The front cover of Roberto Tejada’s Mirrors for Gold reproduces a print by Theodor de Bry in which Amerindians pore molten gold down the throats of Spanish conquistadors. The back cover tells readers that these conquistadors, “[a]rriving by vessels that landed at Vera Cruz in the sixteenth-century . . . proffered mirrors to natives of Mexico in exchange for gold.”
The tension between the front and back covers — the struggle between colonizing and being colonized; between treating another body as an object of desire and having your own body (or throat) penetrated — runs through the whole of Tejada’s book. Although his poems are far from stylistically uniform, Tejada is explicitly interested in economies of exchange, and in these complex exchanges, the political, sexual, and psychological become different faces of one another.
Take, for example, “EXEDRA,” which come toward the end of the collection:
All these conclusions about the lack of something,
shafts of light or shifts of desire,
with eyes closed your initial kisses caught me looking,
how much the gesture, each contour of your blossoming
skin firm lines made pink across the brawn and furrows,
salt lofty tone of flesh as I left to eradicate
the antonyms of becoming here — and living there endless,
the glass brick melting.
In a dream our tribe was called Equivocal, Irreparable,
and I could hardly get this hand around your phallus:
repeating Mud Dog Mother to myself
— while the water of bodies
in the earth evaporated.
The incorrigibly Lacanian references “lack,” “phallus,” “looking,” and “Mother” locate readers immediately in the heavily fraught discourse of psychological inquiry — not the self-discovery of the romantic subject nor the self-expression of the contemporary lyrical agent, but a self emerging out of the larger tradition of innovative writing after the gains of twentieth-century thought: the subject of Mirrors for Gold is trying to figure out what kind of selves we have and what those selves have to do with other selves. For Lacan, “lack” is the empty space between the aim of desire and its object — it is the space we want to fill, or close. That space between the self and the object, however, defines the self — our essential character rests in the fact that we are divided.
Thus desire is endlessly unfulfilled, and the self’s identity emerges out of its perpetual act of desiring, which is often figured as a gaze, or the process of “looking.” The phallus enters this interaction as the privileged signifier, the one that sets the chain of signification in motion and anchors our understanding of sexual difference. Importantly too, Lacan’s great insight was that the object of desire looks at us, so that our selves are shaped by the gaze of others as well as by our own looking.
Granted, the above description of Lacan’s project is absurdly truncated, but to see how these terms begin to play out in Tejada’s poem does provide a sense of Mirrors’s preoccupations and procedures. The opening lines of “EXEDRA” give us a subject powerfully drawn to his lover’s body, but a lover who still remains at a distance from that lover and from himself. The lover’s “skin” is rendered in close-up as it “[blossoms]” on the page; we are brought close enough to see the “lines made pink across the brawn and furrows,” and the “salt” of the sixth line hints at a subject licking the lover’s body and perhaps swallowing his semen.
The erotic change of these lines, however, quickly moves into a more psychologically complex register as the speaker leaves to “eradicate / the antonyms of becoming here.” Hearing the word “coming” in “becoming here,” a pun made explicit by the “eradicate” of the previous line (which recalls the association of self-destruction that an orgasm carries with it), these lines suggest to my mind the emotional power of the coital moment when, just for a few seconds, two people feel lost to themselves and immersed in the body of another. The act of “leaving” oneself to destroy the opposite of “becoming here” is in this sense a resistance to shifting back into one’s own skin.
And yet, even as these lines reflect the temporary ease of the ego during climax, they equally highlight the persistent estrangement that accompanies the sex act and the condition of being a lover oneself. It is not that the other’s particular body cannot fully satisfy the subject of the poem, but that no body can — satisfaction itself is not attainable. The speaker has to “leave” to be “here” in the first place; when he leaves himself at the moment of orgasm he also pushes himself away from his lover inasmuch as, at that instant, their bodies are entwined. In other words, the subject has to be a self away from the object of desire to be a self that can join with another. Here we see Lacan’s “lack” reflected in paradox of these lovers’ union.
