"I Play with Death": The Gothic Prose Poetry of Negroni, Di Giorgio, Berg and McSweeney

by on Jun.21, 2013

It’s interesting to hear again and again various people complain that poetry is dead or take credit for finally killing off poetry, or try to defend poetry, try to revive it (or do all of these things as once, as the Conceptualists). Capitalism killed poetry a long time ago, just as it is killing us. Poetry is a plague ground, and we are its bugs. Colorful bugs that make a crackling sound when you step on them.

Most poets out there it seems want to be “innovative” and “experimental.” They want to be the future, to be progressive, to lead the way to a robust future by teaching themselves “critical thinking,” “critical distance.” They want to demystify, reveal, uncover, subvert. They think they can critique themselves out of this slaughterhouse. They want to be strong and rigorous like Ron Silliman, not “soft” or “candy” or kitsch or decadent.

Too bad, because that’s where poetry’s at. We’ve always worn the shitty ghost costumes and the glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth.
It’s also not unreasonable that so many poets these days seem to want to distance themselves from violence and ornaments. Afterall we have drones and torture. So it’s nice to think of the artwork as “democratic” – the reader and the writer make it together, instead of like the governments and CEOs that act alone and dictatorially.

But art is inextricably bound up in violence.
It does violence to the reader and the reader does violence to the text.

So it both is and is not a paradox that a bunch of books and texts that have come out recently that have revived that now-fairly-dull genre of the PROSE POEM not by unmasking the art, by becoming anaesthetic, but precisely by becoming decadent, theatrical, pathologically manneristic, extravagantly 19TH CENTURY – as in Baudelaire and Poe, Lautremont and Rimbaud – and, yes, more GOTHIC.

An alternative to the democratic, utopian “community” of readers/writers can be seen in Joyelle McSweeney’s concept of the “Necropastoral” (which we and other have discussed at great length):

The Pastoral, like the occult, has always been a fraud, a counterfeit, an invention, an anachronism. However, as with the occult, and as with Art itself, the fraudulence of the pastoral is in direct proportion to its uncanny powers. A double of the urban, but dressed in artful, nearly ceremental rags and pelts, the Pastoral is outside the temporal and geographical sureties of the court, the urbs, the imperium itself, but also, implicitly, adjacent to all of these, entailing an ambiguous degree of access, of cross-contamination. (The Pastoral, after all, is the space into which the courtiers must flee in the time of plague, carrying the plague of narrative with them.)Moreover, the anachronistic state of the Pastoral is itself convulsive and self-contaminating, accessing both a Golden Age, a prehistory somehow concurrent with, even adjacent to, the present tense, and a sumptuous and presumptive afterlife, partaking of Elysian geography, weather, and pastimes.
A Velvet Underground.
Rather than maintaining its didactic or allegorical distance, the membrane separating the Pastoral from the Urban, the past from the future, the living from the dead, may and must supersaturated, convulsed, and crossed. This membrane is Anachronism itself.

Another name for it is Death, or Media.

The necropastoral forms a gothic counterpoint through which to re-read the pastoral idyll of the “community” of contemporary poetry. The poems I’m going to talk about are not “rigorous” and “innovative”; their membranes are spasming and convulsing…

The first book I’m thinking of is Argentinian poet Maria Negroni’s ultra-decadent book of prose poetry, Mouth of Hell (translated by Michelle Gil-Montero), which Joyelle discussed yesterday. The book is a rewriting (a “fan fiction”?) of Manuel Mujica Lainez’s eccentric novel Bomarzo, which deals with the life of 16th century Italian duke Pier Orsini, who built an extensive garden of monstrous sculptures. This sense of the poem as an infected, theatrical, grotesque, saturated space is key to all the texts I’m going to post today, but so is the sense of the text as a perversion or fan fiction, a derangement of a previous text.

You get a good sense of this sense of space in a poem like this one:

A lot could be said of my hideout. It is here where I ruminate and write, where I wield my inhuman right to dissent. Deep in the light, I draw my self-portrait: the high signs of a fearsome counterdance. Here, I play at life. Nestled like a hoard of jewels, I even possess what I’ve denied myself. In a word, I play with death. My den is motionless. Like the world, an untouchable relic within.


