Agustin Guillamon; Mary Low: Surrealist Poet, Trotskyist and Revolutionary (1912-2007)

Original Article by Agustin Guillamon.
Published 03/17/2019
Translated by Fionn Munin

The third from the left (standing) is Mary Low; the fourth is Juan Breá. International Lenin
Column of the POUM: courtyard of the Lenin barracks of the POUM.

On January 9, 2007, Mary Low passed away in Miami, at the age of 94. According to her
last wishes, there was no funeral; her body was cremated and her ashes were scattered in
Paris and Santiago de Cuba, two of the cities she loved the most.

Mary Stanley-Low (1912-2007), British of Australian descent, had an international
training from French and Swiss schools, traveling with her parents throughout Europe.
Captivated since she was a child by the historical figure of Julius Caesar, she was a Latin
teacher and participated in multiple international conferences on classical studies. She
was active in the European surrealist movement and wrote for numerous English
magazines. For more than fifteen years she edited Classics Chronicles, a biannual
magazine dedicated to Latin and the History of Rome. In Paris in the 1930s she met the
Cuban surrealist poet Juan Breá, with whom she shared life and combat in the literary and
revolutionary avant-gardes, that is, in surrealism and Trotskyism. They both left Paris in
August 1936 to fight in the Spanish War. Threatened with death by the Stalinists, they
had to flee to France on December 28, 1936.

In 1937 they published the Red Spanish Notebooks in London, testimony of their
experiences during the first six months of the revolution, when everything was possible
and the bureaucracy and the imperative necessities of war had not yet killed these
illusions. For a few months, in 1938-1939, they lived in Prague, in close contact with the
Czech surrealist group, where in 1939 they published the magnificent book of surrealist
poems La saison des flûtes, signed by both of them. Back in Cuba, Mary Low published a
book of essays, written jointly with Breá, La Verdad Contemporánea (1943), prefaced by
Benjamin Péret. The death of Juan Breá, in April 1941, inspired Mary Low’s shocking
poems in Alchemy of Memory, published in Havana in 1946, with exclusive illustrations
by her friend, the surrealist painter Wifredo Lam. Other books of poetry by Mary Low are
Three Voices – Tres Voces – Trois Vois (1957); In Caesar’s Shadow (1975); Alive in Spite
Of (El triunfo de la vida) (1981), in three languages: English, Spanish and French; A
voice in Thre Mirrors (1984), illustrated with collages by the author herself, and her latest
collection of poems: Where the Wolf Sings (1994).

Prestigious author of collages, which she sold with great success, a Latinist in love with
César and an unrepentant traveler since her childhood, every year, with a very light
luggage suitable for her eighty-something years, she traveled to Europe from her
residence in Miami, to keep the fire going. Old friendships, starting new ones, attending
classical studies congresses and revisiting cities and places in her beloved Europe.

Juan Ramón Breá Landestoy (1905-1941) was born in Santiago de Cuba on November
5, 1905. His father, of French descent, had been a captain under the command of General
Antonio Maceo in the Cuban war of independence. His mother, twenty-five years
younger than her husband, was originally from the Dominican Republic, of Siboney
Indian and French descent. He acquired a broad self-taught culture, regardless of the
school discipline against which he rebelled. In 1927, in Santiago de Cuba, he formed
Grupo H, the only surrealist group existing on the island in the 1920s. In 1928, in
Havana, he came into contact with the Student Left Wing (AIE), a university group
hostile to the dictatorial government of General Gerardo Machado, in disagreement with
the Cuban CP, made up of numerous expelled from this party. He was arrested, along
with the rest of the AIE militants, and after several months in prison on the island of
Pinos he went into exile in Mexico, where he met Julio Antonio Mella (founder of the
Cuban Communist Party, assassinated on January 16, 1929 for his sympathies towards
the Trotskyist Opposition). He went to Spain, where he was imprisoned for his
communist militancy. In January 1931 he met Andreu Nin in the Barcelona Model
Prison, who converted him to the theses of the Trotskyist Opposition. In January 1932,
the Barcelona magazine Agora published a poem by Breá, entitled “La Revolucion”. The
last issue of that magazine, dated April 1932, included the story of his expulsion from
Spain, and the farewell to his friends in the port of Barcelona. Breá facilitated the
contacts of the Spanish Trotskyists with Cuba, and the sending of political literature to
the island, especially the Spanish magazine Comunismo. On his return to Cuba, he
participated, in August 1932, in the founding of the Cuban Communist (Trotskyist)
Opposition, along with Marcos García Villarreal, Sandalio Junco, Pedro Varela, Carlos
González Palacios, Carlos Simeón, Luís M. Busquet, Roberto Fontanillas, Armando
Machado (partner of Mary Low after the death of Juan Breá) and Carlos Padrón, among

