“In the air there hung a map gone mad.” –Marosa di Giorgio
In her groundbreaking book The Madness of Vision: On Baroque Aesthetics, Christine Buci-Glucksmann writes of the “[s]peculum, mirror, omnivoyant world—all the topoi of the Baroque [that] determine the point of departure for the incomplete ontology of Merleau-Ponty’s final work in which madness in vision creates Being.” Carnation and Tenebrae Candle, Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio’s 1979 collection, newly translated by Jeannine Marie Pitas, activates the ambiguities of the baroque and its “madness in vision” to explore the melancholia of girlhood and to map sites of resistance to patriarchal aesthetic regimes.
This collection—di Giorgio’s ninth book—continues in the vein of her earlier books, four of which were published under the title I Remember Nightfall, (also translated by Pitas and published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2017). Pitas, a prolific translator, has been engaged with di Giorgio’s work since 2006. It seems appropriate to read Carnation and Tenebrae Candle in translation, which, through its celebration of multiple versions and proliferation of surfaces, seems like a baroque operation in its own right. Di Giorgio’s work favors long prose poem sequences, punctuated by occasional lineated stanzas. There is often a vague narrative structure, though the individual poems often function more as surrealistic, self-contained vignettes. In this collection, the loose narrative revolves around the young speaker’s impending marriage, which threatens the hermetic, magical world of “the farm” of her childhood.
In “Scopic Regimes of Modernity,” Martin Jay describes the baroque’s “opposition to the lucid, linear, solid, fixed, planimetric, closed form of the Renaissance […] the baroque was painterly, recessional, soft-focused, multiple, and open.” With its articulation of a “fixed,” stable, “closed form,” Cartesian perspectivalism engendered the modern subject and marked it as white and male. But as Buci-Glucksmann points out, “[v]ision dispossesses the seer, positions the seer ‘outside the self,’ and brings the seer to ecstasy, to the noisy silence of language, or to the madness of love.” That is to say, the baroque dynamites the narrow version of the stable subject that Cartesian perspectivalism depends on. One of di Giorgio’s clearest articulations of this “multiple and open” character in this book captures the baroque’s ambiguity while simultaneously linking it to childhood:
………….What are those formations that all of a sudden appear
everywhere, in a corner of the air, a hideout in the wall?
………….I’ve been seeing them since I was a girl.
………….They keep appearing, every so often.
………….Do they look like cancer, honeycombs, dentures?
………….I can’t explain it, I can’t tell anyone anything; no one else
sees this, and they wouldn’t understand.
………….How they form the little squares, and above them, some
cones, and once again, little squares and cones, and everything
welded together by threads, so many threads that give them even
more luster, more power!
………….I am cursed, condemned to this.
………….And there’s a certain pleasure in this matter.
Here, the speaker observes “formations” that resemble “cancer, honeycombs, dentures” and in their multiplicity resist subordination to the speaker’s understanding. It’s hard not to think of Leon Battista Alberti’s veil in “everything welded together by threads.” The speaker’s visions of baroque “formations” exist in tension with the totalizing threads. The experience of these formations is also gendered and linked to childhood: “I’ve been seeing them since I was a girl.” Finally, to return to Buci-Glucksmann’s idea of “madness in vision,” the speaker’s experience remains ambivalent, a mixture of pleasure and pain: “I am cursed, condemned to this. / And there’s a certain pleasure in this matter.”
The “madness of vision” also plays out in this book in passages that suggest that the very act of looking at objects makes them unstable. Buci-Glucksmann observes that the “baroque eye, with its attention to multiplicity and discontinuity, is distinguished precisely by its infinite production of images and appearances.” In other words, vision is not only disrupted by baroque surfaces, but vision actively produces more baroque surfaces. We find this in the constant metamorphosis of objects in di Giorgio’s text: “Sometimes, as a child I snatched something from the neighbors’ land, a mother-of-pearl onion, a bunch of medlars. But as soon as you steal those things, they change. The onion is a decanter, a vase; it has lily stems, and it blossoms if I look at it long enough. The medlars swell, they open halfway, they turn into sensitive lollipops, hard to tame.” Consistent with the double character of the baroque eye, the objects begin to warp “if I look at [them] long enough.”
