The practice of supplementing a textual archive of the life of family members along with photographs, documents, and other visual materials has been a trend in recent collections of poetry. López Medin’s collection, along with books such as Eleni Sikelianos’s The Book of Jon, Monica Ong’s Silent Anatomies, Claire Meuschke’s UPEND, and Hoa Nguyen’s A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, invites the reader into the sometimes arduous task of collecting the past. López Medin highlights the steps in her matrilineage with word repetition: “you are a mother, she’s your mother’s mother” (emphasis in original). What is unspoken and unheard between generations takes root in the poems, and the poet yearns for what is encrypted and what might be unearthed. As her detective work commences, she reveals two somewhat devastating facts: after her mother received a letter from López Medin’s grandmother, “she would read it once, then rip it to pieces” (emphasis in original). Consequently, “she was able to send me only 2 of her mother’s letters.” We also learn that her grandmother abandoned her mother for three years when she was a young child without explanation. Intent on finding out more from her mother, López Medin sends her a written questionnaire:
… Out of 20 questions,
she skips 4. I can’t remember, she answers to another 4. For the rest, the
most repeated words are: to sew, to clean. As a postscript she adds: no
more speaking of this, what’s past is past.
In her pursuit, López Medin must surrender herself to her mother’s and grandmother’s grasp of the world, one which traffics in breakages, tears, and partialities.
Sewing and its ritualistic labor function nimbly in many of these poems as a figure for poetic fabrication. Calling on the reader’s participation and understanding, López Medin sometimes incorporates a visual representation of stitches by employing rows of em dashes to divide various sections of a poem. It seems relevant to mention here the fact that much of stitching remains on the rough or “wrong” side of a garment, the side worn closest to the body, unrevealed to the external world, an illustrative example of things resisting exposure. In addition, many of these poems contain words and phrases that are displayed in bold type, as indicated in quoted passages above. This device seems to give prominence to those words that are heard clearly — existing in a kind of relief — by one who is hearing impaired. López Medin’s often reluctant, but nonetheless potent, glimpses into her own family biography reveals to her, not surprisingly, the process of composing a lyric poem. Becoming hyper-conscious of this engagement, she suddenly sees in her mother a kind of counterpart:
How she [the mother], because of her hearing impairment,
is permanently reconstructing
sentences from fragments, isn’t that
López Medin’s own expressive need to listen and remember is movingly enacted in the long poem, “Underexposed Photo or What My Mother Said About Her Mother.” Its lines seem to flash by in a reel, illuminating shards of memory and experience:
she always the same
she was there and I was here
she would write every two no
every three months the letters
she would write to me
but not tell me she told
of dresses oh
I don’t know and
I don’t know
I was gone
don’t know what they used to do I couldn’t hear
I don’t remember ever
The startling aural effect of this poem’s employment of cuts, repetitions, and hesitations serves to aid in breaching barriers that loom between mothers and daughters. Perhaps a reciprocal attentiveness is necessary for any sort of resolution or understanding to arrive between them.
Much like the poems’ untethered phrases, the photographs that appear in the book hover in an elusive space. In Understanding a Photograph, John Berger reminds us that “[a photograph] isolates, preserves and presents a moment taken from a continuum,” and goes on to say that “[a]ll its references are external to itself.” We empathize with López Medin’s yearning for more of the story to give way, to reveal itself, for the “continuum” to activate. In a text beside a photo which depicts herself, her mother, grandmother, and an infant, she admits: “Another scene that I try to write rises. I stop. I can’t inject motion into it.” While underscoring the notion that the path to discovery and reckoning is frustrating, she sometimes probes scenarios that constellate around, but not in, the photos, dispersing the image from its fixed time into peripheral thoughts and memories.
On one page we see a photo running as a horizontal strip near the top, a photo that depicts the poet as a young child looking at her mother’s mouth with only the bottom half of her mother’s face visible. In the poem below the photo, she asks herself the same question she asks her mother: “What did your mother look at the most?” The poet’s own answer is “my mouth.” She “needs my lips to read what I say through them.” The mouth becomes the link to understanding. Yet reading further, we learn of a scene beyond the photograph — that once her mother’s hand covered her (the daughter’s) mouth, “To see what I would look like without it. Without the piece of me she needed the most.” This gesture of blocking out, creating a barrier to the means of understanding speaks to the impulse and desire of her mother to disengage. This occasional insistence on non-resolution reasserts the ebb and flow pattern of telling and withholding.
Why insert a barrier into a domestic space which is already perilous, into “a house that holds so many pins?” López Medin seems to suggest that the holding together of parts is tenuous and those attempts come with trepidation. Containment becomes elusive and perhaps even undesirable. In the final poem of the book, “Poem That Never Ends,” López Medin devises a litany for several pages in which she poses enigmatic actions and incidents:
Mama draws all the family
Mama paints a self-portrait.
Everything is a self-portrait
she gets tired of.
Mama transports words to another tongue.
Mama changes her own words.
Mama bites her tongue
so many times, so afraid to lose it.
Here we witness the poet’s persistent laboring to comprehend and, ultimately, to honor her mother as we dwell on these statements that turn and fold into one another, suspended in a kind of temporal uncertainty or lyric time, in a poem that never ends.
Molly Bendall is the author of five collections of poetry, including Watchful from Omnidawn Press. Omnidawn will also be publishing her next collection, Turncoat.