This Body, This Rapture
Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Sacrifice of Isaac (1635) is based on an Old Testament story. The painting’s three figures are Abraham, ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah; the boy, who lies on the altar with his hands bound; and a winged angel, sent at the last moment to prevent the death. (In the Biblical narrative, Abraham instead kills a ram.) More than his Catholic precursors Caravaggio, Rubens, and Pieter Lastman, who also memorably depicted the same episode, the Calvinist Rembrandt tries to make its drama palpable. Abraham smothers Isaac’s face, wholly covering the boy’s eyes, in a gesture at once tender and heartless. The knife, knocked out of Abraham’s hand, glints in the sun. The angel’s face radiates an otherworldly composure, throwing into relief the patriarch’s anguish.
In “The Embrace,” an ingenious essay on Rembrandt, the critic John Berger draws attention away from the painting’s religious allegory to a seeming technical flaw: “Isaac has the physique of a youth but in proportion to his father is no larger than an eight-year-old!” Berger notes that human bodies are “seriously dislocated” in the artist’s other works, such as Women at an Open Door (1656), whose subject has a too-large right arm, and St. Matthew and Angel (1661), set in a room too cramped for its figures. The errors are perplexing, not least because Rembrandt was a master draftsman. Warming to the dilemma, Berger suggests that these paintings deliberately subvert the spectator’s point of view, all the better to evoke “corporeal space,” the way its characters physically feel: cowed by paternal authority in The Sacrifice, brimming with power in Open Door, close to the divine in St. Matthew. “It is the space of each sentient body’s awareness of itself” that Rembrandt pictures. “Before his art, the spectator’s body remembers its own inner experience.”
Two recent poetry collections by Mexican poets explore the mystery of the body’s inner experience. Coral Bracho’s It Must Be a Misunderstanding (New Directions, 2022), translated by Forrest Gander, is a sequence of short, restrained poems that charts the poet’s mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease. A central thread is the loss of sensory memory, which takes a psychic toll:
The house revolves
and each room is new
when she enters. She knows
—or pretends to know—that those rooms are hers,
and that she’s
the hostess who must show them, again
and again, so they can be shared, touched,
and freshly forgotten: again
Gloria Gervitz’s Migrations (New York Review Books, 2021), translated by Mark Schafer, marks another kind of passing. Gervitz died in April at age 79. This book, written over more than 40 years, is the only text she ever published. By turns searching and self-doubting, vivid and gnomic, it is less a story than an extended variation on certain themes: sexual desire, familial memory, and Jewish immigration to the New World. (Three of her grandparents fled Eastern Europe for Mexico in the early 20th century.) These are brought together in scenes of visionary sensuality:
the day dissolves in the hot air
green erupts within green
I spread my legs beneath the bathtub faucet
gushing water falls
the water enters me
the words of the Zohar spread open
the same questions as always
and I sink deeper and deeper
in the vertigo of Kol Nidre
before the start of the great fast
in the blue haze of the synagogues
The books make for an interesting pairing. Bracho watches her mother’s body close in on itself; Gervitz celebrates the renewed vitality that comes with old age, when “you can love with more passion, be more open to sex . . . which also makes you more vulnerable,” as she tells Schafer in a moving conversation included in this edition. Bracho’s mother gradually loses touch with reality; Gervitz is raptly attuned to her surroundings. Spanning relief and pleasure, pain and disability, they restore readers’ sense of what Lucy Ives defines in a recent essay as the vagaries of “embodied being”—“the flickering interstices between what’s physical and what isn’t; the gaps between matter and spirit, language and action.” Casting a light on innermost human drives, these collections invite readers, as Bracho says, to “look through them / into the world: / that disquieting, incomprehensible / strangeness."
Bracho (b. 1951) and Gervitz (b. 1943) belong to a generation of Mexican writers who grew up in the shadow of the Cold War and began writing in the 1970s and 1980s. As the critic Ilan Stavans has argued, the national literary culture experienced two key developments in this period. The first was a turning away from the leftist engagement of previous decades—when the Spanish Civil War and fight against fascism were points of reference—out of disillusionment with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which massacred student demonstrators in the capital in 1968. The second was a widening of cultural horizons, spurred by an influx of foreign writing in translation, much of which appeared in Octavio Paz’s influential journal Vuelta, which, Stavans notes, “served as a bridge between Mexico and the rest of the world.”
