The Music of Life & Death by Lisa Marie Basile

The Music of Life & Death by Lisa Marie Basile


Photography, Alison Scarpulla

My relationship to poetry is akin to my relationship to the world: everything exists as a separate force, a moment, an image, a memory—making up the whole. Everything makes up the middle of life and death. And, as a poet, everything evokes language.

In life, there is a room. There is the sparseness of a room. A long wooden table. A dried flower and its fallen, cracked leaves. At the windowsill, a child leans out. Her hair is long and wavy and dark brown. The way the light falls on it creates a red tone. Outdoors, two different types of bird sing. Water flows down the rushing river. Everything is and contributes to something much bigger. It is in this way that the morning becomes calm—almost eerily so, and soft and delicate.

What does this mean? The way we perceive the world is informed by our embedded knowledge of aesthetic and reality; we have learned exactly why a cool, spring morning is so lovely because we remember its sounds, and its colors, and its quietude.

The way we create poetry is often influenced by those memories.

Marosa Di Giorgio, for me, is the master of aesthetic and moment. The English and Spanish versions of Di Giorgio's work provide different songs—not good or bad—but both representing the duality of life and death which is so present in her work. Di Giorgio, whose work appeals to me because it drips in surrealism as if it were written by some small, lovely child in the otherworld, was born in 1932 in Salto, Uruguay, and died in 2004 in Montevideo.

Inside her poetry there exists a magical Uruguay: its chirping animals, its sparkling natural world, and even the country's religion. Di Giorgio writes of angels and entities gliding in and out of yards and gardens and rooms; always there is something trailing behind you, stalking you, haunting you. You can hear the end of a linen gown along an earthly floor, wine pouring, stems cracking.

Her poetry sings mostly because of its vivid imagery—and a little less to do with the academics of the construction of language, but I’m a bit obsessed with her, so I’ll go there too.

She writes like many of us (at least poets) see the world; everything is itself a Grand Thing. A whole world can be written about a color, a gladioli, a garden, a vision. That which we write becomes a new daguerreotype, a singular sound. Eventually, it all becomes a song made up of different ranges. Di Giorgio’s poetry is full of range.

Why Di Giorgio? What is it about the world she creates that end in a choir-like bang?

Consider this poem (title-less), featured last year by Joyelle McSweeney at Montevidayo. From The History of Violets (trans. Jeannine Marie Pitas, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012).

In the original Spanish:

Me acuerdo del atardecer y de tu alcoba abierta ya, por donde ya penetreban los vecinos y los ángeles. Y las nubes—de las tardes de noviembre—que giraban por el suelo, que rodaban. Los arbolitos argados de jazmines, de palomas y gotas de agua. Aquel repiqueteo, aquel gorjeo, en al atardecer. 
Y la mañana siguiente, con angelillas muertas por todos lados, parecidas a pájaros de papel, a bellísimas cáscaras de huevo. Te deslumbrador fallecimiento.

The English poem (trans. Pitas):

I remember nightfall and your room’s open door, the door through which neighbors and angels came in. And the clouds—November evening clouds, drifting in circles over the land. The little trees burdened with jasmine, with doves and droplets of water. That joyous pealing, endless chirping—every evening the same.

And then the next morning, with its tiny dead angels strewn everywhere like paper birds, or the most exquisite of eggshells.

Your dazzling death.

Di Giorgio's original Spanish moves the words through a sort of linguistic strainer. You can see the syllables dripping from trees; the words come undone just as droplets of water fall from the tree:


In Spanish, the syllables are abundant and rhythmic, while in English the majority of words contain one syllable:


Translated work is often “born suspect,” says Daniel Borzutzky at Asymptote. Many people fear that the poem is already a wilted, dead shadow of something it once was. One not only risks losing the language, but also the song.

I believe it does lose some sense of its inherent magic and sound—since original thought and knowledge of ones own language and linguistic selection is a major element of Craft. But in many cases, translated works aren't always dead angels; they are sometimes reincarnated (if translated by a capable, intuitive translator).

The translated poem is a new song, reflecting Di Giorgio's angels: they come in and out of the foreground as a buzzing hologram. Sometimes they can be seen as half-imagined dreams. Other times they are seen as vibrantly as the living are seen. Sometimes they die and litter the earth.

