Antonio Gamoneda and the ontology of disappearance

A review of 'Description of the Lie' and 'Gravestones'

Description of the Lie (Descripción de la mentira)

Description of the Lie (Descripción de la mentira)

Antonio Gamoneda. Translated by Donald Wellman

Talisman House 2014, 166 pages, $17.95, ISBN 9781584980926

Gravestones (Lápidas)

Gravestones (Lápidas)

Antonio Gamoneda. Translated by Donald Wellman

UNO Press 2009, 158 pages, $18.95, ISBN 9781608010028

Rust is the color of disappearance, the deintensification of metallic solidity. Seen in a different slant of light, rust produces a reintensification of color in the meeting of iron and oxygen, the proliferation of autumn in a congeries of breath, moisture, and steel. On the tongue rust acquires a taste: the bitterness of a disappearance, an evaporation that leaves behind the strange piquancy of material erosion. In Antonio Gamoneda’s Description of the Lie, rust invokes the beginning of a precipitous, painful knowledge, a forgetting that paradoxically initiates a splintering of presence into prismatic refractions that call attention to time’s invisible phenomena:

Rust alighted on my tongue with the taste of a disappearance.

Forgetting penetrated my tongue and I had no recourse but to forget,

and I accepted no value other than impossibility.[1]

Rust in this sense leaves a taste of forgetting, or the sight of “a calcified boat in a country from which the sea has receded,” leaving only the impossibility of a sea, a lost remembrance contained in the sight of cuttlefish bones and striated canyon walls, a place evidenced by an illegibility of ruins. To paraphrase a Deleuzian maxim, the pursuit of the impossible occasions a new set of possibles, new forms of description. Yet taste and sight do not predominate in Description of the Lie so much as does aurality. Absence, after all, is articulated by the optical “lack of many a thing … sought,” a remembrance of things past which, in Shakespeare’s original formulation, “drowns an eye” (in tears, but also in a cognitive blindness) and becomes absorbed in sonic traces at the “expense of many a vanished sight.” Gamoneda does not see (he cannot see what is no longer there), but he listens:

I listened to the surrendering of my bones being deposited in rest,

I listened to the flight of insects and the retraction of the shadow
               on entering what was left of me;

I listened until truth ceased to exist in the space or in my spirit, 

and I was unable to resist the perfection of silence.

When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, Antonio Gamoneda was only five years old. He had lost his father, a poet, in 1932, inheriting only his name and spiritual vocation, and had moved from Oviedo with his mother to Leon, a permanent locus in the poet’s heart and mind, in 1934. Gamoneda’s career as a poet is marked by silences and disappearances. Born into war, he came of age during the Franco regime, a period given over to parochial fear, ideological repression, sudden incarcerations and executions, and the eerie nightly sound of moans “through the belt of poplars” (105). It was an historical necessity that Gamoneda’s poems would be called upon to account for death’s force and omnipresence (“la poesía es el relato de cómo se va hacia la muerte”).[2] Under such ominous conditions, language for him devolved into a game of chutes and ladders, truthful lies and fabricated truths, because, as he writes in Description, “all the while torture has made a pact with words” (9) and those who “learned to travel with their gag … were more clever” in “a country without truth” (21). The independent poet’s educative process in Francoist Spain was hence a gradual and agonizing ritual of instrumentalizing silence, exile, and cunning (to borrow Joyce’s famous cri-de-guerre). 

The 1950s staged a decisive moment of outgrowth for the young poet. La tierra y los labios (1947–52), unpublished in his time but later collected in the anthology Edad (1987), signaled the burgeoning of a poet still influenced by the prosodic and philosophic stylizations of the Generación del 27. Sublevación inmóvil (1960), his first published book, advanced this poetics, only this time informed, as the title indicates, by an inner revolt brought to immobility by social repression; its method of rebellion was essentially a hermetic one orientated around surreptitious metrical strokes and the capture of “the hard, undeclinable / material of lightning.”[3] By the 1960s, however, Gamoneda’s hermeticism achieved a “perfection of silence” so total that, though he continued to write extensively (the work of this period would be later collected as Blues Castellano [1961–66], published in 1982), he would not be able to put out any major book for nearly seventeen years. Francoist censorship instigated an intellectual crisis: Gamoneda’s poetic had outgrown its earlier agnostic permutations, and his poems could no longer avoid a direct and battered denunciation of the violence and social reality that contorted the Spain of his time.

