A Reader's Guide to the Writing of Cecilia Vicuña

Kenneth Sherwood

Online Resources

Vicuña on LINEbreak: Interviews and Performance From the Literary Edge.

"Thread of the Voice: Myth for us is Language" RIF/T [transcription]4/1 1995.

Selected Readings

  • Five Notebooks (6-13)
  • Metaphors in Space (16-17)
  • Palabramas (34-48, even)
  • Iridesce (68-71)
  • Gold is Your Spinning (96-101)
  • Unuy Quita [et al] (104-114)
  • Bud (132-5)
  • Guainambí Tominejo (146-154)

Unravelling Words and the Weaving of Water. Eliot Weinberger and Suzanne Jill Levine, trans. Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf, 1992

Concepts for Vicuña's Poetics

    • Anima: soul; animism: attribution of consciousness to objects

    • Etymology: miniature word-histories, involved with remembering

    • Language : understood as constitutive of the world, with spiritual dimension

    • Light/Thread/Lines: connective forces ("Prayers are threads and weaving is the birth of light" Jose Lezama Lima)

    • Memory: traditional value in cultural terms, and political senses

    • Metaphor: connectedness, linguistic and otherwise; almost an ethical principle

    • Oral tradition: aesthetics, memory, vs. literature

    • Quechua: spoken Andean language

    • Song: la realidad es una linea [reality is a line]; sacred traditions

    • Ritual performance and institutional theory of art: equal parts Duchamp and Shaman

    • Weaving: elemental work; symbolic of all making;

  • Writing: a form of making, listening, remembering, seeing, seeking of truths (impersonal, non-expressivist)

Questions for Discussion

1. When you read the lyrics, how did you hear them (literally or in mind's ear)? Did the form of the short, paired lines suggest a rhythm or music?

2. How do Vicuña's poems compare to more familiar work in the British/American tradition of personal, expressive lyric poetry? Can one read them with similar interpretive expectations? Do they make comparable use of symbol, image, allusion, etc.?

3. What do you make of the book's arrangement? Do the prose statements complement the lyrics or provide a context for reading them?

4. Do the poems present any special difficulties, cause any particular confusion?

    Other Resources

Ceque Fragments/ Fragmentos de un Ceque: The Center for Contemporary Arts Presents Cecilia Vicuña: Mixed Media Installation, June 24-July 29, 1994. [Exhibition pamphlet] 1994

"Purmamarca" in Chain, Spring 1995. Pp. 231-235.

PALABRARmas. A morning star folio 5/2 April 1994.


Painting, writing, acting, sculpting singing. This division of the arts will seem 'natural' to most people, hardly worth remarking. But there is an oft-quoted saying from a traditional culture that brings home other possibilities: "We have no art, we do everything well."

As an artist, Cecilia Vicuña locates herself amid these plural possibilities. She writes, sings, weaves, paints, sculpts--indeed, she does nearly everything well. Born in Chile and now living in New York, she uses her arts to remember for all of us, in her words, "what we are now and why." She finds us in a world of beauty, suffering, desire, need, filth, and generosity--locating herself and her audiences through compelling, bi-lingual performances that confuse the divisions between poetry, music, and theater. Hers is not an art that allows itself to be locked up in museums and libraries; nor is it content to simply entertain. It aims to transform the way we live.

The Village Voice writes of Vicuña: "This extraordinary Chilean poet explores levels of politics and sensuality, a tensing inescapable combination." Other critics write that she is "one of the most protean and talented Latin American artists today" and that "no one else has produced a poetry as stark and direct among us." Vicuña published her first book in 1973, from England, where she was then living in exile. In addition to publishing seven volumes of poetry, she has exhibited in the Whitney Biennial and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as museums in Bogotá, Berkeley, and Santiago de Chile. She received the Human Rights Exile Award from the Fund for Free Expression in 1985. In addition to her bilingual poetry collection, Unravelling Words and the Weaving of Water, she has recently published The Precarious: The Art and Poetry of Cecilia Vicuña (Wesleyan), a significant exhibition catalogue, Cloud Net, and a trilingual collection of Quechua poetry.

In her poetry, Vicuña works from Andean song and the tradition weaving for which the region is famous, blending these sources with a vigorously contemporary sense of language, and organic spirituality, and a sharp political awareness. She reminds norteamericanos of that "other" America to the south, which we too often ignore when the subject is neither immigration nor the drug trade. From her we learn that Andean art is not fragmented into disciplines, and Andean/Inca culture persists, and so too its people, despite what we read about the lost civilization.

The final page of Vicuña's Unravelling Words has only the single, prosaic line: " If you open the word Basurame (turn me into garbage), it becomes a command: love the south." The word bears great weight in her poetry and worldview, as do all words. It resonates with the literal and cultural remainders of colonialism: deforestation, industrialization, cultural genocide, the extinction of languages. Words themselves in the global media culture of CNN, advertising, and political rhetoric have perhaps never been so devalued.

Such are the conditions an art adequate to the present must match. For Vicuña and for most traditional peoples, art ought to engage the present, everyday social world. In Santiago, the hummingbirds engage in their mating dance, "the males in zigzag flight flashing red to attract the best female" while hovering over piles of trash in a garbage dump. The extremes of natural beauty and the debased man-made offal fuse into one image: an image of poetry. Vicuña weaves such scraps into song. (KS)