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.
Description of the Lie. Talisman House Publishers (Northfield, 2014).
Gravestones / Lápidas. U of New Orleans Press (New Orleans, 2009).