Lila Zemborain's "mauve sea-orchids"
A Theory of Eros, March 30, 2008
One of the most intriguing books of poetry I’ve read and had the chance to discuss in the last few years is Lila Zemborain’s mauve sea-orchids... important for its aestheticism, for its erotics, for its contribution to an eco-poetics, and for the sheer physical delight of the book as book. I’m happy to be able to present a transcript of my March 3oth, 2008 conversation with Zemborain on and around this amazing book. The transcription was done by Danielle Vogel, now a Ph.D. student at the University of Denver.
Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guest is Lila Zemborain. She’s a poet from Argentina who’s been based in New York now for many years. Her new book is called mauve sea-orchids and it’s published by Belladonna* Books. About the work, Forrest Gander writes: “In mauve sea-orchids as in her striking earlier book Guardians of the Secret, Lila Zemborain brings into relationship the viscera of the body and the spill of the universe in tense compositions that blur distinctions between lyric and prose poetry, between science and eros.” Welcome, Lila Zemborain.
Lila Zemborain: Thank you very much for having me.
Schwartz: Great to have you one the phone and to have your book mauve sea-orchids in my hands. It is an exquisite piece of writing and an exquisite book. You choose to begin the work with two epigraphs: one from Proust pertaining to jellyfish, and another from H.D.—also around the figure of the jellyfish. H.D.’s text reads: “That over-mind seems like a cap, like water, fluid, yet with a definite body, contained in a definite space. It is like a closed sea-plant, jellyfish or anemone.” Can you say a little bit about Proust, H.D., and jellyfish?
Zemborain: For me it was striking. I had been for two years reading Proust, you know, À la recherche du temps perdu; and I was completely drawn by his rhythm and his writing. In a moment in one of his books he’s talking about the orchid and the bumblebee—it’s one of the chapters—and I read there what I have in my quote: Why don’t we see something that is repulsive as something beautiful? And so, he gives this image of seeing jellyfishes like mauve sea-orchids, or mauve orchids of the sea. And I think this gave me a perspective of how to see the world in a completely different way. And simultaneously, or in that time, I was reading H.D., or I found H.D.’s prose poems that she has on vision. And she was relating also the over-mind, like this connection, to the irrational, let’s say, like a hat, maybe, or a jellyfish in the top of a head. And I thought that this was something very striking: the relationship between those two images and that led me to get into the body, the viscera of the body, the organs of the body, and to think about the glands as something beautiful, which in general is something disgusting.
Schwartz: Yes, the words “gland” and “glands” do play a large part throughout the first poem in the book, “orchid and bumble-bee.” You wrote in Spanish, you are from Argentina, and the book is translated from the Spanish by Rosa Alcalá and Mónica de la Torre. Neither of them is here on the phone right now so I’m hoping we can read together. If you can read some of the original from mauve sea-orchids I will follow with the translation. Shall we go to the poem?
Zemborain: Yes. I just want to add that the translations are amazingly beautiful. They respect the rhythm of the text, the images. And I’m so happy because the sections of the book have different tones, so Mónica de la Torre translated the first two chapters or parts, and Rosa, the last one. They got completely the rhythm of the book, which is the most important thing to me.
Schwartz: Yes, Mónica is wonderful, she’s been a guest on this program pertaining to her anthology of contemporary Mexican poetry; the one she co-edited. So she is the translator of the sections we’ll be reading from: “orchid and bumble-bee” in mauve sea-orchids.
de noche no se puede evitar el acercamiento
de los cuerpos acomodados en la pulsación
y el ritmo de las glándulas amorosas;
compulsivamente las manos desenvuelven su
labor reconocedora generando innumerables
resonancias de energía en cuerpos que se amaron
sin saber lo que era la pasión, conocida ahora con
la certeza del que sabe el movimiento que habrá
de realizarse; amor que sobrevive en el pacto de
las células, sello que borra los años de entropía
controlada; glandularmente extensos en su lisura,
se rozan sin necesidad de desnudarse en el anhelo
perfecto de un amor que sobrevive la aspereza
del olvido voluntario ¿será que algo importaba
más que un amor inenarrable? el desprecio a lo
adquirido es lo que cuenta en las zonas de una
mente que desea con narciso caer en la laguna
at night it is unavoidable that bodies attuned to
the throbs and the rhythm of loveglands come
together; hands are compelled to begin performing
their sensing duties, they generate countless
resonances of energy in bodies that once loved
each other oblivious of passion, but now recognize
it with the certainty of whom knows the move that
should follow; a love that persists in the cell’s pact,
a seal that erases the years of controlled entropy;
stretched out, gland-like in their smoothness,
they come into contact regardless of whether
they undress in the perfect yearning of a love that
survives the harshness of intentional oblivion;
