The Rapture Uncharted


The Perforated Map,
Eléna Rivera (103pp, 8.95, Shearsman)


This book represents Rivera's first full-length collection to be published in the UK, although some of the work herein has previously found publication on these shores. 'Disturbances in the Ocean of Air' appeared in Stand in 1998 and won first prize in the magazine's International Poetry Competition and 'Mistakes, Accidents, and a Want of Liberty' - a text which incorporates material from The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave - was published as a chapbook by Barque Press in 2006. These two very different UK appearances reveal something interesting about Rivera's international appeal. She was born in Mexico City, grew up in Paris and now lives in New York City, and her multi-cultural background seems to have informed the way in which her poems seem at once both complex and accessible - not taking communication for granted.

The book is divided into four sections, but various threads traverse the collection and make it read as a sustained, focused enquiry. Each section has a small fragment placed at its opening, which in turn become the first four parts of the title piece - the last in the book. Similarly, a five-part poem 'The Colors Project' is dispersed throughout the book at intervals, and there also seem to be structural and thematic homologies between longer poems and poem-sequences, such as 'Suggestions at Every Turn' and 'Poem with a Line Drawn Across the Body'. Most remarkable is an extraordinary physical fact about the volume which binds it together - every sixth page has a fine, almost invisible perforation on the verso which divides it in half, top to bottom. There is no reference to this in the book itself, and folding the pages along the perforation does not produce effects which seem intended, although some of them are interesting. Clearly there is a resonance with the book's title here, and also, I would suggest, the evocative photogravure (by Lothar Osterberg) on its cover - part of which shows dark thread stitched through some kind of fabric. If, as the cover text suggests, Rivera invites us to think of language itself as a perforated map ('Reading, something relinquished | forced a 'you' onto the map.' (p.38)), then the actual perforations suggest a kind of liminal puncturing of language's surface; a stitched seam with the thread pulled out, or a selvedge which is capable of folding in on itself - or over onto itself - in time, with consequences for how we might orient ourselves within it. This seems a productive image for thinking about how Rivera's poems proceed and captures something of her critical stance towards language and other matters.

The opening poem 'Ars Poetica' declares: 'I am drawn to explore aspects, | features of the seen/heard' and uses a startling image which seems to be drawn from Saint Thomas' encounter with the risen Christ: 'I slip in your side, | indistinct, || a moistened hand.' (p. 13) This is the beginning of an embodied poetics that unfolds throughout the course of the book as a means of knowing and being known. 'Disturbances in the Ocean of Air' which comprises numbered prose and verse sections offers observations such as: 'My head is at the level of my mother's hand. I press my cheek against her soft smooth hand'; 'I hear the sound of my body; it lies supine on the wet bed' and 'when the inset crawled on my body it seemed like such a big thing' (all p. 16). Such moments, here and throughout the book, show a negotiation of one's own physical presence and that of others - leading almost inevitably to an embedded discourse of desire: '"Desire without the object of desire?"' (p. 17) and later: 'we contradict, | slip into | desire dense with specks.' ('Crossed Out', p. 21)

This analysis of embodiment and desire is also fully implicated by gender, and this is handled in a fascinating way through images of containment and vision - windows, doors, rooms, camera - which delineate the framed spaces in which the protagonist of these poems can move:

   There was no room,
   words in the way of
   rooms, [...]
   Shut inside a house
        ('Suggestions at Every Turn', p. 26)

In this poem's uneasy domestic space, the female protagonist is sitting by a window looking down 'thinking of sinking' (p. 29) and speculates on how, if 'existence might be thrown like a dime' (p. 34), its effects could be deadly: 'from the 9th floor, drop a dime | between pauses, could kill' (p. 35). Indeed windows as a whole are full of threat: 'windows allow for the possibility of falling, looking, breaking. | Whole lives spent in museums, on shelves, behind windows' (p. 37). If this is a room of one's own it is far from a refuge for the protagonist: '"it has become unbearable...turning | into something that isn't what I was"' (p. 42).

