Mariluz Escribano Pueo: the late Spanish poet finally finding acclaim

The defining moment in Mariluz Escribano Pueo’s life came when the Spanish poet, activist and teacher was not quite nine months old.

On 11 September 1936, three weeks after their family friend Federico García Lorca had suffered a similar fate, Escribano’s father, Agustín, was shot dead against the wall of Granada cemetery.

While Escribano was too young to have any memory of her father, his death would remain with her and inform decades of poetry that she began to publish only when she was in her 50s, and which is finally finding the readership and recognition that eluded the writer during her lifetime.

Last October, almost three years after Escribano died, the first complete collection of her poetry was published. Its first print run sold out in four months, prompting the printing of a second edition. Last month, the book was presented at Madrid’s prestigious Ateno institution.

As a recent headline in one Spanish paper noted: “The Spanish poetry discovery of 2022 died three years ago … and only made it on to the map once she was in her 70s.”

Modest as she was about her poetic ability, Escribano’s reluctance to publish was rooted not in timidity but in her mother’s trauma at losing her husband in the early days of the Spanish civil war.

“It’s not that she didn’t write; it’s just that she didn’t publish her work during the dictatorship,” says Remedios Sánchez, a close friend of Escribano and literature lecturer at Granada University, who edited the collected works. “Her mother, Luisa, was terrified that she would lose her daughter as well as her husband. She couldn’t bear the idea that the regime would put her daughter in jail – or do something even worse. Mariluz respected that fear.”

The couple were progressive thinkers who worked to train schoolteachers in Granada. The family’s fate was sealed one night in early 1936 when a gang of drunken soldiers – led by José Valdés, the man who would go on to proclaim himself civilian governor of Granada after Franco’s coup – banged on the door of the hall of residence Luisa oversaw, demanding a certain female student come out to “party” with them. Luisa refused to open the door and the following day, Agustín went to the police station to file a complaint against Valdés.

When the civil war began that summer, Valdés saw the chance to settle some scores. After ordering the execution of Lorca, Valdés set his sights on Agustín. As word got out that Agustín was a wanted man it was, ironically, one of Lorca’s killers, a local typographer called Ramón Ruiz Alonso, who warned him to get out of town. But he could not bear being separated from his wife and child and decided to come back to Granada, where he was arrested and murdered.

But the Francoists were not done. Valdés had Luisa stripped of her property for being “hostile to the regime” and imposed a 2,500-peseta fine for her husband’s “crimes”. She and her baby daughter were then banished from Granada, leaving for the northern city of Palencia with nothing but a wooden suitcase.

“Mariluz writes most of her works between 1958 and 1985, at a time when it’s the only way for her to express all the pain she’s feeling – a pain that she can’t speak about publicly,” says Sánchez. “That’s the first part of the story. She starts to publish her work when her mother dies in 1987. She seems to be writing from a different time; a different generation. As she herself put it: ‘I’m writing from a time that’s anchored in what is remote.’”

Escribano was influenced by the time she spent at the Lorca family’s summer house in Granada and by her stint teaching at Antioch College in Ohio in the 1960s, which was by then one of the cradles of the civil rights movement.

When she returned to Spain from the US, she had grown into a social rights activist and took the brave step of writing a column praising the universal power of Lorca’s poetry in one of the regime’s own newspapers. But the past was never far away.

“Mariluz was a child of the civil war who had to endure not only the dictatorship but also the memory of a father who was portrayed as an enemy when, in reality, he was a victim of the atrocities,” says her friend Luis García Montero, the director of the Instituto Cervantes. “That left its mark on her world and on her reality.”

Escribano, he adds, also had to deal with a sexist society and a repressive regime without the cocoon of the literary cliques that are formed in youth. But in spite of all that she became a great poet whose voice created “a very fluent dialogue between the personal and the historical, between her own, deeper world and the wider world of our collective hopes”.

The sentiments are echoed by María Jesús García López, the head of Cátedra, the publishers of the new volume, who sees parallels between Escribano and the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado.

“Like many other female writers, Mariluz Escribano has been unfairly hidden by the literary canon,” she says. “An heir to Machado’s way of thinking, her ethical commitment and her poetic work focus on essential questions that should trouble us as a society, such as history and memory.”

For all she and her family had suffered at the hands of the fascists, Escribano refused to take sides. “Her poetry wasn’t ideological; it was a poetry written from pain to rescue the memories of the defeated,” says Sánchez. “That’s what she wanted: she wanted people not to forget how many dead there were in the ditches; how many mothers never saw their sons again, how many wives never saw their husbands again, and how many children never met their fathers – like her.”

Escribano found a peace of sorts and a reunion with her father when she was buried close to the spot where his body had been thrown into a mass grave 83 years earlier. But then, as she wrote in her poem Los ojos de mi padre (My Father’s Eyes), they had never really been apart:

When the days of September, autumn’s sheets, come around,

The cold and starred dawns stop his words.

But it’s just a moment of blood and rifles

Because my father comes back from the silence

And he walks with me

Through the hushed silence of the streets,

And the sown fields and the constellations,

And his wooden voice is there with me,

And he watches me as I grow.