others. Very active in the political struggle and strikes against the Machado regime, he
had to flee back to Europe to avoid repression. Upon his arrival in Paris he was surprised
by the news of the fall of General Machado. In October 1933, at the Coupole in Paris, he
met Mary Low, who would be the companion of his life until his death.

From 1933 until their arrival in Spain, in August 1936, the Low-Breá couple did not stop
making trips to cities throughout Europe: Prague, Vienna, Belgrade, Istanbul, Bucharest,
Brussels, London, always stopping in Paris, with short stays in Cuba. Mary met former
members of Grupo H in Santiago de Cuba and learned Spanish. Juan Breá got a post of
cultural attaché, which allowed them a long stay in Vienna, until Breá’s confrontation
with some extreme right-wing students, which left him badly injured. In May 1935 they
were in Bucharest, where they befriended members of the Romanian surrealist group: the
Brauner brothers, Luca and Perahim. In Paris they frequented Benjamin Péret, surrealist
poet and Trotskyist militant, André Breton, Víctor Brauner, Domínguez, Yves Tanguy. In
Brussels, where life was cheaper, they met Magritte and Mesens. It was in Belgium that
the first news of the Spanish revolution reached them. They immediately made the
decision to go to Spain.

Juan Breá arrived in Barcelona on August 9, 1936 and Mary Low a week later. They did
not hide their Trotskyist militancy at any time. This was no obstacle within the POUM
during the first months of the revolution. Mary Low herself told us about the friendly
discussions between her and Péret, along with Nin, walking along the Ramblas, about the
inconveniences that the participation of the POUM in the government of the Generalitat
entailed.

Juan Breá was part of the International Lenin Column of the POUM, formed in
mid-August 1936, thanks to the collaboration of the French Trotskyist Robert de
Fauconnet and the Italian Bordigist, captain of the column, Enrico Russo. Nicola Di
Bartolomeo (Fosco) was the organizer of the column and the link of these foreign
revolutionaries with the POUM. The column was made up of about thirty Trotskyists and
about twenty Bordigists, plus a dozen independents or other parties. It was thus, despite
the bombastic name of the column, an international group of about sixty foreign
militants. They marched, integrated in a POUM column, towards the Aragon front on
August 28, and at the beginning of September the young French Trotskyist Robert de
Fauconnet had their first casualty, at whose burial friction broke out with POUM
militants, when they were they opposed the placing of the flag of the Fourth International

on the coffin. Juan Breá had accompanied Robert’s corpse to Barcelona. The Lenin
International Column was practically dissolved, although its name was preserved, when
the majority of its members rejected, in October 1936, the decree of militarization of the
Popular Militias. Juan Breá wrote various war chronicles on the Aragón and Madrid
fronts for the POUM press, which once updated and slightly modified were translated
into English by Mary Low, becoming the chapters signed by him in the Red Spanish
Notebook.

Mary Low had gone to Barcelona a week after Juan Breá. Before crossing the border, he
was fortunate to be awarded a major prize at the roulette wheel at the Monaco casino. In
Barcelona, Mary Low managed to finance, with the support of the British John McNair
and Bob Smilie, the POUM newsletter in English Spanish Revolution, where she was
responsible for the “News and notes” section, and the translation into English of articles
published in La Batalla. Upon her departure from Spain, she was replaced in the direction
of the newsletter by the American couple Lois (Cusick) Orr and Charles Orr. Mary Low
was also an English-language announcer for the POUM radio station in Barcelona;
Benjamin Péret was the announcer in Portuguese and Virginia Gervasini (Fosco’s partner)
was the announcer in French and Italian. Mary Low also served as the representative of
the POUM in the Generalitat’s propaganda department, led by Jaume Miravitlles. It was
precisely her capacity as a member of the propaganda council that allowed her to write
the magnificent chapter on the bourgeois Catalan official in the offices of the Generalitat,
that so well portrays the dangers that threatened the revolution in Barcelona.

Juan Breá and Mary Low had also been very active in preparing conferences and cultural
activities at the Institute of Marxist Culture, housed by the POUM in the Palacio de la
Virreina. The lectures given by Juan Breá and Mary Low in this Institute were later
reworked and compiled in the book of essays entitled La Verdad Contemporánea. Some
of the titles of the different chapters reflect the character of these conferences: “Women
and love through private property”, “A Marxist interpretation of culture”, “A materialist
interpretation of Art”, “Economic reasons of surrealism”, “The economic causes of
humor”, and so on. Juan Breá, who had already been arrested by the Stalinists on two
occasions, suffered an attack in December, after a political meeting of the
Bolshevik-Leninist group. A car rushed at him in a narrow alley, and only his quick
reflexes as he threw himself with all his might against a door, which yielded to his
weight, kept him from being crushed against the wall. Mary Low and Juan Breá raised
the extreme situation in which they lived to Gorkin, who responded contemptuously that
the POUM was neither Trotskyist nor could dedicate itself to protecting Trotskyists.

Faced with the threat of death weighing on Breá, the couple decided to leave Spain on
December 28, 1936.

In the issue of Spanish Revolution of January 6, 1937, a note of recognition and farewell
to Mary Low was published. His departure coincided with the arrival in Barcelona of
George Orwell, who already gave the vision of a Barcelona in which the revolution was
rapidly being lost. The great difference between Low and Orwell’s narratives lies
precisely in the fact that Mary Low spoke to us of a Barcelona that still held high the
hope and the illusion that the revolution was not only possible, but was taking place,
while George Orwell raised record of the definitive defeat of the revolution in May 1937,
and of its hasty flight from Spain so as not to fall into the hands of the Stalinist
executioners. Mary Low and Juan Breá gave testimony of the triumph of the revolution,
although also of the first symptoms of its possible defeat.

Mary Low and Juan Breá were examples of a phenomenon repeated in the ranks of the
POUM: that of the revolutionary couples of foreigners. This was the case with Kurt and
Katia Landau, Hipólito and Mika Etchebehere, Charles Orr and Lois Cusick (Orr), Pabel
Thalman and Clara (Ensner) Thalmann, Nicola Di Bartolomeo and Virginia Gervasini.
And, in addition, in all cases they left us a written testimony about their experiences in
Spain, or a political analysis of the Spanish situation at the time.

Back in France, and losing the post of cultural attaché that Breá had held, the couple
suffered serious economic problems, while witnessing the rapid degeneration of the
revolution in Spain, which could only lead to the loss of the war. and the triumph of
fascism. In these miserable conditions, they wrote during four or five weeks of intense
work the Red Spanish Notebook. It should be noted that each of the chapters is signed by
its author, and that there is not a single chapter signed jointly. Mary wrote her own
chapters and translated those written by Breá into English. However, the translation of
Mary Low, in permanent consultation with Juan Breá, was not reduced to a faithful
translation of the war chronicles published in the POUM press. If we compare the Breá
war chronicle on the Sigüenza front, published in POUM number 10 (October 27, 1936),
organ of the Madrid section of the POUM, with the chapter on the Sigüenza front
published in the Red Spanish Notebook, we can see in addition to minor changes of a
stylistic nature, which would differentiate a journalistic language from another literary
one, a chronologically subsequent addition to the war chronicle, referring to Mika

Etchébèhere’s stay in Barcelona, in which a major error slipped when giving the news of
the death of Mika, who actually died many years later
in a Paris clinic, in July 1992.

Red Spanish Notebook, consists of eighteen chapters, eleven of them signed by Mary Low, located in Barcelona, and seven by Juan Breá, six war chronicles from the Aragón, Toledo and Sigüenza fronts, and a final chapter of conclusions.

Red Spanish Notebook was published in London at the end of 1937 by Martin Secker and Warburg Limited, thanks to the Trotskyist CLR James, reader of the publishing house, who prefaced the book. The North American reissue (1979), was prefaced by the famous surrealist painter Eugenio Fernández Granell. In 2001, the Alikornio publishing house published a partial translation into Spanish, under the title Cuaderno Rojo de Barcelona.

