A Blood-Shot Ruby: The Disappeared & “Mouth of Hell” by María Negroni, translated by Michelle Gil-Montero

by on Jun.20, 2013

[…]In these wastelands of intimacy and exile, I find nothing, not even the blood-shot ruby I swiped as a child from my father’s icy dream. Wide terrain between two blue oceans: my biography and my park of monsters, who I’ve despised, envied, admired, and loved, deep down, terribly.

[Nada veo en esos páramos de intimidad y destierro. Ni siquiera el rubí sangriento que robé en la infancia al sueño helado de mi padre. Largo territorio que insiste entre dos mares azules: mi biografía, mi parque de monstruos que odié, envidié, admiré, amé, en el fondo, tanto.]


María Negroni’s Mouth of Hell is well emblematized by that ‘blood-shot ruby’, not worshipped but ‘swiped’. This little volume is like a decadent novella, an intake of breath before a heroine’s death-aria, a continuously restaged opening scene. It burns with Pater’s infamous “gem-like flame”, an intensity stoked by infernal paradox, throwing a mysterious, self-consuming light.  The series is made of extremely brief prose poems, set in little vitrine-like boxes. The poems themselves seem to have plucked words out of the blank air and to arrange them in strange tableaux in which language itself acts paradoxically (or insanely). In Negroni’s hand, language may lounge and rage, collapse and expand, at once languid and acute:

Strange impatience of horses. Jumbled crossbows, arquebusses. Some sort of luxurious circus or royal company. It’s always like this, the beginning of a new militia: the hardest men, the most virile and beautiful, the best disposed to sexual combat, to wrestling one-on-one with death. Often a hand bedecked with rings. Short in the way of chivalry. Conclaves drag on, and that deft sadness of acrobats.

Such acrobatics among the syllables, and the larger acrobatic of replacing  a long winding sentence with a sudden, opaque emblem (“Often a hand bedecked with rings.”) is even more astonishing when one recalls that this is a work of translation; Michelle Gil-Montero is in fact, invisibly and before your lying eyes, double-looping this Latinate reverie into a bewitched, bewitching English.

Mouth of Hell is a book about a place, but that place is both singular and several, actual and allusive. To put it briefly, this book, which seems hovering on the precipice of an event about to occur, is actually tremulous with retrospection: it re-inhabits a roguish mid-twentieth century [Argentinian] novel, Bomarzo by Manuel Mujica Láinez, which itself reimagines a 16th century [Italian] duke who built himself a park-of-monsters or grotesqueries. Translator Gil-Montero informs us that Negroni’s entire sequence takes place at the moment of the literary character’s death. But the tremulous temporal coordinates of this work– stretched across time and occurring in an instant, looking radically back to earlier works while occupying a fast-elapsing present tense– also enact trauma, and, particularly, the temporal trauma of Latin America’s lost generations, and specifically, of course, Argentina’s disappeared.

The disappeared are both a living memory and a non-thought, an erased generation whose death and gravesites may, in many cases, never be known. The subtraction of this generation makes all subsequent time aberrant, non-linear, glitched, abhorrent. In this sense their loss is truly traumatic, an event which can  never be over because its exact parameters and coordinates can never be known. This is an event whose magnitude can never be bounded, not only because there is in many cases no historical record but because the loss is of a magnitude beyond accounting. There can also, of course, be no retribution, no redemption or reparation of this loss, no way of assuaging or lessening its unthinkable magnitude.

In this sense the paradoxical dimensionality of los desaparecidos forms the flexing, vertiginous field of this book. Their paradoxically present absence is both superimposed on the sequences and seems to occur as its outer limit, the non-place of blackness and erasure the sequence is driving towards. Thus the speaker is at times  bereft, marooned, expressing an adjacency to an action that seems to be happening elsewhere, and at times occupies a position of conviviality with a ghost-like “She”. Often these contradictions happen on facing pages. On page 60,

The rush of words comes unannounced: all at once, jacked into flight like a heraldic bird, mystery feathered in shadow. In this pandemonium of pomp and poverty, as if these past could pardon us, a silver presence : a fistful of cantos to measure the span from sword to soul. All lined up, indelible geometry like lightsome ships set for the great journey.

Across the gutter on page 61, “Surrounded by deep night, after hurrying through the earthly day, they falter. Place and date have fallen back quietly. Place and date have fallen back quietly. Of their private fictions, nothing remains but an almost-island, the saga of a labyrinth with no outcome.”

Yet even in this latter vision, hope finds a way to spark, in however inverted a proportion: “The enamored splinter refuses to surrender.” And so we feel weirdly hopeful, as if we have come into a flickering gathering place of the lost—even if this means joining the lost in the grave.

Mouth of Hell has been designed by Andrew Shuta in a slim, compact edition with a startling blood-red ruby cover and with the complete English and Spanish texts arranged in separate series within. It is as transporting, contradictory, beautiful and troubling as any journey toward this most infernal of thresholds should be.


1 comment for this entry:
  1. Derek White

    Just read this last week & loved it, thanks for recommending it to me at AWP. Interesting in light of los desparecidos, hadn’t thought about that. And now i need to go back to Rome to see the garden of monsters in Bomarzo which never came across my radar while i was there.