Book Reviews

Drowned Rooms

by Jay Aquinas Thompson | Associate Editor

This Blue Novel
Valerie Mejer Caso
Translation by Michelle Gil-Montero
Action Books, 2015

The legendarily fussily French poet and critic Paul Valéry once said he could never write fiction because he’d never wish to pen a sentence like “the marquise went out at five.” Valéry was irritated both by the sentence’s mundanity and its pretended specificity: why a marquise, why at five precisely, and who cares anyway?

Valerie Mejer Caso, in This Blue Novel, addresses Valéry’s anxieties. In a book-length poem that calls itself a novel, she creates a hybrid form—a fictional family tale told in broken lines—to return to life the two sides of her family, the “two houses that sink like ships” into loss, tragedy, and the immense distances of time. Mejer Caso’s strange sentences are anything but mundane, and their specificity has the authority of remembered detail: “The sea is the spitting image of this sleeping girl / and nothing like Texas”; “I was nearly nine when a fever consumed me, / and cotton fields budded in my left lung”; “On the stairway wall the portrait / of Doña Isabel de Porcel bore witness to the Fall.”

This Blue Novel begins with the consciousness that to arrange even remembered details is to invent. “Yesterday, in free fall,” Mejer Caso’s speaker says, “I drew the door that I now open.” She dredges up the memory of the English and German grandparents who brought her to Texas “where I went deaf from immensity.” She also brings back to the surface the Spanish “house” of her great-grandfather Don José; her grandmother Luz, who copied Goyas; “Ramón, who at thirteen / one Christmas Eve dined to death”; and “Teresa, daughter of Spanish flu / who was two years old forever,” for whom her mother is named.

The book is interlaced with blown-up, hazy black and white family photos—grinning men in suits, women in stiff collars, boys in sailor costumes squinting in the sun, Mejer Caso herself as a child cradling her father’s rifle—which creates a feeling of intimacy the book pushes back against, somewhat, through its formal difficulty. Though This Blue Novel possesses some of the psychological shape of a family novel, in its movement back and forth between a speaker’s conscious reflection on her past and her attempt to furnish and inhabit that past, Mejer Caso’s speaker tells her story without any of the explanatory stuffing and scene-to-scene stage directions that so bored Valéry. This means that following the book’s movements through time and memory takes attention, but the book is so intensely beautiful sentence by sentence that the reader won’t begrudge it.

“Life remains intact / in the drowned rooms,” the speaker says, and the life she rediscovers in the sunken houses of the past is charged with eerie particulars. Describing her Spanish great-grandfather, who “let life go,” she makes his body a vessel for a family history told through possessions:

A wave drags the drowned man to shore.
He is the following objects: bronze dog, mirror,
beastly mahogany desk,
Gobelins tapestry of a shepherdess,
cameo, invitation to the baptism
of my mother’s grandmother (five printed names),
and notebook in which sharp, meticulous calligraphy
delineates limbo.

“The dreams of the dead leak ink,” she writes elsewhere, suggesting that they have present existence only in her writing and that, paradoxically, they themselves compose the elements of the life around them, as the drowned body of the speaker’s great-grandfather does here.

Moving by harmonies of image and feeling rather than by chronological sequence, This Blue Novel constantly reminds the reader of its basis in lyric poetry. But Mejer Caso’s speaker is unconsoled by the sort of radiant epiphanies or single legendary moments that otherwise characterize lyric writing. She feels acutely the burden of knowing a future its characters don’t, in an environment where obscuring and arbitrary rain falls “from the future” and a “cloud of ill portent hovers over a date”—the date, perhaps, of the “disaster” alluded to earlier in the section “when my grandmother wished me dead.” As a present witness to a past story, Mejer Caso’s speaker sees the return of her family’s dreams to final loss. Where there was a house, there is now “[j]ust the pit that once struck them as promise.”

What is blue about This Blue Novel? Blue in Mejer Caso’s poem is suggestive of infinity, the “limitless limit” of the sky and sea, a longing pressed on the speaker in childhood:

The weight of my body sinks with things:
machines, with their gloss and grease, their motorboat drone,
the child portrait of my father before the disaster,
and most of all the black piano with its mouthful of teeth.
I’ve pinned these objects to the margins
of the only divine likeness I know: the blue mountain,
hung first in the hallway and again at six
on the saddest road in the world: the road to the tropics.
(It’s true, hell is hot.)

The heavy particulars of her memory are arranged like courtiers around this sublime, kingly symbol of the mountain. But “when my hand reached for the blue mountain,” the speaker says later, “air wove through my fingers.” Just as the house is now a pit, the mountain in its blue distance can be yearned for but never grasped. The character in the book whom the speaker most resembles is, poignantly, her aged mother Teresa, frail (“they dress her, wash her, comb her hair”), and perhaps demented, for whom “everyone is alive, / even her father, thirty years dead, / even the virgin who steps on a snake” just as they are for our dreaming, remembering speaker. Or perhaps it is her grandmother, Luz, who in her devotion to methodically copying Goya’s art makes a text of herself, “carv[ing] coordinates into her body” as the speaker herself feels a “novel scrawled from my neck to my shoulders.”

Translator Michelle Gil-Montero writes in her foreword that, in This Blue Novel, “every word is a proper noun”: characters may come and go, dead in one section and vividly alive as “orphans” in another, but the act of telling their stories can charge these lost lives with a mysterious particularity, what Gil-Montero calls a “thisness.” This is vividly suggested as the speaker, then a young child, is first seized by mythic tales other than those of her own family:

Black flowers live
in the tale of a murderous grandmother.
I know it, like Hansel and Gretel knew it,
and all children
who live with sentences etched in their skittish flesh.
Black quails live
in a murderous grandmother’s purse
and wrestle
in the cave of her infantile sex.

The image of the grandmother in monstrous birth suggests the trauma which the imagination is capable of inflicting. Likewise, the book itself at times seizes agency from the speaker and dictates its own litanies of terrifying vitality.

The book is the one reading me,
and the book is the one writing me.
It writes that, in slow winter, light tongues
the blades of leaves.
It writes that oranges rot on the patio,
bamboo staggers, palms clamber up walls,
that the ash tree is altitude,
and every tree chokes back the chime of bells.

The power of these evocations means that, perhaps, there is some relief for the speaker when, at the end of This Blue Novel, the dredged-up houses of memory sink again into the sea, “the wave clos[ing] like an opera curtain” over “lambs and sugar,” “paintings and bullets.” This Blue Novel is a story of a family’s past, not of its future—we hear of the speaker reading poetry to her own child, but she does so in a world separate from “this vision” of Novel. But the poignancy and thrill of This Blue Novel is that the past isn’t truly past. We remember in a present instant: a moment lost to time is no longer lost if we, as Mejer Caso speaker does, recall it to life and populate it with our ghosts.