The History of Violets
Ugly Duckling Presse has just published a translation of Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio’s 1965 book, The History of Violets. The press’s website, which has not-to-be-missed audio clips of the author reading her work in the original Spanish, bears quotes from Kent Johnson and the Argentine poet Mercedes Roffé citing di Giorgio as one of the most important and “spectacular” Latin American poets of—if not the 20th century—then at least of the past 50 years. Despite this fact, Jeannine Marie Pitas’ UDP translation, which includes both the English and Spanish texts, is the only one of di Giorgio’s 18 books that is in print in English.
A visionary poet, di Giorgio gives physical form to what does not tangibly reveal itself to the senses: the past (the book both begins and ends with poems starting “I remember…” and often focuses on childhood), dead ancestors, the spiritual. With the use of vegetal imagery, angels, monsters, dream, and myth these forces become embodied. For example, in poem “XV” (all 35 poems are titled with roman numerals), mushrooms bear “the initials of the corpse” they come from. The poem ends with the arrival of a mushroom buyer: “My mother gives him permission. He chooses like an eagle. This one white as sugar, a pink one, a gray one. My mother does not realize that she is selling her race.”
However enticingly psychotropic, such surreal angling is not the primary element that makes The History of Violets of interest. The work’s merit resides in the craft that yokes the terrifying and pretty fantasies with an arc that advances the reader’s experience of the supernatural through the book’s poems. As such, di Giorgio not only offers an eccentric view of the world, but enacts an epistemology for arriving there by moving us from descriptions of a reality we can apprehend as literally based—to fantastic narrative. And in this respect, the hybrid in-between of the prose poem makes it the perfect form for this journey.
The book begins with the shortest prose poems often anchored in description of tangible, everyday things and works its way outwards towards visionary experience. For example, “II” includes nothing supernatural, but sets up both the fantastic imagery that will appear in the later poems, and one of the primary tactics that will be employed to launch the poems away from literal description into the extra-ordinary:
When I look toward the past, I only see perplexing things: sugar, jasmine, white wine, black wine, the strange country school I attended for four years, murders, weddings among the orange blossoms, incestuous couplings.
That towering old woman who walked by our orange trees one night with her long white gown, her hair in a bun. The butterflies that left us when they flew off to chase her.
From a speaker raised in the countryside in the mid-twentieth century Uruguay there is nothing remarkably strange about the list of things di Giorgio ascribes to her past. There isn’t even anything remarkable about the appearance of the “towering old woman.” However, the poem employs a tactic that I’ve come to call the “And suddenly—” maneuver, for many of the early poems in the book include a trigger phrase (“and suddenly” or “and then”) or the unexpected appearance of a figure (as in “II”) to catapult the poem from one state of affairs to another. Although nothing overtly supernatural happens, we are led to know that significant changes ensue after the appearance of the woman: the butterflies leave, marking the gap in the poem from the way things were to the way things are, thus pointing to shifts in experience that are always already there when the present moves into the past.
As we progress deeper into the book, di Giorgio transports us further into the supernatural by heightening a second tactic, that of simile. This tactic is most pronounced in the very middle of the book, in poems “XIX” and “XX,” which almost entirely depend on figurative yoking for their substance and movement. Poem “XIX” begins:
Beyond the land, through the air, in the full moon’s light, like a lily’s stem, it loads its side incessantly with hyacinths, narcissi, white lilies. The wolves draw back at the sight of it; the lambs get down on their knees, crazy with love and fear. It moves on, goes off like an errant candelabra, a bonfire; it goes towards the house, passes the cabinet, the hearth; with only a glance it burns the apples, illuminates them, wraps them in candied paper; it flings colored stones into the rice; it makes the bread and pears glow…
Here di Giorgio not only focuses on the intangible substance of moonlight, but hi-lights the movement of the moon in all of its shape-shifting glory. The piling up of verb and figure speaks to the gap between language and vision as well as a sense of continuous experience that cannot be encapsulated by nouns. The poems work to pry apart experience, seeing a world, so to speak, in a grain of sand.
In the last twelve poems of the book di Giorgio employs a third tactic: narrative. Through narrative she makes good on the list of “perplexing things” that she provides us with in poem “II” (“sugar, jasmine, white wine, black wine, the strange country school I attended for four years, murders, weddings among the orange blossoms, incestuous couplings”) by forming stories around these subjects. “XXIV,” for example, features “The bride” who “is covered completely in tulle; even her bones are tulle”—here we have a wedding. There are also darker plots of abduction and murder.
As the book draws to a close and comes to feel more solid because of its narrative technique (it feels as if the “And suddenly—” maneuver and heightened figures accrete in story, a sort of magical excess), di Giorgio at the same times begins to destabilize the poems by shifting point of view from poem to poem. Some of the poems are written in the third person, narrating a “she” that is and is not the speaker. Other poems employ the “I,” but this “I” is not always human. In “XXXIV” the “I” is a hare who meets its demise: “At dawn he came from me, lifted me; the blood ran down my sides.” As such, the arc of the book is completed, moving the reader from a description of the world that feels known, to new territories where even the location of subjectivity is subject to doubt and to change.
