Antonio Gamoneda was only five years old when the Spanish Civil War began in 1936. He came of age during the Franco regime, a time when fear, ideological repression, incarcerations, and executions were commonplace. It is no surprise that someone who experienced such a world would not take the representations of reality for granted. In Book of the Cold Gamoneda tears away the curtain of appearances that clothe the world. In doing so, Gamoneda risks the articulation of what cannot be said, even to the very end, despite chaos, pain, or the oncoming cold of night. Words are destabilized in this terrain, where light itself seems always muted and where the poems are in constant negotiation between the visible and the invisible, leaving the poet “traveling from the visible to the invisible,” searching for a way out of despair. Gamoneda’s strategy is to fight against the conventional frame of reality: “Its glut of reality burns in your hands.” For the poet, it’s the only way the invisible makes itself known. This kind of “seeing” involves a de-centering of the self.
With his echo of Virgil’s Georgics in the title of the first section, Gamoneda writes, “Sometimes I see the mountain radiance above the great sadness machines,” and furthermore, “Immensity is short on meaning below the silent eagles.” These two excerpts create a tension that is central to the book. The radiance is dimmed by the materialistic view of the world, the faith in machines, technology and the false idea that history is progressive. Perhaps the human is approaching the end, as technology envisions a world where man is no longer necessary. Man is being transformed in an irreversible way in this age of digital technology, when there are more cell phones on the earth than people. The very fact of their existence alters nature in a fundamental way and creates our dependence on the machine. For Gamoneda, the light is sometimes visible on the peak of the mountain, and it appears to point to some beyond; and yet inevitably the poet falls short in his ability to see this reality. The immensity is likened rather to an abyss.
In one respect, these poems are a testament to the speed and complexity of life; sometimes the experience of reading the poems is like seeing a blur of light and darkness, alternating between obscurity and clarity: they are like a mirror held up to the fragmentation of the world, a world that is ultimately indecipherable; and can the poet even know or recognize himself in this world:
Your name and face are indecipherable; maybe you didn’t exist,
still you’ve reached old age and make impure motions, indecipherable too.
The figures of the mother and the lover, referred to in several poems, seem to flicker between the visible and invisible, too, and finally remain unknowable, though suggestive like the stillness of a river. The darkness threatens to overtake everything, to silence speech and the possibility of understanding. And this realization leads to rage: “Like rage in the liver the blind words hidden in themselves. There are black knots on your tongue. No / hope or sound.” Desire often leads to a sense of failure, loss. Can we ever get what we really want? What does it mean to have risked everything? We come back to ourselves, to our masks, and are grounded again, localized, put in our place:
This hopeless pleasure, what does it finally mean in you?
Will, too, the music end?
Often, it is true, though, that we get what we want—or do we? Did what we choose effect anything? At times it really seems like it did, or we tell ourselves this. Our memories are not reliable though we want them to be.
In the following poem, Gamoneda’s achieves a kind of erotic lyricism; but here the lover is insubstantial and perhaps he is relating a memory:
Your tongue is here; in my mouth
like a fruit in the melancholy.
Take pity on my mouth: sip, lick,
my love, the shadow.
There is a physicality in the relation between lover and beloved (shadow), that the poet achieves by using the words, “sip, lick.” But the erotic is overshadowed by death: “… you weigh on my heart and I feel you on my lips like a dark honey as I make my way toward death.” And understanding, trust, is a matter of sadness rather than pleasure: “Our bodies understand one another with more and more sadness …” In these poems, disembodied figures populate a world of shadows, and there are half-remembered dreams which haunt the poet along with memories of love’s agony:
In the dampness you love me
And turn blue in your nipples. You speak
Softly upon my lips and return
To your melancholy prison.
Gamoneda’s poems exist in a terrain between sleep and waking; it is a dark, silent and cold world. Gamoneda speaks of a “music of limits:” the poems chart an interior experience that shows the limits of what is sayable: “I sleep with eyes open before a white territory forsaken by words.” Reading Antonio Gamoneda’s Book of the Cold, one gets the sense of a fallen world, where meaning no longer coheres to things: “All the springs flow in another age // and you’re driven mad by the purity of the empty cup.” For the poet, as for Tantalus, the thirst is constant, and there is no relief.