No figure did more than Paz to shape Mexican letters in those years. Poet and translator, literary critic and cultural essayist, political commentator and art historian, anthologist and editor, he was effectively a “renaissance of one,” to borrow Michael Hofmann’s description of Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Bracho and Gervitz have freely admitted Paz’s influence. “It was a revelation,” Gervitz said of reading Freedom on Parole at age 26. “I barely understood it, but I was stunned. It was one of the most important encounters of my life. It was like an earthquake in the core of my being.” Bracho spoke at an event honoring Paz’s centennial in New York in 2014.
What each poet got from Paz was less a style or a subject than a conception of poetry. His mature work showed how verse could break free from the ego, creating a force field in which the self, the natural world, and history flow into one another. Here, for example, is a characteristic stanza from “Blanco,” (1966), quoted in Eliot Weinberger’s sparkling translation:
A pulse-beat, insisting,
a surge of wet syllables.
Without saying a word,
my forehead grows dark:
a presentiment of language.
[. . .]
Castiles of sand,
shredded playing cards,
and the hieroglyph (water and ember)
dropped on the chest of Mexico.
I am the dust of that silt.
Echoes of Paz can be heard in Bracho and Gervitz, though each has charted a highly individual path, and the trajectories of their careers are a study in contrasts. Bracho’s early work, which Spanish-language critics describe as “neo-baroque,” is marked by verbal luxuriance, arrestingly indeterminate syntax, and a forager’s attention to flora and fauna. Her typical poem is a kind of nature study in which the poet’s eyes caress organic textures—coral reefs, jellyfish, sap, algae, “unguent plants,” “alveolate racemes,” and much else—and find in them an unlikely correlative for inner stirrings. A paradigmatic example is “Firefly Under the Tongue,” from her second book, Being toward Death (1981), which won the El Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes and, Gander believes, “probably changed the course of Mexican poetry”:
I love you from the sharp tang of fermentation;
In the blissful pulp. Newborn insects, blue.
In the unsullied juice, glazed and ductile.
A cry that distills the light:
through the fissures in fruit trees;
under mossy water clinging to the shadows. The
papillae, the grottos.
Like Paz, Bracho proceeds through association, moving from one motif to the next, rather than sketching a unified description. Her images, however, are less symbolic than his and more tactile (pulp, juice, moss), and her music, which Gander superbly re-creates, is less ringing and more sensual, slowed down by punctuation. As he notes, the poem feels “poured onto the page,” its soft, rounded sounds resembling the substances named. “Words here act as sensual receptors to unify sensations,” the scholar Jill Kuhneim observes. “The reader is agilely propelled through the text’s slow, paused rhythm.”
Over subsequent volumes, Bracho tones down her lush imagery and connects lines logically rather than metaphorically. Her style becomes direct and pellucid, although still radiant. “Dawn Images,” from The Disposition of Amber (1998), is a tour-de-force description of a lawn sprinkler—is there a less poetic subject?—that doubles as an account of metaphysical restlessness: “Water from the sprinkler obscured the scene / like a fog, / like white-hot flame, mistress / of itself, of its shifting spew, of its / ritual / and cadenced pulse.” Bracho’s early poems survey a kaleidoscopic range of objects, but her later poems tend to frame a single, enigmatic picture. “They Began to Call You,” from Hotel Room (2007), recounts a mystical encounter with Earth: “They began to call you, the rocks, breathing, / their innumerable visages, their gesticulate / throbbing, / from a cliff face.” In her more than four-decade career, she has won prestigious awards—a Guggenheim, the Xavier Villaurrutia Award—collaborated with visual artists, and published eight books. A selection of work from 1977 to 2008, which Gander also translated, appeared as Fireflies Under the Tongue (2008).
Gervitz’s path was more uncertain. Beginning in the 1970s, she assembled one, endlessly revised text, working on it in fits and starts, taking breaks for long periods, at times feeling, as she admitted, that poetry had abandoned her, only to find a burst of creative energy between 2014 and 2018 that got her over the line. (The critic Jacobo Stefami compared Migrations to The Book of Questions by the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès, another vatic, deeply personal work that went through several revisions before being published as a single volume in 1979.) Unlike other 20th-century, book-length poems, such as Charles Olson’s Maximus or Pablo Neruda’s Heights of Macchu Picchu, Gervitz’s endeavor began on a whim, with little notion of the task ahead, much less of structure. “I had … a few lines that start the poem, but they didn’t really make much sense to me,” she tells Schafer. “I decided to write them down, and it was like opening a faucet. Of course, I never knew that I was entering what turned out to be a life’s project.” These are the lines, composed in September 1976, when the poet was 34:
in the migrations of red carnations where songs burst from long-beaked birds
and apples rot before the disaster
where women fondle their breasts and touch their sex
in the sweat of rice powder and teatime
vines of passionflowers course through that which stays the same
cities crisscrossed by thought
If Paz travels through a labyrinth of knowledge, and Bracho comes up close to the animate world, Gervitz stands between the two, combining natural and abstract images. Intriguingly, she also conjoins them, as when passionflowers “course through that which stays the same,” a line framing the contest between desire, ever renewed, and death, ever present. It is typical that she drops this idea immediately after articulating it, moving on to something else. Those rapid-fire transitions, coupled with the verse’s steady, lilting music and conveyed by Schafer’s use of assonance and internal rhymes, give the impression of a spontaneous overflow rather than a progression. Metonymy, Schafer notes, is the governing logic of the poem, whose components are joined by and, in contrast to “male discourse, [which] tends to be hierarchical.”
The first version of Migrations appeared in Spanish in 1991 and in English in 2004. At its longest, the book contained seven parts: “Shajarit,” “Yizkor,” “Leteo,” “Pythia,” “Equinoccio,” “Treno,” and "“Septiembre.” When she received galleys of the final Spanish version in 2019, however, Gervitz excised much of the autobiographical material as well as chapter breaks, epigraphs, dedications, and all punctuation and capital letters. “At that moment I saw that all these different elements were like dikes,” she tells Shafer. “And I just had to take them out and let the poem flow.” Awarded the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry in 2019, the complete volume brought her belated attention in Latin America, although perhaps not enough. “What is strange,” the critic Nicolás López-Pérez notes in a 2020 article in Cine Y Literatura, “is that a figure of Gloria Gervitz’s stature has gone unobserved, rendered invisible.”
These two books, which gather power in sequence, weave different linguistic textures. It Must Be a Misunderstanding unfolds chronologically as its subject slides inexorably into the dark, her struggles with memory, and her hallucinations, growing more intense. The untitled poems are roughly organized into “Observations,” which describe the terminal patient fumbling through the “abstract space” of the memory care facility, and “Intuitions,” which slip into the old woman’s diminished faculties. Bracho further pares back her style, which here relies on descriptive chains of nouns and verbs, largely unadorned by metaphor, at times close to speech—there are some dialogues between her mother and other patients. Her tone is calm, unsentimental, more reflective than expressive, calling to mind the “formal feeling” that Emily Dickinson said arrives “after great pain.”
Many poems dance on the edge of presence and absence as Bracho’s mother abandons a task or a speech or a thought midway, her inner lights dimming: “The puzzle pieces / get lost but not the look / she knows to be hers. / The forms, the objects, they merge, / they crumble; but a feeling / for the ensemble remains.” At times, her attention revives after a period of silence: “The melody returns from the depths / along with her words; / it surges forward / and takes its place with them, / enjoining them to converse.” At other times, wires are crossed, and she sees what is not there: “And she shows me the red face of a jaguar / that turns into a cat. It has / such a calm, questioning look, / and everything around is yellow. / Now all that remains is that angle / of its ear cocked / to listen.” Most poignantly, faced with the loss of sensation, she retreats within:
That place you speak of,
when you haven’t been able to speak for so long,
when you can no longer
recognize your house, and faces have been erased,
and their stories. That place
where “love” waits; the “most important thing,” you tell me,
it’s “within you”;
that place that is yours, and that sustains you;
that opens you to the world.
The poem turns on a series of paradoxes: speech returning when there is nothing more to speak of, love regained when all that is beloved is forgotten, the outer world recuperated internally. Bracho alludes to her theme—that “place”—at the start, then delays naming it, instead piling up qualifications and hinting at its qualities, indicating it cannot be pinned down in words. Perhaps what goes unnamed is the “corporeal space” that Berger found in Rembrandt. For the poet’s mother, the “most important thing” is rooted inside, in the body.
