The revolution in 'Tender Buttons'

Although Three Lives and The Making of Americans were radical innovations, neither was as revolutionary as Tender Buttons (begun in 1912 and published in 1914).[1] Tender Buttons is the touchstone work of radical modernist poetry, the fullest realization of the turn to language and the most perfect realization of wordness, where word and object merge. No work from Europe or the Americas had gone so far in creating a work of textual autonomy, where the words do not represent something outside of the context in which they are performed and where the meanings are made in and through composition and arrangement. The sections of the work are not “about” subjects that are discussed but are their own discrete word objects (verbal constellations). Meaning in these works is not something to be extracted or deciphered but rather to be responded to, so that the reader’s associations create a cascading perceptual experience, guided by the uncanny arrangement of the words. The more readers can associate with the multiple vectors of each word or phrase meanings, the more fully they can feast on the unfolding semantic banquet of the work. The key is not to puzzle it out but to let the figurative plenitude of each work play out; for, indeed, this work is not invested in a predetermining structure or in precluding or abstracting meaning. Tender Buttons does not resist figuration but entices it. And the work is rife with linguistic and philosophical investigation as well as an uncannily acute self-awareness of its own processes.

Consider the title, which has many associations that bear a direct relation to Stein’s poetics. Buttons are used to fasten (attach or join) discrete pieces of fabric; this suggests a compositional practice akin to quilting and collage and situates the work not only as a form of practical art or craft, suggesting a connection to what has often been considered (and denigrated as) women’s work (buttons are often ornamental or decorative). The sense of domestic space is also suggested by the section subtitles “Rooms” and “Food” — suggested only, because the association is loose. You press buttons: the operating system here is point and click in a touch-sensitive textual environment. A button is also a small protuberance: stud or knob or bud (its etymological root). Tender Buttons suggests nipples or clitorises: the poetics is decentered eroticism (meaning disseminated evenly over the body of the text not cathected onto nouns or plot); which is to say the work is aversive to phallic or climax-oriented satisfaction. Tender Buttons, while not a manifesto, advocates a poetics of acting “so that there is no use in a center,” where “the difference is spreading.”[2] Tender, like the poem, is gently caressing, fragile, soft (rather than rigid or hard), edible (tender food), effeminate (weak or delicate). But tender also means money, something offered in exchange for something else, as in legal tender.[3] In the semiotic economy of the poem, words are tender and the poem is fundamentally involved with language as a system of exchange (rather than “pointing,” word to object). Yet Stein’s work is not random but intended, as she says, “no mistake is intended,” even if she is a “mischief intender.”[4] And Stein’s approach to composition is to be less a controlling of language than its tender.

Now let’s segue into the first part of the first section the three-part work:

A carafe, that is a blind glass.

     A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

This poem addresses the relation of word and object (this first section of Tender Button is called "Objects”), or perhaps better to say signifier and signified. It brings to mind Ferdinand de Saussure’s suggestion in his contemporaneous Cours de linguistique générale (1906–1911) that language works by creating a system of difference of one sound to another. Difference also suggests sexual or gender difference. In trying to break down the difference between signifiers and signifieds, Stein lets words “be” themselves, stand for nothing but what they are. Stein says the “the difference is spreading” — on the one hand this suggests that difference is proliferating, on the other hand, it suggests a way to see signifier and signified fused or melted onto one plane, when we "spread" words instead of using words "in a system of pointing." Think of painting with words or think, in painting, again, the breaking down the foreground and background of perspective to get the "radical flattening" of some "abstract" painting (e.g., all surface, no depth). So, says, Stein, this approach is not random or chaotic or meaningless because it doesn't “point” or doesn't use resemblance ("not unordered in not resembling": not unordered but rather ordered differently). The poem then might be seen as a carafe (a transparent/glass container: one view of what language is) that is a "blind glass" (one that you don't see through because it is filled with something dark, so it takes possession of itself). Now, circle back to the double meaning of "spectacle": eye glasses and something one looks at from a distance, something one is separated from, as by a glass, or even the frame of a stage. But imagine if we could melt this difference between us and a world we look at as spectacle, imagine if we could avert looking at our words as glasses that project distance, that separate us from the world. How can we break down this difference, this separation? How can we turn objects, how can we turn words, into tender buttons? This is not what the poem means. This is not a paraphrase. But it sketches a set of investments that run through the full work.

