A Horde of Destructions: Orides Fontela’s Poetics of Silence

Does not the saying of Picasso that a picture is a horde of destructions also say that a poem is a horde of destructions?

—Wallace Stevens

I recently picked up the exhibition catalog for destroy the picture: painting the void, 1949–1962, exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The book/exhibition considers post-WWII artists who “staged a literal assault on the picture plane.” These artists employed “techniques such as puncturing, ripping, cutting and burning to break through the two-dimensional support” in order to “figure the void.”

Looking at the catalog, I’m struck by how visually stunning paintings seemingly bent on their own destruction can be. For instance, here’s the work displayed on the cover, by Alberto Burri:

image

The exhibition also features widely recognized artists such as Lucio Fontana:

Lucio-Fontana-Concetto-spaziale-–-Attese-1959-Milano-Fondazione-Lucio-Fontana-©-Fondazione-Lucio-Fontana-Milano.jpg

I found myself thinking about poetry: what poets have turned poetry against itself in the service of portraying “the void”: emptiness, nothing, silence, and other sorts of privation? What poets—driven by the need to go “beyond”—have brutalized their own medium? What does the verbal equivalent of these paintings look like?

One poet who came to mind was Brazilian poet Orides Fontela** (1940-1996). Her work is not well known to the English speaking world, and it’s a shame. Her spare, elemental poems are like shards of what was once an immense vessel. But her concern is less with the vessel than the emptiness it encompasses. Her favorite words—silence, white, water and space—suggest she’s more interested in what she can’t say than what she can. Even song cannot contain the vastness she seeks:

River II

Waters don’t
sing:
they flow gentle
they flee.

II

Fresh silence:
the flower does not
speak.

III

No noise. Just
white petals
of the flower which navigates
the splendid
waters.

It’s been said that language can be as much barrier as bridge, that words, instead of bringing us closer to things, push things away. Fontela recognizes this, and suggests that true intimacy with the world comes from silence: “wise rose in its / ripe silence.” But it seems impossible to summon silence with words:

To know the silence by heart
— and desecrate it. Dissolve it
in words.

What’s called for is a more active dismantling, taking the words we have away: “One step / From the bird / I in / Hale.”:

PENELOPE

What I do I un
do
what I live I un
live
what I love I un
love
(my “yes” brings a “no”
in the breast.)

But words always return—or maybe we always return to words. Thus the poet has an essential but impossible task. The effort to flee language must be continually renewed with each poem, each line:

Leap

I

Form’s
ungrasped moment
leap seeking
moment’s
beyond.

II

To devitalize form
to dis – member
to dis – make
and – beyond structure –
to live the pure un
inhabitable act.

 

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This is the first in series of posts on poets who aim “to destroy poetry” in some way. I hope to write a new one each week or so. At the moment I have 5 or so poets in the hopper, but please feel free to send suggestions. 

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**For the sake of simplicity/readability, I use only English translations of Fontela’s poems in this post. To read the originals alongside their translations, visit this helpful webpage.