It wasn’t until Franco’s death in 1975 that Gamoneda boldly returned to literary life after an interminable absence — the disappearance of the physical embodiment of Francoism propelled him to stage his own reappearance as an unshackled poet. In 1976, faced with a dire urgency for cathartic expression, Gamoneda composed the entirety of Description of the Lie in a radical poetic where, in translator Donald Wellman’s words, “white space is crucial” and in which lyric voice “emit[s] flashes of violence and unexpected tenderness” (3). Description not only formally “represents Gamoneda’s poetic language at its most intense pitch,” but it also symbolically marks the decisive break with Spain’s tortured past that proved capable of articulating a language of mourning for its numberless disappeared and muted dead. 

We can read the opening of Description (which I’ve quoted above) as an inverse poetic invocation; in place of an articulation, we listen to a silence that beckons with the slow palpitant force of a thousand scattered breaths resurfacing in a slow oxidation. The rust on Gamoneda’s tongue is the accrued rust of many years of censorship under Francoism, but it’s also the rust of the old aesthetic vehicles of modernismo that have given way to a stranger and crueler beauty, a beauty grown from the verbal decay of systems. Invocations “have returned like inevitable lichen” in the undergrowth enveloping this decadence. Awakened from an ideological slumber of seasons (“For five hundred weeks I have been absent from my intentions, / interred in nodules and silent under the curse.” [9]), Gamoneda plunges into the soil of natural processes and sensuous operations, down in the undergrowth beneath graves marked and unmarked, in those patches of uneven ground feebly demarcated by hurried steps and bitter tears:

In this country, at this time whose grief is inscribed on gravestones of mercury,

I am going to stretch out my arms and reach into the grass, 

I am going to slip into the density of the holly bush so you will warn me,
            so you will summon me into the moistness of your armpits. (11)

This immersion in the undergrowth narrates what Gamoneda calls “legislating in the negative” (13): that is, an inverse purity of heart that voluntarily reaches into the mud of the past and “smell[s] the testimonies of all that is filthy on earth” and “love[s] that which has remained of us,” the noxious white dust of incinerated bones, the terrified urine and feces of the assassinated, the hopeless question that asks: “what truth exists in the entrails of pigeons?” To legislate in the negative is to gainsay the truth or to betray it, to circumvent its will to dominate social reality and deny its vestiture of ideological commitment and logocentric binaries; it makes no “appeal to the truth because the truth has said no and made my body acidic,” and has made dross of the once ironclad belief in the sincerity of twentieth-century nationalist movements (“So was our age: we were going through beliefs” [21]). In lieu of the gross abstraction of positivist belief systems, Gamoneda rejects “truth” (a pliable object bent and unbent by machines of authoritarianism) and instead rests with his senses to the ground, immobile yet muscularly active, an animal whose “work is retraction,” a “retreat toward a maternal species” (21) that listens to silences and watches for the stealth movement of ants and sparrows, swarms and murmurs, the rhizomatic growth of molecular whispers. The rejection of the fallacious “truths” of human order institutes a converse acceptance of the essential openness and imperfection of the earth beneath, the rust and undergrowth whose silences speak.

Dirty, dirty is the world; but it breathes. And you enter the room
               like a shining animal. (15)

The work of retraction, this legislating in the negative, reduces the human subject to an animal, a zoon politikon (political animal) who at any moment can fall prey to the environmental hazards of pernicious ideological climates; but this animal reduction is also a defense against language because it restores a dignity to the being deprived of, or endangered by, its political existence (what Agamben has described as the homo sacer). Questioning the validity of language to procure fit solutions to the problems it poses and confronts (“What is truth? Who has lived with it without domination?” [23]; “The questions don’t exist in the language of suppression: everything is annulled” [49]), Gamoneda absconds from structuralist ideality and “stay[s] in the mire,” since “cleanliness is useless,” asking instead that we “take notice, all of you, of my slowness and the animal that bleeds so sweetly in my soul” (23). By design this is not a single animal but many; Gamoneda’s animality suggests a state of maternality that continuously expresses itself in packs, in swarms, in a mobile multiplicity that evades the deathstroke of static nomenclatures: 

I am being born as a different species whose exterior is livid. My animals
              are unfamiliar with the slenderness of your knives and there are
              numbers in my soul that I still don’t understand. (47)

Gamoneda’s version is no different from Deleuze/Guattari’s formulation: “Lines of flight or of deterritorialization, becoming-wolf, becoming-inhuman, deterritorialized intensities: that is what multiplicity is.”[4] Building from negation, Gamoneda embraces the lie as a counter to the regime of truth embodied by Francoist Spain — if truth is false, then the lie becomes truth — because each perfectly told lie nearly always multiplies into a pluralism, an opening of the field that self-multiplies into a rich undergrowth of possibilities. In short, the description of the lie wills itself into a vanishing, a disappearance of the lie, and the reappearance of a truth beyond truthfulness itself — in febrile wounds, in dessicated lips, in the crust of days spent under accusatory suns. In Gamoneda’s lyric, the more a thing is described — human, animal, hydrangea, the emptiness of a blood-streaked room — the more it rusts and breaks apart into concentric circles of a temporalized structure, a thing undone by time itself, in the hour of disappearances:[5]

Yes I found out about destruction and I fed myself on hidden grass
             and chewed my name and lived with the disappearances. (63)

* * *

In the epilogue to a recent Spanish reissue of Gamoneda’s subsequent book, Gravestones (also available in an exceptional translation by Donald Wellman),[6] Julian Jimenez Heffernan brings attention to “the animal depth” (el animal de fondo) at work in Gamoneda’s lyric.[7] Heffernan’s thesis that Gravestones (Lápidas, first published in 1987) is a book written not from the perspective of an animal, but by an animal itself[8] equally applies, as has been seen, to Description of the Lie. In both works, I suggest that this animal depth contains no face or surface, holds no object in view, arrives at no location, sniffs out no single meaning or entity; it is, to borrow (or, rather, mistranslate) a line from Rilke, more akin to “a breath concerning nothing” (Ein Hauch um nichts), or what I’d prefer to redefine as an objectless pneuma, a divine breath that does not repose or cease but continually respires and circulates, a pure voice that is both animal and animating. The lines from Rilke are familiar, the final two in the third Sonnet to Orpheus: “True singing is a different kind of breath. / An objectless pneuma. A Gust in God. A Wind.” Lines near the conclusion of Gamoneda’s Description remind me, in quick succession, of not only Rilke, but Celan too:

Lengthy hissings come from the courtyards. I listen until the most
              belated hour when the world is a cavity and the beauty of 
              adultery simmers at the bottom of the vessels of night.

So is the eve of a day. Milk announces morning.

Who has penetrated my ears? (141)

Wellman’s translative work here manages to recall Celan’s “Death Fugue” (Todesfuge): “Black milk of daybreak … ” (Schwarze Milch der Frühe … ). The double echo of morning/mourning operates in such a way that the reference, however fortunate or imagined, picks up on the unspeakability of the spiritual anguish and oppression endured in the prisons and concentration camps of fascist Europe. The cavity of the world, in any case, predicates this referential potential on a tortured background of sounds and voices, echoes in a chamber that penetrate the ear in similar fashion to Rilke’s “Oh great Tree in the Ear!” from the first Sonnet to Orpheus (“O hoher Baum im Ohr!”), around which “animals of stillness” throng (“Tiere aus Stille drangen aus dem klaren / gelösten Wald von Lager und Genist”). Gamoneda embodies these animals of stillness, wild voices centering on the centerless oblivion of death, channeling an ontology of disappearance that traces the “lengthy hissings … from the courtyards” back to the ones “prepared for the hour of death” (141). Pneuma, from the ancient Greek πνεῦμα (wind, breath, spirit), describes the act of this detection of objectless spaces and absent gravestones, the tracing of voiceless murmurs to which Gamoneda, in a depth of pure animality, gives utterance in a Shelleyan lyre-like lying:

… This incomprehensible account is what remains of us.
            Betrayal prospers in inviolable hearts.