Cartesian perspectivalism works by snaring the object of the gaze in the grid of reason. In contrast, the baroque is like a shattered mirror, a mise en abîme, multiplying the gaze to infinity. Severo Sarduy describes this concept of proliferation in “The Baroque and the Neobaroque,” writing that “[a]nother Baroque mechanism of artificialization consists in obliterating the signifier of a given signified without replacing it with another […] but rather by a chain of signifiers that progresses metonymically and that ends by circumscribing the absent signifier, tracing an orbit around it.” In Carnation and Tenebrae Candle, the most striking instance of proliferation is di Giorgio’s use of flowers, of which “there were so many that it seemed there were none.” We find uncanny, anthropomorphic apparitions “filled with flowers, from one end to another. / Sometimes, they walked on land like people; other times, / they flew through the air, slowly.” Magnolias bleed when they are cut. Roses “of lilac velvet, red velvet” emit perfume that makes the speaker lose consciousness. We encounter a “tree that always gave off foam”—a baroque architecture in itself.
While vision is central to the baroque experience, the baroque’s bodily aspect comes through in this book as well (Pitas’ translation of “clavel” into “carnation” establishes this fleshiness from the outset). As Martin Jay observes, “baroque visual experience has a strongly tactile or haptic quality, which prevents it from turning into the absolute ocularcentrism of its Cartesian perspectivalist rival.” For di Giorgio, this haptic quality often manifests in upwellings of the grotesque, usually centered around food or sex. One interesting example occurs during a family dinner scene in which the speaker is served “a plate of peas, butterflies. The butterflies looked like they were still alive. I fought over them with my sister and my cousin, ‘That one’s bigger,’ ‘I want the colorful one!’ ‘That one…’ And we always ate them between sobs and laughter.” We also find a baroque eroticism when di Giorgio grafts sexuality onto the vegetable world, like “the peach trees, which at night were filled with tiny red genitals, and their lewd whispering that wouldn’t let us sleep” or “the strawberry gardens; in the gray branches, those red, hairy lips like genitals.”
Di Giorgio grafts human sexuality onto the vegetable world, but the vegetable world also exerts its influence over the human. As the book progresses, we also find that many of the central female characters are named for flowers: Doña Lise (LIS); Maria Pepita; the sisters Flamenco Rose, Grapefruit Rose, and Solitude with Roses; “Hilda” whose name “sounds like a flowering vegetable; the speaker’s grandmother Rose. In the poems, the floral explosion on every page seems to become a metonym for femininity. At times, the flowers seem to indicate a sense of solidarity among women that is constantly threatened by the patriarchal order, like when the speaker tries to “calm herself” by thinking “of her grandmother off in the kitchen, making little cakes, burning like roses.” Elsewhere, the flowers appear more as a sign of an idealized femininity, which in its proliferation impedes the speaker’s movements and drowns her in blossoms:
…………..I freed myself from the jasmines. Before, in December, they
grew thick, like vineyards. It was nearly impossible to go to school;
even so, Mamá made me put on my organdy dress and bows, and
she pushed me among those flowers that didn’t allow for anything
but their madness, their energy, their passionate, immaculate life.
Their perfume was such that you could touch it like tulle or foam;
sometimes, after being so white, it became silver, even blue.
In addition to the reappearance of foam, this passage also identifies tulle—a word that appears at least a dozen times in the book—as a baroque structure. Here tulle is tactile but also compared to perfume, both material and phantasmagoric. Tulle resembles foam in its interlapping waves, its proliferating architecture. More importantly, wedding dresses are often made of it. The appearance of tulle in this collection often coincides with imagery of entrapment: “I can’t abandon these robes, this sheet. There is no way out of this tulle.” At other times, tulle appears in proximity to weddings or descriptions of enforced femininity. Near the end of the collection, the speaker meets a character known only as “the Lord”:
I saw his bouquets of amethysts
and his gaze of tulle,
and we fell in love,
even though, at times, I forget
and draw back,
but, he is there and here,
with a cup of honey
and a thistle
that tells me to follow him.
