Monday, May 11, 2020

It Pierces the Skin: out of the universe of fiction, images, the word and astonishment.

It Pierces the Skin: out of the universe of fiction, images, the word and astonishment.
by María Esther Quintana Millamoto

The mini short stories in It Pierces the Skin (FlowerSong Press, 2020), which straddle the divide between prose and poetry, could generally be classified as vignettes because of their emphasis on the description of characters, scenes and landscapes, and also because they evoke the feelings and sensations belonging to the protagonist, Violeta, whose presence throughout the text unifies the collection of  brief stories that make up the book. Violeta, a Salvadoran refugee in the United States and a writer and traveler, appears in different places throughout the narrative, such as New York, Madrid, Lisbon and Athens. These spaces constitute the geographic framework of her psychological trajectory along the pathways of melancholy due to a love lost, with no hope for return or atonement. Far from telling Violeta’s story in a lineal fashion and tracing any causality between the narrated events, It Pierces the Skin avoids temporal markers with the goal of emphasizing the emotional effects that key experiences in her life have had on the protagonist. These include childhood abuse, her emigration to the United States, her travels and the breakup with Pedro, among other things.
The first text, which also gives us the title of the collection, is an indictment of the brutality of the war in El Salvador, since the protagonist remembers that when she was a child she had to flee abruptly—by train—from the Salvadoran soldiers who suddenly appeared near her house with machine guns. That thought leads to another, current and present: the cancelation of the Temporary Protected Status or TPS for Salvadorans. Both reflections are sparked by the sound of a train and by a small cut that the protagonist suffers in her kitchen. In this way, a connection is made between Violeta’s private experience, in other words, the microcosm of the violence she has experienced personally, and the macrocosm of the violence in El Salvador and the anti-immigration politics carried out by the U.S. government. As with other texts in this collection, nature, here embodied in the song of the woodpecker that Violeta hears in the garden and in the trees that she sees from her kitchen window, helps her find peace in a foreign land: “She was soothed by the chirping sounds coming from the thick bushes.”  The social theme, constant in Caraza’s writing, is also found in “43,” a story that alludes to the disappearance of the 43 normalistas in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, in September 2014, where the narrative voice imagines itself as one of the victims who lie beneath the sun with no tomb and no justice: “In the darkness of the night, I felt warm blood trickling toward my eyes. . . ‘I’m from Ayotzinapa’. . . I am the 43.”
Beyond the social commitment, It Pierces the Skin’s poetic and introspective prose is designed to evoke universal feelings and moods through the emotions that the protagonist experiences, especially the ones that have to do with disappointment in love and the sorrow that stems from it. In this sense, the landscape is fundamental since it situates the protagonist’s memories geographically, thus facilitating the work of mourning, as we see in “Lisbon and the Sea”: “The song of forgetting is embroidered upon its history. That which remains is fading: the sighs, one hand that barely touches the other. Nothing remains, not even blood laden with pain.” In other vignettes, the protagonist ventures through the terrain of a more direct erotism, such as in “The Nereid,” where Violeta imagines herself as one of the sirens enshrined in the blue tiles of a museum she visits in Lisbon: “If I were a design on the clay surface, I would be a whirlwind engraved for all eternity. I rest in the small cloister, drawing words, imagining colors on the page . . . . If I were an azulejo tile, I would live in this house as well, waiting for you, disrobed and aroused.” “The Nereid” emphasizes the intimate connection that It Pierces the Skin establishes between the visual arts and literature, like technologies that capture the instant to preserve it in images and writing.

Another element that is fundamental to It Pierces the Skin is the musicality of the sentences that, along with the beauty of the images, emphasize the author’s stylistic concerns. One paradigmatic example of this is found in “Peacocks,” a micro-fiction that reveals Caraza’s intuition and her confidence in the power of anaphor to orchestrate—sometimes alone and at other times with alternating alliteration—the rhythm of her prose: “The females—absent, distant, naked—waiting by the sea. Born of Venus, born of sea foam.” The précieux description of the peacocks and the musicality of the prose brings to mind the modernism of Darío’s swans. However, their personification creates a sense of estrangement in the reader and, in this way, she is able to imagine them from an innovative perspective, thus adding originality to their description.
If It Pierces the Skin is in dialogue with the literary tradition, using images conventionally associated with the landscape of romantic poetry—especially its connection with the feelings of the poet—images such as the moon, the waves, twilight or the wind (“Once Again, the Train,” “A Pinch of Sunshine,” “I Am Yours,” “It Blows Toward the South,” “The Voice of Dawn,” “The Time of Swallows,” the last one as an obvious homage to Bécquer), on the other hand, some vignettes emphasize the contemporary nature of the writing, mentioning elements of technology or the current urban landscape (such as the skyscrapers or boats of New York) with which Violeta connects emotionally or intellectually. The vignette “False alarm” is one example: “‘The light from the screen and from the moon are similar,’ she thought: white, cold, penetrating.” The computer screen acts as a metonymy of the writing, which is the only activity that can take Violeta out of her “chaotic thoughts” and lead her to a “A world of words, metaphorical. A world where . . . [t]hings happen . . . , poems are born from the tables, from glasses, from cups” (“Parallel Life”).
            Like Pablo Neruda, Caraza discovers poetry even in the simplest of objects, which is something only the intuition of a poet can achieve. In addition, the author reminds us that literature is an effective way of creating order within the chaos of life, denouncing injustices, seeing the world with new eyes through a filter of sounds and metaphors and, in that way, creating and imagining a different world, out of the universe of fiction, images, the word and amazement.

María Esther Quintana Millamoto
Texas A&M University

(Original text in Spanish, translated by Sandra Kingery)

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