The merry nomad

Suipacha 1444

Oliverio Girondo holds a special place in my heart. It’s been almost ten years since I first leafed through the translucent pages of his ample collected works, yet I find myself going back to them time and again – not only for the poems themselves, but also for a certain generosity of spirit that can be glimpsed just beneath their surface, and which has been the focus of many of the encomia dedicated to their author. It’s probably this inkling of the poet’s humanity that inspired my recent pilgrimage to Suipacha 1444, the address he shared with his wife Norah Lange from 1934 until his death in 1967.

The building itself gives little indication of the many parties and tertulias that took place within its walls, though there is ample evidence of both their existence and their liveliness. In his widely read tribute to the poet, Aldo Pellegrini describes the evenings thus:

Endless discussions were held on a variety of topics, all of which were approached with the greatest passion. Dominant in these gatherings was the deep, resonant voice of Girondo, whose noble head and Jovian beard would shake as he presided over the traditional roundtable, a space in which there was no room for indifference.

Among the literary luminaries, aspiring poets, and old friends that frequented these tertulias, one attendee could always be trusted to start a conversation: the enormous papier-mâché “scarecrow” decked out in a monocle and top hat that greeted unsuspecting guests from the foyer, having been installed there after its use in the publicity stunt with which the poet released his third collection, Espantapájaros (al alcance de todos) [Scarecrow (within reach of all)].

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After the publication of Veinte poemas and the redaction of the journal Martín Fierro‘s manifesto, Girondo traveled widely through Latin America as a self-proclaimed ‘cultural ambassador’ and then returned to Europe, where he was warmly received on the basis of the glowing reviews artists and critics like Jules Superveille and Ramón Gómez de la Serna had written of his work. This trip served as the inspiration for his 1925 collection, Calcomanías [Decals], grounded in the landscape and culture of Spain. Formally, this collection moves away from impressionistic bursts of prose poetry toward longer pieces in free verse, evoking both the perambulatory rhythm of Girondo’s own movements and the generalized torpor of the hotter, more traditional cities in the south.

Such is the case in the opening stanza of “Calle de las Sierpes,” named after the main commercial street of Seville and dedicated to ‘Don Ramón’ himself, which depicts the crush of bodies in the narrow pedestrian byway.

A current of backs and arms
carries us
and spills us out
under the fans,
the pipes,
the enormous spectacles
hung in the middle of the street;
lone witnesses to a vanished
race of giants.

… and also here, in this description from “Alhambra”…

The fountains spray
a lassitude
that allows us to reflect only
with our pores, our cerebellum and our nose.

Pools of absinthe
in which the stone lace of the arches
has been left to soak!

Chambers in which light takes on
all the sweetness and voluptuousness
that it takes on
between the parted lips of a woman!

With the loquacity of la Celestina,
tour guides
usher women toward the harem
so they might blush to hear
the fountains gossip as they pass,
and so, looking out over el Albaicín,
they might be plagued by wistful nostalgia
as they listen to the mozarabic song
the city sings under its breath
even to this day.

It is no accident that this later collection is – in terms of its structure, more so than its imagery – a gesture toward more traditional models of versification (the only exception being the last piece in the collection, an extended prose poem about Holy Week in Seville). Over the course of his long career as a writer, Girondo was never one to settle down, formally speaking. If his first collection was one of the driving forces behind the consolidation of the avant-garde in Latin America, he followed this work with an exploration of the limits of its predominantly Ultraist sensibility: the elimination of linguistic ornament combined with the preservation of structure. Calcomanías, perhaps more than any of Girondo’s other works, suggests that it is not poetic form that needs to be broken down and reassembled, but rather the poetic gaze itself.

During this same period, Girondo was also composing a series of aphorisms, which he dubbed Membretes – in contemporary usage, the type at the top of a page of letterhead, but also (and more significantly) a note quickly jotted down with the intent to elaborate upon it at a later time. By definition both provisional and pithy, these membretes offer a humorous glimpse into Girondo’s perspective on the arts, particularly the western canon, while serving as an indirect gloss of his own aesthetic practice. Among my favorites are:

We should admire Wagner not because he bores us now and then, but even though he bores us now and then.

There comes a time when we aspire to write something worse.

“The Clothed Maja” is more naked than “The Naked Maja.”

The remarkable thing is not that Van Gogh cut off an ear, but rather that he kept one.

And, then, of course, there’s this:

A book should be constructed like a watch and sold like a sausage.

Following his own recipe for formal precision with a dash of irreverence, Girondo announced his next collection of poems, Espantapájaros (al alcance de todos) (1932) – the title of which echoes and reinforces the democratization of the poetic form seen in his earlier works – with a tremendous publicity spectacle. The poet rented a funeral carriage drawn by six horses, upon which he set his larger-than-life bourgeois “scarecrow,” announcing the availability of the volume in bookstores. The entire print run sold out within a month. The collection, comprised of 24 prose poems or surrealist vignettes, is introduced by a calligram of the same figure, the head of which is formed by the schoolroom chant of verb conjugation, with a difference:

I know nothing
You know nothing
He knows nothing
She knows nothing
We know nothing
They now nothing

Having thus evacuated his model’s head, Girondo moves on to the body, which is marked by a torrent of syllabic rhymes and an emphasis on the physicality of the poetic voice (“Gutteral, as gutteral as can be”). The legs, like Girondo’s aesthetic predilections, are taken to wandering, giving themselves over to an antic quest that seems to be its own objective:

A     A     Is     Is     A    A
nd    nd    it         it    nd    nd
up    do     he           the    up    do
the    wn     re?              re?    the    wn
st       the     No,                  No,      st      the
airs    st       not                         not     airs      st
I         airs    he                              the        I     airs
go      I go     re                                   re        go      I go
!…     !…      !…                                          !…       !…      !…

It is hard not to recall the letter that introduced his Veinte poemas ten years earlier, in which “one finds rhythms while walking down the stairs, poems strewn in the middle of the street, poems one collects like someone picking scraps off the pavement.” For Girondo, it is this movement from place to place, from form to form, that opens up a space of poetic encounter. Though the house at Suipacha 1444 was a stable nucleus of the cultural life of Buenos Aires for decades, its dueño was always on the move.

3 thoughts on “The merry nomad

  1. Came across your blog, I myself am a Latin literature aficionado. I searched a bit but have not seen any Julio Cortazar commentaries. His influence was far and wide in literature and subsequents films even (Jean-Luc Goddard killed it with Week End)….let’s see a little love for Don Julio!

    1. Thanks for your note. Until a few weeks ago, the posts have been focused on more recent work, but that’s all changing (gradually). Check back in a bit to read up on the likes of Cortázar, Fuentes, Borges, etc.

  2. Hi, I as well just came across your blog. I am studying latin american vanguards. I found your site quite helpful and interesting.

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