Cuaderno Rojo de Barcelona brings together the Spanish translation of the chapters
written by Mary Low in the Red Spanish Notebook, a book of testimonies about the first
six months of the revolution in Spain in 1936, excluding the chapters by her partner, Juan
Breá. The edition of Alikornio fills a huge and unfortunate void in Spanish-language
historiography on the Civil War, not only because of the value of the biographical
memories it contains, but also because of the freshness that those colorful prints, written
by Mary Low, provide us with. They allow us to share that contagious vital joy of
ordinary people in the days when they believed that it was possible to change the world,
transform everyday life.

The couple got married in England on September 24, 1937. From October 1937 they
stayed for a few months in Cuba, where they continued their literary and political activity.
They returned again to Europe. In Paris, they found Wifredo Lam, as well as Benjamín
Péret and his partner, the surrealist painter Remedios Varo, who had left Spain in April 1937. From January 1938 to July 1939 they settled in Prague for a long time, where they
entered into relationship with the Czech surrealist group: Toyen, Brouk, Heisler. In
Prague they published in French, the book of poems La saison des flûtes. They helplessly

witnessed the Nazi occupation of the city. Thanks to a casual literary contact with a
German cultural attaché, who belonged to the nobility, they obtained a safe-conduct,
which allowed them to reach the French border. In February 1940 they managed to
embark in Liverpool for Havana. Breá was already very ill and died on April 17, 1941.

In 1944 Mary Low married the prominent Cuban Trotskyist militant Armando Machado
(1911-1982) with whom she had three daughters. Armando Machado was an old and
close friend of Wifredo Lam. Mary, always active and sympathetic to the Trotskyist
militants, contributed modestly to the fall of the Batista regime, helping and hiding in her
home revolutionary militants opposed to the dictatorship. However, this is above all a
time of hard domestic work, dedicated to raising and educating her daughters. She
maintained a close and assiduous friendship with Wifredo Lam, who illustrated Alchemy
of Memory, published in Havana in 1946. In 1954 she won the Rubén Martínez Villena
Prize. In 1957 she published her book of poems in three languages Three Voices – Tres
Voces – Trois Voix. He translated some of Martí’s poems into English.

The triumph of Fidel Castro and the guerrillas, in January 1959, opened a new stage of
hope. Mary Low, an excellent Latinist and highly regarded for her command of French
and English, was appointed a professor at the University of Havana. Her husband,
Armando, served as a civil servant. But very soon the appropriation of the state apparatus
by the Stalinists loomed over the Cuban Trotskyists. Armando Machado was arrested,
although he was immediately released by Che. The political situation became
unsustainable. Despite her British nationality, Mary Low was again forced to flee
political persecution. Mary left her beloved Cuba in 1964, and after a stay of a few
months in Australia, at the home of a sister, she managed to meet her husband Armando
in Florida, after insistent interrogations of several days by the FBI and the CIA. Due to
her revolutionary past, Mary Low was unable to teach in public education, but she got a
job as a history and Latin teacher in the most elite private schools in Miami: Gulliver
Academy and Holy Cross.

I was lucky enough to meet Mary Low, in Barcelona, in the summer of 1998. At 86 years
of age and somewhat delicate at heart, like every summer, she had escaped from the
inhuman and uninhabitable Miami, where she lived with one of her daughters, to return to
Europe. She never tired of repeating old stories and she loved meeting new friends. Her
luggage, at a minimum, could fit in a small, half-empty wheeled cart, adequate for the
forces of her age and impossible for her long stay of several months in Europe, with the

obligatory visits of Paris, Alesia and Italy. She was reading a paperback novel, and as her
reading progressed, she tore off the pages, which fell scattered on the furniture in her
hotel room; this was an autumnal reading that shed the unnecessary weight of the part of
the book already read. In the inevitable comparison between the Barcelona that appeared
before her eyes, and that of 36, two things surprised her above all. In the first place, the
sinister, monstrous and perverse reconstruction of the churches, which she remembered
beautifully and joyfully ruined and / or burned. Second, the large number of bank
branches, with or without the surrealist Miró’s “prostituted” logo.

The memory of her joy, when sharing with several Spanish friends conversation and
Rioja, in the Ramblas, very close to her beloved Falcón, illuminating the Barcelona night
with the lightning of her joie de vivre, and enjoying serving others like a strong thread
Indestructible of the fight and bathyscaphe of history, even today it comforts and
motivates us.

