“Nocturne,” by Oliverio Girondo, translated from Spanish by Rachel Galvin and Harris Feinsod, appears in the Jan/Feb 2018 KROnline.
I’ve been entirely transfixed this month while reading and rereading the Oliverio Girondo poem “Nocturne,” published by KROnline in translation by Harris Feinsod and Rachel Galvin. Girondo, who lived and wrote in Argentina during the first half of the twentieth century, was affiliated with the movement known as ultraism. Many of the poems associated with this aesthetic affiliation focus primarily on the image, piecing together a series of potent and often surreal visual moments. In Girondo’s work, these moments are simultaneously familiar and bizarre, and ultimately impossible to blow by. I love, for example, the description of how the routine flipping of a light switch makes the day’s remaining shadows turn frantic at their own dissipation. “Nocturne” is similarly frenetic in its architecture, leaping from one image to the next, turning its incisive gaze to every crevice of the domestic interior and the dimming world outside.
And, just as much as this poem uses imagery, it also uses a night’s pattern of noise and silence as a scaffolding device, inviting the reader to proceed associatively through a vibrant soundscape. Rather than presenting the sounds of the city as static and self-contained, Girondo suggests a capacious and complicated universe. For example, he deftly induces the reader to supply her own parallel set of sounds that run alongside the text, as when the poem asks, “What does the howl of these cats in heat call to mind. . . .?” This moment requires a consideration of what the sound might mean to the poem’s particular citydweller; it also mandates that the reader meditate on her own associations. Additionally, the question underscores both the poem’s intimate relationship with the reader and its insistence on maintaining some distance, refusing as it does to disclose the answer. Finally, in a strange and compelling irony, the poem’s last stanza begins with the loudest sound of the city–the “Silence!” that is the absence of countryside crickets.
In translating this poem, Feinsod and Galvin must have faced a particularly daunting task: they needed to render both the particular roster of sounds that populate the universe of the poem and the permeating lyricism of Girondo’s language. The result is a beautiful translation that moves with a fitting hush, heavily reliant on soft vowel sounds. I’m particularly partial to the progression of assonance as the phrase “hollow trot” gives way to “passing nags”; then, the sentence, like the sound, is gone. Read it in print, read it out loud, then turn off the lights and listen.