Those investments come in the form of a constellation of repeated words: Stein’s approach is not both derangement and rearrangement: “There was an occupation,” she write at the beginning of “Rooms.” Reading this work presents a necessary challenge to thematic close reading, which won’t work, while still requiring close scrutiny through an associational/ambient reading of the linguistic prompts and an allegorical reading of form (thinking about what the form means).[5] All key words in Tender Buttons are repeated numerous times but the repetition is distributed throughout the work, making much of the poem less rhythmically repetitive and more abstract than other Stein works. Among the most frequently used words (after articles and conjunctions) are such forms of to be as is (1,017 times, almost 7 percent of the words used),[6] followed by a very high frequency of be, are and being (in keeping with Stein’s approach to the “continuous present”); as well as “was.” Other frequently used words include little (ninety times), means (forty-four), and strange (twenty-five), as well as makes, shows, color, white, whole, change, single, same, suppose, and nothing. The word “difference” appears thirteen times in the work; that word plus “differ” and “different” occur twenty-four times. Center occurs twenty-two times. Come or coming or comes makes thirty-five shows, as in the specifically erotic “Cuddling comes in continuing a change” but also “The truth has come” (and keeps coming).  Resemblance and arrangement each come into the text about a dozen times.

In “Roastbeef,” the opening section of “Food,” the second part of Tender Buttons, Stein briefly returns to rhythmic repetition through the use of gerunds that create a palpable sense of “continuous present.” This passage is among the most evocative and enthralling of the work:

In the inside there is sleeping, in the outside there is reddening, in the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling. In the evening there is feeling. In feeling anything is resting, in feeling anything is mounting, in feeling there is resignation, in feeling there is recognition, in feeling there is recurrence and entirely mistaken there is pinching. All the standards have steamers and all the curtains have bed linen and all the yellow has discrimination and all the circle has circling. This makes sand.

If Emerson saw meaning as inflected by mood,[7] Stein brings it into a dynamically diurnal intimacy with the feeling of time passing, from morning to evening, as well as the movements of meaning through the changes of resting, mounting, resignation, recognition, and recurrence. We are pinched awake by recognizing these conditions and by recognizing a view from “outside” ourselves and “inside” ourselves; indeed, it is this torqueing of outside and inside that marks language’s semiotic play, hear / not here. Words shift in use so that our norms and standards can take flight in exception and our lives can be as grounded as grains of “sand”. The tender of our language is change and exchange:

All the time that there is use there is use and any time there is a surface there is a surface, and every time there is an exception there is an exception and every time there is a division there is a dividing. … tender and changing and external and central and surrounded and singular and simple and the same and the surface and the circle and the shine and the succor … (“Roastbeef”)

In Tender Buttons, Stein was engaged in making a dialogic poetic of non-resemblance: words not dominating the world with their order but allowing the world to inhabit the words. Tender Buttons marks a decisive break with a voyeuristic poetics of subject and object, looker and looked at, figure and ground. It elides perspectival distance in favor of intimacy, non-goal-directed erotics, and gustation.

From Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins, eds.,
A History of Modernist Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2015). Excerpted with permission.




1. Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, ed. Seth Perlow (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2014). Perlow has made some changes in previous presentations of the work, based on a review of relevant documents. They include a change in the way the titles appear. References to this work are given by section title. There are about 15,000 words in the work, which is in prose format, though not a prose poem as that term has been previously defined. This is about five times the length of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” the most canonical American long poem of the era.

2. The iconic “Act as if …” is the first sentence of “Rooms,” the second part of the work. “The difference is spreading” is from the first section of “Objects,” the first part of the work.

