By Greg Bem
There exists a most beautiful language whose words look like little houses made out of mushrooms. The loveliest runic letters pale beside it.
The Uruguayan surrealist Marosa di Giorgio has seen much poetry arrive in contemporary English over the last several years and a strong selection thanks to the work of translator Jeannine Marie Pitas. In 2010, Ugly Duckling Presse released Pitas’s translation of Giorgio’s History of Violets, and in 2017 I Remember Nightfall. Though we knew not then during their publication, these pivotal translations of some of South America’s most stunning, uprooting poetry served as portals inviting us to receive the newest release: Carnation and Tenebrae Candle. This long, episodic work reflects and refracts the fantastical, exploring the transcendent and otherworldly landscape of di Giorgio’s childhood in Salto, Uruguay. And yet as specific as this bizarre world often feels, it pulls and pulls the reader toward its rhythmic center, keeping stability in question and understanding a challenging process.
Now, I was a branch, a broom plant; I saw that I was nearly a rose. The wind rocked me gently. But at the same time I was firmly attached to the ground.
That was the way I died as a child in that mysterious part of the garden.
The book is long and staggering. At times it feels like Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. At other times like Alice in Wonderland. And at times like Grimm’s. At other times, the book feels balanced and mature in its reflections and wording, strangely aligned with some of the other recent surrealist and expressionist translations: Hirato Renkichi’s Spiral Staircase comes to mind, as does Salgado Maranhão’s Consecration of the Wolves. And it feels entrancing! I found myself throughout the book consistently mesmerized as though it was my first exposure to Lautréamont. Pitas points out in her afterword that, in addition to Lautréamont, di Giorgio was well-read and carried influences from Blake, the Brontë sisters, Poe, and Dickinson. I see their voices and faces in this book acutely.
In the end, I managed to turn around; on tiptoe, walking backwards, I arrived home. The wind was shining in the enormous windows; a silence floated over all the rooms. There were narcissi in all the vases. The fairy slipped away gently, round and gold like an egg.
But despite the similarities to other writers, Carnation and Tenebrae is a body of work unto its own, a poetry that contains substantial innocence, intimacy, and the potential for anything to happen—in a way that surprises and shocks even in 2021. That Pitas has concerted efforts at a time in our collective history where digital world-building is at its most prolific, where Minecraft is an alternate reality for most young people (and old people alike!), where virtual reality is finally accessible and desirable, where more people than ever are included in the conversations of creativity and construction, holds striking coincidence.
Carnation and Tenebrae Candle was originally published in 1979, but feels wildly new and also reminiscent of expressionist writers from 100 years back. The format, a numerical sequence of 124 sections (or entries) flows between prose and poetry in a way that feels natural, and reminds me of how one might approach jotting and scratching across a notebook as new ideas are born.
The sections are short (most are less than a page), allowing the book to be read in a flow that suits the reader’s needs and capacity. In this sense it feels like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Ease is important in the context of the book’s density: di Giorgio’s genre might as well be called fantasy surrealism, or supernatural surrealism. The acclimation to these uncanny and beautiful snapshots or impressions takes time for the reader and often exhausts. There is a flirting with capacity and a tension with the stability of truth at play in almost all these poems.
Until you reach the immemorial garden of gladioli, the garden where I always knelt down, weeping and sobbing . . . But you remain omnipotent, ruling over those infinite flowers.
You took control of everything
even my memories of the time when I didn’t know you.
Within the long, rolling form of the book is a loose narrative that includes familiar, familial figures who come and go through domestic and filial circumstance, often (as seen in the quotes above) including elements of the pastoral or of gardens and natural objects. There is a theme of marriage as well, which is carried across many poems and raises questions, even if indirectly. The book’s origins are resounding of small town (or village) life—the perfect staging for the exploratory and imaginative inwardness of the narrator. I am reminded of Narnia, of the Upside Down, and of spaces of otherness that carry us away time and time again, generation to generation. And yet the fantastical breaks down those dichotomous framings and creates a more nuanced blend of realities. It is a mutant-like transformation of time and space; it is ideally surrealist as it moves back and forth between realities through some curious sensory connector left just beyond the reader’s awareness. It is a writing that finds a measured space between both worlds as one world, one unifying and captivating experience.
You can find the book here: https://cardboardhousepress.org/Carnation-and-Tenebrae-Candle-by-Marosa-di-Giorgio
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com