Reviewed by Anne Heide
Mónica de la Torre’s new book, Talk Shows, uses the navigatory apparatuses of synonym, antonym, palindrome, anagram, and translation, among others, to steer her poems directly in upon themselves. Shaped from multiples of sound and meaning, Talk Shows is a text that uses concentrated variation to complicate the sense of the “original.” Whether working from a source text or (re)generating her own work, de la Torre reckons directly with the idea and possibility of “source.” The poems in this collection are narrative impressions of each other that create a textured vertical field, one that all depends upon us looking downwards, into a stratified storying. An exuberant text that takes on the complications of communication, Talk Shows deliberately confuses a sense of source by fully undoing the ease of transmitting idea.
De la Torre uses coverings to layer lines against each other. In “Skin is Warm: 31 Nudes,” juxtaposed phrases act as coverings for each other:
Asleep I am all. (She stretches.)
I wake. (A question.)
To see the world from a bed.
If I could cover my face with one finger.
Or be. (Flower in hair.)
I am many. (Seen from behind.)
Black is white. (Placid turning.)
I will lie.
We are not different. (Face with a stain.)
The parenthetical lines overlay the text they follow in what seems to be an attempt to discover the counterparts of meaning. In this poem, as in the majority of the text, single tactics do not suffice; synonym is placed on antonym, which is in turn woven into translation. All of these can attempt approximation at meaning, but the effort seems targeted towards a layering of counterpart.
In “On Translation,” denotation is covered, replaced by gesture: “Not to search for meaning, but to reenact a gesture, and intent. / As a translator, one grows attached to originals. Seldom are choices so / purposeful.” While the original here is valued above the translation, de la Torre recognizes the inability to recreate or possibly ever reach the original. In Talk Shows, de la Torre performs the translator’s task, even when she isn’t reproducing a text from one language to another. In “Bankrupt Books: A Collage,” de la Torre lists antonyms of bestsellers, where A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is transformed into “ridiculous accounts of staggering idiocy” and Tuesdays with Morrie is turned to “Sundays on a couch.” Some words allow for this translation; others, like “Beowulf” remain in their original form, seemingly untranslatable, and so, untranslated.
De la Torre tells story by returning to story, in a sense navigating further into the narrative with every (re)telling:
María was usually bumping into
furniture. Each time she got closer to what
she wanted. “What do you want from me?”
“Nothing,” he replied, so she took off
and felt like migrating birds. But many.
“Bumping/into furniture” would seem to halt movement instead of bringing the character “closer to what/she wanted,” but here, it is in the act of moving, of telling, that precision is gained. Additionally, María is many birds--a flock that cannot be divested of its counterparts. It is to this collectivity that de la Torre seems to be speaking. In “The Script,” she traces the constellation possible in gathering in on a story, in reckoning with the inherent multiples of meaning:
To permutate dots so that lines are never identical to each other.
To return to known places and act always the same, thus the slightest
change might become apparent.
To force things to happen.
To pretend there’s meaning when all that comes out is “My dog loves
me and he’s no showboat.”
Here, the desire to return waxes against the possibility of returning ever to the same place; we can pretend at meaning, but it will always be pretend. In returning to apparently similar events or places, we can play at getting closer, we can “trace the line that / connects the dots,” but “dots speak louder.” Any attempt at distinguishing the whole becomes a seemingly fruitless task; in fact, this task of confronting the meaningless, or lack of meaning, often takes on the tone of the absurd.
Absurdity isn’t something de la Torre shies from. “The Other Practitioner Writes Back” begins with a series of palindromes, none of which come close to the dialogic ideal:
Hey babe, Kiev love star! Rats evolve, I kebab. Yeh!
Ne morose ode: More grow on Kiev, love star. Rats evolve, I know, or Gerome does, or omen?
Try again, open your eyes so you can look closer.
Rongi rattad ragisevad - Ruedan las ruedas del ferrocarril
The attempt in this poem seems to be the thrust towards meaning with the understanding that meaning will never arrive, that despite doubles and rearranging, only absurdity can arise from the attempt to make sense. And de la Torre revels in this play with the ridiculous and incongruous, accepting it with ready vigor.
Within the interaction of these counterparts, however, the text seems held together only by adaptation, or difference. At times, the text feels dissociated from itself, pulled apart, as though dependent only on alterity. This results in an unsettled discontinuity, where the poems individually speak forcefully, but drawn into a collection, seem unhinged from each other. Although Talk Shows is a jubilant text, its moments of quiet are few; this is not a manuscript in which one can find rest, and the unvarying reveling tends to wear the text out. The poems end up feeling as varied as the ways in which de la Torre approaches meaning, in which a mirror is held up to language, but in it, we see only the reverse image. The title poem, “Talk Shows,” intersects multiple unattributed voices, presumably the chatter of talk shows:
-Get away from me! Who do you think you are, hitting my arm like
that! What kind of person are you? A terrorist?
-Don’t look at me as if I was a woman with a rotten tooth, look at me
as if I was me.
-¡Viva Mèxico cabrones!
-I can’t think of anything I’d like less to do than to go to Disney with my dad.
Although each of these phrases, like each of the poems, hold individual intrigue, when collaged, they don’t so much reflect on each other, but instead point to the disparate genre that holds them together, and often, disparateness alone cannot sustain a text. The inertia created by the narrative and visual pull of the text slows when the poems become so disparate that there is little to hold them together but their continuity of difference. De la Torre has set a difficult task for herself in attempting to create an exuberant text that directly tackles problems of linguistic apprehension, and while Talk Shows is an intrepid attempt at achieving this complicated undertaking, its persistent difference eventually destabilizes itself.