Things of the Earth: Joaquin Giannuzzi’s Poems

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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’:

A bundle of 50 sticks for William and Juliet

Last Saturday I travelled down to Chepstow to read at an event organized by William Ayot who, with his wife Juliet, runs the On the Border series of readings. They tend to bill a Welsh poet with A. N. Other; I was the latter and Richard Gwyn the former. Richard runs the Creative Writing MA at Cardiff University and is a brilliant poet and translator from the Spanish (especially South American poetry). He read some heart-stoppingly powerful new work from three Mexican poets recently published in Poetry Wales and some of his own prose poems from Sad Giraffe Café (Arc Publications). I read from my translations of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and also extracts from The Time We Turned.

Richard Gwyn

On the train down I was again reading Lee Harwood’s work (see my last blog post) and came across ‘Days and Night: Accidental Sightings – a bundle of 50 sticks for Joseph Cornell and others’. I’ve put together my own loose bundle of sticks as a modest thank you to William and Juliet for their hospitality in their extraordinary house, their passion for poetry in its widest sense, and that marvellous coronation chicken!

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A bundle of 50 sticks for William and Juliet

At the track side willow belts always unkempt trunks leaning some broken

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luminous blue sky in early May

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On a diversionary loop the train slows as if to allow the doe standing knee deep in meadow grass to watch us as we pass we watch her

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She wears muddy walking boots and has brought out a flask of something hot

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clipping tickets he is careful to be polite though from those upgrading to First Class he has had money already

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‘why do you do this’ the effect is never quite the same twice

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In a faded green t-shirt a man walking with arms folded across his chest as if he had breasts he hoped to steady

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mud-brown canal waters held eight of nine feet high behind a lock gate

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An upturned wheelbarrow on a long houseboat its purple paint job a statement of optimistic intent

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Words carve out sense as tractor tyres embrown the field’s new growth each year their lines down the hillside conclude at an iron gate

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I feel with each mile nearer home I mean nearing the place I grew up in

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Hills like the scarp edge of Salisbury Plain wait O this is not a likeness this is ‘the actual place’

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a diversion to a chalk white horse full of memories

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the Tory heartlands a tractor slowly turning over the ground

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I ring home and wake my sleeping parents

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‘Let’s make flying fun again’

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a basket of split logs waits for the fire

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On a wooden writing desk three animal skulls

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‘quietude not inquietude’

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Nine owl feathers in a china mug a sort of chalice

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A glazed bowl with an assortment of matte pebbles from the beach

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His son spoke out but the police were in bed with the FARC who saw to it he and his friends were tortured and killed can you believe it

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I like to work I prefer to work with those who want to want to stop

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a tall poplar tree like an exclamation mark he wrote as if to say this is it

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One skull another skull then another skull beside another skull

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rose gardens and orchards

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If they haven’t killed enough by their early 20s they’re losers whose life expectancy is anyway no more than 24

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Down to the underworld but returns if somewhat empty-handed he does return

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mausoleums for themselves a cult of death

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Bluebells in the hedgerows on either side of the road

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left hand short by two digits his wife’s wrist broken by a fall

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shut-eyed Blake above the flat-screen TV seems to offer the room a challenge

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the watercourse way

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Everything is a fiction the novel in your shoulder bag is the bank statement you use as a bookmark inside it that too

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The narrative of the oh-eight crash there are other ways for it to be recounted that’s not a joke

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Oppositional to a large degree I guess we are not pebbles from the same beach but it’s more than just rubbing along

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A chimney balloon

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On-line so many ‘friends’ devastated by the surprise results

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It’s staying in places like this makes me feel a Londoner

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He waves his paddle to let the train go then flips it up inside the back of his orange hi-viz jacket and pushing the handle into his back pocket it’s safely stowed

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A speck of thistledown drifting up the aisle

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attentiveness

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banked blue rectangles squat in meadows to scoop the sunlight

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Dirt is matter out of place but this is not dirt it is marvelously out of place

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Red kite above the monkey puzzle

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on an elevated hillside ahead yellow rape now level with me receding away behind

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In tunnels my ears close as if valved

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either that or everything is a metaphor I see myself turning socks inside out little involved packages

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What will Rose and Richard be doing this morning

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Wishing Iolo courage for his father’s passing

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