Valerie Mejer Caso’s ghosts make a home in the cavities of This Blue Novel. In houses, bodies, and names, any image of beauty can suddenly reveal an element of decay or the remnants of a disaster: “The pit still has a pulse. Maybe mine.” The moments of light turn out to be will-o’-the-wisps that lead to the edge of a maw:
thanks to something light-like
that isn’t light
and, still quite dead, she says and said and will say
that she wedded that German young man because he could
devour a whole cake in one bite.
The dead often speak this way in This Blue Novel, with a resonance in every part of time. Past, present and future, they say, said, and will say. The book constructs itself around the instability of time in the measure of the dead, dependent on people and spaces rather than linearity to complete the picture of its haunting. And time isn’t the only innovation. Formally, This Blue Novel is a novel largely by its own declaration. A painter and poet and translator, Mejer Caso brings us through several forms of artistic limbo. The poetry of her novel forces the boundaries (because we don’t need those anyway) of the genre to bend for her; the interplay of the living and the dead forces us to consider the closeness of the two:
Yesterday, I traced the line I’ll cross tomorrow.
Yesterday, holding vigil as the foam
closed over my mother’s body,
I saw my grandparents’ houses go down
They sink, I ascend.
Yesterday, in free fall, I drew the door that now I open.
This Blue Novel is autobiographical, spiritually, and sometimes factually. Several personal photos of Mejer Caso’s family in Mexico appear throughout, including a four-year-old version of the author holding her father’s rifle, smiling innocently. But the book is not only the object of Mejer Caso’s lineage and rifle. The process of writing grows out from under her control. The second half of the book begins with an unmarked passage:
This part of the book is illegible
because it deals in a vegetal language.
were I water I’d know what it says.
The book transforms into something out of human hands, “a vegetal language,” and gains an upper hand:
The book reads me
thought I’m not water,
Though I can’t walk through this jungle,
once a garden.
The book is the one reading me.
It reads the novel scrawled from my neck to my shoulders.
The book itself becomes half-alive reading the novel-in-skin. Once written, reading here becomes an act of reciprocity. The object begins to breathe, the door drawn on the first page, as we were told, is a real portal to walk through.
As a translation, Michelle Gil-Montero’s work from the Spanish is fluid, precise and a little uncanny in the context of the novel itself. As a half-living thing, this book has several odd resonances with the act of translation. One of the most famous translation metaphors, one of Benjamin’s (maybe a tired one), is that translation is “fragments of a vessel that are to be glued together.” The shattered vase that appears in Mejer Caso’s work, however remains broken, intentionally: “The vase shatters and sings the song of the broken./ I squeeze a shard in my hand and bleed:/ I shoulder the bridge, I stain/ and shine it like the coin of a waning civilization.” The novel is very aware, and it knows that language is broken and it knows how to let the brokenness of language pierce into the skin. Reading the Spanish and the English side-by-side is like seeing a ghost behind you in the mirror. They are doubles. They haunt each other:
You wanted to say I, she,
ghost, la nieve, la neige, the snow,
as if another language could save you
from the thaw.
What comes after the thaw? More words, as real as the thing itself.
This Blue Novel
By Valerie Mejer Caso
Translation by Michelle Gil-Montero
Action Books, 2015
Reviewer Alex Niemi is a poet and translator and the assistant editor of M-Dash.