3. “Tender” appears ten times in the work, always suggesting tenderness, but also note “a transfer is not neglected.” While I don’t think the ten/tender was planned, the modus operandi of the works potentiates such serendipitous collusions.

4. “Breakfast” and “Mutton,” the second and third section of “Food”; italics added. 

5. This use of allegory is developed by Michael Golston in Poetic Machinations: Allegory, Surrealism, and Postmodern Poetic Form (forthcoming, Columbia University Press).

6. In contrast “is” constitutes less than two percent of the words in “The Waste Land.” Moreover, none of the key words from Tender Buttons occurs with any frequency, if at all, in Eliot’s poem.

7. “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience,” (1844).

Twenty-two on 'Tender Buttons'

Sarah Posman
Sueyeun Juliette Lee
Rachel Galvin
Seth J. Forrest
Michael Farrell
Marcella Durand
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
EC Maxe Crandall
Angela Carr
Laynie Browne

Loosening linking

An introduction to Jordan Scott



Stephen Collis and Jordan Scott

Coach House Books 2013, 144 pages, $24.95, ISBN 978 1 55245

What follows is an introduction to Jordan Scott’s reading/screening at the University of Georgia on Wednesday, September 24, 2014. Sponsored by the creative writing program, the event was held at 7 p.m. in the Lab Room at Ciné, 234 West Hancock Avenue, in Athens, Georgia. Earlier that afternoon, Scott had visited Andrew Zawacki’s advanced undergraduate workshop “Graph & Photograph,” whose twenty-one students interviewed Scott about Decomp.

I hope the Coach House Books editor, Alana Wilcox, won’t be angry with me if I tell you that my copy of this book, Decomp — coassembled by tonight’s guest, Jordan Scott, and activist writer Stephen Collis — arrived damaged. Pages 90–105 are missing, while pages 113–128 appear twice in quick succession. Correctly divvied into five chapters, but with no chapter four and a pair of chapter fives, the volume — in which its authors claim, “Our understanding is at or about limits” — is at once too little and overmuch. Coach House replaced my incomplete, excessive copy with a correct edition, but I wonder whether the altered version isn’t the truer account, given the obsession in Decomp with validating what’s written “rongly,” and with tracking the “erritory.”

One chapter erased, another repeated. What do we call inadvertent or aberrant repetition, if not a stammer? Scott’s second book, Blert, enacts a poetics of the stutter as a deeply somatic musical score that wrestles with language as recalcitrant, sinewy stuff. Replete with tongue twisters, plosive riffs, pronunciation calisthenics, fables about foibles in speech, and other outtakes of glottal spelunking and gobbledygook, Blert is at once an experiential pressure applied to the famous Freudian compulsion and a staccato elaboration of projective verse. Decomp, on the other hand, traffics in the irreducible and unrepeatable. Set in five distinct biogeoclimatic zones of British Columbia, Decomp is premised on site specificity and insists that the natural world is “unre able,” a broken term that suggests the earth is unreadable, unreifiable, unreproducible.

In the spirit of Sir George Airy, who established the modern Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1851, Collis and Scott geotagged the spots where they placed each of five copies of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, whose deterioration they went back to document a year later. Rather than writing about nature, as Darwin did, they let the natural world rewrite the books. Their project is less aligned with Kenny Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” than with an outsourced creative unwriting, whereby a quintet of distinct biosystems becomes the catalyst to an elemental misprision, subjecting the volumes to the very same “natural selection” their author had proposed. This mulching of the text is all the more ironic — or appropriate — given that Darwin himself was known to tear out book pages that didn’t interest him, so he might keep the portion that did. Decomp reminds us that all writing is a species of ascesis and extraction, of erosion if not erasure: a violent cutting away from the saturated, recombinant fields of language and literature every last word and idea and form that is not the thing you’re trying to say.

