Review : Lo que trae la marea/What the Tide Brings by Xánath Caraza
Mouthfeel Press (El Paso: 2013)
Xánath Caraza’s stories in Lo que trae la marea/What the Tide Brings are formed of poetry, music, and the logic of dreams. Characters encounter an intermediary between mortals and gods. The line between life and death is breached. Stories emerge from the earth’s ocean and lakes or the rain that falls from the sky, and they remind us that water is the primordial fluid from which all life emerges, yet also the source of catastrophe, destruction, and death.
Originally from Mexico, Caraza lives in Kansas City and teaches at the University of Missouri. On an international level, she teaches, serves as editor of literary and academic journals, performs, and publishes work in both English and Spanish. She has won honors in Central America, Europe, and the US. In this bi-lingual collection, she wrote each piece in Spanish, and then she, Sandra Kingery, and Stephen Holland-Wempe translated them into English. Spanish is a superb language for literature, with an innate rhythm and rhyme which can translate awkwardly, losing the natural poetry. I read the English translations which are beautiful in their own right, each line fluid and graceful.
Caraza’s stories vibrate with the sensuality of the female body as it moves through heat, reacts to a man’s gaze, responds to the rhythms of jazz, or fills the memory of a man being subjected to torture. Her writing is a sensuous delight, filled with the redolence of jungle, copal and flesh, the pungent taste and feel of food and drink, the gratification of tactile details. Here is vivid imagery seen through a keen eye. Color permeates her stories — the flora and fauna of tropical Veracruz and the valley of Anahuac, the sea and sky in their various moods, the colors of cups, drinks, food, clothes, shades of skin. In “Scofield 207,” for example, everything that populates the story possesses a specific color. “Lunch Break” contains twelve references to color in its six brief paragraphs. The writer’s eyes are a prism that breaks the world into every vibrant hue, yet along with other sensuous details the myriad colors anchor us in an earthly world even while characters move back and forth between temporal planes, between sanity and delusion, between reality and dreams, fantasy, and myth. Sensuousness is not the only point to this book, however, which addresses refugees from political oppression and other topics of seriousness and depth.
In “Nezahualcoyotl,” the pre-Columbian king and great poet of the Alcolhua culture of Mexico appear in Barcelona, Spain. As he walks with the other main character, called Venus, Nezahualcoyotl recites his poetry. The apprehension of language itself becomes a sense impression. Venus “felt poetry exude from [his] body. That was his aroma . . . that intoxicating essence . . . a subtle combination of poetry, jungle, and copal.” She is filled with emotion as “verses of his poetry were assaulting her.” His poems become visible on her arms, then her entire body is “tattooed in poems.” Finally, her body disappears, leaving only words.
Caraza provides a lesson in the dazzling experience of synesthesia, the evocation of one sort of sense impression when a different sense is stimulated. In her stories, odors are colors, poetry a tactile experience. Both scents and language physically penetrate a character’s body. In “The One Behind,” Caraza directly describes a person as being able to see not only with his eyes “but also his skin, his ears and nose.” In “Water Passes Through my House, It comes to my House to Dream,” the narrator feels “musical notes soak into her being through the pores of her skin” and memory “hits her in the chest.” A breeze is described as pearly in “First Friday in Kansas City.”
The deft use of language immerses the reader in a swirl of sensory impressions where disbelief is willingly suspended. Characters have nightmares. They move in and out of hallucinatory states where dream logic controls events. Caraza’s characters use seashells as a tool of divination, experience the supernatural, and possess the power to “dissolve from this dimension to reappear on the printed page.”
Caraza has credited Maria Miranda Maloney, the founder and publisher of Mouthfeel Press, for encouraging her to write this book of short stories, a change from her earlier poetry collections. Mouthfeel Press is an independent publisher based in El Paso, Texas that has expanded its initial focus on the Mexico/US borderlands. Since its inception in 2009 Mouthfeel has published an array of new and established writers from Mexico, Uruguay, and throughout the United States, garnering recognition and accolades for itself and its writers. This collection by Caraza is one of many of the press’s outstanding books.
Caraza stated in an interview that her
“vision concentrates on female voices, their dreams, their struggles, life in general,”
and a woman’s voice relates all but one of these brief stories. These women make their own choices. They travel to foreign countries. They recognize and embrace the mythic power of Man as King, Poet, and Seer. They encounter an intermediary between mortals and gods, between life and death, and demonstrate the gap between the writer’s existence and the fictions she creates. In some stories, Caraza enters the narrative both as character and as author. Characters are found reading or writing books with titles of Caraza’s own creations. The use of such metafictive devices forces upon the reader an awareness that the writer is really a writer, creating a separate, unreal reality that is fiction.
The great Spanish writer, Federico García Lorca, first explained the aesthetics of duende, inspiration born in darkness and anguish with a fascination with both death and great erotic desire. Eroticism and the repeated invocation of death, terror, and cataclysm suffuse Xánath Caraza’s writing. In Lo que trae la marea/What the Tide Brings her duende and the power and authenticity of her language liberate the reader from the sorrow or mere banality of existence.
Donna Snyder published two books in 2014, Poemas ante el Catafalco: Grief and Renewal (Chimbarazu) and I Am South (Virgogray). Three Sides of the Same Moon is due from NeoPoiesis Press in 2015. She lives in El Paso, Texas. Until recently, she worked as an attorney on behalf of indigenous people, immigrant workers, and individuals with disabilities. Her work appears in Red Fez, VEXT Magazine, and elsewhere.