A Breathable Language: Oliverio Girondo and the Poetry of the Americas

By Scott ChallenerApril 11, 2019

A Breathable Language: Oliverio Girondo and the Poetry of the Americas

Decals by Oliverio Girondo

IN 1924, the Buenos Aires avant-garde magazine Martín Fierro published “Open Letter to La Púa” by the experimental Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo (1891–1967). The letter, Girondo later explained to his friend and editor, Evar Méndez, could double as a preface for the second edition of Twenty Poems to be Read on the Streetcar (Veinte poemas para ser leídos en el tranvía, 1922), which would appear the following year. The letter is a strange document. In Harris Feinsod and Rachel Galvin’s capable translation, it begins:

What do you want! […] Sometimes your nerves get frayed […] You lose the courage to go on without doing anything […] You tire of never being tired! And when you go down the stairs you find rhythms, poems tossed in the middle of the street, poems that you pick up like someone collecting cigarette butts along the sidewalk.

What happens next is sinister. A hobby becomes a profession. We feel the modesty of pregnancy. We blush if anyone looks us in the face. And what is even more horrible, before we realize it, the profession ends up interesting us and it is useless to tell ourselves “I don’t want to choose, to choose is to ossify. I don’t want to adopt an attitude because all attitudes are stupid […] even the attitude of not having an attitude […]”

Inevitably, we end up writing Twenty Poems to Be Read on the Streetcar.

As with most of Girondo’s work, the letter was something of a joke. Readers of Martín Fierro were meant to be in on it. The notion of a poet sending an “open letter” theorizing the poetics of his first book of poems to La Púa, a culinary rag, is already comical. The letter’s opening sentences double down on the gambit: who is this demanding, nervous, paradoxical “you” that Girondo addresses? In the rhetorical sleight of hand that occurs in the shift between the “you” of the first paragraph and the “we” of the second, Girondo doesn’t just put words in our readerly mouths. He turns us into professional poets, pregnant with the abundant wonders of urban life, blushing in front of strangers who catch us in flagrante, marveling at the rhythms of the city. And suddenly we — now an unruly, far-flung, weirdly embodied collective — find we have become the new mothers of Twenty Poems. What just happened?

More than anything, perhaps, this bravura performance of rhetorical midwifery and ventriloquism communicates that Girondo is in fact the sole author of an inventive book of poems never intended to be read by any streetcar passenger or modernist gastronome. As Feinsod and Galvin note in their introduction, the first edition of Twenty Poems appeared not in Argentina but “in France in an oversize, demi-luxe edition, embossed and illustrated with his own watercolors”; it was not until 1925 that the book was reissued in a cheaper, paperback “Streetcar Edition” with the open letter.

Moreover, Girondo wrote most of the poems in Twenty Poems and his subsequent collection, Decalcomania (Calcomanías, 1925) — also translated here in full — while sojourning throughout Europe and Africa on his parents’ dime. He traveled throughout the Americas as well, tirelessly and creatively promoting his books while forging a network of avant-garde connections. Thus, Girondo presents some of the many paradoxes of the Latin American vanguardia, or vanguard. On the one hand, he was part of an international avant-garde whose poetics were made up and out of the stuff of modernization — global flows of capital, people, and commodities, embodied in the “decals” of his second book’s namesake. In this regard, his poems offer a kind of anatomy of tourism, laying bare the vertiginous collapse of space and time in the interwar years, annotating sketches and glimpses of richly textured worlds as they pass by “in four thousand obscure tongues.”

