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Monday, October 19, 2015

Gender and the Poetry of Roberto Echavarren

Gender and the Poetry of Roberto Echavarren

Is there a creature for whom gender is not a transformative conundrum? Consider the adolescent who wishes never to grow up. Many harbor a secret Peter Pan. Wendy too? Still the age of polymorphic bliss may prove to have been an adult projection. Peter, after all, is circumscribed by certain male attributes, his attraction to sword play and feats of prowess that excite other boys. Still, like any eight-year old, he is sexless. In performance he is often she flying on guywires over the arena. When did the use of weapons become gendered? Kristeva writes about this somewhere. Is Joan of Arc a transgender figure or a girl who saw herself as unconstrained by gender?

Roberto Echavarren, is absorbed by images that originate in the celebrated androgyny of the 70s. He’s in love with boys who are girls. He has written of “we, men by definition / but not from taste or comportment” (“Inquest” in El expreso entre el sueño y la vigilia, Montevideo 2009, my translation). These men refuse sexual assignment at the level of genitalia and stage androgynous performances, Jim Harrison or David Bowie. The tribal and Dionysian excesses of the 70s stimulated the ambiguities of my own sexuality. Yet no one will doubt my gender, even as I beg to suck the cock of the golden boy of my dreams, glorious abjection!

I asked a poet friend, younger than myself, about the cis / transsexual divide. I speculate now that to aspire to realize a gender identification, transsexual-male or transsexual female, innate as each position maybe, is to aspire to a set of restraints. For some it is to fetishize the hemline or the breasts, for others a ghost penis or an inverted vagina are sacred and esteemed.  At the level of sexuality I get it. Glorious release of stifled inhibitions! At the level of gender I am suspicious. Gendered norms homogenize diversity and censor the individual. This is an argument often repeated in the essays of Echavarren’s Fuera de genero. This was the lesson of my feminist and anti-masculinist apprenticeship upon attaining adulthood. I must ask is there a gender free reality for anyone given materialistic conditions and habits of consumption? Bern Porter at my age (70 or so) wore pantyhose as a practical necessity for coping with the artic winds of coastal Maine. He had floppy breasts like Tiresias. Wrap me in my shawl, for love’s sake! I honor the hedonism of the 70s and the paranoia a trans-woman may feel regarding her hemline. Gender remains to me personally a matter of performance and rules. Maddeningly, nonetheless, within the constructs of my anthropology, on carnival nights, there are no rules.

Compulsions of a private and personal order have led me to make translations of Echavarren’s passionate, surreal, and multivalent work, each level caught in a species of frottage, planes that slide over other planes, liquids that ooze among planes of differing consistencies. Infiltrations and plasticities that affect performance and cherish liminalities. This the seedbed of a wildly vegetative baroque sensibility, a species of inundation and physical contortion at the heart of his poetry, characteristic also of the work of other Latin, Neo-baroque poets.

Inspired then to imagine a difficult liminality, an in-between marked by compromise and bizarre, even demoniacal transgressions of corporeal space, I turn to images from carnival, perhaps the underlying plenum of these lines from, “Inquest.”

The kerchief that you liked inside your dress:
we, men by definition
but not from taste or comportment,
held up by a grand throne of air
that collapses each minute,
equal by definition, but undefined,
we hold up the grand throne of air
before it collapses.
The throne depends on what you decide, or accede to.

The horses go down the empty street.
It’s early morning and I wake up.
Some birds begin the samba, batucada,
a wreathe of whistles
ringlets like leaves.
The grand throne is here
but within the hour that peels the chirping
there’s nothing.
The hour is here and afterwards nothing:
insistent jeering of doves
and rapid wings, unexpected.

We are other by definition
and the state in which we find ourselves
is neither good nor bad.

A carnival float traverses an avenue in my mind, floating on waves of intoxication and music. The troupe dances in uniforms, breastplates and thigh-high plastic boots, with the Roman cingulum covering the genitals. The “batucada” is insistent, a highly percussive form of samba, played by an ensemble of percussion instruments. An example is "El Matador" from the Argentine band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. The rhythm is inspired by the Samba-reggae style from Bahia, Brazil, home of ritual candomblé. The track contains choral shouting with some qualities of flamenco. Encrypted multicultural constructs, the development is condensed and sparsely rendered. This complex referentiality reminds me that multiculturalism need not be an Anglo-centric or Euro-centric cultural construct. When the music stops, I hear the nothing of morning, littered streets. Imagined thrones have collapsed and the street must be swept. I hear pigeons, “jeering.” “The hour is here and afterwards nothing: / insistent jeering of doves / and rapid wings, unexpected,” a return to quotidian reality after the excess of carnival and its heady release and renewal. That’s how Victor Turner reads Carnival. Speaking of performativity, following Turner, Richard Schechner claims that “Once bits are freed from their attachment to larger schemes of action, they can be rearranged—almost as the frames of a film being edited are rearranged to make new actions” (Schechner, By Means of Performance, Cambridge 1990: 41). In Echavarren’s poetry these frames or actions represent only themselves, becoming moments and images, inversions of liminality, invested with transgendered intimacies and celebration. The stream of allusions troubles the surface, neutralizing gendered codes while celebrating phallic and androgynous excess. Call it bacchanalian. I’m the paunchy melancholic in the corner. Silenus, John Falstaff.

