“My psychoanalyst begins our session by saying that the desire to be a mother isn’t the same as the desire to have a child.” When I read this line, in a book-length essay by Mexican poet Isabel Zapata, I hear the echo of another line with an acutely similar shape: “The desire to die is not the desire to be dead. Anyone who has ever been in love knows this,” says Jericho Brown, in a recording of a lecture I listened to some months ago. Is it fair for my mind to link these lines? One concerns the desire to make life; the other, the desire for life to end. Maybe they speak, if from opposite directions, into one shared void: the space between condition and action, name and object, thought and touch, estar y ser, living and life—the space where so many of our griefs begin.
Reading Isabel Zapata’s sparks of thought, collected throughout the author’s process of in vitro fertilization, I am brought to the edge of many voids. Her fragmented prose chronicles the experience of becoming pregnant, of giving birth, of early motherhood. We are witness to the misogynistic horrors of the medical-industrial complex and to the gendered cultural imaginations of motherhood. The book recounts not only the anticipated birth of Zapata’s child but also the death of her mother. Though her work appears, in moments, to be a remembrance of the past, it could also be regarded, in other moments, as an act of dismemberment: hopes, beliefs, desires, and expectations come apart in Zapata’s spiraling lines. We are given a telling of daughterhood and motherhood that doesn’t shy away from the jagged, the unfathomable. We are never spared the difficulty of the body or of the mind.
Some English-language readers may be reminded of Maggie Nelson’s fragmentary style when reading Zapata’s work, though Nelson herself reminds us that “fragments are as old as the hills, which are fragments of mountains.” Paragraphs sit like islands in white space, occasionally accompanied by watercolor renditions of ultrasounds, or by medical charts. “No ancient civilization could resist the allure of using imaginary lines to connect the little shining dots that appeared in the night sky,” Zapata reminds us at one juncture in her prose. She must have known that her readers, too, could not resist the pull to imagine the lines between her shining paragraphs, to cohere the incoherent, to sew her book together. Zapata anticipates the parallel task of cohering the world for her baby, making it intelligible, “showing her how sunlight hits certain objects, shining until it hurts them.” This is a question Zapata’s work confronts with a steady gaze: What are the risks of true illumination? A sun, which illuminates, must also burn.
Like Nelson, Zapata braids quotations throughout her writing; a reader swims out again and again from the shores of others’ thinking. In this way, the book seems only to accrete meaning, never arriving at any single mode of thought, resisting our desire for culmination. The poet Jorie Graham reminds us that a poem might “stop” instead of “end.” I think, by necessity and to its great credit, this is a book that stops. Instead of tying the text neatly together, lulling us with the promise of completion, Zapata permits her book to fray.
“Words are alive… the entire world is contained inside them,” writes Zapata in one moment of the book. But the book itself seems bruised by all that cannot be named. Zapata is a writer who speaks via her silences, who signals toward the void. Of course, the entire world is not contained inside words; of course, there is a grammar to our silence. Anyone who has ever been in love knows this.
Publisher: Coffee House Press Page count: 160 Price: $16.95 Key quote: “We already have hopes and beliefs about you, and we deposit them into your ghost before you exist, not even knowing you will exist.” Shelve next to: Josefina Vicens, Alejandra Pizarnik, Clarice Lispector, Valeria Luiselli Unscientifically calculated reading time: One characteristically turbulent flight between Bogotá and JFK