A Fresh Pair of Eyes

Last Wednesday would have been Oliverio Girondo’s 120th birthday, and while most of the world (myself included) was clamoring to wish Jorge Luis Borges a feliz cumpleaños, many of the major cultural papers in Argentina were also paying homage to – as one article puts it – “the man who wrote the manifesto that marked the arrival of modernity in the country.”

I was born in Buenos Aires on the 17th of August, 1891. Though it may seem unbelievable, I was a handsome, ruddy-cheeked boy. When my parents sent me off to school, I tried to kill myself.

So begins the poet’s description of his early days. The rest of the details fill themselves in: born into a respected Argentinean family, Girondo enjoyed all the benefits of wealth. At the age of nine he made his first trip to Europe to see the World’s Fair in Paris. He stayed on to study at schools in London and Paris, though he was promptly kicked out of the latter because, according to his friend (and important Spanish surrealist) Ramón Gómez de la Serna, “he threw an inkwell at the head of a teacher who was giving a lesson on the cannibals that lived in Buenos Aires, capital of Brazil.” He returned to Buenos Aires, dabbled in dramaturgy, and started a short-lived journal called Comoedia (1916-1917), then spent much of the following years traveling between Argentina and Europe.

The manifesto credited above with snapping Argentine letters out of an aesthetic stupor was published in 1924 in the journal Martín Fierro, of which Girondo was a founding contributor. Taking its name from José Hernández’s epic poem published in two parts in 1872 and 1879, which presents the rustic gaucho as the emblematic figure of Argentinean-ness over and above the European models of progress adopted by the politicians of the day, the journal stresses the importance of creating a fresh, local style of poetry. It insists that the poet abandon the library.

In the face of the funereal solemnity of the historian and the academic, which mummifies all it touches. […]
In the face of the inability to contemplate life without climbing the shelves of the library.
And, most of all, in the face of the horrifying fear of making a mistake that paralyzes the vigor of youth stiffer than any retired bureaucrat:
Martín Fierro […] knows that ‘everything is new under the sun’ if everything is seen through eyes that are up-to-date and expressed with a contemporary accent.

Of course, the idea that writing poetry is fundamentally a matter of being receptive to the world as it presents itself in the moment was nothing new for Girondo. His first collection of poems, Veinte poemas para ser leídos en el tranvía (1922; Twenty Poems to be Read on a Streetcar), was prefaced by a letter in which the poet describes his creative process as one of finding “rhythms while walking down a flight of stairs” and “poems cast off in the street.”

And it is in the street that we find the poet; it seems Girondo barely ever steps indoors. As the title of the collection suggests, this is a work meant to be read in public because, in many ways, it is of the public and for the public: the poet’s most consistent stance, despite the formal variations that characterize his oeuvre, is that of writing against the fixity of the canonical (this was one of the sticking points between him and Borges… more on that in a future post).

Taking poetry out of the ivory tower and placing it among the scraps and treasures of the everyday, Veinte poemas could be described as anything but stagnant: it teems with descriptions of crowded beaches, sidewalk cafés, and populated plazas on both sides of the Atlantic. The description of these spaces, quite often rendered as snapshots that follow the course of the eye as it wanders along, is punctuated with lines like the following, from “Notes from the Street”:

A grey family sits at a sidewalk café. A pair of cross-eyed breasts walks by, searching the tabletops for a smile.

Or this, from “Sketch in the Sand”:

The shade of the cabanas. The eyes of girls who inject themselves with novels and horizons. My joy, in rubber-soled shoes, that makes me bounce along the sand.

For eighty cents, photographers sell the bodies of the bathing women.

Yet despite the kinetic landscape it depicts or the rapidly shifting perspective of the poetic voice, Veinte poemas escapes falling into superficiality by virtue of the intensity of the poet’s gaze. Though his eye rests on each scene for the briefest of moments, Girondo is able to extract something fundamental from it.

That something, I would argue, is the tension between the culture of leisure depicted across its pages and the longing for a lost sense of tradition, of the connection with the past and with other inhabitants of the present, in the modern city (though the poet casts an equally quizzical glance at both of these, he reserves the full weight of his judgement until many years later). In this way, the “Taverns that sing out with the voice of an orangutan” that line the coast in Douarnenez and spill out “sailors who hold on to one another’s arms so they can learn to walk” exist alongside the church that, “in an act of prestidigitation,” produces a flurry of doves from its bell tower and a flurry of little old ladies who hurry in, still wearing their nightcaps, to “get drunk on prayers” and to “keep the silence from gnawing, even for a moment, at the noses of the saints.”

Though the inebriated sailors and, for that matter, the young woman who feeds her addiction for cheap novels while basking in the sun seem to be worlds apart from the devout old women in their French hamlet, Veinte poemas asks us to look again. Even in this early work, Girondo shows himself to be a keen observer of the points of contact among the ways in which we attempt to organize the snapshots of our experience into a cohesive whole.

Illustration to accompany the poem "Breton Landscape" (Girondo, 1920)

Stay tuned for installments on Girondo’s other major works…

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