Being a poet and a revolutionary in the 1930s meant, for many, being a millitant in
surrealism and Trotskyism. There are the examples of Juan Breá and Benjamín Péret.
Reading the chapter entitled “Women” allows one to judge whether the title of feminist
can also be attributed to Mary Low. In any case, some of her texts in Red Notebook
reflect the prevailing machism (sexism) in Spain in the midst of the revolution, as well as
the humor, or novelty, of the new problems posed by the revolution in everyday life. The
paragraphs in which Mary Low describes the paradox that young anarchists face in the
face of prostitution are comical, but at the same time very tender. Red Notebook is made
up of a series of very fresh prints that allow us to access the day-to-day life of ordinary
people, militiamen or some leaders of the POUM, but above all the illusions that the
revolution illuminated in everyday life. Mary Low and Juan Breá reflect the peak period
of the revolution: they left just as Orwell arrived. George Orwell when he arrived in
Spain lacked a firm political orientation; Low and Breá, on the other hand, were
Trotskyist militants who openly criticized some of the POUM’s tactics, which they
described as serious mistakes. In Mary Low’s portrait of the bourgeois officials of the
Generalitat government, we can see the inevitable clash (which was to take place in May
1937) between the revolutionary utopia of the workers and the resistance of the
counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie.

Mary Low was an excellent writer, but also a wonderful conversationalist. Hearing from
her lips the thousand anecdotes of a life as full and hectic as her has been something

priceless. They are anecdotes, repeated over and over again, that have possibly been
modified by the passage of time, the vagaries of memory and the ornaments of multiple
repetitions that no artistic temperament can refuse. But even so, the indignation that rose
to her face when she remembered Gorkin’s contemptuous response to her demand for
help, in December 1936, which out of loyalty to the POUM was misrepresented to the
contrary in the Red Spanish Notebook, reflected better than any history book the
ambiguities and contradictions of this party.

When Mary recalled Breá’s quixotic attitude to the SS officer, yielding her chair to a
Jewish woman, because in her presence no lady remained standing; or the arrogance of
Breá himself, showing off his “siboney” ancestry to those stupid Nazi officers, or his
response “Let Hitler die” to the ritual cry of “Heil Hitler!”; Mary managed to move and
convey her admiration for Breá’s wild courage and unawareness in the face of danger. In
any case, the predominant memory in the experiences of the flight from Prague was one
of deep terror. Terror that began with the occupation of the streets of Prague by German
troops, terror that increased with the spectacular raid of the neighborhood where they
lived, which became claustrophobic during their arrest and interrogation by the Nazi
officers, and that would not leave them until the arrival at the border, thanks to the efforts
of a cultural attaché, with the pretense of a writer, with whom they had occasionally met
and who enjoyed influence among the Nazis because of his membership of the nobility.

Mary Low, who had posed with Juan Breá in a collective photo taken at the Tarragona
street barracks, before the departure of the Lenin International Column of the POUM to
the Aragon front, had only taken up arms in the training tests of the spine. And she still
doubted, more than sixty years away, if it was Breá who (to protect her) had managed to
postpone her march to the front, as was her wish, until the moment when the
incorporation of women into the militias was no longer possible. .

Mary Low easily remembered in her conversations, with vivacity and emotion, numerous
friends and acquaintances in Spain during the war: the French surrealist friend and poet
Péret and his partner Remedios, her friend Olga Loeillet, a Jewish doctor of Polish
nationality, the Canadian William Krhem, always dressed with exquisite elegance, the
North American Rosalio Negrete, and of course the Orr couple, with whom he
collaborated in Spanish Revolution, the POUM’s English organ, financed with funds
collected in England by John McNair and Bob Smilie.

In July 1999 Mary Low, always active and militant, signed the Manifesto “Combat for
History”, which denounced the manipulation and denial that bourgeois and Stalinist
historiography did, and do, of the revolutionary events she experienced in the Spain of
1936.

Mary Low, woman, poet and revolutionary, lived intensely the adventure of a life
dedicated to creativity and freedom. She also gave us her poetry, the prints from the
Red Spanish Notebook and the essays from La Verdad Contemporánea. And, above
all, she bequeathed us her combativity and her passion to enjoy life, travel and
friendship, beyond the ailments and tyrannies of old age.

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