Photography, Alison Scarpulla

Di Giorgio's work is obsessed with the dead and the living: first—the actual language sings of living things (trees, doves, droplets) and moves to the dead (dead, paper, shells), and second—the text moves from larger groupings to one last, short line.

Pitas does Di Giorgio a real justice. She moved to Salto to try and understand the native land of Di Giorgio; she consumed the sounds and the flow of the country. She attempted to translate not just the language, but the tone and aesthetic of Di Giorgio’s work.

To me, Spanish is a bloody, living, wild language—and a musical language. Sounds often connect like two pieces of unlikely fabric sewn together.


del atardecer (the nightfall). The "L" falls languidly into the "a" in the Spanish. How musical—drifting like a soft melody. In English, the nightfall sounds hard, with that pointed "t" and that vicious "f".

It is the job of a translator to decode the intent of the poet, as well as the poet’s cultural and linguistic music. One must unpack the voice and psyche of a country, or at least a region. And while the rhythm and meter has completely changed, we’re left with a new song.

To me, the original Spanish is velvet, and sweet, and liquid. You can hear that musicality in not only Di Giorgio’s language canvas (her actual words are vibrant and colorful), but in its sound:

“Y la mañana siguiente, con angelillas muertas por todos lados, parecidas a pájaros de papel, a bellísimas cáscaras de huevo.”

Note how she cleverly drops in the "dos" sound in todos and lados, following it, in quick succession, with the "das" in paracidas, only to follow the paracidas with additional “p” sounds: pajaros and papel. How delicious and deliberate! Not only does she manage to blend sound and music, she chooses words that build her universe spectacularly.

In English, we have: 

“And then the next morning, with its tiny dead angels strewn everywhere like paper birds, or the most exquisite of eggshells.” 

There is a loss of alliteration, but this isn’t a problem for me. The translation captures Di Giorgio’s mystical world of shells, and paper, and glittering adjectives.

Pitas also captures the littleness of the angels: while in Spanish we have the glorious, momentous sounds of "an-ge-li-llas / muer-tas", the idea is much smaller. These angels are dead. They’re strewn around as if to represent their weakness. Pitas, then, chooses “tiny dead angels” not only out of literal necessity, but to show just how small and dead they are. The loss of syllables here works in this sense. Pitas then has a chance to add her own alliteration, choosing exquisite, which begins with the same sound as eggshells. The sounds work to create a bursting ending.

The ear can hear the finality in a sentence; it doesn’t feel clunky. It feels like it’s being organically whittled. It doesn’t struggle to get to its end. It just ends. Sometimes it can’t always be accounted for, but usually it can. I think Di Giorgio’s work and Pitas' translations do this well in both languages. The poem starts with an “i” sound, launching into detail. By the second part, you see the sentence starting off with "and then," as if it blossomed in the middle of a thought (much like how we express ourselves when we talk). By the end, it rounds down and finalizes: huevo ends with a sound similar to fallecimiento, while death and eggshells have the same "e" sound. This is Craft in action; this is what feeds the ear to makes it happy. Balance.

While the sounds are different, the ideas are still the same; the adjectives bloom and burst, and the details all pop and blur beside each other, much like the childlike perception of life and death seen in the book—finally culminating in a last, musical line:

"your dazzling death."

(Listen to Di Giorgio read)


Below, Basile gives two sound-focused readings of Marosa Di Girorgio's untitled poem (XVII, "I am always the same child...") from The History of Violets (trans. Jeannine Marie Pitas for 6x6 #21, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010)


"Expressed in the first reading, is a blend of monotone sound with the raised "question" intonation. Also infused is the needless breath and pause that takes away from the organic narrative."

(Read her Q&A for SOUND here)


Lisa Marie Basile comes from the bloodline of Giambattista Basile, the fairy-tale writer. A graduate of The New School’s MFA program, she lives in NYC. She is the author of Andalucia (Brothel Books, 2011) and triste (Dancing Girl Press, 2013). Her chapbook, war/lock, is forthcoming from Hyacinth Girl Press in 2014. She is the founding editor of Patasola Press and Luna Luna Magazine, an editor for The Gloss, assistant editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal, and a managing member of the Poetry Society of New York. She contributes to a few secret projects and wears Joseph Quintela's #bookdress. You can read her work at PANK, elimae, Prick of the Spindle, decomP, Saudade and other lit journals.

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