On the other hand, this poetry of cosmopolitan adventure is made possible through various forms of iniquity of which Girondo seems either ignorant or unwilling to question. These include the wealth that enabled the poet’s youthful globe-trotting, the privileges of heteronormative masculinity, and the historical forms of racism, chauvinism, and neocolonialism that resonate throughout the poetry. The long poem “Tangier,” from Decalcomania, is perhaps the clearest expression of privilege and prejudice: its stanzas manage to be anti-black, anti-Muslim, and antisemitic all at once. Feinsod and Galvin remark that as they prepared these poems for publication, they discovered that “in the rich tradition of criticism on Girondo’s work, these aspects have not yet received extended commentary.” This lack of attention can’t have come as a surprise, however, and I hope that these two scholars take up the charge they have implicitly laid down — after all, they are ideally suited to it. “Girondo’s work,” they conclude, “is an important instance of influential aesthetic achievement that is celebrated despite its entanglement with historical racism.” But is this a singular important instance, or is such entanglement constitutive of the very marrow that oxygenates much of the canonical global avant-garde?

Feinsod and Galvin address the contradictions of Girondo’s “creole cosmopolitanism” in a number of ways, some of which are more persuasive than others. They turn first to the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui, who declared that “[t]he Western metropolis has polished [Girondo’s] five or more senses; but it has not slowed or spoiled them […] the embroidery is European, urban, cosmopolitan, but the weave is all Gaucho.” Girondo’s translators follow Mariátegui’s line of thinking, writing that Twenty Poems “carves a distinctly Argentine path through the overwhelming experience of worldwide urban modernity, at home in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Dakar, as well as tourist hotspots in Western Europe: Douarnenez, Paris, Biarritz, Seville, Lago Maggiore, and Venice.” They quote Girondo’s open letter, in which he praises Latin Americans as having “the best stomach in the world, an eclectic, very free stomach, able to digest, and to digest well, a northern herring or oriental couscous as much as a godwit cooked on an open flame or one of those epic Spanish chorizos.” And they find in this conceit a gesture comparable to Oswald de Andrade, whose 1928 “Anthropophagous Manifesto” argued that Brazilian culture “would flourish thanks to its cannibalistic capacity to digest and re-express cultural imports from Europe.”

All of this weaving and carving gives me pause. One of Mariátegui’s signal contributions to our collective understanding of the literature of the Americas is undoubtedly his attention to the presence of indigenous cultures and their centrality to literary production. We could not understand the literature of the Americas, he rightly avers, without understanding this relation. But as in his reading of Girondo’s contemporary César Vallejo, Mariátegui overstates the significance of the indigenous in Girondo’s work. The weave is not “all Gaucho” — how could it be? Likewise, it’s hard to discern from the poems exactly what the translators mean by the “distinctly Argentine path” of Girondo’s poetry. Milongas (tango dance parties) and lunfardo, the lively argot of the underclasses, echo throughout, but amid Girondo’s global scenes these, too, arrive not precisely as “Argentine,” but as part of the alchemical hiss of many languages, including regional variations of Italian and Spanish; rural and street vernaculars; urban and prison slang; and the languages spoken by the vast population of West African slaves brought to Argentina in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries via Portuguese Brazil (the word “tango” itself is thought to be of African origin).

We might at the same time consider the vexed history of the gauchos, who, as the historian Richard Slatta explains, only became “Argentinized” through a violent process of war, land reform, settlement, and Europeanization in the 19th century, after which they were rapidly converted into generic literary and symbolic figures of national renown in the 20th. Indeed, by the time president Hipólito Yrigoyen was elected in 1916, he had been using lunfardo as a strategic part of his populist platform for some time. Historically, Slatta writes, gauchos “roamed the broad plains of the Río de la Plata through what is today Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.” Their mobility did not conform to, nor was it contained by, the nation-state. Nonetheless, as Samuel Thomas observes,

it is Argentina […] with which the figure of the gaucho will forever be most closely associated — where the gaucho has been marked by a historically contingent (and often politically expedient) “mixture of admiration and vituperation.” […] [I]t is Argentina that has done more than any other Latin America country to incorporate the gaucho into its arts, ideologies and myths.