could it be that something mattered more than
a love beyond description? the disdain for the
acquired is what matters in the areas of a mind
that longs, like narcissus, to plunge into the lake
hay ciertas glándulas amorosas que son como su nombre
lo indica blandas, cálidas, suaves al tacto, perfectamente
rojas o blancas, como pequeñas almohadas que se
alojan en distintas partes del cuerpo y destilan un
líquido vaporoso cuyo efecto es una sensación de
autocontención amorosa por demás; como si se
estuvieran besando las células unas a otras, toda una
cadena corporal de besos que llena de alegría; no es en
sí un amor narcisista, o de autocomplacencia, sino que
se expande desde las células hacia el resto del cuerpo,
y por allí se desborda al mundo que nos rodea; una
revolución de besos celulares que amasa el cuerpo de
distintas sustancias; y ya no serían las glándulas del amor
almohadas, sino más bien bollos que al cocinarse en el
propio cuerpo emiten un olor a pan horneado, como
la carnosidad tibia y fresca del bebé recién nacido, no
contaminada por los gases de la vida cotidiana; los bollos
glandulares producen una renovación de los tejidos y
desde allí determinan el proceso de percepción en el
sentido de la emoción con que se recibe el estímulo; si el
cuerpo está dispuesto por las glándulas del amor a tamizar
los estímulos con olor a pan, entonces la percepción será
más bien plácida, y las respuestas destilarán también
las emanaciones de tibieza que se expanden entre las
personas cuando huelen el pan horneándose; pero a la
vez se desencadenará un proceso similar en los cuerpos
de los que reciben el aromático estímulo
there are certain loveglands that are, as their
name suggests, bland, warm, soft to touch,
perfectly red or white, like small pillows
lodged in different parts of the body distilling
a steamy liquid that causes a heightened
sensation of self-contained love; it is as if
cells were kissing each other, a bodily chain
of kisses suffusing one with joy; it is neither a
narcissistic love nor self-complacency, rather, it
is one flowing from the cells toward the rest of
the body, and from there spilling over to one’s
surroundings; a revolution of cellular kisses
that kneads the body with different substances;
here the loveglands would not be like pillows
but more like bread rolls releasing their baking
aroma when heated in one’s own body, like
the fleshiness and warmth of a newborn baby
unpolluted by the fumes of everyday life; these
glandular bread rolls regenerate tissues and
dictate the receptive process regulating one’s
openness to stimuli; if the body, due to the
loveglands, is willing to sieve the bread-scented
impulses, then receiving them will be placid
and this response will trigger a flow of warmth
between people when they smell the baking
bread; those receiving the aromatic stimulus
will also experience a similar process
las glándulas del amor no sólo destilan amor pasional;
es un tipo de energía que tiene más que ver con la
autocomplacencia del sueño profundo en estado de
dicha; las glándulas del amor tienen la consistencia
del tejido cavernoso de las esponjas cuando están en
el agua; las esporas permiten que el agua las traspase;
de la misma manera, una energía cálida atraviesa
las glándulas del amor, como miles de ojos que
estuvieran parpadeando de placer; la corriente no es
pringosa ni pegajosa como la miel o el néctar de las
flores, tampoco como el polen que se pulveriza en los
estambres; es un tejido de terciopelo que se extiende
atravesado por millones de bocas que se besan a sí
mismas, no beso en sí, o el acto de besar, sino la
sensación de recibir y de dar el beso simultáneamente
en escala infinitesimal; en la imposibilidad de la
reversión del besarse a sí mismo hay suavidad, tersura,
delicadeza de harina finamente molida, el algodón
y la seda serían materias ásperas en comparación
loveglands not only distill carnal love, their
energy has more to do with the self-indulgence
of deep sleep in a state of bliss; their consistency
is like the cavernous tissue of sponges in water;
spores allow water to pass through them;
likewise, a warm energy moves across the
loveglands, as if thousands of eyes were blinking
in pleasure; the current is neither clammy nor
sticky like honey or the nectar of flowers, it is
not like pollen that pulverizes on the stamen
either; it is a velvet tissue that extends itself
crisscrossed by millions of mouths kissing each
other, not the kiss in itself, nor the action of
kissing, but the sensation of giving and receiving
the kiss simultaneously on an infinitesimal
scale; in the impossibility of kissing oneself in
return there is softness, smoothness, and the
delicateness of finely ground flour, cotton and
silk are harsh materials in comparison
Zemborain: You were great.
Schwartz: So were you. That was terrific. I really enjoyed reading the poem with you, Lila. You know I’ve been thinking a little bit about the difference between a phrase like “social justice” and a call for social justice, and what it would mean if instead of social justice, one asked for “social love” rather than social justice; what that would imply. Your language and the vocabulary you work with is—as far as Gander, I think, points out in the back of the book—someplace between science and eros, or an erotic vocabulary and a scientific vocabulary. Can you say a little bit about the concept of love you’re working with there?
