City Without Altar by Jasminne Mendez
$18.00 | Noemi Press | 126 pp. | August 15, 2022 ISBN: 978-1934819159
Alfredo Aguilar (AA): For me one of the most exciting possibilities in poetry, in both its writing and its reading, is the flexibility of the genre to incorporate and play with other genres. Poetry feels particularly omnivorous in how it employs and deploys genre in order to best get across its feeling, message, and texture. The most obvious example of this is the prose poem, but I’m also thinking here about poems that employ text as art, photographic images, to name a few examples.
In Jasminne Mendez’s City Without Altar, the flexibility of poetry is fully on display and is used to a riveting and incantatory effect. Documents, redaction, photographic imagery, maps, text as image, a play, and prose poems are found throughout this collection that seeks not only to create a kind of altar for the victims and survivors of the 1937 Haitian Massacre, but to explore a Black self in illness, motherhood, nationhood, and the othering that occurs because of these identities.
There is so much to touch on in this book, especially the play that comprises a large part of the book, but to start, how did the first poem read to you? What did you feel about the sequence in relation to what followed?
Laura Villareal (LV): Agreed about how rich this book is formally and in its content! There is so much for us to talk about. The first poem, “Inheritance,” includes a redacted copy of the poet’s birth certificate. I want to note that it's probably safe to say the poet is the speaker of many of these poems because the book includes her medical records. Underneath her redacted birth certificate the poet writes:
On this day in history. I am born. Alive. Let the record show. I am. Hispanic. Not
Black. This is legal. A record. Permanent. All items listed are accurate. And complete.
On this day in history. I am. Blacked-out.
Legal documents that ask for demographic information have changed so much over time and continue to change for better and worse. In the 1930s “Mexican” was listed as a race. When I was young, demographic questions confused me. I didn’t know how to answer the question of race so sometimes I'd select "Other." It's the way I think many Latinx folks are made to feel in the U.S. The decision of how to identify is complicated and has been discussed numerous times including on NPR’s Codeswitch. It wasn’t until I was older that I better understood race and ethnicity. I am white. In Latin America I’d check the white box too. What I’m saying is these demographic questions usually have a narrow view of identity that isn’t inclusive or able to capture racialization in the U.S. or intersectional identity. On the birth certificate, it’s interesting that the box asks “Race/Color” but is filled with the word “Hispanic” because that doesn’t really answer the question. The terms “Hispanic” and “Latinx” encompasses people of all races. The decision of how to identify is made for the poet at birth. “I am. Blacked-out.” conveys the erasure. I like that the poet begins here, at her birth, to open up the exploration of race and identity by using a legal document that should be "accurate. And complete" because it shows us how fallible the record can be.
The poem then continues on the next 5 pages with sections that begin with a question. The five questions are as follows:
“What do we inherit and how / do we carry it in the body?”
“Who decides what we carry?”
“How long must we hold on / to what isn’t ours?”
“What will we remember?”
“Where do we go, if we have no record / of where we have been?”
These are key questions. The sections feel like initial answers to them but then the book unravels to examine histories that influence how the questions can be answered. In reading this poem at the start of the collection, I was ready to receive the exploration of identities and history that is central to the book. What were your thoughts on “Inheritance?”
AA: A thought that stuck with me after reading this section was just the failure of documentation to accurately depict a racialized identity. As you mentioned, the speaker's birth certificate categorizes her as “Hispanic. Not Black.” I’m thinking too about how demographic categories don’t allow for much nuance and how an identity is almost always more complex than what can be checked off in a box. I found the use of blacking out the text in the birth certificate to be both playful and a gesture towards agency. In being denied her Blackness on this document, the speaker blacks out the text of that document, asserting a self that insists on being more than what a narrow state definition can allow.
With regards to other places in this section I noticed that this part of the book is largely held together by those questions you quoted, which sit at the top of each page. While each of these questions are answered in the verse that follows them, I felt as a reader that these questions were also going to be a sort of guide to the collection as they have everything to do with memory, its burden, its joy, its forgetting (specifically how and which memories are forgotten or silenced), its recovery by future generations, and the speaker’s responsibility to memory. I was particularly struck by the last section which asks, “Where do we go, if we have no record / of where we have been?” The response follows:
I return to water open
my hands a map I point to
where my mothers have been
where I long to go
a lifeline that could be a river
or a border scratch
the blaze of sun off
the back of my neck black
behind the ear it whispers
wake up, wake up
you are from here
The idea of body as origin is fairly common, but here it reads as a place where past generations have already been to and visited and it takes on the details of landscape. What I found compelling in my reading of the poems is that the body exists as an origin that one can go to while being inside of it and that one can experience a kind of estrangement from that body/origin/landscape. In this shorter poem an idea plays out that one could be estranged from what one uses to move through and within the world, something that simultaneously exists as an origin and landscape and that ultimately—even if one is alienated from that idea of self—one could come back to know it and embody it.
The section that follows makes up the bulk of the book and is presented as a play in verse. The flexibility of genre here was exciting for me and I’ll have plenty to say, but what were your first impressions of the opening “Dramaturgical Notes” section in relation to content, form, or some other aspect?
LV: I loved that a play was incorporated. I immediately thought of one of my favorite poet-playwright’s Jesùs I. Valles’ play (Un)documents, as well as Cynthia Dewi Oka’s book A Tinderbox in Three Acts. With the “Dramaturgical Notes,” I began thinking about what recurs in the book. Mendez has a gorgeous way of braiding major themes, motifs, and everything essential throughout the book so when they return, they’re building on the previous iteration(s) with a different POV or some new light is shed on them. It creates both breadth and depth.