Rivera returns to this scene in 'When the Shadow Filled Window Opens' whose tone and syntax reminds me a little of Jennifer Moxley's poetry:

   At that particular point in the day when the sun
   becomes a loaf of bread, high enough that I can
   open its container and look out of the window,
   I keep my gaze directed away from annihilation
   and worrying traces of destruction, that abyss
   of the self.
       (p. 57)

This extraordinary poem tracks a thought process alive to the risk of daydreaming, whilst confronting the thought of a female acquaintance who has self-harmed: 'she hadn't been able to | help herself, to keep from cutting, until now' (p. 58). This is all managed from 'the desk a place to think quietly' in which the writer's activity is figured as building 'a great variety of structures' in order to diminish 'the distances between thought and action' and to examine 'things from different vantage points' (p. 60). If this can be read as an account of Rivera's own poetics, then it seems to describe a rigorously ethical and politicised creative practice.

The poem 'In the Frame of the Door' offers the most direct account of an embodied poetics, in which the narrator compares her writing practice to the way in which '"thought is written on the body"' (p. 48). In what seems like a reflection on childhood memory, the poem negotiates 'the language of the body', recognising how, perhaps problematically 'without someone to listen, without language | "she couldn't enter the moral life"' (p. 49). One of the book's most resonant images for this relationship to language emerges in these lines:

   Standing in that courtyard (you could almost
   see through language, into its interior,
   that boiling chamber; its nouns and pronouns
   revealing absence,

   blockading movement)
           (p. 49)

This 'turn inward' (p. 49) - with an unmistakeable pun on the turn of verse (which occurs throughout the book) sets the scene for a kind of analysis in which knowledge of the body of language is tantamount to self-knowledge. 'Poem with a Line Drawn Across the Body' (p. 50)  explores 'what the body gets used to' and recounts an internalising of language during childhood: 'the child taking those words into | the inner recesses, the corners, the cracks — / A physical calamity at the cellular level' (p. 52) This kind of knowledge includes death as well as desire, as in one of the book's two nods to Sylvia Plath: 'dying is an art and we do it not so well' (p. 53). In a world in which a story can rip 'the lines of our "self" to shreds' (p. 56), Rivera follows Simone Weil's counsel: '"the body | plays a part in all apprenticeships" (p. 56).

The third section of the book, which incorporates fragments of Frederick Douglass's narrative is perhaps the most direct expression of the politics that follows from Rivera's poetics. 'Mistakes, Accidents, and a Want of Liberty' opens with '"thinking of my life, I almost forgot my liberty" and this idea resonates throughout a sequence where each poem opens with a word or phrase from the previous. In a poem which sets itself to negotiate the difference between '"a slave in fact" and | "a slave in form"' (p. 77) it is clear that 'the relation between a buyer and his money—| A manifestation of "I" and "Mine"' (p. 69) has applications well beyond the history of slavery:

   Greater than, lesser than, the equation
   of product equals trash equals trade,
   acquires pattern, assails this subject, taints
         (p. 71)

Even the section from 'The Colors Project' that concludes section three contains images of contemporary forms of enslavement in the form of drug dependency and prostitution in which the body is

   emptied        filled            inebriated     impoverished
   pushed into                      Mauled         and man-handled
         (p. 79)

The final section of the book is most suggestive of the mapping metaphor, in its minimal texts locked onto the page with as much an eye for their visual patterning as what they disclose. These pieces resonate with incredible poised tensions (also in evidence in Rivera's recent chapbook On the Nature of Position and Tone
(Fields Press, 2012)) around the theme of suffering: 'suffering is always with us | does it matter what form it takes?' (p. 91). In this 'everyday | apocalypse' (p. 100) the poet approaches 'the rapture | uncharted' (p. 83) with the mapping impulse: 'Map out the source of panic | familiar || tension' (p. 94). Whilst asking 'what | motives inspire         our | struggle?' (p. 85) it is clear that writing remains the means of this struggle: that when we are 'forced to face oneself' (p. 89), we must 'wait | until the words grow' (p. 87). This is a poetics that another of Rivera's sources, George Oppen, might have endorsed and whom Rivera quotes in the powerful phrase: '"the known and the unknown | touch"' (p. 92). This poem forms an impressive conclusion to this scrupulous, intense, discriminating and passionate book whose courage might be summed up in these further lines from the title piece:

   Our generation
   grieves
   immobilized by the urge
   to yield
   let me
   bear it          well
         (p. 95)

It is my hope that Rivera will continue to grace our shores with her writing for years to come.

      Scott Thurston 2013