Analfabeto / An Alphabet by Ellen Baxt
(Shearsman Books, Exeter, U.K., 2007)
I first read Analfabeto / An Alphabet shortly after it was released in 2007 and was appreciative then for its lush language. But when I read it again recently, I was struck by how much more the second experience resonates, and I know why: for the past few months I have been looking through the eyes of my newly-adopted teen son. So when I read a line like
Pressure of proximity
I feel recognition. It's like how, three months into his new English-speaking country, my Colombian son is feeling pressured to speak (more) English. I know he understands some of the English he hears, but that's a different engagement than speaking it. Pressure of proximity--it's a source of stress, a struggle.
It's this transition phase between two worlds, two cultures, two languages that is (partly) addressed by Analfabeto. It's during such a transition that a concept like "affection or / disease" (12) makes sense though they are not literal opposites. During this transition, one is "illiterate" of not just language but of the new life into which one inevitably will be enfolded.
However, what is gorgeous--what makes Analfabeto's experience transportative and then transformative--is how this neither here-neither there phase blossoms into the mysteries and uncertainties from which poetry can emerge. For instance
Let me land in the open air. A swallow, an Easter lily.
They corked his Everything's fine. The guards aimed with firearms.
When I write I think I've made a noise. Looking up, the quiet is startling.
Gorgeous. But scaffolding these fragments is not just the beauty of the language but the intermingled prose that journalizes travels between the U.S. and Brazil. These vignettes are also evocative, even as their specific circumstances reveal the roots of fragmentation elsewhere in the book:
It is embarrassing to smell bad so there are three four five showers a day. It is not embarrassing to be a little chubby. It is embarrassing to miss dance class because I am afraid of the dark in the blackout when a lady is screaming in high heels running. Near Parque Treze de Maio and all the parks and bus stops and tailors and bakeries and newstands there is a blackout. The lights brown, hum, then apago! a woman is screaming. In the dark, the ball of her epiglottis trembles. Her scream comes closer, then backs away. It has a trill, like a flute. I stand too close to a man and his girlfriend who look up and ask what I want. I stand next to twin police officers because they have guns. Today I don't get mugged and I am not threatened with a gun. I also don't dance ciranda in the room with the wide wood planks and a mural of the poet Manuel Bandeira or flirt with the dark Italian. Skirt billow.
Many parts of the book come off as a pelicula in slow motion:
A hilltop room, Our Lady of Conceicao/Oxum. I back away from a pair of transvestites like bears, slowly and without turning around. An old woman faints -- the weight of the hoop skirt or, the spirit mounted her. A watermelon was smashed open. Afterwards, all the people had one hand full of popcorn.
Combining with the text are generous blank spaces on pages which enhance a dream-like quality to the reading experience. For instance, the above excerpt is printed as a paragraph on top of a page. The page faces another page that is mostly blank except for three lines at the bottom:
Stay, you must stay the night. The bus doesn't pass. Goes only to Port of Hens, not the city. Do not worry. Tomorrow will return you. Tomorrow.
What results is an effect that transcends the impetus of this project: the specifics of history, globalization if you will. It's how a Brazilian teenager comes to observe, "Our language is polluted with English."
Yes, there is "pollution" throughout Analfabeto. But in meditatiting over the book's themes, only some of which I address and which is summarized on the book cover as
"shifts in identity -- cultural, gendered and sexual. It addresses the complications of translation, not only linguistic translation, but also the multiple ways we translate ourselves when we are away from whatever we might call 'home'."
Analfabeto never loses its sense of wonder. And it is this determined purity that lingers in the reader's (this reader's) mind. There is suffering; but one keeps looking forward for there also is persistent beauty:
Long means far. Near means pertinent.
Excuse me, may I use your fire? There is much wind.
You are very beautiful. With burning I will stay with you.
Analfabeto's alphabet -- nay, alphabets -- remain in memory as quite lovely flames.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere: two reviews of her first 2009 book NOTA BENE EISWEIN -- one by Grace C. Ocasio at at Jacket 37 and the other by Joey Madia at New Mystics (July 2009). Her second 2009 book FOOTNOTES TO ALGEBRA was also reviewed recently by Jesse Glass at Ahadada. You also might check out Jean Vengua's engagement of one of her poems from THE BLIND CHATELAINE'S KEYS over at YouTUBE! Last but not least, she just -- just! -- released a chapbook in time for holiday gift-giving: ROMAN HOLIDAY.