In Translation: María Negroni’s Notes for a Short Biography

"Untitled (Owl Habitat)" detail, by Joseph Cornell.

These works by Argentinian author María Negroni, translated from the Spanish by Allison deFreese, are excerpted from Elegía Joseph Cornell (Elegy for Joseph Cornell), a book about the experimental New York artist Joseph Cornell and his subjects. The original follows the English translation.

Notes for a Short Biography II

He never married. He had no formal training as an artist. He never left his childhood home on Utopia Parkway.

His fragility, they say, could not conceal his will of steel.

On a typical day, he would eat chocolate-frosted donuts and sweet peaches in syrup for breakfast, and a liverwurst sandwich and butterscotch pudding for lunch. In the afternoons, he drank lots of tea, almost always served with ice cream, and he ate all kinds of cake, candy and chocolates. Before bed, he added to this diet several pieces of cherry pie with Chantilly cream.

Toward A Silent Poetry

The important thing now is to tend the void…to discover a form based on an absence of form.

Notes for a Short Biography III

He loved the whole city, but his favorite places were those with the secondhand stores and junk shops: 14th Street, Times Square, Little Italy, 2nd and 3rd Avenues in Lower Manhattan, and of course The Village.

Both flâneur and recluse, he worked very late into the night on his dreamy dioramas, where he combined his discoveries with echoes from his readings. It is no exaggeration to say that John Donne, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Nerval, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Proust are as important to his boxes as the knickknacks he brought in from the street.

He had the bad habit of talking for hours on the telephone. His conversations, which were closer to monologues, scared off many friends.

His Journal includes an entry from the 1960s about reading Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges.

s                    he,                   Miss

boy                       actress

Emily                     Dickinson

fée               fata            fairies

f              a              t             u          m

Notes for a Short Biography IV

Like Raymond Roussel, who explored Africa without leaving the tent where he wrote Impressions d’Afrique, or Michel Leiris, the professional ethnographer who questioned in L’Afrique Fantôme the purpose of travel as a method for acquiring knowledge, Joseph Cornell is among those travelers fascinated with the idea of the stationary journey–the kind of travelers who are, in the first place, artists consuming images, taxonomists of reality. The imaginary journey and the journey as imagination are masterfully coordinated in the hermit of Utopia Parkway.


Apuntes para una biografía mínima II

No se casó. No tuvo educación formal como artista. Nunca dejó su casa en Utopia Parkway.

Su fragilidad, dicen, ocultaba mal una voluntad de hierro.

En un día normal, desayunaba donuts con manteca de cacao y dulce de durazno, almorzaba un sándwich de liverwurst y budín de caramelo, y por la tarde tomaba té, mucho té, casi siempre helado y comía todo tipo de tortas, golosinas y chocolates. Antes de acostarse, agregaba a la dieta varias porciones de pastel de ciruela con crema chantilly.

Toward A Silent Poetry

Lo importante, ahora, es cuidar el vacío [. . .] hallar una forma que estribe en la ausencia de forma.

Apuntes para una biografía mínima III

De la ciudad, amaba todo pero sus áreas preferidas eran las que tenfan tiendas de segunda mano y negocios de baratijas: la calle 14, Times Square, Little Italy, la 2 y 3 avenidas en el bajo Manhattan y, por supuesto, el Village.

A la vez flâneur y recluso, trabajaba de noche, hasta muy tarde, en sus dioramas ensoñados donde mezclaba sus hallazgos con los ecos de sus lecturas. No exagero si digo que John Donne, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Nerval, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé y Proust son tan importantes en sus cajas como las bagatelas que traía de la calle.

Tenía la mala costumbre de hablar horas por teléfono. Sus conversaciones, que eran más bien monólogos, ahuyentaron a muchos amigos.

Su Diario registra, en los años 60, la lectura de Ficciones de Jorge Luis Borges.

el                      la                           Miss

niño                    actriz

Emily                                          Dickinson

fée                             fata                         hadas

f                  a                  t                    u                          m

Apuntes para una biografía mínima IV

Como Raymond Roussel, que exploró África sin salir de la tienda de campaña donde escribía sus Impressions d’Afrique, o Michel Leiris, el etnógrafo profesional que cuestionó, en L’Afrique Fantôme, la función del viaje como método para adquirir conocimientos, Joseph Cornell pertenece a esos viajeros fascinados por la idea del viaje inmóvil que son, ante todo, artistas consumidores de imágenes, taxonomistas de la realidad. El viaje imaginario y el viaje como imaginación se combinan, con maestría, en el eremita de Utopia Parkway.


About the Author

María Negroni, an author in Rosario, Argentina, has published over 20 books including poetry, collected essays and novels. The books Islandia, Night Journey, Andanza (The Tango Lyrics), Mouth of Hell, and The Annunciation have appeared in English, and her work has also been translated into Swedish, Portuguese, Italian, and French. María Negroni received a Guggenheim fellowship for poetry in 1994, a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1998, the Fundación Octavio Paz fellowship for poetry in 2001, and The New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in 2005. She also received a National Book Award for her collection of poems El viaje de la noche, a PEN Award for Islandia as best book of poetry in translation (New York 2001), and the Premio Internacional de Ensayo y Narrativa de Siglo XXI for her book Galería Fantástica. She taught at Sarah Lawrence College from 1999 to 2014, and is now director of Argentina’s first creative writing program, at Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero.

About the Translator

Allison A. deFreese, based in Portland, Oregon, has lived in Mexico, Bolivia and Japan. She has published literary work here in Cagibi, and in Asymptote, YourImpossibleVoice, New York Quarterly, Indiana Review and Lunch Ticket. Her translation and trilingual adaptation of José R. Cervantes Carrillo’s classic text A Practical Guide to Learning the Yucatec Mayan Language is scheduled for publication in January 2020 (Maldonado Editores del MAYAB, Mexico) while her translation of María Negroni’s experimental and genre-defying book Elegy for Joseph Cornell is forthcoming in June 2020 (Dalkey Archive Press).

Appears In

Issue 9

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