Marçal was a voice that was heard at an important moment in our recent history, the transition and the 80s, when feminism adopted her poetry as its own.
Twenty years after her death, the work of the poet and fiction author who was ‘three times a rebel’ in her own words, is seeing a renewed vitality in the political and cultural atmosphere of the day.
Twenty years after coming to a premature end, the work of Maria-Mercè Marçal (1952-1998) is still alive and is seeing a new and incisive period. During these two decades, more material has been published from a legacy that reaches heartstrings of a present continuous. The body, sexual identity and creative freedom. Women’s art and its systematic invisibility, but also continuity and energy. Contemporary maternity, with a renewed awareness that is different from that of the generations before classical feminism. Love and the rules we do or do not follow in this complex terrain. A work whose imaginative and creative basis is the strength of an oppressed language and the obstacles facing it parallel to the difficulties facing women in cultural and political life. Resistance to misogyny, in short, as the keystone of a real social transformation and as a tool for creation, revolt as a creative instrument. This year, with its courageous 8 March and its intense Catalan life, resonates with Marçal.
A radical in art and in life, in the way she understood being in the world and how to act in it, how to work and at what price. The writer who was ‘three times a rebel’, according to her well-known youthful catchphrase, has left a solid, intense work. Again the battle cry sounds enthusiastically; ‘I thank fate for three gifts: to have been born a woman, / low class and in an oppressed nation. / And the turbid azure of being three times a rebel. A cry which in the final years she saw as though it were not her own; sometimes with the pride of the poem that loses its authorship to become popular poetry; sometimes with the wonder the years cast over the old fervour and over hope. What never changed in Marçal was the female gaze: she described herself above all as a woman who wrote.
Abolitions and silences in the history of women
She lived for 45 years of unbroken creation. Her poetry, collected in 1989, bore the protean title Llengua abolida (Abolished language), an expression that accurately reflects a series of cultural, aesthetic and political concerns and issues that can be formulated by saying that Marçal was a poet who questioned the abolitions and silences the personal and collective history of women is built on and how creation reflects it. Her only novel, La passió segons Renée Vivien, published in 1994, is a profound and beautifully written enquiry into those very abolitions and those very silences in literary history, a polyphony, a tenacious and courageous exploration that shines a light on the world of the lesbian poet Renée Vivien, who lived from 1877 to 1909, between London and Paris, and that also sheds light on the world of Maria-Mercè Marçal, who lived from 1952 to 1998, almost always in Barcelona.
In the 20 years since her death, unpublished writings have appeared and the cultural critiques and a documented biography have been published. Marçal’s poetry lives on among contemporary poets, who often recite it: Mireia Calafell, Blanca Llum Vidal, Míriam Cano, Maria Cabrera and Maria Sevilla speak it and live it. We have her best work published and newly available. Llengua abolida now includes the complete poetry written between 1973 and 1998, that is it also includes the posthumous collection of poetry Raó del cos (The Body's Reason. Poems in Catalan). The critical writings on literature, culture and feminism are gathered in Sota el signe del drac. Some other texts are gathered in the collective volumes of Cartografies del desig, a collection of talks by the Comitè d’Escriptores del Pen Club (Pen International Women Writers Committee). Maria-Mercè Marçal. Una vida, the biography long researched by Lluïsa Julià, is a good guide to the figure and the literary work, as well as to Marçal’s political involvement with left-wing Catalan separatism. The posthumous diary El senyal de la pèrdua gathers the unpublished writings from the years of ill health. An album of 14 poems, each with different musicians, has been recorded and a film has been made, Ferida arrel, coordinated by Fran Ruvira, of shorts by 22 women film-makers. The foundation named after her (http://fmmm.cat) is now based in the Biblioteca de Catalunya and organises very interesting conferences twice a year.
In short, we are now closer than ever to being able to dialogue with this striking creator in every work she published, every talk she gave, every piece of critical writing. Marçal was a voice that was heard at an important moment in our recent history, the transition and the 80s, when feminism adopted her poetry as its own. She was also significant in the field of left-wing nationalism and separatism during those same years. When she published her novel, the work brought lesbianism into the public eye. These same factors, put together like that, show how much her voice would be listened to today if she were still with us: feminism, left-wing separatism, reasons of gender and of sexual preferences. Investigations and creative works on identity that are still alive today.
Brought up in Ivars d’Urgell, she studied first in Lleida on a grant. These were the years of economic jubilation that followed the post-war years and the beginning of the Cold War and which, in the case of Francoism, were further fed by the incipient tourist industry and the remittances from emigrants. Going to university became possible even for farm girls. Then she went to Barcelona, to study classical languages, a decision that turned her into a demanding linguist and which in the course of time would be a mainstay and a model when, as an adult, she studied in depth the myths of femininity and its exclusion from cultural history.
Franco died in November 1975 and the following year Maria-Mercè Marçal won the Carles Riba poetry award with Cau de llunes. From then on she became a ‘real presence’, a woman who made people listen, a woman pregnant with meaning. She was part of the Grup del Mall, a poetry publisher and a setting for cultural reawakening where many young poets made themselves known. She was also politically active, and always was, even though she left the ranks of left-wing separatism and nationalism when, over the years, she decided to act only through cultural structures and in relation to women’s culture, against its oblivion and its systematic invisibilisation.
Cultures in a permanent state of self-vindication
The ‘linguistic situation’ was one of her concerns to the end. It hurt me to see how she suffered because of a debate which, as I understand it, was almost always approached Pharisaically without any real wish to get things right. Until I realised that her linguistic rages were, as well as a constant exercise in analysis by an ever active intelligence, her way of protesting about the disease. It was not enough to fight against all sorts of publishing and cultural intemperances to do the job she had to do, writing. Nor continuing in teaching, even though it took away so much time for writing. She bore cancer with composure and fought until the end. She only let her anger show when she read the newspaper and very often it was because of the so-called ‘linguistic situation’. ‘If I survive’, she used to say, ‘I’ll become Slovene’. What she meant was that she could not stand a culture having to exist over and over again always in a state of self-affirmation, of protest, of vindication. A bit like what happens with women’s culture, in a persistent state of self-vindication that often prevents its finest practitioners from getting on with their own work. That was not her case. In this sense, Maria-Mercè Marçal was remarkable for the time she devoted to rescuing and studying the work of past women writers, a devotion that brought an extraordinarily rich and versatile coherence to her own work.
She could not stand a culture having to exist over and over again always in a state of self-affirmation, of protest, of vindication.
Women poets search her out now as an interlocutor. They are reunited above all in the last two books of poetry, Desglaç and Raó del cos, and also in the poems about motherhood. This is the deepest Marçal. The poem ‘Triar’ (‘Choose’), which the poet dedicated to her daughter to tell her that she, her mother, had chosen to have her, is one of the poems Blanca Llum Vidal mentions to me. It too shelters under the political umbrella of all of Marçal’s poetry, ‘poetry committed to freedom and humanity, political poetry from the body and from her own experiences of vulnerability, exclusion and courage’, she writes to me. Maria Sevilla is focused on the novel about Renée Vivien and it will be a pleasure to read it when the time comes, the novel still has not been much studied. Maria Cabrera, Mireia Calafell and Míriam Cano are also following her. ‘And the male poets?’ I ask. It seems they read her less. Not so the common reader, who are not all women. Marçal generously took care over expressions of love, adjectives and images, so that they could be spoken by women and by men. The most erotic sestinas can be spoken by any and every gender. Her love poems have a powerful intensity to them which extends to a multiple and universal gender with many faces.
This year she would have been 66 and it would be wonderful to discuss the present with her. She would keep getting furious and she would bring a lot of humour. The same ironic humour she cultivates in so many of her poems and writings.
Cau de llunes, 1977. Premi Carles Riba 1976
Bruixa de dol, 1979
Sal oberta, 1982
Terra de mai, El Cingle, 1982
La germana, l’estrangera 1985
Raó del cos, 2000
La passió segons Renée Vivien, 1994. Premi Carlemany 1994
Uf, quin dissabte, rateta Arbequina! 2012
Llengua abolida. Poesia completa, 1989
Contraban de llum. Antologia poètica, 2010
Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up to date with Barcelona Metròpolis' new developments