reviewed by Richard Scheiwe
Floating in the middle of one of the last pages in Elena Rivera's 2000 collection Unknowne Land is a quote, italicized, isolated as if it were errant verse, disconnected and at best epigraphic. From Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room, Rivera versifies Woolf's prose:
We start transparent and then the cloud thickens. All history backs our panes of glass.
The foreboding nature of unavoidable mortality aside, Rivera creates a wonderful chiasmus finding in another's prose a nicely crafted couplet of verse and, thus, finding in these new lines of poetry something of general arch that has resonated throughout the rest of her work, commingling themes of history, memory, and time. The passage from one form to another—the imprint that one genre or medium may have on another genre or medium—continues in Remembrance of Things Plastic.
A long poem dispersed sparsely over thirty pages, Remembrance of Things Plastic invokes the teeter-tottering focusing and refocusing of thought present in the Proust namesake, but Rivera's work contains about as many words in total as are on any single printed page of Proust's long work. Stylistically her motives are nuanced and seamless; another element to her work that has been evolving over her career. Prose and verse, dialogue and narration, with varying typography and punctuation, work in tandem to create an unbroken chain of the conscious mind at once invoking one's past and the past of others, and the living present of analysis. She writes,
…the fruit of, the root of, the disappointment of… "I'm already carrying too much stuff on my back" endless fingers climb inward in the creases
Every instance as it reduced to its own respective element, be it dialogue, narration, quote, commentary, is employed to build the narrative-as-a-whole. But this is not associative logic, nor are these individual pieces of an unsolved equation. Over the span of three successive pages, Rivera writes,
Wrong house. Wrong country. Wrong being. In the other, the one half way across the country, I ate a pie in the attic. All of it. *** When you shook me and yelled I cried because I thought it was broken. *** "Fear of the future." Marooned in a room the size of a dollhouse. My future? "telling the desert"
Each page becomes a scene, quickly flashing, welcomingly overwhelming the parts of the overall text to construct the complete idea of the poem: impression. The impressions that she creates are almost like erasure-texts, but they are created from the ground up.
As much of her thematic play over the years has focused on growth, change, youth, and gender, in Remembrance of Things Plastic it is the psychological deficit of an adult-self looking back on the child-self in a frame-by-frame temporal experience, and injected throughout at varying times are the notions of the plastic: TVs, movies, radios, dolls, dyed blond hair. The experience of the child's mind becomes inseparable from the experiences with the objects from her childhood. Ultimately, the two experiences find cohesion and communion in poetry and language. As she writes in near-child talk,
Blonds prefer screens Family prefers screams Screens prefer dreams blonds Prefer
It may be the child talking; it may be the adult. The discordance of voice is only unified in the afterthought of versification. At many times the pronoun shifts, the loss of the I/my to a she/her and vice-a-versa, or a shift to the imperative; this is the inability to separate the mind from the object, to separate the experiences: "Hold on to the object // And don't object to being singled out for solitude." If there were some omniscient speaker of these lines, someone outside of the deictic, it would be as if he or she were incapable of focusing the light to see a clear picture of what is being observed and examined. Rivera's ease of interruption and disruption allows for this sense of loss and detachment in the perceived narrative. And it's hard to say who is who or what is true, as something plastic comes to "life":
At the top of the stairs, the second floor, a man held the girl so that her feet dangled. Shaking her. The doll came to life for her father, as in Hoffman, you know, "The Sandman."
There is a girl that turns into a doll, but as the doll comes to life, is it the girl who goes to sleep, following the logic of evoking the short story "The Sandman"?
The inability to grasp onto a truth is the desire of the poet, and Rivera's form of including varying elements to achieve a dramatic whole is masterfully executed. The child, as she has suffered some violence, has lost her mother, and is unable to escape, turns in towards herself in the end; as Myrrah is transformed into a tree, the child-self accepts she must be at once a still object (plastic) and only to strive to be a fleeing, sentient being:
All packaged and wrapped in plastic or cellophane. The girl thought it lyrical, at first, though wanted to "go home." Later she just wanted to "go home," tout court, back to "her country. *** Don't give me anything. Don't bother me. I've closed down— closet door closes…
In the end the plastic—the static—and not the plasticity—the change—finds the language.
But as language can be enlivened, as words can connote, denote, and force the reader to image and visualize, so Rivera stills a few words and a simple action to leave the narrative:
Stardom. Confetti. And we all fall down.
Here is "Stardom", something plastic, invented, and with its own shelf life, its own ashes; here is "Confetti", nothing if not always an image or experience of movement or the illusion of, but also an direct image ashes itself. And here is "we all fall down", rounding out the variation on the children's rhyme. In the realm of the dialectic, one might say that the whole story is beginning all over again.