That creation begins in destruction is evident in the chemical process of photography, where developing a negative means removing light-sensitive silver halides from film. Even as the digital color images in Decomp testify to the unnatural tech selection that has all but eliminated analog photography, they witness the gradual disappearance of humanity from the scene: the death of the author, certainly, and the first-person I, “only / water and / syllables giving way.” A celebration of print culture in our era of Kindle and Kobo and Nook, Decomp is also an elegy for the book, as the “leaves” of a work titled Origin return to the very trees from which they came.

Throughout the book, Scott and Collis reprint what they can discern of the still legible passages of Darwin’s text, after it’s been exhumed. Since its pages are rotting, torn, smeared, occluded, or otherwise fractured by the weather, the authors also provide what they label a “Gloss.” We can’t help but hear inside that moniker, of course, the word “loss,” and indeed the greater part of the Darwin has been effaced, leaving Collis and Scott to invent — or, as it were, translate. Or even to speak in tongues: the term “gloss” is from the Greek glossa, for tongue or language, and Decomp is arguably an inheritor of what Frederic William Ferrar, in 1879, first called heteroglossia. While removed from a Pentecostal or Charismatic context, the book has been nonetheless written by a host of friends and family members: Ken, Pauline, Caroline, Summer. “We are porous,” the book tells us. Allusions to “the with-me” and “with-us” bespeak a society constituted by the mutual exposure of bodies, by opening our corpus — skeletal and scriptural alike — to others, and evoke the beautiful, fragile caring so crucial to a community in which one’s “own” death, so called, in fact belongs to everyone except the one who dies: “stay together,” Gary Snyder implored, “learn the flowers / go light.” With salal and kinnikinnick, Scott and Collis are among those children who have honored “For the Children.”

Within the speculative gloss of Decomp we also see — just a letter removed — “glass,” which may put us in mind of the microscope, the museum vitrine, or the documentary lens. Even the realist artist’s mirror is relevant here, since it reflects an object, but only in a backward way. Furthermore, a reader attuned to the literary theory that aerates the book will look at “Gloss” and also think Glas, the title of Derrida’s 1974 hybrid that put Hegel in one column, Genet in a parallel row, and figured authorship not as a static monolith but a dynamic, conjugal relation. The word means “bell” or “klaxon,” as if a bicolumnar Collis and Scott were honking to one another, rather than conversing per se, across the proprietary zone of the signature; as if both of them were calling across history to Darwin on a far shore; and as if Nature were trying to maintain some distance from a book about Nature, even as their differences weaken with the decay of each— what Decomp calls a “loosening linking.” Or maybe the glas of Decomp is most urgently understood as a siren or blaring alarm, to warn us we’re heating and pillaging the earth at an unsustainable, irreversible pace. (It will be interesting to hear Decomp this evening, just three days after the People’s Climate March in New York. Stephen Collis was among the 400,000 who gathered at the largest climate protest in history.) Derrida took his title from Bataille’s poem “Le Glas,” which in turn had been drawn from a Mallarmé lyric, “Aumône.” Consistent with that praxis of relay and semi-borderlessness, the word glas is intriguing — and remarkable in tonight’s setting — not least because its singular form is identical to the plural.

Behind any coauthored project there lurks the question of labor. Who did what or how much, which words issued from whose mouth? And behind the matter of labor’s division resides a curiosity about how the relationship went — was it symbiotic or parasitic, collaborative or contentious? These are central provocations regarding social dynamics and economies of production that Decomp extends beyond the narrow confines of the literary. Collis and Scott stage a critical conversation about First Nations land rights and second-growth forestry practices, about third-stage global capitalism and the nearly invisible strictures that finance seems to have always prepared in advance for everything we think and say and do. If a labor of love, as they say, this is foremost a book about loving laboring, a work about the essential work of unworking. Whistled in what the authors call “forest language,” Decomp is a new wave work song, “in the service of the soil,” a choral chord in “a struck opus of beings.”

Please join me in welcoming — one of the nicest people on the planet — Jordan Scott.