At this point in writing, I find it impossible not to engage in my own “And suddenly—” maneuver and turn from talking about what the poems in the book do to the physical fact of the book itself. In particular, the book begs attention to be paid to its paratextual materials. Before the 35 poems begin we move not only through the usual table of contents, title pages, etc, etc but also traverse a 5-page introduction, a 2-page translator’s note, and a full page of acknowledgements. After the poems’ end we move through 3 pages of notes before we hit the colophon. This averages out to roughly 1 full page of introductory-type apparatus for every 3 poems. If preface is to book as vestibule is to architecture this book’s lobby, threatening to overwhelm the house, raises the question of why the small book needs such prefacing.
The begging escalates with the first paratextual item, a full page devoted to a photo of Marosa di Giorgio and her dates (1932-2004). The photo shows the bust of a striking young woman with long black hair, large gypsy earrings, and a bare shoulder-line (think Senior Yearbook Picture, where you can imagine the girl naked because the photo cuts off just before the place the strapless dress would appear). Her gaze is direct, sad, and it is no surprise that she has been called a Uruguayan Emily Dickinson. To add to the romance, the introduction begins, on the facing page, with the following quote from Marosa di Giorgio talking about herself in third person:
That girl wrote poems: she placed them near the alcoves, the cups. It was the time when the clouds were floating through the rooms, and a crane or an eagle was always coming to drink tea with my mother…That girl wrote poems; she placed them near the alcoves, the lamps. Sometimes, the clouds, the April air came in, lifting them up, and there in the air they gleamed. And then the saints and butterflies crowded around, filled with joy, to read them.
The body of the introduction, written by Pitas, goes on to tell us that di Giorgio never doubted “her calling.” We learn she never married and that, while “she took an office job managing the Civil Register of the Salto city government” she “devoted free time to her creative work. Each day she spent several hours reading—everything from classic, Golden Age Spanish texts to American and English poetry to world mythology—and writing what would become her fifteen collections of poetry, two collections of short stories, and one novel.”
From this information and other details revealed in the introduction we are led to see Marosa di Giorgio in a compellingly contradictory light. She is both the mystic that is “called” to write, rather than just a writer with literary ambition. She herself reinforces this myth by talking of “saints and butterflies” reading her work. Additionally she was, alas, unmarried, although there is a “mysterious figure named Mario who makes many appearances through her work.” In terms of visionary poetesses it doesn’t get much better than this: all of these assertions render her transcendent. However, at the same time, we are assured that she was productive in her writing, publishing, and—a recipient of “grants that allowed her to travel to the United States, Europe…and Israel,”—a cosmopolitan artist taking part in literary culture work. Furthermore, she not only managed to put out a lot of work and to sufficiently educate herself in her craft, but was gainfully employed until her retirement in 1978.
As such the photo, the quote, and the biography, while contradictory, all seem to be in service of authenticating the text, of letting us know that di Giorgio is serious in her visionary stance (the work is not “just literature”), and that she is serious in her literary stance (the work is not “just visionary”). If the introductory material is not enough to create authenticity, the translator’s note and acknowledgments go even further in this direction. We are told that the translator learned of di Giorgio while studying at Sarah Lawrence, worked on the translation while on a Fulbright, and not only spent “hours in Salto’s public library reading di Giorgio’s work” but also “spent hours conversing with di Giorgio’s friends and relatives.” Acknowledgements further vet the work with thanks to the likes of Maria Negroni, Jen Hofer, and a series of Spanish literary professors who led a seminar on di Giorgio’s work. From these sentiments we see that the translation is backed not only by prestigious institutional support and by important translators and scholars, but also by the labor of primary research into the person and place of di Giorgio.
What can be made of this? On the one hand, the beguiling photograph, biographical details, and institutional authenticity are troubling features for the foyer of this book. Critics have suggested that di Giorgio can be read as a writer who seeks to subvert gender and patriarchal hierarchies. Why must her prefatory materials entrench them? On the other hand, the paratext of this book might be a logical and necessary extension of the author’s original project. If di Giorgio’s work takes us on an arc from tangible description of daily things to the altered state of being and point of view of the visionary, what greater extension of her quest than to begin the book with the most tangible of aspects: with the author’s very own, very human, face. If the book serves to pry open our reality, what better crowbar than the image of a woman who is both off cavorting with the butterflies and holding down a 9 to 5? Or, on a third hand, perhaps the paratext serves to counter the expectation that a sharp-eyed contemporary reader may be turned off by the book’s floriated vocabulary, the moments of the text that dive into preciousness too sincerely to be cool. “It’s a translation” the paratext excuses, “there are contextual and linguistic aspects that you can’t understand.” “She’s a visionary,” the paratext mutters, giving us permission to indulge in flowers, doves, angels and tears. “What do you expect?”