Daniel Borzutzky reviews The History of Violets by Marosa di Giorgio

Translated from the Spanish by Jeanine Marie Pitas (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)

I. I Remember Murder and Incest

"When I look toward the past," writes Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio, in the 2nd of the 35 interconnected prose poems that make up The History of Violets, "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." Later, in the very last poem in the book, the memories continue: "I remember the white, folded cabbages...and the tall blue church...and the gnome asparagus, turrets of the kingdom of gnomes...and the snakes with their long, orange wings." Finally, she concludes: "I remember eternity." I start with these sentences because they offer a synthesis of entry ways into di Giorgio's writing: monster and memory and the monstrousness of memory and the monstrousness of nature and the peacefulness of the pastoral that at any moment can be disrupted by gnomes or mutants or murders.

The History of Violets, originally published in 1965, can be read as an extended novelistic narrative from the point of view of a first-person narrator, the child of a wealthy, land-owning rural family whose property is over-run with magical and monstrous flowers and plants and fruits and vegetables. For example, the 6th poem in the sequence is devoted to grapes. They are "totally strange, fabulous, shining with an awful blue brilliance. On the paths through the vines you could hear them, growing with a deep, outrageous murmur...A big, rough blue bunch even emerged from the wardrobe—ancient wood—and lasted forever, like a poet." An outrageous murmur. Note this phrase's combination of excess and restraint. The image here is important, but it is not a deep image; it is a light one. The adjective, "outrageous," stands on its own. We don't learn what makes the murmur outrageous. And isn't a murmur a restrained sound to begin with? Some writers would describe the murmur in detail, thinking that if one were to believe in the outrageousness of this murmur then we would need evidence of its {textual} excess. However, di Giorgio's approach is to trust in the stand-alone power of the word to induce words and images not on the page but in the mind of the reader. Perhaps the murmur might be more of a growl or a hiss or a vibration or some incommunicable form of energy bursting out of the grapes (if you listen hard enough, you can hear the grapes grow!) that has some connection to the looming violence of the landscape? I remember the Fruit of the Loom guys as I write this, though at other times I remember Little Shop of Horrors, as in the 11th poem which is about psychotic flowers and their discontents:

The gladiolus is a spear, its edge loaded with carnations, a knife of carnations. It jumps through the window, kneels on the table; it is a vagrant flame, burning up our papers, our dresses. Mother swears that a dead man has risen; she mentions her father and mother and starts to cry.     The pink gladiolus opened up in our house.     But scare it, tell it to go.     That crazy lily is going to kill us.
In this last line, "That crazy lily is going to kill us," we see the very good translator, Jeannine Marie Pitas, grappling with not just the content but also the sound of the poem. The original line is: "Esa loca azucena nos va a asesinar." Note the repetition of "a" sounds and, more interestingly, the structural parallelism: the four syllable pairings in "esa loca/azucena" that forms the poem's rhythm. The English, in complement, offers a repetition of "eee" and "o" sounds and by including only one and two syllable words the rhythmic effect nicely mimics the original. It is these small moves that a translator makes that go largely unnoticed and yet they determine so much of what and how we read. Something similar can be seen in the book's 9th poem, which in Spanish ends: "Dios tiene sus cosas bien guardadas." Pitas translates this as: "God stows his things away safely." A more literal translation would be: "God keeps his things nicely put away." The choice of "stows" here skillfully evokes the "s" and "t" and "o" sounds in "Dios tiene sus cosas." "Stows" is certainly not an obvious choice here, and sonically speaking it is a good one.

But let's return to the notion of memory. Contemporary American readers may associate the "I Remember" lines with Joe Brainard's I Remember (originally published in 1970), a sentence-by-sentence chronicling of Brainard's memories, each of which begin with the words "I remember." Brainard's project is to present memory as poetry, to try to use a simple formula to make us aware of just how rich memory can be, and of how the mere act of writing these simple terms—I remember—can awaken a collection of life experiences which are at once mundane and unsettlingly beautiful. Similarly, di Giorgio frames the narrator's memories with the strategies of narrative realism, and they are often presented through the filter of nature; sometimes the narrator speaks of her life in the past tense, and other times in the present. However, if Brainard's project is to make memory, and the mere act of remembering, magical, then by contrast di Giorgio's project is to demonstrate that in the everyday events of country life there is mutation, decomposition, death, nightmare, imagination and horror:

The mushrooms are born in silence; some of them are born in silence, others with a brief shriek, a soft thunder...Each one bears—and this is what's awful—the initials of the corpse it comes from...But, come afternoon the mushroom buyer arrives and starts picking...My mother does not realize that she is selling her race.
It's useful to linger a moment on the image of a mushroom—one you cook with—originating from a dead body and even containing writing—in the form of ownership-signifying initials. The narrator's relatives are fungi, moldy, earthy, tasty little creatures to be destroyed by spiritual forces beyond her understanding. The past (written here in the present tense) is both reality and dream. The dreams are wonders and horrors that are completely and fundamentally intertwined. Nature frames the subjectivity of the narrator's psychic life, yet one doesn't get the sense that di Giorgio has a spiritual interest in its stillness, its permanence. On the contrary, in her poems country peace is continuously interrupted and infused by, among other things, "deformed, circular birds"; "murderers and thieves who will strip us of everything"; and 'the dark of heads of thieves that appear among the trees.' Elsewhere there are fragrant flowers that assault; a god to whom family members are sacrificed; heads that suddenly burst into flames; and men who fire bullets into the narrator. Describing the 'events' of the book makes it sound ornamented and macabre. Remarkably, though, that's not the effect. If there's hyperbole, it is controlled. If there's gruesomeness, it is lyrical, as in: "the turkey—beheaded an hour ago, its jewel-like head who knows where—strutting, preening because it drank up all the nuts and a hyacinth of rum."

In this book the awfulness of life is precisely what makes it magical.

II. As Uruguayan as Apple Pie

The easiest thing for a poet or a translator or a critic to do to a work in translation is to take it apart and find fault with seemingly odd word choices that the translator has made in the service of her craft (as a reviewer I've been guilty of this, and as a translator I've made my share of embarrassing mistakes). And such nit-pickery can even be fun. Remember 1999? Who among us didn't have to sit through a dinner party where someone had something to say about William Gass' decision to begin the Duino Elegies (there are over twenty English translations) with the lines: "Every angel is awesome," to which Marjorie Perloff responded by writing: "Was Gass aware, one wonders, that in our current argot, 'awesome' is equivalent to 'fabulous' or 'out of this world,' as in 'That dress is awesome.'" Perloff is undoubtedly a smart critic; however I question her assumption that Gass, an equally astute thinker, was not aware of what he was doing and that he thus had little control over his ideas and choices. And though I haven't read the entire Gass translation of the Duino Elegies, I think that Perloff's objection here is more about context than content (though separating the two is not so simple). In other words, "awesome," as in "awesome dude!" appears to have no place in Perloff's vision of Rilke's idiom. But without entering too far into the realm of judging the "awesome" on the good/bad spectrum, let me suggest that I find "awesome" to be interesting perhaps for the same reason that Perloff objects. It's out of place. It's cross-contextual. It's trans-historical and I'd even say it represents an interesting take on the trans-national. That is, Gass' "awesome" situates Rilke's Elegies in a Wayne's World cosmos. It's goofy because it mixes rhetorics. It's surprising because it brings a particularly late 20th century American goofiness to Rilke's early 20th century Central European goofiness.

I digress.

But before I nitpick let me reiterate that I think Jeanine Marie Pitas does an excellent job translating di Giorgio, and she should be commended for bringing us the work of such a strange and wonderful poet, and for translating her poems with intricate attention to the thorny questions of content, sound and their inevitable interminglings.

Which brings us to apple pie.

There are two occasions in The History of Violets (the 3rd and 31st poems) where Pitas, to my mind, makes a Gass-like "awesome" move by translating the Spanish phrase "pastel/pasteles de manzanas" as "apple pie":

"Suddenly, {an angel} hurls himself to the ground, runs through the grove of trees, steps into the house, leans over my apple pie, stares at me." And: "It was the lovely hour, the hour of smoke, of red wax candles, the time when every grandmother was stepping sweetly around an apple pie."
I've never been to Uruguay, but I've spent lots of time in Chile, and in the process of writing this essay I've consulted Uruguayans and done some research on Southern Cone baking, and I'm pretty certain that what they are eating in these passages is not what North Americans would consider apple pie. Instead, I think it is more like an apple turnover or maybe a soft, apple cake (not doughy and crusty but rather light and flaky—"spongy," was the surprising suggestion of one Uruguayan correspondent—and with a greater fruit-to-flour ratio than what we'd expect from a pie). Unlike Perloff on Gass, though, I'm going to assume here that Pitas knows what she's doing when she uses the word "pie" instead of "cake" or "turnover." And I think it is an odd and surprisingly compelling choice which exemplifies the inevitable and productive awkwardness of the trans-cultural, transnational, trans-contextual and trans-historical clashes that occur in an act of translation. By which I mean to say that apple pie is clearly a loaded symbol in the United States. Thus to pluck it into a rural Uruguayan setting is to assert that one of the pleasures of translation is the way in which linguistic and cultural contexts get confused, intermingled and cross-contaminated.

The translation, as an immigrant to a dominant culture, must attempt to assert its identity into a world that could mostly care less about its existence. But the translator is also inevitably nationalizing the original text with a new language. In this sense, "apple pie" and "awesome" serve to make us aware of just how awkward the act of translation can be; they make us aware of the translator by pulling her out of the invisibility that Lawrence Venuti has correctly identified as the assumed cultural position that the translator is expected to occupy. Critics will label these choices as clunky or out of place, though perhaps that's precisely the point.

III. The Package

Speaking of context: writer and translator Johannes Göransson, on the group blog Montevidayo, has often referred to the distrust by which the gringo literati views translation. He writes:

"There's a deep suspicion about translated texts: How do we know that they're real? How do we know that the translation is correct? How do we know that they deserve to be translated? How do we know that they're good? That they're not a hoax?"

