by Jennifer Tamayo
Switchback Books, 2011
88 pages / $18 Buy from Switchback Books
If “flesh is the reason oil paint was invented” as de Kooning claimed, then the natural antithesis of oils are collages, and it seems no coincidence this method is increasingly popular in art and literature as the materialization of an ideal smooth whole flesh feels rejectable in this era of multi-medium hybridity. Where a lens is fragmented so fragments the subject even beyond lenses; and tidy categories of language, race and gender follow, as in Jennifer Tamayo’s collection of poems/images in Red Missed Aches Read Missed Aches Red Mistakes Read Mistakes.
Tamayo’s book, winner of the 2010 Gatewood Prize, directly approaches Feminism in a way that is rare for contemporary poets for whom the term generally feels passé or too baggy a category to identify with. The book intersperses poems with serious word play and visual elements such as a repeated photograph of the author with her mother near a swan, an image of the Virgin Mary with the author’s mother’s face sewn overtop Mary’s face, a Permanent Resident ID card, most altered with menstrual-red stitching or scrawled words. The images here also seem to represent the paradoxical dual-presence of photographs/memories as frozen yet inaccessible time. More graphic than lexigraphic, the stitching, which Cathy Park Hong calls a “blunt revisionist tool that corrects pure paradigms of the female body and legal citizenship” in her introduction, is as constructive as it is destructive, as the first words of the book reflect: “Play surgeon o seamstress.” The stitching then serves as languageless interactions with images, which are already the language of sub-literate populations such as immigrants, one of the personal narratives Tamayo addresses here.
Inarticulation as expression itself is attempted often here in Tamayo’s use of imagery as well as striking representations of malentendus, which aren’t senseless sound play to a bilingual speaker but a kind of frustrated resistance to language, against both the first language (seen as a betrayer) and the second language (seen as an excluder). Much of Tamayo’s angst seems to stem from this hovering in a zone between languages, rejecting both as identifiers, leaving a dual-speaker in a fractured self-erasure. Gloria Anzaldúa’s astonishing book Borderlands/La Frontera, published in 1987, describes this same split as “loqueria, the crazies,” and locates language as intangible landscapes, with the split-zone as another border conflict of self: “I have so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one.”
Some of the malentendus function like mutant polysemes, where the word’s misunderstanding becomes a disturbing comment upon itself, as “(My, grunt)”/ migrant and “(train, slate)”/ translate, while others lose their power in mere poetic nonsense (“(duh, cumin)”/ document or “(eden, titty)”/ eventually). In the better examples Tamayo has collapsed metaphor into a singularity, a single word that is both meaning and error: “I am misunderstanding” (against Anzaldúa’s “I am my language”).
But metaphors, like all language, ultimately fail Tamayo and her expressions at times reduce to blank placeholders for words (upon which nonnative speakers initially depend heavily), as in the repetition of “thing” (“this thing & you hold it with your thing & use it like thing, Come on, the thing”) or simply “OH,” which reads both as an appropriation of language/culture commands and total exasperation or fear. “I forgot you for a ways & between tongues is wear I stalled” from “(Lengua Material)” refers to this frozen space of betweenness, “los intersticios,” Anzaldúa describes, alienated from the mother culture and the adopted one, “we do not engage fully. We do not make full use of our faculties” and relates a story of “la Llorona, the Indian woman whose only means of protest was wailing.”
What self-identity Tamayo does cling to is one as a fracture of her mother, and so all iterations of mother (mother land, mother culture, mother tongue, mother God (Virgin Mary)) feed the concept, pointing all expression at this word in the center of all the other words and images of the book, even in self-conscious references (“no one wants to here stories/ about your mother”). Evident in Tamayo’s interest in self-from-mother is an influence from second-wave Feminism (Kristeva, Irigaray, Cixous) which refocused the study from exposing the tradition of silencing women and their misrepresentation to the problem of “woman” as a category itself constructed by language and culture, for whom the Post-Structuralists’ claim that language creates rather than names identities could not have possibly been more neatly grafted. Specifically apposite to Tamayo’s mother-identity is Luce Irigaray’s gender theory in This Sex Which is Not One, which defines men as women differently with respect to their material interactions, determined by how each splits from the mother: the primary task for becoming a man is to separate foremost from his mother, un-identify with her, thereby becoming an aggressor, a cutter, one who empties nature; whereas to become a woman one need simply to extend the identity of the mother into a new body, with the same nurturing purpose and sexual viability. So Tamayo’s self, as a woman, is necessarily a hybrid self from the start (“sutures of half mother & daughter”), doubly rejected by her foreignness from all mothers. “On paper, mouther, I am all yours. Yes, mother, I mix my mixings. & trying to,” she addresses this self in “(Mouth, her).”
Still, the fractured self unavoidably inhabits an ordinary body, no less a point of frustration and a sort of despaired maniacal fascination that’s channeled into sexuality. In “(Please, hurt),” Tamayo lists what “we” can’t masturbate to, including Oprah, Sesame Street, pastry puffs, lakes, trees, flowers, but also “naked pictures/ of past lovers, whose bodies still excite us” or even “our lover’s body/ splayed, sleeping or aroused,” ending in resignation finally with “I’m trying to tell you we can’t masturbate to anything.” Elsewhere the image of the swan as the key element in a photo of the young author and her mother is reframed as a clitoris, and this moment an apex of embarrassment in this (non)self-transfer from mother to daughter, the sexual dimension about as complex as sexual dimensions can get, presenting “a dream you orgasm in front of your mother”. Not surprisingly men appear only as abusers (“You are getting beaten. His name is IVAN”) or simply as absent (a father described as a “ghost”) except for perhaps the immigrant smuggler “Coyote” who appears in the final piece of the book (a play) who ultimately fails to bring the mother and child safely across the border, a failure of transmission which of course echoes the way the mother/child speaker is continually dropped by language, into permanent alienhood.
The latest strain of Feminism, the so-called Post-Gender moment, which seems to return, ironically, to Feminism’s original rally for otherness over mere resistance, not a pushing back but moving another direction entirely, into an unnamed space, wouldn’t satisfy Tamayo’s complexity of vision which must be gendered: “(there) that instance is the motherest of mothers/ I can’t/ write experience without her.” It’s a fierce sound Tamayo uses, beyond language, certainly Anzaldúa’s la loqueria, but also doubly defined by her as “the path to knowledge.”
Molly Brodak is the author of A Little Middle of the Night (U of Iowa Press, 2010) and is the 2011-2013 Poetry Fellow at Emory University.