Donald Wellman

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Poetry and Poetics of Antonio Gamoneda

Antonio Gamoneda, Program Note, 2015                                      
In 2006, Antonio Gamoneda, born 1931, received both the Cervantes Prize and the Premio Reina Sofía, acknowledging the unique excellence of his poetry. Gamoneda’s work is deeply marked by the dark years of the Franco dictatorship and by the early loss of his father, also a poet although not well-known, who died when Antonio was less than a year old. In 1934, mother and son moved from Oviedo to a working class neigh­borhood of León, near the rail yards, an area where the city merges with the agricultural countryside. These locations are fundamental to the poet’s imaginary. His language, inflected by childhood illness, testifies to atrocities committed during the Spanish Civil War. Lines of prisoners marched at dawn from the city outskirts, passing directly below the boy’s balcony to the cellars or depositories in the ancient monastery of Saint Marcos where many met their end.

The fabric of the poetry, the images that feel ordinary on the surface, the walls of poplars that border a watercourse, or a market day in the center of the city are interspersed with trau­matic memories, the body of a dead horse or a widow screaming in her grief, naked on the street. In some senses the poetry is the verbal analog to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, cast as a continual living nightmare.

Poetically speaking, Gamoneda claims not to have “rational con­trol” over the development of his poems. When the language appears to him it carries an insistence requiring elaboration and development; as with music, themes announce themselves and dictate aspects of composition. Gravestones is a deeply sonorous book in its development, obscurely precise in the exactitude with which observa­tions are drawn from landscape and local culture, and in the ways in which it grapples with the trauma of a silenced and suffering people. 
            ASEDIADOS por ángeles y ceniza cárdena
enmudecéis hasta advertir la inexistencia

y el viento entra en vuestro espíritu.

Respiráis el desprecio, la ebriedad del hinojo
bajo la lluvia: blancos en la demencia como
los ojos de los asnos en el instante de la muerte,

ah desconocidos semejantes a mi corazón.
BESIEGED by angels and blue ash you grow
dumb until warned by nonexistence

and the wind penetrates your spirit.

You inhale the scorn, the intoxication of fennel
In the rain: blank with dementia like the
eyes of donkeys at the instant of death,

oh, fellow strangers to my heart.          (20-1)
The poet Antonio Gamoneda broke the silence that confined him in censorship, a silence that he endured for 500 weeks as he describes it, until the publication of the Description of the Lie (Descripción de la mentira), León 1977. Of that volume. the novelist, Julio Llamazares has has written:
Cuando apareció ese libro, Antonio Gamoneda llevaba 17 años sin publicar. Así que, para los jóvenes como yo era, como para la mayoría de los que lo leyeron, Descripción de la mentira supuso todo un descubrimiento. Se trataba de una poesía distinta, her­mética, pero bellísima, y, sobre todo, llena de interpretaciones. No hace falta que yo diga que para mí aquel libro sería funda­mental.
[When this book appeared Gamoneda hadn’t published for 17 years. So for young people like myself then, and for the majority of those who read it, Description of the Lie ap­peared as a complete surprise. It spoke with a distinctive poetry, hermetic but beautiful and, above all, full of meaning. It goes without saying that for me the book was fundamental.] (05/25/2007).

The silence of self-censorship was broken by sleepless nights and visitations from the spirits of lost companions, many of whom had been silenced by depression and suicide. Some had participated in sporadic guerilla attacks during the first years of the Franco regime. Gamoneda left the clerical job with which he had sustained his family and retreated to the mountains of León where he wrote his Descripción.
Durante quinientas semanas he estado ausente de mis designios,

depositado en nódulos y silencioso hasta la maldición.

Mientras tanto la tortura ha pactado con las palabras.

Ahora un rostro sonríe y su sonrisa se deposita en mis labios,

y la advertencia de su música explica todas las pérdidas y me acompaña.

Habla de mí como una vibración de pájaros que hubiesen desaparecido y retornasen;

habla de mí con labios que todavía responden a la dulzura de unos párpados.


For five hundred weeks I have been out of touch with my intentions,

interred in nodules and silent under the curse.