What if, instead, we read Girondo’s poetry as catching the “postcard breeze” of a singular modernity, in which the gaucho and the Argentine alike have increasingly become, through historically specific forms of commodification and control, surface features, ornaments — or decals? In such a reading, Oswald de Andrade may not be the ideal analogue, because, as the Brazilian theorist Roberto Schwarz argues in “The Cart, the Tram, and the Modernist Poet,” the work of de Andrade in particular and Brazilian modernists more generally is everywhere marked by the impulse to allegorize, through innumerable combinations, the co-presence of the bourgeois (the tram) and the colonial or pre-bourgeois (the cart) into a story about the nation. Girondo, by contrast, is all tram. His poems “cannibalize” widely — French champagne; the poetry of D’Annunzio, Lorca, and Poe; the pictures of El Greco, Goya, and Bosch; jazz, a “bit of ‘fox-trot,’” flamenco, and the songs of gondoliers — but what their global scenes stage and “re-express,” exactly, remains an open question.

To begin to answer it, we might turn from de Andrade to Vallejo, whose life in Paris during the same years was often characterized by penury and struggle. When he was traveling between Paris and Madrid for the first time to retrieve a much-needed scholarship, Vallejo paused to reflect on the modernization of the region:

But finally this Basque coast, this mountain chain — what are they but city divisions, civil colonies overlapping one another, pieces of Paris, rags of London, metropolitan posts! Nothing. The fields of Europe, the seas of the old continent, these fields are salons; these seas are tuxedoed, urban, civilized, policed [polished]. The clearings between the oak trees are nothing but rough drafts or skeletons of small plazas; an islet between waves is but a monument on a stand. […] There are no longer any fields or seas in Europe; there are no temples or homes — a misconstrued and poorly digested form of progress has crushed them.

Vallejo here reworks Mariátegui’s notion that metropolitan modernity “polishes” the senses as well as Girondo’s take on the Latin American’s special ability to “digest, and digest well” the cosmopolitan foods he lustily consumes from a global menu. For Vallejo, modernization, in the guise of a “misconstrued and poorly digested form of progress,” has instead eaten history, ecology, and the key spaces of social reproduction — the temple and the home. Nowhere is free from the urban consciousness of the built environment. What remains undigested exists as draft or skeleton, waste that will eventually be built over or monumentalized and rubbed to a uniform luster.

Vallejo’s provocations raise questions about the complex intersections and divagations of Latin American, indigenous, national, international, and colonial formations across the transhemispheric spaces of the Americas. And here is where Girondo’s open letter and inventive poetry offer a counterweight to metropolitan polish — not through the lineaments of a gaucho or nationalist poetics, but through the surrogate figure of a friend who argues that the poet should continue to publish his work because “it is essential to have faith, as you have faith, in our phonetics, since it was us, the Americans, who oxygenated Castilian Spanish, making it a breathable language, a language one can use in daily life and write about ‘American’ things, in our everyday ‘American’ […]” In response to this ardent declaration, Girondo reflects:

And I blush a bit at the thought that perhaps I have faith in our phonetics and that our phonetics perhaps are so rude as to always be right […] and I’m left thinking about our homeland which has the impartiality of a hotel room, and I blush a little as I recognize how difficult it is to become attached to hotel rooms.           

Girondo is both his “inexorable and apocalyptic” friend and the faithful poet in this exchange, and he both believes in the potentialities of a “rude” (mal educada) “American” vernacular and is somewhat embarrassed by this belief. In his witty formulation, the homeland — la patria — is just another forgettable hotel room. In a similar vein, Vallejo once wrote that Bolivian provincials are more “Parisian” than their French counterparts, such that “Latin America is culturally and socially colonized by Paris.” Or, as he put it in another chronicle: “[I]n reality, Paris is […] a city common and identical to all cities, like Buenos Aires, Havana, Montevideo, and Mexico City.” The cities and countries in Girondo’s poems seem paradoxically common and identical, detailed and indiscriminate in this way. They become abstracted and planar at times, and then the poems speak of “the city” and the country as though they are describing a far more generalized phenomenon. Or, to put it another way, these are poems that keep their quotation marks about them.

“Express Train” perhaps offers the best example of the textured contradictions of the general and the particular. Over the course of the poem, which records a “twenty-seven hour delay,” the first four stanzas, along with the sixth and eighth, repeat. The opening stanzas appear in quatrains, suggesting a folk ballad of “the landscape’s grit,” a rural song of the obstinacy of a pre-bourgeois life full of “flocks of shadows,” “nags,” “haggard hogs,” and “Fields of stone, / where vines shoot / a menacing hand / out of the earth.” These are viewed through the “grimy windows” of the “first-class compartments,” where “the seats screw springs into us / and uncork our kidneys.” The ballad’s anonymous energies then get redistributed into longer catalogs of what can be heard, rather than seen, under the train’s dim “catacomb light”:

You can hear:
the song of women
peeling stew vegetables
for the day after tomorrow;
the snore of soldiers,
which assures us,
without knowing why,
that they’ve taken their boots off;
the numbers of the lottery summary
which all the passengers learn by heart
since they haven’t found anything else
to read at the newsstands.

Benedict Anderson once observed that the railway carriage made perceptible, for the first time, the modern sense of belonging to a nation while living within its political borders. We might extrapolate from this observation that the gauchos began the process of becoming Argentine in the last quarter of the 18th century, when the rail networks penetrated the Pampas and began serving expanding markets for coal, sugar, cattle, wine, and the influx of migrant labor that followed the formal end of slavery.

Published half a century later, “Express Train” suggests a different perception. The poem ends: “Spain? 1870? … 1923? …” — indicating not only frustration that the “express train” is not so express, but also that the uneven process of modernization has been so internalized as to throw the very Spanishness of Spain into question. The poem annotates the dissolution of the national allegory not only into other songs — of the women and snores inside the carriage, of the sounds the flanged wheels make outside as they “slide / over the frets of the tracks / to sing on their two strings” — but also into the lottery. The mass ceremony that binds the passengers together in an imagined community is not the news but the daily recitation of numbers. The sounds that begin and end the poem are thus one and the same: the new old song that everyone knows.

Whereas in the Brazilian modernists there is often a self-reflexive inquiry into these conditions and poetry’s ability — or lack thereof — to respond to them, Girondo rarely admits such self-skeptical moments. We never hear, for instance, the characters in these poems speak; they never become speaking subjects whose actual languages and words might occasion such questioning. Sometimes there’s a “you” or a “we,” but mostly the space of Girondo’s early poetry is a theater sketched in a kind of deft, witty, but absolute monologism of the third person. As in “Express Train,” his classed and gendered position as poet-tourist among the mostly English ladies who reappear throughout his Spain poems, for instance, is assumed but unconsidered.

All the same, across the polished surfaces of Decals, the question of what it means to create a “breathable language,” to write as one of “los americanos,” also feels exacting and ever-present, an essential part of the dramatic, sensual soundscape of modernity. In Brest, Girondo listens to the “notes” a piston makes, following their trajectories as they “waver in air” and “extinguish before they hit the ground.” In Mar del Plata, the sounds of the sea interact with those of the city until both become a “rhythm of digressions.” In Buenos Aires, the night music of crickets has been replaced by the song of leaky faucets and a silence that “hops in our ear.” In Paris, the poet hears “the humble and humiliated song of urinals tired of singing.” “Pedestrian” ends with a corner watchman rapping his baton, a violence that “halts every shiver in the city, so that you can hear in a single whisper, the whisper of all breasts brushing against one another.” In Decalcomania, the air becomes more haunted; in “Toledo,” he catches a “whiff of the Inquisition” and feels “the icy breath of ghosts”; the patios in “Siesta” are redolent of wisteria and a “sepulchral breath.”

These poems sketch the hazy hours that hover between dusk and dawn: the scenes are street-level, and the bodies of the people in them are semi-bared, half-open, or rather, continuously half-opening and half-closing, continuously exposing parts of themselves, ventilating nostalgias and conspiring desires, fears and thirsts, scents and fragments that play and intermingle, such that the language being invented moves as though borne along a common air. To breathe in the city in these poems is to hear, and to see, to taste, to touch, to smell — all at the same time. It is also to be a surface among surfaces, to be acutely aware that one is breathed in, cut up, parceled out, and reassembled by others — gazed at and gazed through.

