In the novel “Where Reasons End,” Yiyun Li, who had recently lost a son to suicide, imagines a dialogue between a mother and child after his death, a conversation held outside of time and space as the living know it. The narrator struggles to communicate with her son; she tries a cliché and he rejects it: “The unspeakable is a wound that stays open always, always, and forever,” she says (or thinks — this dialogue is in the mind, like everything that happens in Wonderland, yet “realer than dreams”). “That makes you sound like a mediocre self-help book.” We can read the novel as the narrator’s argument with herself, a series of attempts and corrections, failures to say or know quite what she means. The argument becomes a more precise, and more tragic, expression of her grief than her side of the argument alone.
If Li counters platitude through fantastical illogic puzzles, Mejer Caso does so through the wildness of poetry, which does not even try to be logical. Her work draws inspiration from the painterly imagery of the Surrealists and the absurdity of the existentialists; at times it’s reminiscent of the rapture of Rilke’s “Duino Elegies,” at others of the linguistic oddity of César Vallejo’s “Trilce.” For if grief warps language it also warps time, and therefore reality. “From the Mountain,” a poem from a section called “Siempre es antes” (“Before Is Forever”), begins: “Its pages tear / or are torn, / or they are not pages but wings. / The landscape is a woman dying. I read it. / Because I suffer, it makes sense.” These “pages” seem to belong to her brother’s notebook, a journal found after his death at a hostel in Edinburgh, as well as to the book we are reading, a book called “Edinburgh Notebook.” “I’ve reached the point on the mountain / where there’s no way back / except to fly,” she writes. The pages of the journal and the poem both offer passage to the past — and yet. “To return / would mean that no time has passed, / that nothing happened. / But yes, it did happen.” The paradox is possible because the “landscape” of the poem is outside time.
In “Quicksand,” the speaker remembers playing childhood games (“you step there, you die there, said my brothers, with a finger drawing the circle of the end”) on a day when the family’s dog was hit by a car — or perhaps the memories have become muddled, as symbols of panic and sinking. “My dog groaning, I race across the sheet, it seemed like pomegranate blood because, desperate, we think nonsense.” I misread “sheet” as “street” at first — there is a phantom street in the poem, of course, where the car must be. But there is also a bedsheet, which the children use for a stretcher. (The Spanish for sheet is “sábana,” so close to “sabana” or savanna, another kind of sand.) The tenses get confused; memory blurs into present, where the protective layer of italics falls off: “help me get him on the sheet … there, that’s it, there’s still a chance for poor Bobby, hurry, hurry, his master shatters and will shatter forty years later when he jumps from a window in Edinburgh.” In the timeless time of the poem, the past knows the future, and while there’s still a chance for Bobby, there’s not, abruptly, for Charlie. Charlie is in quicksand.
It’s fitting, in a way, to read about grief in translation — it forces us to contemplate the difficulty of finding original expression. It’s as though being one step further removed from what’s happening in the mind actually helps us understand it. Mejer Caso’s poetry cannot be equal to who is lost, but it can create something out of language that’s immortal, both terrible and precious. In the poem “Third,” she writes of another impossible landscape: “There is spurious mourning, night of the night.” (Again, the translation presents a useful misreading: spurious morning.) “There is a tree flayed by a giant. There is a cracked vessel on an avenue of laurels. Someone taller than this house writhes in a cry that disjoints the neighborhood.” Is the giant Charlie’s ghost? “I hear your voice saying its say,” she writes, “I hear its will railing through my body. … It’s a falcon of words.”
This frightening, ecstatic poem ends with an echo of “Quicksand,” an ending that, in English, suggests, without using, “heart” and “wrench”:
I love you: I hear your wings tearing apart
in frenzied flight through the deep trench of my chest.
Hurry, hurry, holy bird!
Without the overfamiliar words, the pain is still familiar.