Illustration of Giannuzzi by Soledad Calés
Having written about illness in various media over recent years – principally as a so-called academic and the writer of a memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I am alert to the ways that other writers approach the subject, and am usually interested in what they have to say (so long as their writing does not launch into tedious new-age rage at the incompetence of ‘Western’ medicine, or degrade itself by spurious claims to the kind of quackery familiar to devotees of certain ‘wellness’ manuals).
I have recently been translating the poetry of the Argentinian Joaquín O. Giannuzzi, whose work is sadly neglected in the English-speaking world, and discover that illness – while by no means a limitation – is a recurring theme in his poems. This is something that is hard to do without falling prey to over-familiar tropes and accusations of self-pity. He approaches the topic as he approaches all his subject matter, with a lugubrious humour, with pathos, and with painful accuracy. I am posting three of his poems to mark my departure for his homeland later today. The original Spanish (which I have not reproduced here) is from the Poesía Completa, edited by Jorge Fondebrider, and published by Sibilina (Seville).
For Some Reason
I bought coffee, cigarettes, matches.
I smoked, I drank
and faithful to my personal rhetoric
put my feet on the table.
Fifty years old with the certainty of the damned.
Like almost everyone I messed up
without making too much noise;
yawning at nightfall I muttered my disappointment,
and spat on my shadow before going to bed.
This was all the response that I could offer to a world
that claimed from me a character that possibly
didn’t suit me.
Or maybe something else is at stake. Perhaps
there was a different plan for me
in some potential lottery
and my number was lost.
Perhaps no one settles on a strictly private destiny.
Perhaps the tide of history settles it for one and all.
This much remains to me:
a fragment of life that tired me out in advance,
a poem paralyzed halfway towards
an unknown resolution;
dregs of coffee in the cup
that for some reason
I never dared drain to the last drop.
On the Other Side
Someone has died on the other side of the wall.
At intervals there is a voice, hemmed in by sobbing.
I am the nearest neighbour and I feel
slightly responsible: blame
always finds an outlet.
In the rest of the building
no one seems to have noticed. They talk,
they laugh, they switch on televisions, they devour
every last scrap of meat and every song. If they knew
what had happened so close by, the thought
of death wouldn’t be sufficient
to alter the cardiac rhythm of the
They would push the deceased into the future
and their indifference would have its logic:
after all, no one dies any more than anyone else.
In the bed opposite
the man woke up snoring
his open mouth set
in desperate conviction.
The serum was dripping
into his veins. From my belly
sprouted two plastic tubes
in which a pink foam bubbled
as if it were the definitive language
of my entrails. To one side
someone coughed up
the last of his viscera.
A springtime branch swayed
behind the window’s glass
flaunting the life owed us
in exchange for the disorders
that laid waste to our pale bones.
Everything seemed suspended
between universal infirmity
and the opportunities offered to death.
In the corridor a nurse fluttered by
and we followed her with eyes intent on
laying bare the fermented secret
of our clinical notes:
but we didn’t manage to reach
her distant and weary heart.