(Book cover design by Faride Mereb, image courtesy Kenning Editions)

Even in her most cheerful moments, the Venezuelan poet Miyó Vestrini never stopped taking death seriously — or thinking about it. Translated by Anne Boyer and Cassandra Gillig and edited by Faride Mereb, Grenade in Mouth: Some Poems of Miyó Vestrini is the first full-length collection of Vestrini’s texts available in English. It spans three decades of her work, from the 1960s through the 1990s, and includes previously unpublished texts from the posthumous collection Es una buena máquina (It’s a Good Machine, Letra Muerta). The French-born Vestrini emigrated to Venezuela at the age of nine. At 18, she joined the Venezuelan avant-garde group Apocalipsis (Apocalypse). She later became a member of several Venezuela-based experimental literary groups such as 40 Grados Bajo la Sombra (40 degrees in the Shade), El Techo de La Ballena (The Ceiling of the Whale), and La Republica del Este (The Republic of the East).

For Vestrini, the refusal to compromise or accept tyrannical notions of truth was as much a part of her process as her meditations on death. In her writings, death and poetry have their own dark choreography that doesn’t shy away from affirming the stark contradictions at its core — exercises in morbidity also result in the resurrection of a new will to live, in a counter-suicidal impulse, even if it’s only a temporary one. These are whimsical poems that reveal the most familiar domestic settings as designed for eternal sleep. In such spaces, joy and tenderness are to be resisted and death is to be welcomed and carried out as daily routine. Through her poetry she shows us how to die in the most mundane of circumstances by disposing of our certainties; she herself might be wary of life’s little pleasures, but nevertheless indulges in them:

What did you do today?

I read the newspaper and didn’t recognize any friends.
I defrosted my fridge so the beer would stay cool.
I took a bubble bath.
I dried my hair.
It doesn’t seem like you did much.
I do a lot and no one realizes.
I can see myself in the bottom of the pots.

and in the kitchen floor.

By foregrounding death and performing its liturgy, Vestrini seems to seek clarity of form and message in her poetry. She allows no room for cozy feelings or attachments and no space for empty metaphors or shallow formal experiments — when she refers to men as lizards “who open the covers/and enter./without fresh turmoil/without heat or melancholy/without casting a spell,” she conjures a vivid and unequivocal picture. Intimacies and comforts are peeled off to expose the universe to its bare bone, and replace it with hypercharged particles that exert the same force of gravity. Writing at a time when mental health professionals were quick to diagnose any desire for death as unhealthy, Vestrini confronts their institutional authority, the dogma of their textbooks and therapies by positioning death as the raw material of poetry as opposed to reason for concern or treatment. In the process, even her own friends are recalled as having become “totally sad totally idiotic” as a result of the therapies they underwent. She might be willing to give life a chance or two, but only to justify death’s necessity: “Contempt of death/I’ll try it (…) /I hear myself cracking up/debating/smiling/breaking/moaning/And I never left a trace/other than these steps of infamy.”

It would be easy to dismiss Vestrini’s fierce poetry as pretentious cynicism, but warmth is still there; childhood memories may reflect a brutal reality, but they still provide a kind of comfort when loneliness creeps in. She strips off our habitual thinking and joins us through the extinction of our given life, only to eventually leave us naked and greedy for a final, yet never-ending performance in the circus of life and death:

For poetry, cursed and hated, there is always a day that follows: death. What can be taught from an atomic explosion but the agony of those most dispossessed and the infernal laugh of the idiot prophets? The fire is no surprise to the poets. The fire is part of those who, day by day, gamble their lives on the horror of solitude.

Grenade in Mouth: Some Poems by Miyó Vestrini (2019) is published by Kenning Editions and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

M. Buna is a freelance writer with work featured in the Los Angeles Review of Books, 3:AM Magazine, Full Stop, the Hong Kong Review of Books, and widely elsewhere.