The proceeding lines confirm this parallel rupture: the lover’s “kisses” catch the speaker “looking” even with his “eyes closed.” He stands apart, psychologically, watching the lover and himself; he loses himself in his lover’s body and fixes himself as a subject in the cool gap between his flesh and the flesh of another. The act of looking that makes the above sexual intimacy possible also keeps the lovers apart.
The poem even embodies this dilemma in its formal structure. The first line of the poem begins, “All these conclusions about the lack of something” and then moves straight into the lines already discussed. The comma at the end of the line keeps the line from completing itself. In fact all but line three of the first eight lines are dependent clauses; no period appears until the end of the eighth line, and it does not create a grammatically correct whole. The “lack of something” thus pushes into the erotic energy of the following lines to define itself and finish its thought, but this “lack” can only become partially clear as the grammatical loop is left incomplete.
“EXEDRA,” and Mirrors for Gold more broadly, is not, however, merely a poetic illustration of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Instead, the book uses the intellectual pressure of psychoanalysis, which at this point most readers are familiar with, to allow the poems to shift between their various political, artistic and sexual concerns. The act of looking that centers the above exotic exchange also locates readers in the legacy of colonialism that haunts Mexico. Lacan used the visual arts regularly to unpack his arguments, and Mirrors for Gold reflects this practice as many of its poems make reference to art objects or spaces. (A poem titled “Field” earlier in the book, for example, makes reference to Antony Gormley, an Irish artist whose work often focuses on the body as a kind of environment, and the book itself opens with a poem about a Mayan sculpture.) In “EXEDRA,” we see this artistic concern and “looking” most clearly in the line “the glass brick melting.” Given that the back cover informs us that Tejada was living in Mexico City when he wrote these poems, we can, I think, take this line as a reference to the Art Deco interiors of Mexico City from the 1940s that made use of glass bricks. On a narrative level, then, we see the speaker and his lover in a room decorated with these bricks where the former proposes they “[live]” “endless[ly].”
What we consequently get in these lines is the collapse of the opening erotic moment of the poem into the urban landscape of Mexico City, a fusion that shifts readers into the complex heritage of Mexico with its mix of European and indigenous culture and blood. The way in which the Art Deco interiors “melt” reflects, for one, how the history of colonialism puts Mexico at odds with itself. Just as the Lacan’s lovers are perpetually divided from one another even as they find who they are as selves in their desire for each other, the contemporary “self” of Mexico (and perhaps all “new world” countries, the United States not excepted) comes into existence as a contest with the “Other.”
That is to say, the struggle between self and Other that is the recurring motif of Mirrors here becomes a cultural as well as sexual contest: as the poem highlights Mexico’s appropriation of Art Deco from Europe and draws the Latin American country back across the Atlantic, subtly acknowledging Mexico’s Continental paternity, the liquid state of the bricks themselves asserts the fundamental instability of this European identity. Not coincidentally, the melting bricks put readers in mind of the molten gold from the cover. And the reflection of gold in the glass of the poem reminds us of the people who lived in what is now Mexico before the Spanish arrived and the troubling history of contact.
Nevertheless, the violent history that “EXEDRA” invokes in these bricks does not just put pressure on the body of the colonizer as a colonizer, as we have come to expect, but as a body that is also acted upon. The idea of having gold pored down your throat, and in the poem, having the room melt around you, asks readers to consider how becoming the focus on the Other’s gaze renders one’s self more complicated, more uncertain, more unknown, more fragile that the confident conquistador would expect. The final lines of the poem intensify this reading as the “tribe” of the speaker is called “Equivocal, Irreparable” as he repeats the phrase “Mud Dog Mother” to himself, an image that suggests, in its disturbing Freudian associations, a body driven by unconscious desires and illicit contacts that have the power to locate that body in a sexual and political landscape beyond its own reckoning.