Poetics of critical cartography

A review of Sebastian Agudelo's 'Each Chartered Street'

Each Chartered Street

Each Chartered Street

Sebastian Agudelo

Saturnalia Books 2013, 80 pages, $15.00, ISBN 978-0-98133686-9-4

Each Chartered Street is a critical cartography of the poetics of space. The city of Philadelphia is the source of semiotics for this collection of poetry; this book maps, imagines, builds, and evokes the city as a city in its period of time. As a speaker with the eye of a Renaissance man, Agudelo captures contemporary Philadelphia and remixes the everyday of its citizens, neighbors, commuters, students, children, and families. What does it mean to observe and document a city in context, within the bounds of its own time, conditions, or trends? And what occurs when we are guided by an attentive, East-Coast flâneur who records parts of the town through poetry?

In three parts, Agudelo skillfully interprets the present day as history and everyday people as subjects through a documentary poetics. In the style of a teacher-philosopher flipping through various thoughts while sauntering down the sidewalk, riding the bus, or driving past pedestrians, Each Chartered Street joins today’s ways of documenting and seeing with documenting and seeing as a semiotician, of sorts, in search of and in order to strengthen the power of inhabiting a place.

In the eleven-part long form poem “Commute,” an amalgam of teenagers and young adults, commuters, and blue-collar workers make the place and make up the transit. The experience of coming into contact with such heterogeneity posits the speaker’s musings: “They want to know / what’s on the test, to go on to their lives, / pay tuition, wait tables, work for tips” (20). It is this exacting and beautiful attention to the ordinary that sublime moments take place. The speaker also discloses more particulars about an individual on their commute:

I’m not making him up,
just tallying the odds that last night’s pop-off
on Marion street might be the tattoo parlor’s
next job, just charting how wide or narrow
a semantic radius tells near from close (17)

The blend of experience, expectation, and code-switching chronicles “the now” as the artifact and “the observer” as the social anthropologist whose academic leanings are made apparent. Agudelo proves that history is present as it carries and moves forward — that it consists of the many moments on street corners, in neighborhoods, in seemingly random conversations with passersby and strangers just as it is a remembered and studied account of events.  

Agudelo’s diction reveals a multidimensional, cultured, and wise perspective. For instance with the poem “Corner”:

What does Coetzee say? In a time out of time,
at either side of the divide you’ve got children
of paradise, fresh off swimming lesson, riding, ballet,
soft as putti, shinning with angelic light, fenced in (32)

The activity captured in these four lines weaves pieces from literary, journalistic, and historic nuances. If the readers joined the speaker in standing still and watching the neighborhood pass by, the community becomes busy and comes alive. Furthermore, the body and the environment are privy to the design of the metropolis;, that is, readers are gestured by the speaker zoom in on and take up space in the city, too. Readers witness the soundscape of the block:

[…] a Chevy Impala coup —
detailed with racing stripe to match the neon
glowing from the undercarriage, rims spinning
to a distortion that gathers more momentum
every beat — is commandeered by a kid adjusting
his lycra du-rag in the rear-view mirror. (32)

The din can be part of larger space of the street, and it can be the focus within a cart of public transportation: “I drift to tinny hip hop. It sizzles / from the speaker of a clamshell phone” (16). Because the speaker is immersed in their thoughts, the orchestra of the city, and a divulging inlay, the reader becomes astute.

Each Chartered Street is living and breathing. The poetry is a place for people to dive in and engage all social layers. The language is in itself a trip that strolls. It is a world unlatched where the people are somehow linked. I recommend that readers spend time with each word, provocation, moment, and street.

Re(con)figuring the moment

A review of 'It's Night in San Francisco But It's Sunny in Oakland'

It’s Night in San Francisco But It’s Sunny in Oakland

It’s Night in San Francisco But It’s Sunny in Oakland

Edited by Otis Pig and emji spero

Timeless, Infinite Light 2014, 240 pages, $25.00, ISBN 9781937421052

 What are your living conditions, do they feel stable?

