Lima: Sol Negro. 2022. 42 pages.
Sappho, in the seventh century BC, wrote “De nuevo Eros, que los miembros afloja, me sacude, / una fiera dulciarmarga, imbatible” [Again Eros, who loosens limb, overtakes me, / a bittersweet beast, can’t be beaten]. But it just as well could have been Gisella Ballabeni, writing now, among us. One of the first lines she unfolds in El tiempo suspendido entre tus manos reads: “El Silencio es como la muerte / o la cárcel” [Silence is like death / or prison]. I think about the need to speak, and to name desire. This is a poetry of nakedness, a poetry of the body that is inhabited, interrogated, exceeded, traversed by the drive of a desire that never lies still. As in Sappho’s poetry, it is desire that puts things into motion, that requires correspondence, the meeting of eyes, the mutual positioning of bodies.
Eros also needs distance, above all else. It needs the impossible. Let’s talk about desire. In her book Eros, The Bittersweet, Anne Carson distinguishes three elements that make up Eros in Sappho’s poetry: in the first place, the beloved; in the second place, the lover; and in the third place, the distance—and the obstacles—that separate the first two. What this means is that without impossibility, Eros does not activate. It remains hidden, inactive. It’s as though we can only feel Eros by means of these obstacles. Only when there is distance, when there is impossibility, when there is an impediment, does desire exist and vibrate and cry out.
Socrates says that Eros is lack. In reality, the lover finds herself prevented from reaching the beloved. From here, the movement of the lover goes towards hate, and vice versa. The lover loves because the beloved exists, but also hates because they’re beyond her reach. And this is what I wanted to arrive at: Eros is both suffering and pleasure. Gisella says: “pero la sangre / siempre es roja” [but blood / is always red]. Blood, as a material symbol of eros, of desire, of love, is the only constant. Red is constant. Eros endures, and throughout the book it is like an open wound from which words spill out. If Eros is suffering for Sappho, it also is for Gisella Ballabeni: in her poems, carnal lust is something that tortures, crushes, takes up space, closes in on you, robs you of things, air, your sanity. “El amor mata” [Love kills], Gisella will say in one of her poems. I propose that we read Gisella’s book as a visit to different states of desire, of erotic love. As though it were a road towards the (inevitable) disappointment of amorous relationships. It is not a happy book. If we speak of desire, we must also speak of absence, of emptiness, of being hollow. If we pay close attention, we notice that emptiness is this time suspended in our hands. After all, “Who is the real subject of most love poems? Not the beloved. It is that hole,” writes Anne Carson.
“Con la piel profanada / sin piedad crezco / desarmada” [With my skin defiled / I grow without faith / disarmed], says Gisella Ballabeni. “Eros una vez más afloja mis miembros, me lanza a un remolino dulce-amargo, imposible de resistir, criatura sigilosa” [Eros loosens my limbs once more time, throws me into a bittersweet whirlpool, I cannot resist her, that quiet creature], says Sappho, on the other hand. To put Gisella in 2022 in dialogue with Sappho in the seventh century BC, as you can see, makes perfect sense. For me, Sappho invented desire. Not only did she invent it, but she put a face on it, and gave it movement; she granted it a sense, a nature, a behavior. Gisella is the Sappho of her poetic universe. Look at this book like the first building constructed on the terrain of Eros. Gisella, like Sappho, is an inhabitant of the country of Eros. The erotic roars here, the erotic burns here. The fact that a poet’s first book should take on this theme must be celebrated, always.
But let us move on to the meat of the book—let us sink our teeth in. There’s something very interesting here: the poetic voice is assumed to be dead at the end of the first poem: that is to say, it assumes its silence as a kind of death. However, it asks that the show of the voice begin, the show of poetry. It says: “que se abra el telón” [let the curtain go up].
And here is where I’ll add a spoiler that is not really a spoiler: this entire book is the experience of the desiring subject. In this book, desire comes from the body and from language in equal measures. In the poem “es en donde convierto mi cuerpo en poema” [it’s where my body becomes a poem], the erotic is constituted as the only possible language; it is the language of the body, of the identity of the feminine subject that is taken up fully, with all her cracks and all her powers and all her strength. And also all her limitations. The importance of the body and its painful pleasure is, of course, part of a very long tradition. We might think of Santa Teresa de Jesús, for example. Yes, a saint speaking from her body.
“Soy señora del deseo” [I am the madame of desire], says Gisella Ballabeni, “dueña de silencios / de siglos altaneros / de pecados / de condenas / de sustantivos propios” [owner of silences / of high-flying centuries / of sins / of condemnations / of proper nouns]. Here, importantly, the subject is identified as a desiring subject. Here the subject desires and, while doing so, finds her identity. In this recognition of desire, she becomes the owner of something. With identity, with desire, she enters into a relation of belonging with the world. If we desire we are somebody, something belongs to us, and at the same time we belong to something else larger than ourselves.
But let us return to the body. “Y mis labios // casa abierta / de versos / solitarios” [And my lips / open house / of solitary / lines] Gisella says in one of her poems. The body is the origin of poetry. And this is the religion of Gisella Ballabeni: the multiple body, that enjoys the desiring body and is presented as an opposition to deterioration, to death. I think, in particular, that it’s a lie that life is the opposite of death. Desire is the opposite of death, and so is eroticism, the celebration of the body, pleasure, and sexual experience: orgasm is the opposite of death.
Following this idea, to not feel pleasure, to not feel desire can be equivalent to death. This is the death that announces itself in the first poem, and it is also silence, the absence of words.
I am convinced that all erotic poetry is, at its depths, a rebuttal of death. A rebellion against death. When the poetic self fulfills its desire, when it answers the call of desire, when it shows up for pleasure, death loses ground. It loses power. Could this be the purpose of poetry? To defy death with words and desire, our only weapons? We will never know for certain, but we can confirm today, here and now, that Gisella Ballabeni’s first book is a way of putting the body forth. A way of inhabiting the body, as women, as desiring subjects, as human beings without fear of death or emptiness. Poetry, always poetry, as the best way to celebrate life.