Excursion by Silvina López Medin.
Oversound Press, 2020.
29 pages. $12.00.
Chosen by Mary Jo Bang as the winner of the 2019 Oversound Chapbook Prize, Silvia López Medin’s Excursion challenges the linearity of motion through time. It begins with the blueprint of a large sailboat. Over the threshold, a warning epigraph from Marguerite Duras: “You have left the camera’s field of vision.”
As a native of Buenos Aires, Medin's first language is Spanish; this chapbook is her first book published in English. She acknowledges those who helped her with these poems, "written in a language that's not my own.” I will return to the significance of the poet’s multilinguality.
Suspense is built into Excursion’s voyage from the start. By structuring the text as 24 numbered poems which alternate between a hotel room and a boat, the poet creates a cinematic sense of motion, borrowing from movie film where the illusion of motion is created by a series of 24 frames per second.
The narrator wants to tell a story, one which returns in snapshots from a hotel, amid scaffolds and lighting, as we see introduced in "1. Int. Hotel/Bedroom-Night":
Lights flickering through the window
out there, there
the bright side of a neon sign, the title
of the story, a letter turned off
still can’t be seen.
The book is dedicated to Medin’s brother, an engineer. A journey, which perhaps “can’t be [easily] seen,” embeds itself in the chronology of poems which alternate between scenes in a hotel room and scenes on a boat with her brother. The narrator wants to leave something behind, and her brother is steering the boat away. Her senses buoy her amidst this separation; she refers again to neon, and to the comforting “metal sound” of things her brother says.
The word "camera" in the book’s epigraph amplifies the sense of displacement that runs as an undercurrent through the collection, though this resonance is not entirely evident in the word’s American English context. Its Latin root refers to a room, a bounded space, a walled time. In Spanish, the meaning of camera is even richer; it can designate a vault, a hall, a chamber, a photographic camera, and an innertube.
Multiple extended metaphors operate simultaneously throughout these poems which achieve narrative suspense through a slow, recursive unpacking and thickening of each metaphor while remaining in the present tense. What the camera signifies also thickens when considered in the poet's native language.
Memory is a dark room that develops things differently. The translation from image to words occurs across language, which also holds memory—and Medin's sparing use of words to "develop" the images creates a striking tonal effect. The layering of memories and chronology builds tension by multiplying fear of the past into fear of remembering.
I kept wanting to know what happened. The hotel room poems expand upon the threat of a blurred male figure, whose power lies in the ability to change words and things, to resignify them. In “3. Int. Hotel/Hallway - Night”, he gives the narrator:
this red earring,
that appears to be precious
stuck to a piece of metal
in the shape of a hook.
Back and forth between the hotel room and the boat, we arrive at "8." where the narrator and her brother run towards the ship they fear will leave them. A childhood photo captures the fear of being left. This word “capture” does nuanced work alongside the word “camera.” The fear of being captured coexists with the fear of being seen or abandoned, and these fears intersect in seeing. And there is the field of vision which suggests you have left.
Where the brother soothes and promises relief, the poet doubts. The neon lights of the hotel remain present, part of the motion in the film, as seen in "10", where the "him" refers to the brother:
If I could cling
to the stiffness of a formula
as to this handrail that surrounds the vessel.
But what will I do
with that which does not fit
neon light, hallway, doorway,
that other term unknown to him. Time, distance
I can't reach a result.
Medin continues probing this tension between narrative and lens. In “13.” the ship is removed from the sea, compared to a mounted structure, a tabletop statue—the motion or “push” of the boat towards shore and sea compared to “the plot of a story” and how it can be pushed.
In a sense, the poems attempt to map the unnavigable hotel spaces, that hidden past the narrator designates only through location clues and hallways and lights, as seen in “14. Int. Hotel/Room Doorway-Night":
Like the paper
a map is made of
stays within the fitness
of the surface
wears out where it folds.
The camera’s inability to reveal a clear picture of the hotel room challenges the brother’s faith in engineering, in clear blueprints, in the solidity of time and distance. For an image to move, to become a film or a story, it must lend its images to the construction of perceptual illusion. In“16.”:
The waters that surround this ship
separates us from what my brother ignores,
I’ve traversed the distance
from a word to a body.
And then Medin shifts briefly into past tense to insist: "I was sinking into foreign water."
The poet explains the title in "17" when she describes how “excursion implies displacement”:
you move forward
within certain limits
what matters is the fixity
of the route.
Verbs tangle with time; the narrator won't give up the camera or let the story be swallowed by its route. The displacement is both geographic, chronological, and physical: it occurs inside the narrator’s body, a head separating from the flesh when she spies a fish head on the boat dock in "19.":
a fixed eye
of the hook.
The significance of the hook returns to the silence of what happened—the physical response to the memory and its presence in the hook. The past surveils the present.
In "22.", the poem shifts to address the blur in the hotel directly: “I will not tell your name.” By refusing to name him, the poet deprives the blur of his humanity. The subtlety of this motion is brilliant and harrowing.
To the extent that suspense functions as both texture and mode in these poems, I cannot give away the ending. I can say only that a shoreline appears, and something has changed when the brother and sister raise their hands to wave as the camera holds them. Is it a different story or the same one? Is it a single trip or a voyage that appears with the lens? Excursion constructs a brilliant cinematic vessel out of the limits of a room, the grip of a camera, the displacement of language, the multiplicities lost in translation, the relief of an ocean without anchors. It is challenging and haunted in its reach.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Her writing can be found in diverse journals, including Prairie Schooner, North American Review, FLOCK, Southern Humanities Review, Crab Creek Review, Virga, Whale Road Review, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes, Poetry Editor for Random Sample Review, Poetry Reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Co-Director of PEN America's Birmingham Chapter. She was nominated for 5 Pushcart Prizes by various journals in 2019. A finalist for the 2019 Kurt Brown AWP Prize, Alina won the 2019 River Heron Poetry Prize. She still can't believe (or deserve) any of this. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.
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