“us look up / there red dwells” by Jose Felipe Alvergue

October 22, 2008

Here’s something we can argue more about later: there are no experimental writers. Or, in a sense: all writers are experimental.

            What makes a work experimental? Is Ulysses experimental? Now that time has passed, now that it’s widely read and has been dissected time and again, now that it’s understood, can it still be considered experimental? Does that mean it was experimental, but that it isn’t any longer? Is Finnegans Wake still experimental? And if it is, is it more experimental than Ulysses? Can there be degrees of experimentation?

            Maybe it’s the word, experimental, that’s the cause of the problem. In the realm of the arts, it refers to the exploration of new techniques, new concepts, etc. In it’s broader sense, an experiment is a course of action taken which leads to an uncertain outcome. Such a course often, but not always, involves the scientific method. 

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point a perfectly valid description became a genre, complete with its own standards and conventions. Today’s experimentalists are no more experimental than newspaper journalists. The techniques used are only variations (if they are variations at all) of prior experiments, the outcomes of which have been studied, understood and either accepted or rejected, depending upon the critic. When a work is deemed experimental, what is usually meant is that the work is fragmentary, is lacking in plot, uses collage, etc. But to mean anything, the word experimental has to be more than a list of characteristics that can be checked off one at a time.

            Perhaps the real problem is that a word like “experimental” has no place in literature, where every composition, every word set down on a page is an experiment. Does this word work? Will another work better? Is this, in fact, what I’m trying to say? How can I better say it? Every writer must ask themselves these questions as they work. Through trial and error, through note taking and the editing process, through the comparisons of one draft of a text to another, all writers become experimenters. (Each new metaphor is an experiment.)

            I mention all of this because, at first glance, Jose Felipe Alvergue’s us look up / there red dwells will appear to be an experimental text. (See? A title in lowercase, with a slash no less—what could say “experimental” more than that?) But deeming it experimental will draw a metaphorical line in the metaphorical sand. Something that could have been read and understood and enjoyed by a wide(r) audience will only be open to readers of experimental poetry. And of those readers, most of the discussion will revolve around its degree of experimentation.

            Which is unfortunate, because the book deserves to be read.

            us look up / there red dwells takes as its subject two women being smuggled across the Mexican border. On arrival, just outside of San Diego, a car hits them both. Only one survives. The survivor (Eutiquia) is deported back to Tijuana with a severed spinal chord and a wheelchair. The drunk driver who hit them was never charged, tried or convicted. The coyotes who drove her across the border are currently serving time. It is a difficult subject to write about, much less be poetic about, and in less capable hands the piece would have easily fallen apart. Alvergue recognizes this himself and, when poetry seems insufficient, he reproduces news reports of the incident (the story he is telling actually took place). The news clippings are not a way of giving up, however. They serve to carry the text and the reader forward, standing on their own, without comment. In a way, he is simply employing the same technique used by Karl Kraus a century ago: the news reports are so absurd, the lack of justice so great, that Alvergue simply has to reproduce them to get his point across. And he knows, too, that the news reports do not tell the whole story. The poems then take on a greater significance. They are absolutely necessary, in a way that most poetry is not.

            (Should it seem like I’m making excuses, I should mention that, although the “story” is about the two women, it’s equally about the way the media handled the story, the way it was packaged (literally, right down to the creases in the morning paper), and the way it was accepted by the readers. The reproductions are vital in the telling of the story.)

            Alma traces with her finger as she sits on top of Eutiquia’s head, her delicate head. She traces the tubes & the lights, them, to her. Eutiquia seems keep machines. Door is a window, window is a window. Everyone open. Everyone works to keep machines in breath. Alma breathe-in hearing, voice like the breathing. A city at night. The breathing of rain. Cloud holding in the dampness. Everyone asks now. Everyone prays. Alma hears their voices voicing. Fill. The hospital & she fear. The fragile buildings. She knows the strength of cars. Their wheels do not stop. They will push through you.

            The poems (or poem…it can be read as one long poem, a long poem in fragments, or a series of separate but interconnected poems) fall somewhere between impressionism and pointillism. Such descriptors, taken from another medium, usually don’t mean much, but in this case I think they are entirely apt. When first reading the poems themselves, they seem chaotic, a barrage of words and images, fragmented phrases. But when a piece comes to an end and the reader is given the chance to step back and take it in as a whole, a definite impression is left behind. It’s here, too, that the news reports come in handy. The do not explain what you’ve just read, nor do they make it any more clear. They simply offer a second perspective in a language we are more familiar with, one that is neither clearer nor truer than the poems themselves. (Put a Monet painting of the Seine next to a photograph of the same scene. Which one is more real? The gut will say the photograph because it’s more easily recognizable. But the more correct answer is both. Or neither.)

            There are a few missteps along the way: pages consisting of solid blocks of color, a four page diagram that I’m unable to decipher, and my verdict is still out on the silhouettes of birds (angels?) which flit over a couple of pages of text. Maybe these things will become clearer to me as I revisit the work again. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they really are missteps. But even if they are, it’s all right: every experiment requires a few of those. And if most experiments result in failure, this one certainly does not.

            A final note: us look up / there red dwells was published in 2008 by P-Queue Books. A PDF of the entire work can be found, free of charge, on their website. That said, the book was designed, typeset, illustrated and printed by the author and the final product is one of the nicest books I’ve ever held. It’s something you’ll not often find in chain bookstores, and something you’ll never find printed by a major publishing house. If this review or the PDF stirred your interest, I can’t urge you strongly enough to drop the $8 for the physical book. 


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