Chile: LP5 Editora, 2022. 129 pages.
“Lo primero/ no es la luz” [The first thing/ is not the light]: with these two verses starts one of the poems from Gladys Mendía’s new book, Luces altas, luces de peligro. A statement that embodies the voice and fixes the gaze of a poet who walks alongside her loved ones, converting lived experiences into words, as if what really formed us, thrown out of the dull light, was exodus.
“Lo primero/ es el movimiento en el espacio/ tiempo/ y el espacio tiempo es presencia” [The first thing/ is movement in space/ time/ and space-time is presence], the poem goes on to say. The pauses are decisive. First time and, at a later moment, embodiment, a nomadic existence. The voice that speaks up above the crowd is female; it is the expression that conserves vulnerability with dignity, among all the hustle and bustle. The poet attends to both the fragility and the strength of an entire people, crossing through a place that often seems like a desert. A people, a continent that unites us all, Latin America. The poem turns into song, a song for our consciousness.
Warning lights warn us of disasters, that suspended time, “always yet to come, always in the past,” paraphrasing Blanchot, and Gladys Mendía searches for language that puts itself forward to describe this lapse that happens without us. Poems in verse or in prose, of disjointed structure, that reflect landscapes populated by disorder, a city in a permanent state of construction, a continuum that devours us.
However, we can’t move unless it is within this continuum. We cannot speak unless it is over silence, and, often, there is no choice but to speak over noise. Words will be an aerial root that feeds the soul. Words as a vibration, a sound that expands, many words in multiple languages, Guaraní, Mapuche, Maya, Wayuu, Quechua, voices that “hablan tan fuerte que es imposible no escucharlas” [speak so loudly that it is impossible not to hear them], an offense to totalitarian power. Gladys Mendía reflects on the instrumentalization of language, on the loss that uniformity entails.
“WHETHER YOU GO UP OR GO DOWN IS A QUESTION OF PERSPECTIVE, THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO BE WHERE EACH PERSON PERFORMS THEIR OWN LITURGY”
He who explains History from the pulpit wears gray garb and provides a service. Brotherhood, on the other hand, is found in the circle, where each person shares their story. “La voz mosaico/ la voz fragmentada/ la voz muchas voces” [The mosaic voice/ the shattered voice/ the voice of many voices], the poet tells us. Voices that do not provide a service and that some would prefer to give up on. Small voices, irreducible. “Voices that make your heart recoil into your mother’s,” Celan would tell us. Go back. Return a voice to those who lost theirs, sharpen the senses, see and hear what is denied. This is the task of he who has a voice, to recognize faces, recognize languages and give them back their presence.
The title of the first half of the book is apt: “Astrolabio para crisálidas en calles latinoamericanas” (“Astrolabe for the chrysalises of Latin American streets”). Maybe everything that Gladys Mendía points out to us is a guide for staying on the right path, a path for our gaze and our actions, a path for our words. What we should be focusing on stands out when, otherwise, it would have passed us by unnoticed. Our societies have been gradually uprooted to the point that senses have been lost. Compassion has been mined, our relationship with each other has been demystified, and we have become unable to recognize beauty. The poet’s verses seem to shout, awakening us. Feel, she says to you. Rescue your soul, if the soul is what María Zambrano defined as that which exists between “I” and the outside world.
It is then that pictures will come to life. Look at what hurts, what breaks, what dies. Look, too, at what lives and celebrate it. Stop running and kill time contemplating how shapes move with changing light. Find for yourself these tiny truths that gradually enhance your memory. Existence becomes strange; sometimes we live in amazement, sometimes in the bewilderment of paradox; it’s inevitable.
Gladys Mendía configures her focus in the same way a painter would do with their canvas. She looks for the starting point, plays with perspective, writes on the asphalt, on the earth or on bodies, she draws the streets, sketching their nakedness and misrule, the places found in the middle of nowhere, the intersection of two roads to nowhere, the rush. Sometimes she zooms in or zooms out, images start to stand out, the focus changes as if she were operating a film camera.
It is because of the way she relates to space, the way she uses language so that the symbol produces an unfolding within which to appreciate the depth. The second part, entitled “La materia del descenso,” turns to mystical figures to reveal inconsistency; take that to also mean the fragility of existence, which had been shown in a different way in previous poems. Now, “el tiempo es la morada del rito” [time is where the rite lives]. Introspection. An examination of our own being, of our relationship with others and with otherness, of our perception of life and death.
The poems interweave with photographs insinuating a staircase. Whether you go up or go down is a question of perspective, the important thing is to be where each person performs their own liturgy. Tying or untying, ascending or descending, in the end, are staging, reflections. We are the materialization of the question death asks itself, “nosotrxs somos la muerte preguntándose/ qué es la/ muerte”, [we are death wondering/ what death/ is], the poet tells us. So, live fully, while it works out its answer.