The profundity of the lie: all my actions in the mirror of death. (Description 145)

If in Description of the Lie listening and voicing are the operative faculties (“escuché la rendición de mis huesos escuché la huida de los insectos … escuché),[9] then in Gravestones Gamoneda transitions to opticality and vision:

I saw the stigmata of lightning on still waters,
            augmentations haunted by foreboding;

I saw fertile substances and others that live in your eyes;

I saw the residues of steel and big windows for the contemplation of injustice
            (those ovals where phosphorescence hides) (23)

The “escuché … escuché … ” (I listened …  I listened … ) changes to a litany of “vi vi … ” (I saw … I saw … ), a crucial verb shift whose lucidity relies on an opening of the eyelids that had been closed in the fear and cowardice of Description of the Lie (ignoble traits which had, paradoxically, in a zone of betrayals, become virtues for survival). The pack of animals in Gamoneda having recognized and hearkened to the voices of the dead (“Each distance holds its silence, / headstones attended by animals that haul calcium until their death” [Description, 95]), the sculpting and erection of gravestones impinges on the pneumatic poet. This obligation to craft headstones where disappearances have been registered requires precision but also a sight that peers into animal depths, and an inward hearing that returns us to the rust of the tongue: “I hear steel simmer. Precision is dizziness. / Your hands open the eyelids of the abyss” (Gravestones 31). 

Each of Gamoneda’s gravestones is composed in the manner of a Rimbaudian illumination in which the seen exhausts the truth functions of language, instigating a radical transformation of lyric articulation. If “the tongue exhausts itself in truth” (33), then the eyes follow suit, learning to doubt the solidity of their seeing, trusting the rust rather than the steel, the fungal decay rather than the pure unmolested fruit. Yet the two substances, the November rust and the chronic steel, dependent upon an ontological shift from apparition to disappearance, cohabit a chemical and philosophic hypostasis. We return, again, to the Rilkean line (Ein Hauch um nichts), the hollow interior in which silence, the objectless pneuma, suddenly begets two corporealities, two tongues that simultaneously temporalize the becoming-animal and the zoon politikon, the birth pangs of speech and the decay of language, the rust on the abandoned blade and the cruel steel in the machinery of death.

In the hollow interior of God, oh living dove,
                I forced you to read the silence. And you glowed.

You are corporeal in two abysses,

blue between two deaths, two physical tongues.

Oh final dove, soon it will be November.

* * * 

All the animals join in a large groan. I hear old age whistle.

Maybe you think of disappearances.

Talk to me so I may know the purity of useless words. (Gravestones 37, 39)

Gamoneda, who stages a tenebrous reemergence to life in Description of the Lie, frames in Gravestones a full and lucid return to the joys and declinations of poetic language, one whose very objectlessness occasions the possibility of a new poetics for elegizing the disappeared.

1. Antonio Gamoneda, Description of the Lie (Descripción de la mentira), trans. Donald Wellman (Greenfield, MA: Talisman House, 2014), 5.

2. “Poetry is the relation of how one approaches death.” Antonio Gamoneda, interview by Francisco Martinez Garcia, “El poeta Antonio Gamoneda me habla del tiempo,” in Gamoneda: Una poética temporalizada en el espacio leonés (Leon: Universidad, 1991), 42–44.

3. My translation from the first stanza of “Sublevación,” in Antonio Gamoneda: Antología Poética, ed. Angel L. Prieto de Paula (Leon: Edilesa, 2002), 61.

4. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 32. Wellman also suggests that Gamoneda’s poetic is a line of flight that “enacts processes that place perception before meaning and in that sense has something to do with the rhizomatics of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari” (2).

5. “The poem is a ‘lie’ unlike existential or socio-historical lies — the lies codified by conventional ethics — by virtue of an assemblage of formal, material features which constitute it as a ‘radical’ or ‘poetic reality.’” Daniel Aguirre Oteiza, “‘A Different Denial’: Politics and Poetics in Antonio Gamoneda’s Description of the Lie”; included as an afterword to Wellman’s translation, Description of the Lie (Greenfield, MA: Talisman House, 2014), 148–65.

6. Antonio Gamoneda, Gravestones (Lápidas), trans. Donald Wellman (UNO Press, 2009).

7. Julian Jimenez Heffernan, epilogue to Lápidas, by Antonio Gamoneda (Madrid: Abada Editores, 2006), 104.

8. “Lápidas ha sido escrito por un animal […] Gamoneda es una voz … Gamoneda es un animal” (Gravestones has been written by an animal […] Gamoneda is a voice … Gamoneda is an animal”): Julian Jimenez Heffernan, epilogue to Lápidas, by Gamoneda, 88, 95.

9. Quoted earlier as “I listened to the surrendering of my bones … I listened to the flight of insects … I listened,” etc. (my emphases).