This suspicion, which I believe Göransson is correct to identify, and to link within the larger frame of xenophobia in the publishing word, contributes to another very real problem for the translator. The translation is thus born suspect, and as I've written about elsewhere, one problem for the translator is how to acknowledge what a native reader of the work might take for granted, and this becomes especially tricky when the writer is well known to readers in her native country but completely unknown to readers in the target language. In this case, it is difficult to know how much to discuss a poet's literary influences, her upbringing and surroundings, her critical reception and her personal life. Any statements the translator makes about the work will become "authoritative" since no one else in the target language is writing about her. Writing about Cuban literature in particular, I commented that "such contextualizing is valuable for the same reason that it is dangerous: it often embeds the work with critical, cultural, or political stances that might not be obvious to a foreign reader. Without the translator's critical commentaries, then, the trip through this foreign land might be hard to understand. But on the other hand, the didactic translator risks intruding too far into whatever relationship a reader might 'naturally' strike up with the text."

The History of Violets is a good test case for this problem, and the translator and publisher take a very detailed approach to contextualizing the work of the author. The book begins with an "Introduction" that fuses biographical information with critics' interpretations; the Introduction ends with literary lineages (her affinities to Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson and Lewis Carroll), and the author's own view that the writing is reminiscent of Wordsworth and Blake and the Romantics, though to my surprise there is no mention of other Latin American writers, of surrealists, of Rene Char or other French prose poets. And in all this background I hear the questions that Göransson sheds light on and criticizes. In other words, the introduction makes sure that we understand that this is an important writer who deserves to be translated; she's not just an invented hoax whose esteem cannot be verified. On the one hand. On another hand, I hear a response to Venuti, who uses the term "invisibility to describe the translator's situation and activity in contemporary American culture." Venuti, of course, wants to reject this invisibility; he refers to it as a form of "self-annihilation" that 'reinforces translation's marginal status in Anglo-American culture.' In The History of Violets, the presence of the translator is certainly strongly asserted.

I highlight these two ideas that Göransson and Venuti isolate in order to show just how difficult it is to navigate the expectations that are placed upon works of translation. As Göransson calls our attention to, it is expected that the translation must justify its existence with external bells and whistles in order to break into the world of English-language publishing. However, as Venuti discusses, it is also expected that the translation remain in the background, as a translated work is valued most when it is smooth and natural and when we cannot notice that we are actually reading a translation. Interestingly, I think Pitas is addressing both of these concerns by discussing: 1) di Giorgio's lineages and her critical acclaim; and 2) the process she undertook to complete the translation.

After the "Introduction" comes a "Translator's Note" which details the commitment and rigor that Pitas has shown to the work: she moved to di Giorgio's hometown of Salto so that she could learn as much as possible about the author and her surroundings, and we learn about some of the mechanical issues she dealt with that were specific to di Giorgio's writing. Then there is an "Acknowledgments" page, which includes several paragraphs of thanks to all of the people, both in Uruguay and in the U.S. who contributed to the presentation and publication of the work.

Finally, the book concludes with "Notes on the Poems" that again serve to contextualize by providing both biographical information as well as readings by critics who have written about di Giorgio. A few of these notes helpfully clarify odd terminology, such as "Aigrettes" and "Teru-terus." But some of these notes, to my taste at least, provide interpretive stances that I would rather come to on my own, as in: "I interpret this shift in verb tense as signifying the changing dynamic between the act of remembering and an immersion into the consciousness of the past;" or: "According to {critic Leonardo} Garet, this poem..."reveals the author's limitless compassion."

There are of course no rules to govern how much or how little translators and publishers should say about the work they are presenting, and what is intrusive to one reader may be helpful to another, and there is certainly a lot of useful information provided in the book to contextualize di Giorgio and her writing. Nevertheless, it is worth noting here the extent to which poetry in translation is treated differently from English-language poetry. It would be considered ostentatious and illogical if, say, Rae Armantrout's or John Ashbery's next collection of poems included sentence-level explanations. It's notable that literary culture both expects demonstrations of authenticity and validity (as Göransson highlights) along with the silence of the translator (as Venuti highlights). Pitas concludes the "Introduction" by urging the reader to 'bear in mind that her translation is only one of many possible readings.' That she works so hard to frame and contextualize this reading is an indication of her obvious dedication to the writing as well as an illustration of the balancing act facing translators and publishers who seek to bring an unknown author into our weird, xenophobic marketplace.

I don't have the one-size-fits all answer to how to address this context problem, which may ultimately be about training the audience to apply fair expectations to works in translation. But that this training even needs to take place speaks to the uncomfortable outsideness—the state of neurotic exile—that translation has always occupied.

Having said all of this, the poems in The History of Violets are tremendous, and as a whole this book is a great introduction to di Giorgio. I hope we see more of her work in translation so that we can begin to form these contextual associations on our own.