Ursula’s Dream

A mon seul Désir

          A woman wants to see me.
          She is waiting at the gates of the city.
          A pale woman says the monk who announces her.

Who comes from afar as do I. Has reached Basel from the East with a train of women a luminous weariness. As if she had been exposed to a grave danger a hidden one. Happiness. And her fine tenuous gestures seem about to say what has never been said. All love’s intonations seen from the beloved’s perspective. The inventor of her dream they say who then discards all images in discord with her memory of it. Who knows the answer to questions of desire. The riddles we cast into the abyss that inhabits us.

I seat myself on a wooden pallet covered with sheepskins and order them to bring her into the crypt. Alone.

When she entered evening was declining. Next to me a chessboard. A lit taper in a candelabra. I wanted to see if her gaze would console. I had bread and a pitcher of goat’s milk. Offered them to her. A slight smile and I saw a scar on her cheek. Yellowing. It had begun to rain.

“What do the women see through me?” I asked to test her. Not the masculine prayer she says those violent chants against Satanic armies, but a prayer that is a listening. Your interminable procession, Ursula, toward the end of night and fear. Those women follow you, as if wrenched from turbulence. They snare hearts and draw them toward the unattainable. Ah to leave home, parents, the huddled village. To walk for months, years. The journey disconcerts, destroys, purifies. Awaiting the greatest unknowing: the revelation of what we were, before memory.

Her words echoed against the vacant walls of the crypt. For a moment I sensed the presence of another.

“Who are you?”

Elizabeth of Schönau she says. And kneels to kiss my hand.

A woman with tiny breasts who speaks in trance. Wrapped in a linen cloak. Face marked by traces of forgotten things. Silhouetted against the ravishing multiplicity of the ogives she seems still more conjectural more beautiful. I bless her with a holy sprinkling Our Lady of the Coming Century I say and draw a symbol on her forehead. Afterwards brimming with her yearning gaze I hear her say.

I too come from afar. I emigrated like you. Crossed frontiers. I followed the route of birds, deciphered wind-borne images. I passed crusades, hermits, sickly Templars, straggling warriors, famished bands. Passed death and walls. I too search for the Distant One, the Hidden One in his Perfect City. I repeat words that are presentiments: arrow and rose, lamb and laurel, stained glass. In Schönau I studied astrology and canon law, grammar and music, the enraptured intellect of Plotinus. There I learned to commemorate the symbolism of light, the crown of thorns, the concept of a possible death. I like to observe the reality of things and then transfigure them in works, as if I myself were time and things a whirlwind of masterless perceptions, a mere pretext for the glory of the ephemeral. I know the future. One day I will tell your story, Ursula. I will be born once more and I will tell your story, the hazardous pathways of your soul.

“And when will all this take place?” I ventured.

Soon. When the famous Eckbert pronounces his Sermon against the Cathars. Men will hurl themselves into the devastation of the steppes in search of the navel of the world: the queenly city whose name is irrelevant because ever the same. (Men are always searching without knowing what they search for, without wanting to know). There will be floating hospitals on the rivers, to care for the sick. And children sold as slaves in Barbary, like the friends of Etienne de Cloyes, and Teutonic warriors as well invading the Oder territories, where the archbishop of Bremen will meet his death after sowing hunger and rifts over booty. There will be kings drawn to war ersatz of love and others who will die on the dunes of Carthage. Infinite occurrences will saturate the books calligraphed in monasteries. Anna Commena’s invectives will be translated, and the Venerable Bede’s Hymn to Virgins, along with Basilides’ theories, those that inculcate a loathing for the world and its works and oppose the propagation of the species, which is, as they avow, the gravest sin of all. And there will be a Secret Book whose pages repeat the revelations of Iranaeus and the sect of Adepts of the Mother, provoking loss of memory. And the art of illumination will be splendorous, particularly in the Grimorios. Men will believe they are living their last journey and their sense of truth will be erratic and precarious. All virtually the same as now, you see….

Almost night.

If this chapel were not hidden underground. If there were an embrasure in the wall to look through. To measure the moment that magnificent moment in which things have not disappeared they have not yet begun. I left Cornwallis some time ago. If I could return to seize the hatred that impelled me then that now eludes me. An abstract blue the figure of the woman who is speaking. It is cold. I think of the young women who came with her. Installed on the banks of the river high as palisades. Ecstatic between the wall and exhaustion. As if amassing a whole gallery of dreams in order then image by image to ascend the height of perfection the completion of themselves.

My thought and the force emanating from this woman. The Bishop of Basel is a cultured man. He knows Latin Saxon Icelandic. Has translated the Encomiums of Egil and the Voyage of Brendan that abbot of Ardfert who eluding magnetic mountains and islands of mice crossed the abyss in precarious vessels and reached the Isle of Promises. I tell Brictola to talk to him. And ask him in my name to let them in.

I walked Elizabeth to the gate. Outside it was snowing.

Snow is a category of light she murmured in parting.

It seemed to me that light caressed her.