This kind of unabashed poeticism – theatrical and violent – reminds me of another of my favorite poets, the late Uruguayan poet Marosa Di Giorgio (we’ve written a lot about her over the past year or so), whose poetry obsessively details a poetic and incredibly violent necropastoral garden:

The gladiolus is a spear, its edge loaded with carnations, a knife of carnations. It jumps through the window, kneels on the table; it’s a vagrant flame, burning up our papers, our dresses. Mother swears that a dead man has risen; she mentions her father and mother and starts to cry.
The pink gladiolus opened up in our house.
But scare it, tell it to go.
That crazy lily is going to kill us.

(trans. Jeannine Marie Pitas, from The History of Violets)

It is as if the garden itself secretes the violence – in part by being art. Di Giorgio’s spaces – the home, the garden which surrounds, infiltrates and erupts out of the home – are convulsing, the borders and membranes always violated or violating.
And this space, violently saturated, also reminds me of Aase Berg’s Dark Matter, which I translated (and which Black Ocean published this year). Like the others, Berg’s writing brings back Rimbaud’s love of knick-knack and kitsch, intoxication, and saturation. And like Negroni, it’s a kind of fan fiction, perverting Nobel Laureates (already pretty weird) sci-fi epic Aniara (you can find Auden’s translation of this book on used-book web sites, it’s worth it, very weird).

…He also anaesthetizes certain muscles with small dozes of the pink powder. He dissects lovely plants and he creates a herborium of stamen-sprout and sticky hairy stems. This makes it possible to turn the poison outwards. To loosen the catastrophe from its position in the in-between space of our inner meeting. To spread it like pollen over android heaps and mute legions. At the surface of the facial skin whose carrier is Saskia Morena.

We have to get into the plant in order to release the paroxysm. The hybrid’s soft gland-growth has grown an Indonesian jungle tree on the inside of the woman’s body cocoon. Deaf Saskia will cleave the crowds in dresses made from a carefully selected satin. Then she’ll be the optical illusion that will carry our red heat above the cities where the war is blossoming. Out of the core the velvet butterflies explode strewing contact across Kermadec and Ylajali.

That is what I think when the keel strokes across the deep grave’s ruin palace and colonies of moray eels and corals. Out of the gland-darkness rise the fumes of burnt vanilla and molten ambergris; purple acorn bolts and pulsars throb wildly against the machine’s bottom mill.

A charge grows out of the steam from look to tunnel look.

Where the Gulf Stream turns in the tropics in toward Asia’s happy, sinking cities

(from “Ampules from the Lust Garden of Suffering”)

A lot of the stories in Joyelle’s new book Salamandrine: 8 Gothics create a similarly dystopic space. Like Aase’s book, Salamandrine presents a polluted, infected world that may be the future or the past. But most of all it’s the present as past. In Aase’s book it’s the entire intoxicated world; in Joyelle’s book, that whole world as ruined by capitalism tends to pour into a smaller space – not a garden as the first two books in this post, but usually a domestic space (often in a war zone or a disasterous rust-belt zone). However, unlike the conventional sense of the domestic space as a refuge, this domesticity is always already infected, polluted; and often this pollution becomes visible, palpable (monster, the introduction to Mouth of Hell tells us, comes from “to show”) through the vampirical/demonic figure of the child.

This infected domestic space becomes a motel room in one of my favorite pieces in this collection, The Warm Mouth, a rewriting of the great fairytale The Musicians of Bremen. This story/play ends with a brilliant vision of this saturated, grotesque, monstrous space I’ve been talking about:

Bentneck: What he saw inside was a burst spectacle, a room filled with stinking pus, flaps of skin and tissue driven into the walls, a room which pulsed and seemed to be digesting a horrible gallimaufry, the fur, bones, and innards of an animal rotted beyond recognition, a boy so skinny his ribs, wrists and legbones had finally splintered through his flesh, a girl with bulging eyes and wrung neck, a peltless dog whose every muscle was being slowly worked from the bone, a suppurating wound without a body left to speak of, bits of shell, tooth, hair, tongue, claw, and fat bobbing and resurfacing in the fuming fluid which bathed everything, bathed even his own eyes. Then he closed his eyes, opened his mouth, and he took it all into his mouth, the room and the world, the causes and their outcomes, the couch and the game, the gun and the stash, the fix and the flesh, the anger and the relief, the hope and the violence, the illusion of adulthood, chief among which is childhood, the growth and the decay, the decay and the rot, he took it into his mouth until his mouth was warm and leaked a little and bulged at the lip like a piteous frog’s.

This is Beauty speaking, with my warm mouth.

Joyelle discusses the necropastoral and motherhood in a great interview with the Big Other blog:

This book of mine is a war against capitalism through the body of the culturally vaunted (but actually exploited) figure of the mother. Here the mothers are totally undone, desperate, weaponized, vacant, bloodthirsty, deranged, or ingenious as hell. None of them is what you’d call wholesome—and neither is the writing.

Motherhood made it clear to me that there is just no way to survive the capitalist endgame that is the Anthropocene. Capitalism hearts mothers and it hearts poison and its hearts fear. As a new mother I was always being sold products to make my baby daughter “safer,” such as a crib, a cushion, or a bottle-sterilizing device, which would be recalled weeks later because it posed a strangulation hazard, caused cancer, or was covered in lead. To become a mother is to become a delivery system for such corporate and environmental poisons. This is literally the case since the chemical poisons in our environment—like pesticides, flame retardants, even jet fuel—pass so handily into breast milk.

So Salamandrine is largely a toxic and fatal book, but also a little intoxicated, full of novelties and chemical mirages and costumes and pretty language and dream actions. I’d say the meta-thesis is: things are so bad on earth that you have to freak out and be a vampire—or a revolutionary, or a poet—just to endure it. Therefore each piece employs a “B-movie” or subliterary genre – vampire tale, bodice-ripper, Green Zone thriller, etc.— that is not destined to be literarily “able-bodied” or to propagate literary convention or to “survive.”

More than anything, what I love about these books is that they go all the way, they are theatrical and morbid, the are forcefully and violently affecting. They are crazy lillies and they kill me. The genre of “prose poem” has long since become something formulaic; I am interested in how by going back to the 19th century these poets have given the genre a new-old power.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    Excellent post, Johannes.

    Personally, I like the old: silent movies, early recordings, dead religions, dying religions, languages only three or four people can still speak, art forms that are out of fashion, recipes that sound disgusting to contemporary taste, ledges covered in pigeon shit in New York or Chicago. Sometimes there seems to be a sense of the future as a blinding white light, or a clearing ground, but I think the future will be just as crowded and ghostly and uncanny as the past.

    The only interesting future to me is the pretend one, the fake one (the “futuristic” clothes and hair of punks in the late 70s/early 80s, for example)…


  2. Toby Altman

    Thanks for a great post Johannes, which helpfully intervenes in my (hasty!) understanding of the necropastoral. I suppose I had thought of it as an invented taxonomy, rather than a theory of poetry. (Taxonomy bad, taxidermy good). I sympathize with the anti-utopian, anti-political character of the necropastoral, as you describe it here: why would one want poetry to be political when the political is precisely what needs to be vomited?

    I suppose I want to suggest that rigor itself could be a category of necropastoral excess: too much rigor, or the wrong kind of rigor, could mark the seam of a poem’s hyperbolic deadness. I’m thinking, for instance, of rhyme. In appropriate quantities, rhyme is a form of civility, naturalness, patriarchal closure. But too much rhyme bends the poem into the incantatory, the childish, the comedic — and so teaches us that a certain deadness lies beneath even the most manicured rhymes. My concern, I suppose, is this: I would like the necropastoral to be a general account of the resources of (pastoral) poetry, rather than a description of an aesthetic. Cheers,


  3. Johannes

    Great points.

    I think the way Joyelle uses “necropastoral” in her critical writing tends to be less of what you call “descriptive” here, though less about “resources” as something less productive, more convulsive. So that in her forthcoming book, there’s stuff about Wilfred Owen for example. It’s less about a certain aesthetic affiliation.

    In this post I am I suppose hijacking the concept for the purpose of describing a connection between different recent books and begin to think about what I like about them.

    I do agree with your rhyme description. To a certain extent. Rhyme/meter is still overwhelmingly used to show a kind of mastery over the material, to give us a sense that there is indeed a tennis net that we’re hitting the balls across. But nonetheless I love the idea of rigor brought to its own ridiculous wrongness. I immediately think of that Auden prologue poem to The Orators: “Where are you going said reader to writer.” A poem that seems to tip-toe on the fence.