In a very real sense, we can never escape ourselves or understand another person. And there is no hidden symmetry or totality governing the world, and everything proves to be an illusion; there is only, the “old-age drunkenness: light in the light. Alcohol // hopeless.” These lines make me think of patrons of an afterhours bar, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, mulling over their lives, their past mistakes, their failures, roads taken or not, while drinking from a flask of whiskey: “… You / will awake in oblivion.” The poet is going rounds with the ghosts of the past. But there is a stalemate. There’s no winner and no loser in this game, just the night and the silence, the cold, to greet the poet alone with his memories. But he is also at war with himself, and it is a war he cannot win. Time is against him. The cycles of nature come and go just like fashions: “yesterday and today are now the same day in my heart.” But perhaps something does remain, and yet it is not something the poet can see. It is not visible, not something he can partition out with various knowledges. It cannot be analyzed, only felt: “… my passion wouldn’t exist if I knew its name.”
There is always in Gamoneda a search for the ineffable, despite failure and despair; there is an overriding belief in the nonexistent, the invisible, that which cannot be measured or categorized. Often he comes up against a wall. Though, in one respect, all the blurs or scratches in the experience of reality can produce a kind of “spiritual light” that “is not transparent but “impure” as against the attempts to regulate the experience using the speech of “ordinary reality.” Perfection seems to be the goal of all media. Digital space is immaterial and pure, but behind that there is nothing; time in the digital world is theoretically infinite but it is a false infinity without any relation to the spiritual. Our sense of time and space is completely destabilized with the creation of a seamless digital world where there is no loss, no time wasted, no decay, and thus, against nature and illusory. Reality itself has changed into something else. Consciousness has altered in the digital age. We have become less aware of our surroundings, less conscious of the people we encounter, less conscious of nature.
For Gamoneda, nothing will remain, but the sound of the wind: “No one returns from // the distant city; only the wind over the last traces.” And the coming of the night which cannot be stopped. All must eventually face the final reckoning with a force beyond human comprehension. But one must have no hope and no fear: “Now I contemplate the sea. I am unafraid and hopeless.” There will be nothing to remember as everything fades away, as one ages, and relationships come to nothing, and even friendships become strained to the point of contention. One is only left with memories. But there is a kind of liberation in not being bound by anything, where you remember nothing, regret nothing, move as if outside life itself, not bound by anything anyone has ever said, or one’s memories, or any acquired knowledge: “I loved all the losses. / The nightingale still echoes in the invisible garden,” in some elsewhere that cannot be seen. It is as if the poet desires to enters oblivion, sees it before him as a widening abyss, until he is nothing at all, stripped of everything; perhaps then he is just a pure light entering the final darkness that will consume us all: “his memory burned in the wind country, in the whiteness of forsaken sanatoriums.” And yet, this suffering does reveal a kind of truth: “Grab on to the agony flower. Still // there is dampness in the ashes you love.” In the final poem of the book, Gamoneda writes, “I loved the disappearances and now the last face has left me. / I have moved through the white curtains: there is now only light within my eyes.” Gamoneda has achieved a kind of transcendence from the bottom; it is by stripping the false appearances of reality that one’s eyes are flooded with light; in fact, blinded with light.
For the poet, any form of authority must be resisted. And in the end, after all is lost, and seemingly only despair remains, something remains, there, in the cold, in the drifts of snow that cover the garden, in the silence: “Don’t die more in me, flee my tongue / Give me your hand to go into the snow.” With the final poem, I image an overwhelming brightness that erases even the words. There is nothing left to see. The spectacle of the world is over. Nothing but light; everything is light. The poems in Gamoneda’s Book of the Cold can help us sense these intimations of something else, not another form of authority, but something other than ourselves; it can only be seen clearly in the darkness. But that does not mean this light is any less real.
Book of the Cold, by Antonio Gamoneda. New York, NY: World Poetry Books, May 2022. 128 pages. $16.00, paper.
Peter Valente is a writer, translator, and filmmaker. He is the author of twelve full length books. His most recent books are a collection of essays on Werner Schroeter, A Credible Utopia (Punctum, 2022), and his translation of Nerval, The Illuminated (Wakefield, 2022). Forthcoming is his translation of Antonin Artaud, The True Story of Jesus-Christ (Infinity Land Press, 2022), a collection of essays on Artaud, Obliteration of the World: A Guide to the Occult Belief System of Antonin Artaud (Infinity Land Press, 2022), and his translation of Nicolas pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2023).
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