No one I know writes like Mónica de la Torre. Many use some of the same techniques, the much-loved and now over-famous Ashberian non sequitur, for example, but even so she has a subtle and disarming way of tying her dissimilars together. In her poems, we encounter odd characters who meet in David Lynch-like accidental fashion. Small bizarre incidents coalesce into a sign of our own mirrored, uncertain world. The very camera which would explicate the internal state of the subject, has no film in it. The speaker in her poem "The Script" warns someone, "You thought this would be / a dance lesson." It might be to us readers, that the speaker speaks. Reading these poems is decidedly not like the dance lesson where each toe and tap is programmed for a dedicated performance. There is rarely any straight linear movement in a de la Torre poem. Those who enter hoping that each new line will be a boulder of information or description that may be added to the border between shore and sea will find the going rough. But meaning flickers and finally flares in correspondences that patient reading reveals. De la Torre is a translator (from the Spanish) and knows that even one's native language is never more than an inadequate translation. Rather than relying on false certainties and pat recollections, she offers up a fine-tuned sense of the ridiculous, a world of tomfool capers with a hint of the macabre. In "The Script" she goes, within lines, from the confrontationally direct—"To pretend there's meaning when all that comes out is a 'My dog loves me and he's no showboat.'"—to a concise and cagey comment on language's angular trajectory from sound to meaning—"To leap from canopy to can openers to can open her."
For de la Torre, each poem is an improvised moment. Her quirky characters act according to scripts that are both strangely familiar and refreshingly strange. Rasputin, a shadowy figure in the court of Tsarist Russia who preached an odd doctrine of religious rapture and sexual fervor, shows up in the second section of "The Script." He is "on the lookout." We are left to ponder his presence (after all, we have been warned—"You thought this would be / a dance lesson, / things were easier then. / No marimbas, no clarinets; / only a longing for the fun / to begin") and to wonder how he will fit into the stage play. Magdalene (Mary Magdalene? A figure who is herself associated with any number of belief systems, both Christian and pagan, and is held by some to have dried the washed feet of Christ with her hair) is described next as having "multipurpose hair," bringing into question the idea of the many or singular purposes of a woman's hair. We're told someone named Kumernis "had it in stocks / where and when she needed it, on her beard especially." Who is Kumernis? Does she have a beard? "Anything / to keep the Barbarians away / will do." What comes to mind is that a woman might well wish to disguise herself as a man in order to escape attention (and sexual molestation) from Barbarians. Next comes the sinister, "Chopped noses, / rotten chicken stuffed in corsets." The corsets seem to tie this matter to women, and the chopped noses might possibly be connected to the Barbarians. Or to the mysterious Rasputin who some say despotically ruled the court during the Tsar's absence. Or is Rasputin an icon of sexual innuendo? It's impossible not to try to wrap this cascade of facts, the flotsam and jetsam of historical figures who come to us as names attached to vague stories with multiple readings, into a single narrative, but we are stopped in our tracks with a pronoun shift. "We were told that the demons / would come out in Maine. / They hate recollections and certainty. / Their favorite verb is sabotage." What kind of demons are these who so love to sabotage that they have taken history and cut it up into snippets and given it to us unwoven? Demons who distain false surety in a world filled with Rasputins and Barbarians, disguised women, chopped body parts, and the reek of rotting carcasses. What place is there in that world for certainty? What is recollection but a refictionalizing?
Rasputin is reinvoked in the final section of the poem: "Rasputin helps one to recognize inspiration; but, oh, what could imagination be?" The rhetorical question about the imagination is answered by a list of gestures and behaviors that are broad enough to encompass the murky world hinted at in the previous sections. Even the idea of writing the poem is called into question, "To think there's nothing to say." And then that coy line quoted previously, "To leap from canopy to can openers to can open her." What can be opened here? Meaning isn't easy to extract. There is no simple opener, manual or electric, that can help us come to terms with complexity. The poem ends with what sounds like both a reassurance and an imperative—"You've begun, now use your props."
This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2003 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.