Here’s a game: search the little haystack that follows for the several needle-reasons why I wanted to blog something this week about the poetry of Joaquin Giannuzzi.
In a review in Poetry Wales, Nia Davies praises Giannuzzi’s “singular, destabilising and pessimistic, but humane take on the world” and, in part, she links this to the turbulent political landscape of Argentina through the twentieth century. This is poetry “always aware of the presence of violence behind a wall” though Giannuzzi is probably a less explicitly political writer than this suggests. The violence he sees in the world is a harshness even beyond politics and his humanity lies in a hard-won sympathy that we all inhabit a world in which human endeavour has become something of a “mockery”, death the only certainty.
Giannuzzi was born in 1924 to a family of Italian immigrants in Argentina. He chose journalism as a career and his observational gifts are obvious, poems often focusing on individual objects or people. He is a poet of disengagement, the objective gaze (as much as that is ever possible) though what is revealed is in part the poet’s response to what he sees, in part an ironic detachment from it. These are points made by Richard Gwyn (who also links him with Samuel Beckett) in a selection of his brilliant translations of Giannuzzi’s work from 1977 on, A Complicated Mammal (CB Editions, 2012). It was reading with Gwyn in Wales a few weeks ago that first brought Giannuzzi’s work to my notice.
The title ‘Garbage at daybreak’ says a lot about Giannuzzi’s approach. There is the distancing effect of reporting that a “sociological interest” brings the narrator to examine the garbage bins though what he learns is that “things don’t die but are murdered”. His listing of items begins obviously enough but takes a more troubling turn with “a doll’s torso, with a dark stain” (that turbulent twentieth century again?) into a more metaphysical malaise suggested by the ambiguous phrase “rosy meadow death” (una especie de muerte en un campo rosado). The poem ends with a discomforting “comfort”, realising that “not even this excrement / is obliged to abandon the planet”. Why do we harbor such crap and ugliness? But what if we compelled it to be ejected, might we be left even more empty-handed?
It was while completing an interview about my own writing (to appear in Acumen Poetry Magazine later this year) that I found myself saying “I’d be happy to accept I am committed to the empirical. As a child, though very quiet and reserved, I don’t remember living in any kind of fantasy world: I would be observing things going on around me. I used to find objects when I was a kid – coloured stones, shells, lost coins – and I remember the pleasure when my mother would say, ‘You’re always on the look-out. You never miss anything’. To this day, I like poems that focus on small things and, in effect, make arguments for the ways in which they communicate the bigger issues”. From this, it’s obvious why I respond to Giannuzzi’s work and ‘Coffee and apples’ is a good example of what Gwyn calls Giannuzzi’s concern for “thingitude” or las cosas de la tierra (things of the earth). He locates the poem in an afternoon in June, a moment of uncharacteristic ease since the world “has become hospitable”, though this is immediately cast into doubt with the simile comparing this to “a truce”, a mere postponement of hostilities. But for a while the things of this world give off an allure of “radiance” and “steam” while the narrator sprawls on his “backside”. But the truce is indeed short-lived as the poem ends with a bomb blast, police arriving, all delivered in a tone suggestive of the commonplace.
Giannuzzi’s narrators are often solitary and self-critical. In another moment of what seems like ease, one turns accusingly on himself: “I sold out my youth”. The waste of time, sucking on the “ribs of aesthetics” has yielded nothing, not even (look how quickly the Absurdist gulf opens in the course of these three lines): “a personal system of language / I mean an act of writing / That my contemporaries might interpret sufficiently badly” (‘Self-criticism). What Giannuzzi does do is see things and poetry (argues the poem ‘Poetics’) “is what is being seen”.
There are rare moments of tenderness. In being aware of his daughter dressing for a night out, another narrator reaches for religious hyperbole as she evokes a second Eden, “a second perfection of nature”. What propels her to this is a “faith” he cannot share or even imagine and as she puts finishing touches to the creation of herself – especially memorable in the clicking of her bracelets closing – he sees her leave the room “and everything that I am not goes with her”. This treads a fine line between self-pity and an excoriating nihilism that risks wiping out his daughter’s youthful optimism: but it is a line Giannuzzi treads so skillfully, leaving the reader with the strange pleasures of a hard-headed modernist perception alongside a touching evocation of paternal love. Brilliant – especially so when it floated into my mind lying awake waiting for my just-eighteen-year-old daughter turning the lock downstairs, back from late-night clubbing in Shoreditch. She’s back safe and sound; that big world out there.
Gwyn notes that Giannuzzi’s narrators are often caught gazing through a window at the big world out there. In one case, what is observed is only an “indistinct appearance”, fragments, colours, a suffering, “tangled up in itself”. The poem imagines a million other similar windows, each framing its “failed theologian” and for Giannuzzi the adjective makes the point here; divinity is only present “by gloomy delegation”, though even that is probably too strongly put. Desertion, perhaps would be better, more truthful. Giannuzzi’s is not the best of all possible worlds, it is the “only possible” and ‘Theologian at the window’ ends by suggesting the human animal has little choice but to suffer “a corresponding headache”.
These are a great poems, short, modern, dark lyrics (that would knock most of the 2015 Forward shortlists into a cocked hat) by a poet compared by Jessica Sequeira in the Glasgow Review of Books to Montale, Auden, Pavese and T. S. Eliot. Richard Gwyn has done a magnificent job of translating him for us – the least we can do is go and buy it.
Joaquin Giannuzzi is interviewed (in Spanish) and reads his poem ‘La desaparición’: