Decals by Oliverio Girondo
Translated by Rachel Galvin and Harris Feinsod
Open Letter Books, 2018; 162 pp
Reviewed by Zack Anderson
Although the poems in Decals, a new translation of the Argentine Modernist poet Oliverio Girondo’s first two books, are drawn from locales ranging from Buenos Aires to Venice to Dakar and beyond, the landscapes that this book calls to mind are the eerily flat tableaux of Giorgio de Chirico. The Italian Surrealist’s paintings possess a certain flatness, in the sense that objects and architecture are reduced to their most minimal elements of line and color. His paintings are unsettling because they rely more on suggestion than representation. Likewise, through surreal vignettes, quick-change imagery, and motifs of shadows and simulacra, Girondo’s early poetry evokes a similarly lugubrious atmosphere and cements his position as an essential Modernist writer. Decals collects Girondo’s 1922 debut Twenty Poems to be Read on the Streetcar, primarily prose poems, with 1925’s Decalcomania, providing an important look into the early stages of the poet’s career.
As translators Rachel Galvin and Harris Feinsod point out in their detailed introduction, Girondo’s poems often engage the modern urban environment as a site of imitation, simulation, or spectacle. Intensifying the effect of flatness, many of the pieces in Twenty Poems are accompanied by Girondo’s own watercolor illustrations, often depicting figures with faces obscured and body parts exaggerated. Lines like “The city is a cardboard imitation of a porphyry city” or “How real, the landscape that looks fake!” seem self-aware of the mediating poetic technology which collapses three-dimensional perspectives onto the flat plane of the page. Interestingly, the agency that produces these poetic illusions is not located in the speaker (as in the flâneur’s sophisticated gaze, for instance), but is rather an effect of the external world’s architecture. We can see this transfer of agency in the poem “Chioggia”: “as the moon disintegrates in the canal, it pretends to be a school of silver fish swarming around bait.” In “Sketch in the Sand,” the destabilizing effect of the simulation extends to the book itself when Girondo writes, “[f]locks of seagulls feign the broken flight of a sheet of white paper.”
Another striking aspect of Girondo’s early work is his ambiguous treatment of the relationship between the gaze and the image. Although his speakers often replicate a quintessentially Modernist style of objectification, Girondo is often cognizant of the damaging aspect of this gaze, as in his observation that “[e]xcessive eyes cause wounds when they gaze.” In the poem “Café-Concert,” Girondo observes the tyrannical power of the spectator when he writes, “[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.” However, in “Street Note,” the balance shifts and the formerly static image takes on a more active and destructive character: “I think about where I will store the kiosks, streetlamps, passersby that enter through my pupils. I feel so full I fear I’ll burst... my shadow separates from me and suddenly throws itself under the wheels of a streetcar.”
The shadow’s suicide in “Street Note” reveals another important element of Girondo’s writing—the ambivalence of the marketplace. The paradisal arcades of Baudelaire and Benjamin give way to an animate cityscape that often takes on a more predatory relationship to its human subjects. The poem “Pedestrian” indicates a mutual surveillance between the infrastructure and the passerby:
One arm fastened to the wall, an extinguished streetlamp takes a convex view of people who pass in motorcars.
The gaze of passersby dirties the shop window displays, slims down the legs that dangle beneath the Victorias’ hoods.
By the curb, a kiosk just swallowed a woman.
Unlike Baudelaire’s flâneur, who enjoys a sense of autonomy within the marketplace, in “Pedestrian,” the border between consumer and commodity becomes disturbingly unclear and the woman is literally consumed by the apparatus of the market.
Girondo distills the novel experiences of modernity into the emblem of the decal, exemplified in the ten long poems that make up the second book collected here. 1925’s Decalcomania signals a shift in Girondo’s poetics, with more emphasis on line breaks and cinematic imagery depicting travel. Galvin and Feinsod note that “Girondo employed the decal as a metaphor for a verbal construct, imagining the poem as a medium onto which the poet’s sudden visual impressions are transferred.” At the same time, the poems in Decalcomania preserve the same kind of filmic flatness, since the decal is constrained by its two-dimensionality. The image becomes a kind of viral glyph, transferred from author to reader through the poem’s adhesive technology.
Through its interplay of Futurist and Surrealist aesthetics, its sense of cosmopolitan curiosity, and its attention to reframing modes of engagement with the modern metropolis, Decals is an absolutely necessary volume for scholars of Modernism at large and a welcome comparison to Girondo’s more experimental later work. As an extra benefit for bilingual readers, Galvin and Feinsod present their beautifully made translation alongside Girondo’s original Spanish poems. From a general reader’s perspective, though, Decals’ attractiveness lies in its surprising and memorable imagery, such as this refrain in “Express Train”:
The carriages slide
over the frets of the tracks
to sing on their two strings
the landscape’s grit.