“Like a Mollusk Dissolved in a Cancer of Pearls”: A Review of Marosa di Giorgio’s I Remember Nightfall

These days we often read the news to find out what is important and worth devoting our time and attention to. Serious moral, ethical and life-defining dilemmas arise and must be given due consideration; however, in spite of this, our daily lives with their private ecstasies and agonies continue, and while they may be of less historical significance in relation to larger, world issues, the moments that occur in these smaller hours are of equal importance to our emotional, spiritual and intellectual selves. In the four books of prose poetry by Uruguayan writer Marosa di Giorgio that are gathered in I Remember Nightfall (translated by Jennine Marie Pitas), we are able to glimpse the surreal, violent, magical, lush and abundant world of a woman’s inner life—the life she accrued and contemplated in these private hours. Though Uruguay’s military dictatorships formed the backdrop of her life and though she subtly engages with the political issues of her time, she is never overt. Her poems focus instead on expressing the refracted dream logic of her inner experience and imagination as she navigates through the memories, bonds of relationship, joys, pains and traumas that form her existence. di Giorgio grew up on a family farm outside Salto, Uruguay; this farm provides the imaginative locus of the poems, though it is not depicted as it was, but as di Giorgio saw it—riddled with miniature angels, flying hares, cigarette-smoking bats, lethal flowers, animate mushrooms, rubies, dwarfs, potatoes, and snails that resemble pearly yo-yos.

di Giorgio’s poems are both sublime and dark. Necropastoral, a term used to describe a view of nature in which mankind’s depredations are part and parcel of nature, is an apt descriptor for her work, as the images which recur in her poems are often of the natural world, yet the natural world depicted is one populated not only by life and beauty, but by death, decay, strangeness, aberration and a number of ghosts and ominous god-figures. di Giorgio uses the landscape of her childhood as a kind of psychic container that holds and enacts the pains and pleasures she has experienced. Another aspect of the Necropastoral reflected in di Giorgio’s writing is her focus on the blurred, the subterranean and the non-rational, this is evident in the way she blends opposing notions into singular images. In di Giorgio’s world there exists an overabundance of life, hence an overabundance of death:

That summer the grapes were blue—each one big, smooth, without facets—they were totally strange, fabulous, shining with an awful blue brilliance. On the paths through the vines you could hear them, growing with a deep, outrageous murmur.

In that “awful blue brilliance” there is something of both beauty and dread woven together. This non-dualistic worldview is not one we frequently encounter, especially in this era of polarized politics. Judgments in the public sphere fall definitively on either one side or another, but, when it comes to our inner life, it is frequently the case that less division exists, and it is this ability to revel in the omnidirectionality of the spirit that infuses di Giorgio’s poems with such magic. They have a delicate, collage-like feeling which is invoked through a vocabulary of hybridized, intermarrying images: an apple tree that bears white grapes, a grandmother with eyes of fig and apple, a squash that is transformed into cubes of glass, a melon that is a rose bearing an angel inside of it, flowers that murder and burn. The poems form a baroque tapestry of delicacies without boundaries, where one element, whether animal, vegetable or man-made in nature, easily morphs, enters or stands in for another. For this reason, the poems bring to mind the paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the Italian painter known for his portrait heads comprised of fruits and vegetables; one thinks also of 17th century still life vanitas paintings, albeit rendered more fantastically.

It is difficult to draw a parallel between di Giorgio’s work and that of another author: she is compellingly unique. One of the things that marks her as different is the personal, feminine perspective she writes from. Her poems are like small, secret gardens of feminine experience, they explore those emotions and thoughts that so often go unheard and unacknowledged in the primarily male-dominated world of art and public discourse. The intimacy of the poems may derive, in part, from the way she lived, how she grew up ensconced in the domestic life of a family farm. Under such circumstances it is easy to see how a young woman might become engrossed in private dreams and visions. However, though her poems may seem playful on the surface, they address a variety of powerful themes, including those which speak to sexuality and trauma. In one poem the speaker is a girl transformed in to a hare and shot by a man called “the guardian of the potatoes,” in another she waits out a visit by “old man Rose of the Forest,” a male figure hired to rid the property of “bad things”; she lingers in bed with a fever, dreaming fearfully of this individual. In yet another poem a young girl is hunted down and eaten by cannibals:

Her breasts throbbed like two frightened doves. Killing her was no trouble at all.

Her meat was divine, her marrow delicious. She tasted just like those white-hared monsters who are born among the irises and never leave. (59)

There is something gendered, specifically female, about the way these experiences are depicted and a certain feminine consciousness comprises the warp and woof of these poems; it is transmitted not only through language and choice of imagery, but in the roles the female characters play, how they endure trauma at the hands of male figures, and at other times are themselves the enactors of that trauma as, for example, in a poem where the speaker calls together a gathering of women to commit sacrifices, including that of a human child. In addition to this feminine perspective, these poems are often written from the vantage point of a young person. One gets a sense that the speaker is seeking to preserve this child-self against the sometimes ambiguous, sometimes overtly dangerous, individuals and forces which impinge upon it:

Iván ­had found her and was coming toward her, now just two or three meters away. She fainted, and he lifted her, hugged her, and said, “Don’t cry. I’m taking you back home.”

She knew full well that this was not true.

Erotic consciousness is present in these poems as well, most evidently in the motif of nature and burning and destructive flowers:

The golden and silver daisies burned the whole garden. Its piercing perfume of grapes flooded over us...Because of them we were emboldened like the insane, like drunks. And so we went on through the whole night...committing over and over the loveliest of sins 

Life, for di Giorgio, is imbued with both the miracle of being and the terror of death, as well as the terror and sublimity of generation and sexuality. The tension and counterpoint of these dichotomies is wonderfully rendered in these poems.

Through the work of Jeannine Marie Pitas, the thoughtful translator of these books, anglophone readers can now experience a more comprehensive view of di Giorgio’s world—a dark, delicate fever dream that seems to carry on for many nights. Reading I Remember Nightfall, one is drawn into di Giorgio’s sense of the superabundance of nature; her imagination becomes a part of one’s consciousness and one begins to sense a kinship with the hares, horses, antlered squash and foaming gladioli that populate her poems. It is like taking a hallucinogen that leads one further and further into the interior, an interior riddled with the wonder of angels that are small enough to be placed in vases, mugs and jars, the delight of pea plants that gleam like diamonds and of a moon that floats by loaded with medlars, as well as the darker side of life—a god with long braids who comes to take a child from her home, a mysterious, nocturnal stranger with the head of a hare, cannibals and a murderous lily. That all these things are presented without commentary on their meaning allows the reader to travel through the raw landscape of di Giorgio’s psyche, experiencing it without the judgment that informs our waking lives. In a world where politics and news dominate, where action, judgment, partisanship and division are the order of the day, it is refreshing to slip into the nightscapes of these poems, which function more like paintings, wherein a reader must discover their own relationship to the images and see what of themselves is reflected back. Granted, what is reflected back is not always easy or pleasing, but always beautiful.



Dara Elerath received her MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, AGNI, Poet Lore and wildness. She lives, designs and writes in Albuquerque, New Mexico.