He governed the farm and the city.
Now he is going
and I with him.
Here, the Lord’s bewitching effect on the speaker is a direct result of his “gaze of tulle,” which initiates a courtship that turns coercive through the instruments of the “cup of honey” and the thistle. Buci-Glucksmann gives us the “first theorem of the Baroque: the more one sees, the less one is; the more one is, the less one sees.” Entangled in the baroque proliferation of “bouquets of amethysts” and the Lord’s “gaze of tulle,” the speaker seems to lose her autonomy, implied in the syntax of “he is going / and I with him.”
Although di Giorgio tends to associate femininity with stillness, death, and masks (her reference to Emily Dickinson as her “poetic twin” is illuminating), she also sketches out spaces of solidarity and resistance to patriarchal authority among the girls in the book. Consider the sisters Flamenco Rose, Grapefruit Rose, and Solitude with Roses: “They loved each other; they formed an unreal family, and from those repeated loves came brief, fugitive pregnancies (that went undetected by their parents) from which ghosts were born, small monsters of tulle, that immediately flew and lifted themselves up, but they remained anxious, hopeful until the last moment, when they inevitably fell down from the light.” Here, we might see an example of what Pitas describes in “¿Adónde Voy? Errantry as Resistance in the Poetry of Marosa di Giorgio” as di Giorgio’s search for “an Edenic, pre-Babelian wholeness from which all experience comes,” an attempt that “results in one failure after another.” The sisters’ “unreal family” does function as both a bastion of feminine solidarity and an alternatively imagined family unit, but it also produces “small monsters of tulle,” which again resurrect the text’s ambient anxiety about marriage.
On several occasions elsewhere in the text, di Giorgio describes a kind of cryptic language shared among women. Sometimes this speech is marked by a baroque sense of ornament and improvisation, like “the conversations of aunts and grandmothers, who always talked backwards, or changed one syllable.” In another place, this language is seemingly an inherent feature of the farm’s magic landscape: “There exists a most beautiful language whose words look like little houses made out of mushrooms. The loveliest runic letters pale beside it. I discovered it one afternoon, and not even that far away […] I saw the language, and I immediately understood it, as if it had always been my own.” Or the hybrid fox-dogs, who “were speaking to [Mamá] again. […] In a fugitive’s tongue, with some four-letter words, but it seemed like our language.” In moments like these we might see glimmers of Hélène Cixous’ notion of “écriture féminine,” where “women return from afar, from always: from ‘without,’ from the heath where witches are kept alive; from below, from beyond ‘culture’; from their childhood which men have been trying desperately to make them forget, condemning it to ‘eternal rest.’” In this sense, the baroque provides an ideal proving ground for this alternative language. As Sarduy observes, “Baroque space is superabundant and wasteful. In contrast to language that is communicative, economic, austere, and reduced to its function as a vehicle for information, Baroque language delights in surplus, in excess, and in the partial loss of its object.”
Bursting with burning roses, foam, tulle, masks, disturbing gazes, and esoteric languages, Carnation and Tenebrae Candle participates in the baroque’s operations of concealment and revelation to test the limits of compulsory femininity and unsettle the Cartesian definition of the seeing subject. Pitas writes of the speaker, “[h]er motion may be limited, purposeless, futile, and yet, she has to keep moving. It is a compulsion analogous to her compulsion to remember. And this unceasing motion, this non-goal-directed kinesis, ultimately creates a space of its own, a realm that cannot be dominated by any discourse of political power.” It is in its “non-goal-directed kinesis,” its non-teleological proliferation, its superabundance and wastefulness, that the baroque generates space for alternative worlds.
Zack Anderson holds an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. His book reviews appear in American Microreviews & Interviews, Harvard Review, and Kenyon Review. His poems have recently been published in Fairy Tale Review, The Equalizer, White Stag, and others. He currently lives in Athens, Georgia where he is a PhD student at the University of Georgia. @ZackAanderson