This section of the poem also contains the line “I could hardly get this hand around your phallus.” As with the lines adjoining it, this line, with a subject who cannot master the “phallus” of his lover — he cannot get his “hand around” it — shows us an object of desire, a colonized body, now not entirely grasped. The privileged signifier, at this point at any rate, belongs to the Other in the poem; here the speaker becomes recognizable as the subject of his lover’s (his other’s) unwieldy desires.
Intriguingly, these political tensions find their formal expression in the book on the level of style as well. The drawn out, breath-centered lines of the poem — lines like “All these conclusions about the lack of something” and “how much the gesture, each contour of your blossoming / skin” — place Mirrors for Gold in the open field poetics of the New American poetry. And yet, it is a style greatly impacted by the Spanish neo-baroque aesthetics of writers like Lezama Lima and Gerardo Deniz. Adjectives like “blossoming,” references to a dream, and the rhetorical flourishes in lines like “the antonyms of becoming here” function as adornments. The poem takes on a lush quality more in keeping with the architecture of Mexico City than the houses of Gloucester.
Equally important though is the apparent influence of the Objectivists on this book, perhaps Oppen most clearly. Puncturing the longer lines of the poem are more compact lines like “the glass brick melting” and “in the earth evaporated.” The ostensibly long line “salt lofty tone of flesh as I left to eradicate” is even interrupted by two extra spaces, which turn it into three very short ones. The complex literary inheritance of the poem creates a varied textual field for any reader attuned to questions of literary tradition. And in that textual space, as readers move through poems attempting to come to terms with New World Hispanic identity and explore what it means to have a self in the confluences of same-sex desire, all through the multifaceted poetics of North American avant-garde poetry, they undergo an incredibly rich and lyrically dense experience — and in this way Mirrors for Gold manufactures a formal and intellectual synthesis and complexity wonderfully in keeping with its own jumbled lineage.
To reference the back cover one last time, Mirrors for Gold appears to hint at an anxiety about the timing of its own publication, citing the fact that Tejada wrote the poems between 1988 and 1992 when, while living in Mexico City, he awoke to “the valuations ensuing stateside on avant-garde practice and identity politics.” Given the time lapse between the heyday of identity theory and politics and our own moment, it makes sense that there would be some anxiety around the publication of these poems, given their concern and form of attention.
However, I think the poems in Mirrors for Gold escape any time capsule effect because they do not reduce themselves to the tropes of 1990s identity theory. Instead, Mirrors for Gold gives us a readable self. Certainly it is a fluid body open to inspection, but this self does not appear to be a lesson about selves, which would make it unbearable. The subject in these poems is the kind of self an author pursues in order to figure him or herself out. By offering this evolving self to readers Tejada opens his poems up for his readers’ own use — for thinking about their own selves — and this textual mutability strikes me as one of the more worthy undertakings for a book of poems to attempt.
Author Roberto Tejada was born in Los Angeles, California. From 1987 to 1997 he lived and worked in Mexico City where he founded the English-Spanish journal Mandorla: New Writing From the Americas, an annual of advanced poetry and poetics. His poetry has been featured in United States and Mexico, including Sulfur, ACTS, O.blek, Global City Review, apex of the M, Trafika, and The Poetry Project, as well as in The Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative American Poetry 1993–1994 and The Best American Poetry 1996. He edited En algún otro lado (Editorial Vuelta, 1992), an anthology of twentieth-century poems on Mexico written by North American and British poets. His art writing and catalog essays include Graciela Iturbide: Images of the Spirit (Aperture Books, 1996), and In Focus: Manuel Alvarez Bravo (J. Paul Getty Museum), an exhibition on which he served as guest curator. He has written for Afterimage, Aperture, SF Camerawork, and is the author of Gift + Verdict (Leroy, 1999) and — in collaboration with artist Thomas Glassford — Amulet Anatomy (Phylum, 2001), and Mirrors for Gold (Krupskaya, 2006). He is associate professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego.
Reviewer Joel Bettridge is an Assistant Professor in the University Studies program at Portland State University. His first book of poems is That Abrupt Here (The Cultural Society Press, 2007).
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