Given the social unrest that has occurred over the past few years, it seems, at least from a Western perspective, that the direction society is headed will eventually lead us to a place that we no longer recognize. Cultural, economic, environmental, and political changes no doubt influence our day-to-day conversations and sentiments, and they quickly find their way into the literature we consume. There are books being written right now about the war in Ukraine, irreversible climate change, racial injustice, and a myriad of other issues that occupy the collective consciousness, so a book like Antonio Gamoneda’s Book of the Cold might not seem like the most relevant in the public sphere, at least not on the surface. Written in 1992, and published in its definitive version in 2016, Gamoneda’s collection centers on solitude, the search for belonging, the uncertainty nature produces within a person, and the contemplation that ensues when one deconstructs their surroundings. While the book-length poem is thematically far away from the issues that occupy our current mood, it does beg the question, what is important at any given moment? Can a collection published in the 1990s teach us more about ourselves, and in the process help us find a way to best heal the world? Ostensibly, great literature always does that, despite its subjects and themes, and several decades from now, and even several decades after, there is no doubt that scholars and readers alike will look at Katherine M. Hedeen and Victor Rodríguez Núñez’s translation of Book of the Cold and still find in it that essence that makes poetry essential to transformation, acceptance, and understanding.
When entering Book of the Cold, you are entering a state that is suspended between the world you once knew and the one that is now occupying the page. It would be unfair that say that you’ve entered either limbo or purgatory, since there is no outward encounter with punishment, but there is room for contemplation, and quickly the speaker begins to wonder what their arrival at such a place means:
I am cold beside the springs. Climbed until my heart was weary.
Black grass on the hillsides and violet lilies in the shadows, and still, what am I doing facing the abyss?
Immensity is short on meaning below the silent eagles.
Everything must be put into perspective, and the eagles, while silent and perhaps unnoticeable at first, render the concept of “immensity” almost meaningless, or at least less significant than in the manner it was rendered in the stanza before. There is nothing around but a landscape that wants to be appreciated, and for a moment it almost is. But as readers will discover throughout Gamoneda’s book, any sense of appreciation is immediately paused in order to give way to the speaker’s reflection. The speaker wasn’t merely dropped into such a location; rather they arrived (after climbing till their heart was weary), and while there should be importance placed upon such the events that led to the arrival, the speaker is more concerned with what this arrival means, particularly when they are in the middle of a place that welcomes nothingness. How many times have we traversed some part of our respective countries and seen mountains or grasslands or rivers that put into perspective our place in the world? How many times have we been completely overwhelmed by a landscape that has nothing to offer in return but its beauty? The speaker is not asking us to consider these questions directly, but how can we not when we too are staring at the abyss?
As shown later in the collection, the speaker has come to terms with their arrival (we can assume that the journey was a metaphorical one, although a literal pilgrimage shouldn’t be out of the question):
I climb over the flock excrement and lie beneath the musical oaktrees.
Doves back and forth between my body and twilight, the wind stops, the shadows are wet.
Solitude grass, black doves: I have arrived at last; this isn’t my place, but I’ve arrived.
The excrement that the speaker must traverse is necessary given that they have crossed into a new threshold (what new phase in someone’s existence doesn’t require moving through a certain amount of waste, whether physical or emotional). Additionally, there is a timelessness to the scene above, as well as a sense of reluctant acceptance, and while the place they have found themselves in is filled with uncertainty (not in a geographical sense but in an emotional one), the speaker is no doubt relieved to no longer be guessing where they will end up.
What should always be appreciated with Gamoneda’s poetry is the honesty that seeps through each line, and sometimes this is reflected emotionally with language that is simple and direct. The speaker may have arrived at the place they will spend the rest of their existence, but that in itself can be overwhelming:
I am unafraid and hopeless. From a hotel outside destiny, I see a black beach and, far off, the great eyelids of a city whose sorrow is no business of mine.
I came from methylene and love; I was cold beneath the death tubes.
Now I contemplate the sea. I am unafraid and hopeless.
uctant acceptance showcased in the excerpt earlier doesn’t last very long (perhaps it was never supposed to become permanent acceptance), and for the speaker, there is no other option than to let what will happen happen. This is not to say Gamoneda’s speaker is a fatalist; rather the speaker is confronting the circumstances outside of “destiny” and internalizing how they truly feel. You might not expect words like “unafraid” (sin miedo) or “hopeless (desesperado) to appear in contemporary poetry the way they have in the work of the Modernist or Metaphysical poets of the past, but sometimes poetry, despite what tongue it’s written in, needs language that is precise and honest, which Gamoneda gives us. His speaker is concerned with saying what needs to be said, and if that means being direct, then we become privy to emotions that don’t need poetic ornamentation to be expressed.
There is nothing that resembles complete closure in Gamoneda’s poetry; rather more questions than answers arise, but they do so not for the speaker, but instead for the reader. Toward the end of the collection, the “you” becomes more apparent on the page (it is used sparingly throughout the collection), and it is the “you” that must undergo the next phase of their journey:
Moving into your body and your weariness fills with petals. Joyful beasts pulse within you: music on the edge of the abyss.
It is the agony and the serenity. You still breathe in existence like perfume.
This hopeless pleasure, what does it finally mean in you?
Will, too, the music end?
It’s difficult to read the lines above and not feel as though the speaker is asking us, the reader, what we will do next. Do the “hopeless pleasures” we experience on a daily basis mean anything beyond the significance we assign them? Once we reach the abyss, will we keep the “music” going, or will we be forced to replace it with that inevitable silence we have not yet been willing to accept? Where will we go when there is nowhere left to go? The book ends without any direct answers, but if Gamomeda teaches us anything, it’s that we don’t need to have answers at all. We can go on questioning so long as we discover more about ourselves in the process, and this is both the frustration and beauty of great poetry. Rather than present a solution, it poses another scene, another feeling, another question, all of which are rendered in such a timeless fashion as to be able to return thirty years later and find something new, refreshing, and relevant. Although the poetry on the pages here might be brief and border the syntactic length of prose, it relegates genre as second to lyrical observation, rhythmic description, and at its conclusion, honest serenity. Thankfully, Gamoneda’s music is still with us, and with such lasting emotion, there is no indication that it will ever end.
About the Reviewer
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Ordinary Bodies (Word West Press, 2021), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lips Press, 2021). His poems and reviews have appeared in New England Review, The Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, West Branch, The Adroit Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is interviews editor for the EcoTheo Review, associate poetry editor for AGNI, and a senior book reviews editor for Tupelo Quarterly. He lives with his family in south Texas.