“[T]his audience’s gaze has more density, more calories, than any other; it’s a corrosive gaze that penetrates the tights and parches the artists’ skin,” Girondo reflects in “Café-Concert.” “Excessive eyes cause wounds when they gaze,” he writes in “Sevillan Sketch.” And in Decalcomania, the “Venetian blinds” of the tourist hotels around the Alhambra are “polished / by all the eyes / that have looked through them!” In “Holy Week,” the long poem that concludes the collection, Girondo imagines “the women try[ing] out their Smith Wesson look […] at every mirror in the city.” If from the first poem to the last Girondo offers a poetry of the gaze, it is not of one loaded gaze or another, but of the play of gazes across the spaces of the city, and of the forces that interrupt or transform that play, redirecting or refusing it altogether.

As these remarkable translations suggest, Feinsod and Galvin are a dynamic duo. Their first books of scholarship came out last year, both from Oxford University Press. Feinsod’s The Poetry of the Americas: From Good Neighbors to Countercultures draws on an impressive range of archives to construct a kaleidoscopic cultural history — mostly aspirational, often fantastical, and always contradictory — of a poetry of the Americas in the 20th century. Galvin’s News of War: Civilian Poetry 1936–1945, with chapters on the understudied links between poetry and journalism in poets ranging from Vallejo to Gertrude Stein, examines “the problem of the person who observes from a distance.” Galvin has published several books of poetry, as well as a highly regarded translation of Raymond Queneau’s Hitting the Streets (Carcanet, 2013); her translations of Alejandro Albarrán Polanco will appear this year from Ugly Duckling Presse. It’s also worth praising Feinsod’s work at the Open Door Archive, a collaboration that has digitized several important but neglected magazine archives and made them freely available to the public. Open Letter Books, the nonprofit literary translation press housed at the University of Rochester, also deserves all the attention it gets, along with the Three Percent companion website, run by Chad Post, which focuses on international literature and, until recently, kept a translation database that aims to index every translation published in English since 2008. (The database is now updated in real time at Publishers Weekly, and searchable across genre, language, country, gender, publication year, and more.)

Throughout his career, Girondo continually reinvented the language, less to make it “new” than to make it more breathable, a project aspiring to a poetry of the Americas that continues today, not only in this excellent translation, but also, as Feinsod and Galvin point out, in Molly Weigel’s nimble translation of Girondo’s En la masmédula, published as In the Moremarrow in 2013 by Action Books, a crucial press for bringing the poetry of the Americas to an Anglophone readership. Galvin’s, Feinsod’s, and Weigel’s translations should also be understood as part of a lively and growing body of exciting work on the poetry of Americas, including recent translations of important women writers such as Carmen Boullosa, Norah Lange (who married Girondo), Gabriela Mistral, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Alfonsina Storni; Daniel Borzutsky’s translations of Galo Ghigliotto, Raúl Zurita, and Jaime Luis Huenún (all from Action Books); and a new omnibus anthology poetry of the Americas in the works co-edited by anthologist Jerome Rothenberg and the Mexican avant-garde poet Heriberto Yépez — among many, many others.

Decals thus joins the ranks of a series of provocative books. Together with the imaginative writing of contemporary poets and scholars situated in the United States, such as Edgar Garcia, the former poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, J. Michael Martinez, Uruyoán Noel, Safiya Sinclair, Carmen Giménez Smith, Mónica de la Torre, and Wendy Trevino, to name just a few, this work reinvigorates Girondo’s essential question for our own seemingly apocalyptic and inexorable present: what makes an “idioma respirable,” a language breathable, and why, and for whom?


Scott Challener is a poet and doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, where he works on the literature of the Americas.

LARB Contributor

Scott Challener is a poet and doctoral candidate at Rutgers University, where he works on the literature of the Americas. His essays and poems have appeared in Contemporary LiteratureLana Turner JournalGulf CoastThe RumpusMississippi Review, and elsewhere.


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