Who do you consider your community, is it endangered?

“I do not want to convince you to do one thing or the other. I am trying to figure some-thing out” (Juliana Spahr).

Coming out of the atmosphere that gave fruit to the East Bay Poetry Summit, and released at the second, It’s Night in San Francisco But It’s Sunny in Oakland addresses the stressed, urgent, inexorable “now” of Oakland and provides a document of community on the verge. Of despair, of disappearance, of action, of cohesion, of coherence. Of falling, of flying? Is the form poetry? Experimental fiction? Inter-genre? We don’t know, who cares, it doesn’t matter.

As an object, It’s Sunny is equal to the test in the way it expresses the agility of the means we have, the robustness of available forms to respond quickly, usefully, beautifully to the requirements of the moment. The cover displays the handwriting of many of the participants transferred to a polymer plate, letter-pressed. Part hand-constructed, part rough, part glossy.

The table of contents is a roll call, names bright white on the black of the page, which nonetheless feels friendly, too, in its inverse relation to a rounded sans-serif font. It is part yearbook, altogether greater than the sum of pieces, showing living (poetry?) as organism, and all the hope and fear and friendship and fraught alliances of community and “community” drawn together under economic and political and interpersonal stresses. There are gentle moments in the uproar, critiques of the quietude, calls to violence, aesthetic experimentation. 

Many pieces address directly or elliptically the economic reality of Oakland and the Bay area, the urges and impulses there. Throughout, there are numbers, names, materials, photographs, price points, anxieties about the inevitable untenability of living situations.

The saying is urgent precisely because of the prevalence of not saying, because of the potential for nonrepresentation that obscures political reality. It’s Night in San Francisco But It’s Sunny in Oakland does discovery for a language that could learn again to signify. It comes out of a necessity of recording something that feels endangered, marked with precarity, a moment already at least partially over, coming as it does post-Occupy and in the wake of two authors represented within who have since lost or nearly lost their jobs ostensibly for participating in attempts to unionize a supposedly liberal institution.

Zoe Tuck brings avant-garde insistence on materiality of language and Steinian philosophical musicality to bear on pointing into the world again, a world which, precarious, demands indication. The influence of Lisa Robertsons Office for Soft Architecture seems also present:

Time may circle or spiral but one must eat and sleep
within four walls if one can, one must find a way of getting by
and this means a straight line to the right or East if you prefer,
where money gathers in vertical chambers

As Jack Frost says, “David said that is it not only overcoming the amnesia of the present, but the present’s hermeneutics, to which we are tasked as such slender archivists.”

But there is less of a unified goal here than suggested. Kate Robinson’s “Preliminary Pattern Study,” for example, is a particularly dense, knotty, and well-rooted example of visual poetry.

Many voices raised together are either chanting or wailing or song, and It’s Sunny is a bit of a chanty wail song. A music of divergent voices that provides some sanity in acknowledgement, comfort in conversation, relief in documentation, investigations into letterforms, a rhythm to labor by, to be honest with.

“We,” as in the “we” of the book, document as we goes, tentacled into institutions, homes, and provisional hidey holes wherever possible, whenever necessary, however it’s fun, a record of trying to hold hearts open in a deluge of news, of streets in conflict, before taking shelter in the quasi-hermetic private property of continuous basement shows, backyard reading series, rooftop gatherings, each other’s beds.

“It’s night in San Francisco but it’s sunny in Oakland” as a phrase remains somewhat opaque, object turned icon, discovered under the couch a week after the party ended. Pieces, at times, written for or between friends, may with distance lose and gain powers of signification. In any case, one enjoys being whispered to.

As a collection, it is messy, alive, unmannered, sun-soaked, salty, smoking, wrapped in caution tape. Of the moment. Of the moment of last summer. Of a moment that feels like it will always feel like last summer.

“We,” readers, are invited to be stitched in. The phrases, under-over-through, stitch us.

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).