All the while torture has conspired with words.

Now a face smiles and its smile is deposited upon my lips,

and the warning in his music explains all of the losses and keeps me company.

He speaks about me like a murmuring of birds that had disappeared and returned;

he speaks about me with lips that still respond to the sweetness of eyelids.

Gamoneda’s poetry is haunted by the vocabulary and the imagery first found in Descripción. Signally it employs innovations in poetic language and prosody that distinguish Gamoneda’s treatment of his difficult subject. He uses long winding prose-like lines (first em­ployed in Description), combined with the chiseled lyric frag­ments, that speak to the monumental aspect of his theme. The poems also address the tender themes of love and grief at the loss of loved ones. Descripción and Gravestones (Lápidas) unlock a body of poetry that continues through the icy cold reaches and burning passions of Book of the Cold Libro del frío and Losses Burn Arden las pérdidas, volumes crucial to the understand­ing of a healing process that still today is vital for contemporary Spanish culture and incomplete.

This passage from Libro del frío  use the image of the “armario,” “wardrobe” or “cuboard” which is associated in Gamoneda’s poetry with the physical presence and reserve of his mother, a womb/tomb images perhaps. “Armario” is also used in the poet’s recently released autobiograph. I quote from Libro del frío.

OYES la destrucción de la madera (los termes ciegos en sus venas), ves las agujas y los
armarios llenos de sombra.

Es la siesta mortal. ¡Cuánta niñez bajo los párpados!
Como el tábano triste en el verano, apartas de tu rostro la sarga negra de tu madre. Vas

a despertar en el olvido.

YOU HEAR the destruction of wood (the blind termites in its veins), you see needles and
wardrobes full of shadow.

It is the mortal nap. So much childhood under the eyelids!

Like the sad horsefly of summer, you take from your face, your mother’s black serge. You’re going to

awaken in oblivion. (80-81)

In my translation I try to remain true to the pulse of the poem as it presents itself. I have attempted to translate, not in­terpret the various meanings that the language puts in play. Of­ten Gamoneda’s language speaks to me in ways that stir some pre-conscious part of my brain, awakening feelings that look through personal associations of my own toward compelling immediacies. This is not a mystical nor is it a surreal doctrine. I believe it enacts pro­cesses that place perception before meaning and in that sense it is similar to the rhizomatics of Giles Deleuze, reaching back in all likelihood to Spinoza.

I have generally followed the texts to be found in Esta luz: Poesia re­unida, 1947-2004  (Galaxia Gutenberg, Círculo de Lectores, Barcelona 2004). Julian Jiménez Heffernan, ed. Descripción de la mentira: De Líquenes inevitables, un glosario (Madrid: Abada, 2006) provides the approved text of Descripción, as well as a glossary deeply influenced by postmodern concepts in an intriguing overlay with Gamoneda’s text.

Donald Wellman

Description of the Lie. Talisman House Publishers (Northfield, 2014).

Gravestones / Lápidas. U of New Orleans Press (New Orleans, 2009). 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Dated Poem of Grief

March 2009

Why have I been routed through Nebraska?
In March there are no cornfields

Intense sunshine and a prairie wind bake
the tarmac. In Denver, wasteland
at the junction

of Colfax and Laramie, I traced
ghosts of lost poets.
Oxford Hotel 

at the corner of Wazee, near the new
ballpark. Does the Windsor
where Neal

sought his father and slept with a dwarf
stand. Pope Benedict is being
taken to task

for sheltering child molesters, pastor fides.
In four years he will

sanctimonious me? No, I report what I find
in the New York Times:
normalcy evolves

through bricolage to construct the world
historical stage. Poland

in March 2009, all of her ministers, almost.
The plane fell from the air into woods
near Smolensk

where the Soviets had executed 20,000
soldiers of the elite officer corps,
1940. Also, Iran,

today, urged a Sunni and Shiite alliance in Iraq.
Apparently, there’s less poverty, this March
in Bihar state and Charles

has won the Nobel Prize. I’m fading
into a half-comatose
dream state,

allegory and fact replace
suffocating reality.
My rhythm

is dated, New York School. My listening
includes tubas and horns,
Calle 13,

Residente and Visitante, who support
macheteros and praise

A thread binds my mental fatigue
and my daughter’s

She studies the role of women in constructing
Iranian identity, ash-e anar. Some
hint of consequent terror.

Interrogations by schizophrenic police in Shiraz,
who mock old Marxists. O mourn the loss
of imaginary companions,

Benjamin at Portbou! and celebrate the music
of brothers from Puerto Rico!
But why am I

abandoned in Lincoln with its shorn fields
and how is anyone able to suffer
the loss of a daughter?

Donald Wellman, from Roman Exercises