The Bishop was proof against entreaty he denied me instantly. It could incite other women if we take these in; as if we didn’t have enough vagabonds in the fields exposing themselves to a host of perils and threatening the fragile pacts between earthly rulers and the papacy. We cannot be responsible for protecting them, feeding them, sheltering them, Ursula…and besides, who says that Elizabeth of Schönau isn’t crazy? Reverendissimus Dominus, Patriarcha Noster, Miserere mei, etcetera.

But the women do not move. Each night when the day is blotted out they begin an almost imperceptible chant a barely audible requiem and their voices lightly noted by a drum by the regular tolling of bells resemble the doleful murmur of the river. No one within or without the city of Basel can sleep. Neither the woodcutters nor the divers in the depths nor those anglers who fish in the water that surrounds our wooden houses. And afterwards during the day the rumors expand. People say they have seen the young women in black inspired by a chant that is a stairway of silences from one sky to another. A vertical thought in search of a crucial dream. And they say that night and grief and death are not the opposite of bliss and life. That this is the secret the women are seeking. That they themselves have sensed it in the phraseless murmur the chronic and perversely beautiful lament the women chant. In its persistence staffed by bells and rising piously infinitely until the Bishop has no recourse but to let them in.


María Negroni

María Negroni was born in Argentina. She holds a PhD in Latin American Literature (Columbia University, New York). She has published numerous books of poetry: de tanto desolar (Tierra Firme, Buenos Aires 1985), per/canta (Tierra Firme, Buenos Aires 1989), La jaula bajo el trapo (Tierra Firme, Buenos Aires 1991; Editorial Cuarto Propio, Santiago de Chile 1998), Islandia (Monte Avila Editores, Caracas 1994), El viaje de la noche (Editorial Lumen, Barcelona 1994), Diario Extranjero (Ediciones La Pequeña Venecia, Caracas 2000; Maison des Ecrivains Etrangers, St.Nazaire 2001); Camera delle Meraviglie (Quaderni della Valle, Italia 2002), La ineptitud (Editorial Alción, Córdoba 2002), Arte y Fuga (Editorial Pre-Textos 2004) and Andanza (Pre-Textos 2009). Islandia and Night Journey have appeared in English by Station Hill Press (2000) and Princeton University Press (2002), respectively. She has also published three books of essays: Ciudad Gótica (Bajo la Luna Nueva, Rosario 1994, second edition 2007), Museo Negro (Grupo Editorial Norma, Buenos Aires 1999), and El Testigo Lúcido (Beatriz Viterbo Editoras, Rosario 2003), as well as two novels, El sueño de Ursula (Editorial Planeta/Seix Barral, Buenos Aires 1998) and La Anunciación (Seix-Barral, Buenos Aires 2007), and a book-object, Buenos Aires Tour, in collaboration with Argentine artist Jorge Macchi.

She has translated several poets from French and English. Her book La pasión del exilio, which incluyes ten American women poets of the 20th century, has just been published by Bajo la luna, Buenos Aires 2007. She has also translated Louise Labé (Sonetos, Lumen, Barcelona, 1998); Valentine Penrose (Hierba a la Luna y otros poemas, Ediciones Angria, Caracas 1995); Georges Bataille (Lo arcangélico, Fundarte, Caracas 1995), H.D. (Helena en Egipto, Ediciones Angria, Caracas 1994); Charles Simic (Totemismo y otros poemas, Alción, Córdoba 2000), and Bernard Noël (Contra-muerte y otros poemas, Alción, Córdoba 2004), and edited La morada imposible (containing Susana Thénon’s work, Corregidor Buenos Aires 2005, and La maldad de escribir, An Anthology of 20th Century Latin American Women Poets, Editorial Igitur, Barcelona 2005. Her poems, essays, and translations have been widely published in literary magazines in Spain, Latin
America and the US, such as Diario de Poesía and Página 12 (Argentina), Hora de Poesía, RevistAtlántica and El signo del gorrión (España), La Jornada Semanal and Mandorla (México) and The Paris Review, Circumference, Lumina, and Bomb (New York).

María Negroni received several fellowships: a Guggenheim Foundation (1994), a Rockefeller Foundation (1998), the Fundación Octavio Paz (2001), The New York Foundation for the Arts (2005), and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation (2007). Her book Islandia received the PEN Award for best book of poetry in translation, New York 2001. She has just been awarded the Premio Internacional de Ensayo de Siglo XXI (México) for her book Galería Fantástica. She currently teaches Latin American Literature at Sarah Lawrence College.

Anne Twitty

Anne Twitty's previous translations include Maria Negroni's Islandia, for which she received the PEN Prize for Poetry in Translation, and the same author's Night Journey, published by Princeton University Press in its Lockert Library Series. She received a grant from the NEA to support the translation of Ursula's Dream. Her most recent work, in collaboration with Iraj Anvar, is Say Nothing, selected ghazals and rubaiyat of Jallaluddin Rumi. She lives, writes, translates, and explores a range of subjects in Brooklyn, and may be reached at [email protected].

El sueño de Ursula (Ursula's Dream). Copyright (c) Editorial Planeta/Seix Barral, 1998. English translation copyright (c) Anne Twitty, 2009.