Gervitz, too, blurs the line between inner and outer worlds. Usefully imagined as a collage, her book splices together different modes of writing: visions of the poet’s grandmother fleeing to Mexico—“and that smell of wet wood / that damp briny smell”—and of her mother growing up there; glimpses of Mexico City, including a rapturous 14-page tour through a mercado; long—some readers will feel too long—accounts of intercourse and masturbation; meditations on time, religion, loss, aging, and memory. It is not immediately clear how the parts relate or where one ends and the next begins. Characters are not identified; scenes, such as they are, begin in medias res. “One of the problems in reading Migrations is its indeterminacy,” Stefami reflects. “It is not known with certainty who is speaking, to whom one is speaking, and where one is speaking.” But that’s one of the book’s attractions too.
Gervitz employs an anarchic mix of styles and makes effective, often bold use of blank space, using line breaks and indentation to mimic jumps in consciousness, much like Lorine Niedecker, whom she translated, and on occasion spreading just two or three lines across the page, like Olson, whom she quotes. The descriptive parts tend to be made up of longish, melodious lines, filled with telling details: “they prepare the room for the ritual bath / the walls are daubed with almond oil / the thick shine of the mosaics and the submerged ledges / and the women waxing their legs coo like doves / in the white eucalyptus steam.” By contrast, the philosophical sections are built out of short, dense, scattershot lines, each striking with a physical impact, meeting the dictum of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym Bernardo Soares, who says the poet should “feel with thought”: “in the waiting / in the annunciation / in the stillness that precedes the visitation / that precedes the name // in the sheer beauty of return / in the fever / in the obliterated perception.” The two approaches are brought together in depictions of autoerotic bliss:
I push down my underpants
pull down the starched sheet over me
and touch my young vulva
slip my fingers in
[. . .]
I close my eyes and say filthy girl
saying it excites me
and the feeling spreads
takes me completely
covers me completely
and I am this body
this rapture this vastness
I’m in the pleasure within the pleasure of pleasuring myself
The writing here sits on the knife edge between immediacy and roughness, courage and overexposure. That is by design. Recalling an episode from early adolescence, Gervitz uses the language of her much younger self while reframing it with the wisdom of hindsight. What the young girl experienced as vertiginous joy, the older poet understands as a moment of profound self-knowledge. That shift is signaled by the orgasm’s transformation from a sensory event—“the feeling spreads,”—to an ontological claim: “I am this body / this rapture.” The last line cleverly holds both sensation and conviction, reflecting what Berger calls “the sentient body’s awareness of itself.”
Harris Feinsod’s Poetry of the Americas (2017), a survey of US and Latin America writing from the 1930s to 1960s, makes the case that poets on both sides of that cultural divide owed more to each other than they liked to admit. He draws innovative connections between Wallace Stevens and Jorge Luis Borges, who displayed an inverse xenoglossia, using words from the other language; Olson and Neruda, who appealed to indigenous heritage to subvert nationalism; and Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Derek Walcott, and Heberto Padilla, who were all drawn into the ambit of Cold War statecraft. Feinsod’s account ends with Paz traveling to Paris in 1967 to compose a renga—a kind of Japanese chain poem—with three other writers, pointing toward a more glamorous cosmopolitanism.
Could a similar study be made for the decades since the 1960s? Certainly there are points of overlap. In the first place, US poetry found a wide readership in Mexico during the period. “This is the first generation that, as a generation, has been able to avoid reflexive anti-yanqui sentiments,” Weinberger notes in his introduction to Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry, a 2001 anthology that includes Bracho and Gervitz. “Their discovery of American poetry has had as profound an impact as the American discovery of Mexican and Latin American poetry in the 1960s.” Translation has notably flourished. Gervitz, for instance, translated poems by Niedecker, Rita Dove, Susan Howe, and Kenneth Rexroth. There are also formal similarities. With its mixture of rapturous perception and cryptic intellectualism, as well as its good cheer, Bracho’s work, as several critics note, resembles John Ashbery’s, which could be described as “neo-baroque” as well.
Perhaps what contemporary avant-garde US and Latin American poets share above all is a desire to carry on the legacy of modernism while doing away with its ideological pretensions, its belief in a grand narrative. In that sense, Bracho and Gervitz are exemplary. One a miniaturist and the other a maximalist, one serene and the other turbulent, they illustrate how the mystery of embodiment can be plumbed in poetry. A modest subject to some, it is, in fact, fundamental.