Zemborain: Yes, this is actually something that I was thinking a lot about. This book: I wrote it in 2001 right before September 11th. So it was mainly impossible for me to return to this book until after two years, you know, because I was writing it, I had finished it. And after September 11th came, this book had no meaning in that moment. And I wrote a book on September 11th; I wrote many other things after this. But I published this book in 2004 in Argentina, and now it is published here. Right now I am working on evil, let’s say, not on love. I’m working on the opposite, so it was very difficult for me to go back to this book and understand what I did in it. And finally I think I have an idea because in this book, I think what I’m talking about is connection: about connection between human beings, between cells, between I and nature. It’s all about connections and how these connections are very, at the same time, joyful and uncertain. They could be destroyed very quickly, but they get to be regenerated at the same time, these kinds of relationships. So, this morning actually, I realized this is for me the only way to regenerate all the social disruption that we are living in our society. And the only way for me to do it is through poetry. The poetry is intended, in this book, to make me feel first of all the awareness of these kinds of connections through language and posing also language and the rhythm, especially the rhythm of language as a way of regeneration.
Schwartz: Yes, to think of the rhythm of language as “a velvet tissue that extends itself crisscrosses by millions of mouths kissing each other” is really wonderful and I think contributes to this concept of social love that at least I know I’m trying to articulate for myself. And it’s so interesting to hear you say as well that this is a book on eros, and what you’re working on now is thanatos or you said, “evil,” thanatos/destruction. What kind of rhythms does one work with there?
Zemborain: I have no idea. I’m searching. Let me tell you, I’m working on Nazism in Argentina and also in the whole period of the dictatorship because of course (I live in Tribeca), September 11th was something that was very close to me; very, very close. I lived through all this destruction of three thousand lives next to me and it’s impossible not to get connected to that drive that human beings have. I’m discovering that we always think that this drive is external, that it comes from outside; this is what I’m thinking now. Now I’m thinking that this comes from inside myself or everybody else, you know. And this morning, because I had to talk to you, I was thinking how this evil, let’s say, which is the opposite of what I stated in this book, would be said, you know. What would be the rhythm, and what would be the language, and what would be the vocabulary? And how, for me, I am frightened to connect with something like this because, for me, poetry is very connected to the body. So in what way would my body express the rhythm that would be, you know. I don’t know what word to use; to be developed in a certain kind of language. I don’t know.
Schwartz: Yes. That’s the challenge given the kinds of eruptions we all face. I’m talking about cataclysmic disruptions in the case of September 11,, 2001 for which I was in town too. So I’m excited to think about the possibility of your writing such a text and seeing what kind of relationship or what kind of connections it forms to the work in this book that’s just out, mauve sea-orchids. I should mention that there are three poems in the book. We’ve been reading from “orchid and bumble-bee,” the second two poems, each a long poem of course, “the furious petals,” and then the title poem, “mauve sea-orchids,” which perhaps we can get to read from again at another time. I know you’re expecting guests, but it’s great that we were able to read together and talk a little about the work. In terms of other books and other projects that might be coming out, anything we should be looking for?
Zemborain: Naomi Press is going to publish next year Guardians of the Secret. Guardianes del secreto is a book that I published in Argentina in 2002, and I’m very happy that Rosa Alcalá had translated this work. It’s a book about vision. This is previous. This is before this book, before mauve sea-orchids. And it’s a book about vision, and about the sense of vision. And how different kinds of visions you can develop like internal visions and different ways of seeing reality and then how the vision of artists or visual artists, or how they treat, you know… What is their perspective? Especially in abstract art. And my idea came through the idea of blindness. So how to see the world if you are blind in a way. Something like this. This led me to, in that book, in one of the poems I use the word glandular. It comes actually from Rilke when he was analyzing Cezanne’s work, and I read in a moment that there was a glandular relationship between the colors in his work. And when I saw that, you know, glandular relationship between colors in a painting, for me, I don’t know, it gave me not an inspiration, like a curiosity let’s say, yes, about that relationship between colors and glands. It’s so unusual to see that. So, I use this word also in Guardians of the Secret, and from that poem came this other book.
Schwartz: This book that we have just read?
Schwartz: That’s interesting. It often happens that one thing comes out ahead of the other though it should be the other way around… “All ages are contemporaneous,” as Pound says, so all the poems happen simultaneously. I’m also noticing, just now, that the book mauve sea-orchids that Belladonna* has published has text design, cover design, and typesetting by HR Hegnauer who is a former student of mine here at the Evergreen State College.
Zemborain: Yes, she is fantastic. And we also have to mention the cover; the cover was done by Emilie Clark who is a fantastic artist. When I saw these paintings, these drawings, I was struck because it has such a good relationship with my work. It is a beautiful book to see. When you see it, it is beautiful.
Schwartz: It is a beautiful book, absolutely. Emilie Clark is terrific, her husband Lytle Shaw has been a guest on Cross-Cultural Poetics. If anyone wants to get more information on this book, I believe the website for Belladonna* Books is www.belladonnaseries.org. Lila, we have to do this again sometime. I really enjoyed the conversation and I wish you the best of luck encountering evil.
Zemborain: Oh my god. I’m laughing, but let me tell you, that is scary.
Schwartz: I know.
Zemborain: But I enjoyed it.