Chris Pusateri

Sin puertas visibles: An Anthology of Contemporary Writing by Mexican Women

Edited and translated by Jen Hofer
University of Pittsburgh Press / 2003
$22.50 / 241 pages / ISBN 0-8229-5798-1

As scholarly disciplines go, literature's fascination with categories is second only to that of biology. This proclivity for classification is doubly evident when one reads any compendium that represents the work of multiple authors. Editors are often interested in what fits well together—a concern that alludes to the primacy of voice in North American writing—and too often that tendency prompts us to call all shades of a color by one name. We expect authors in an anthology to compliment one another, and for the result to be a certain stylistic harmony.

In her introduction to Sin puertas visibles, Jen Hofer writes:

It is my hope, then, that rather than serving to delineate the false and flimsy borders of a nation called "Mexican women's poetry," this book will provide multiple vantage points from which to explore how some women choose at this moment to engage poetic practice in Mexico, while simultaneously serving to question the very impulse toward literary nationalism and gender essentialism which would desire such delineation.

                      —Pre-Texts (6)

Yet with each demolition of an extant category, new categories arise in its place. Hofer steps carefully, knowing that one needs only whisper anthology to set in motion the manufacture of a new category—one that erodes difference, and unites its conscripts under the banner of sameness.

This aversion to uniformity is, to my mind, one of the hallmarks of Hofer's own poetry: a staunch refusal to make things jibe simply for the sake of categorical consistency. Those she selected for inclusion reflect her taste for heterogeneity: they hail from many different areas of Mexico, vary in age from early thirties to mid-forties, and while being mostly urban and university-educated, differ greatly in terms of theory and praxis.

It is no coincidence, then, that this volume would begin with Cristina Rivera-Garza's poem Tercer Mundo (Third World), which takes as its subject a term no less imaginary than the poem that describes it. For Rivera-Garza, the Third World is

at the far edge of the far edge
about to exist and about not to exist like faith

                      —Third World, (24)

These lines hint at the tension between the phrase third world and the places to which that phrase refers. Few terms have attained a wider currency than this one, the irony made all the more acute by the fact that the third world is itself a first world construct: an act of the imagination fueled by media images of the developing world as a hotbed of misery, corruption, and poverty.

By taking the third world (a fiction) as the subject of a poem (also a fiction), we are left gazing through layers of unreality, feeling not so much defamiliarized as discombobulated, urged by the denizens of an unnamed city—where "good-for-nothings were highly useful beings"—to accompany them to The Terzo. Like nostalgia or heaven, the third world is constantly described as being elsewhere—somewhere distant and unreachable, unknown and unknowable.

The unknowable writ large figures prominently in the work of Angélica Tornero, who writes in her poetics statement:

When I was thirteen, I wrote romantic poems; as for the book
I'm working on now, I don't know what its style will be. I'm
not interested in talking about my style as singular, about the
univocality of my poetics. By nature I'm multivocal and open,
in constant motion. I declare myself in dialogue with the world;
my constancy is constructed in relation to what is other. I want
to keep listening.

                      —"As For My Poetics," (72)

It comes as no surprise that one who represents herself as being "in constant motion" would be heir to so supple a poetics: a condition similar to what Nietzsche called "the constant re-valuation of values." Like Wile E. Coyote, Tornero charges over the precipice and finds that, for a brief moment, her momentum is enough to carry her. What she imagines (the Other) almost materializes, a poetics very nearly realized—in this moment she suddenly becomes aware that there is no land beneath her feet, and she falls back to earth.

Yet that refusal to reach the stage where poetics become systemic and solidify into belief, is a precondition for creating what Lyn Hejinian calls an "open text":

In the "open text," meanwhile, all the elements of the work are maximally excited; here it is because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) argument that they have taken into the dimension of the work.

                      —"Language of Inquiry," (43)

If the author, like other formal elements, remains maximally excited, and if, as Hejinian intimates, the ideas embodied in the work are exceeded, what we are left with is writing as a way of knowing, as a legitimate means of inquiry, and as a vehicle for arriving at a conclusion so tenuous that it is contradicted by the sounds of its own articulation, thus creating, as Tornero suggests, a kind of

profound falling that didn't wear out with writing,

when it is flayed
the fractals, positron, and the effect of the process of making yourself.

                      —from "Photographs on Someone's Lips," (60)

The creation of self through writing presents a different sort of conundrum for the editor. Editors leave an indelible mark on those texts they handle, and if the editor is also a translator (as is the case here), she must take particular care not to overwhelm the texts with her own mannerisms. Translation, at its best, is an act of co-authorship which creates a shared space. And while no translator can remove herself completely from a text, a certain degree of transparency, though difficult to achieve, is certainly desirable.

That differences in style and sensibility are so carefully preserved is a tribute to the care that went into translating this volume. A considerable breadth, coupled with a rejection of patently "Mexican" and "feminine" themes, make this a book that exceeds its form, and in so doing, gives us what anthologies so seldom provide: variety.

EPR #4: Review of Etym(bi)ology by Liz Waldner


© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review