a legitimate form of story.  She has throughout her career demonstrated an unceasing commitment to bring the voices of those who might not otherwise be heard into print and into public consumption.

These passions are very much in evidence in this work, which features the artwork of Ramon Levil and the translation of Lori Marie Carlson.

And yet, whereas many of her other works have been about more political subjects or dealt more explicitly with issues of social justice, The Light is the work of a fulfilled, mature woman unabashedly sharing her love, and the experience of her love, with the world.

The woman who narrates the poem does so in six self-contained sections, each of which pays tribute to her lover and each of which contributes to the single poem.

They have known each other for many years.  Agosin writes tenderly about the childhood embraces they shared and how the memories of those previous experiences enhance the meaning of what they now share.

The Light of Desire is more than a recounting of childhood passion evolving into enhanced physical fulfillment in middle age.

Throughout the course of the work, which is set in Israel, the holiest of lands for many people on the planet, she shares her ecstatic physical experiences and ruminates on life’s central themes.

The poem ends with an entreaty for continued connection; the final stanzas evoke an interconnected spiritual, physical and natural sense of life that encompasses the past but lives in the present, that is drenched in tradition but lived by individuals, and that is given ultimate meaning through the shared intimate love with one’s heart mate:

Stay forever within me

Within my eyes

Within my tongue

Within my skin

Within that which my trembling

Legs await

That everything stays within, so within me

Like pleasure and death

Like desire and the memory of desire.

Everything within me

Your skin accustomed

To the earth

Your diaphanous and quiet, ancient alphabet

Braided

Your hands a nostalgia within mine.

Stay forever within me

Like the light of Jerusalem

That day when the war tattooed your musings

It established new silences

Thirty years after the war

When you returned to recognized yourself within me

And I felt vulnerable and beautiful,

Bountiful, ancient

Stay forever within me

Like a listing ship in the deepest

Waters

In the depth of pain that is desire.

Forever within me.

I consider myself fortunate that Agosin is a family friend and hope that many read this passionate, multi-layered evocation of life’s most central experiences.  While we won’t have to wait long to see what she writes next-she probably already has two or more books on the way- in some ways this poem feels like the culmination of a personal  journey she began many years ago and an emergence into a pure declaration of self that had not manifested itself so directly in her previous works.

This past summer, Dunreith, Aidan and I spent a lovely afternoon with Marjorie, her mother and daughter at their summer house in Ogunquit, Maine.   Over the course of the day, Marjorie talked about arriving at a place of profound love in her life: love for her husband John, her two children, her other family members, and her work.

While it would be a mistake to directly equate Agosin with the “I” in The Light of Desire, I felt that sense of hard-earned inner satisfaction Marjorie had shared with us this summer while I was reading her words.

I hope you do so, too.

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