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Translator's Note: Antonio Porchia

Ever since they were self-published in 1943 by their fifty-eight-year-old author, Antonio Porchia’s writings have defied classification: what are these brief texts? (“Never say I write aphorisms, I would be humiliated,” Porchia is reported to have said.) And how could there be no name for something so utterly recognizable? Roberto Juarroz, the renowned Argentine poet and one of Porchia’s closest friends, once wrote that the “voices,” as Porchia called them, were perhaps simply “depth”: that was all, “depth itself.”

Porchia was born in Italy in 1885, but after the death of his father, emigrated with his mother and six siblings to Argentina. To earn a living and support his family, Porchia worked for many years as a basket weaver and stevedore at the Buenos Aires port. In 1918 he and his brother bought a printing press in the city, where Porchia would be employed for the rest of his working life.

His friends were mostly painters and sculptors he met in the working-class neighborhood of La Boca: under their initiative, their “Association of Arts and Letters Impulso” acted as self-publishing imprint for theVoices in 1943 and 1948. Juarroz recalls how when the printed books arrived in the studio they took up too much space; not knowing what to do with them, Porchia donated all the copies to a charitable organization stocking public libraries.

Those who knew him describe him as silent, self-effacing, infinitely generous. In summer he wore an old pajama jacket; in winter, a sweater and scarf held by a hairpin. Assiduously he would save apples, wine, bread, and salami for his visitors. “He wrote very little, four or five sentences a year,” the sculptor Libero Badii says. “But he worked on each one with a rigor that was not only internal but of a wordsmith.” 

Voices is almost a biography,” Porchia once said. “Which almost belongs to everyone.” Borges, in his preface written for Fayard’s French edition in the late seventies (Porchia was, for a time, relatively known), remarked how in every piece “the reader feels the immediate presence of a man and his destiny.”

I think this is key: Porchia’s voices, these odd brief texts, were not written for or toward something, but simply as something: as an inextricable part of his life. If “they occurred to him,” as he put it, Porchia wrote them down; if they didn’t, he did not. When people asked for them, he gave them away; when an editor tried to “correct” what he thought was “bad” grammar, Porchia took them back. This was not hardheadedness or vanity. As Juarroz says, he “was a being of exemplary humility, but at the same time he had that incontrovertible, unmodifiable something, which makes us think of central trees, the ones the whole forest seems to lean on.”
Porchia, Juarroz remembers, was never bothered by money, reputation, or any other worries. One of his favorite sayings was: “know how to wait.”—GONZALO MELCHOR

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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