The section you quoted from the first poem was a powerful close, though I must admit the one before it continues to resonate with me as I consider the whole of the book and now as we consider the “Dramaturgical Notes.” The poet writes:
What will we remember?
One day my daughter will tell her daughter
“we were Black once”
and I hope that unlike me she will shake
our stories free from the soil
and I hope that unlike me she will reach
into the back of her mother’s throat
and dig until she finds salt or a song she can take
with her wherever she goes
I’m moved by this section because it is brimming with the hope that the speaker’s daughter will unveil and reclaim their stories and identity, that she will shake “stories free from the soil.” It strikes me that the poet is doing this work herself now through this book but I understand the sentiment.
The section alludes to her family’s purposeful distancing from Blackness/Haitianness that is echoed earlier in when the speaker asks her mother “Are you sure we’re not Haitian? / Her hand recoils like a question mark, Why / do you want to know?” I was reminded of it while reading the “Dramaturgical Notes,” which provide background on Rafael L. Trujillo’s mass genocide of Haitians, because the notes provide historical context for why the speaker’s mother might want to create that distance. Family history gets obscured for a variety of reasons, in this case it occurs as a means of survival or forgetting. As we’ve discussed before, trauma continues to exist along a lineage. Each note includes further details and context for the 1937 massacre and why—like the speaker’s family history—it has been made to be forgotten and “to this day there is no memorial or marker” to list the “names of the victims of the massacre.” There’s a lot to unpack within the “Dramaturgical Notes'' so I want to hear what you think. What struck you about the poem?
AA: The “Dramaturgical Notes” section does an incredible amount of work in providing historical context while also weaving in ideas and themes that will come up again throughout the book. I have a great admiration for how as a reader I was given history but it never felt dry; it was all necessary to gain a greater understanding of the speaker, their position, and the people in this play. The inclusion of a map of Hispaniola and how the line of its border were used as a form was inventive and on a practical level helped reinforce the island as a place, somewhere I could find it on a map.
The introduction of the characters was both useful and poetic; we’re told who will be in this play and some information about them right next to more abstract descriptions. Some examples:
Madame Telsaint: Haitian woman. A healer. An old woman with old bones. She is water.
Irelia: Dominican-Haitian girl. Young. The fastest runner in Dajabón. She is moon.
Me: Dominican-American girl/woman. A witness. She is in pain. She is memory. She is time.
I found it compelling that the speaker chose to include themselves in this play, to in a very explicit way put herself in conversation and in a space with the other characters in the play. Instead of describing something from a distance the speaker upfront has made it clear to me that she is to a certain extent inside of and tied to whatever will transpire in the pages to come.
I was also taken with some of the lines that contained a few definitions of the word ‘Blackout’:
a transient dulling or loss of vision, consciousness, or memory…
suppression of information, especially one imposed on the media by the government…
a poem created by blacking out the text of another document…
a moment in theater when stage lights are turned off to separate scenes in a play…
The various definitions given here carry a resonance throughout the play as the use of Blackouts are found at the end of scenes. But because they are defined here early on, those moments also carry a resonant charge of what is suppressed and what is forgotten. What exists in the space between one scene and the next? Can it even be accessed and would you choose to access it? Is it wise? What is forgotten and at whose will? The inclusion of the definition for a type of poem created using another text also suggests to me that while the language in a text can be suppressed to create a new meaning which can differ greatly from the original text, it might also be applied to memory and history. What meanings are created when we suppress only part of memory and history? And to what end and whose benefit? This section does a wonderful job of asking the questions that circle the play as well as giving us background. What moments grabbed your attention and stayed with you throughout Act I?
LV: Act I is another example of what makes this book so compelling which is its innovative approach to form and narrative. It opens with a “Set Design– Map” which has an empty box where the directions say to: “Look at the description below8 / Use the space provided / to map / the set design / for Act I– / before cutting.” I felt the impulse to try to fill the box with what the landscape the poet describes in the footnote. Though I’m not an artist by any means, I wanted to draw the “Avocado bellied hills” and the “Cane ready for harvest.” But why? I’d never draw in a book on principle, but what is it about this box and the set design that brings this out of me. I think the impulse or compulsion to fill an empty box is the point. It’s human nature to want to fill in silences or gaps. We also learn early on how to follow instructions like the ones provided when we’re in school. This visual cue along with directions brilliantly provides a way for us to feel the urgency of the poet to fill their family history, to fill the gaps of the historical record related to the Haitian Massacre. It’s just such a smart move. Mendez understands and effectively awakens the poetics of human impulse.
The set design is then followed by Act I Scene I which has a gorgeous call and response between Madame Telsaint and the other characters Irelia, Cenalia, and Cameron. It feels as though the characters are defining themselves as a “we.” Madame Telsaint says a two word “We” statement such as, “We run” then another character will reply with a follow up such as “like bodies seeking rest / staccattoed, borderless notes / from a trumpet stuttering bap bap bap.” I’m moved by the way the characters are collaborating here and their slant answers to Madame Telsaint.
The dexterity with which Mendez weaves the play with personal “Interludes” that feature CT scans of the poet’s fingers in Act I captured my attention as well. But I want to invite you to share your experiences and thoughts before I get deep into that. There’s much to admire in this book. What moved you?
AA: I found the gestures in “Set Design - Map” compelling as well. For me it was a moment where the speaker was addressing and giving directions to me as the reader, being asked to fill in the space provided. It’s fascinating that you felt compelled to literally draw and fill in that space. I think it speaks to how much of an invitation it feels like. I hadn’t thought about drawing in that description but I did visualize an idea of that landscape into the empty space; “The forest folds in on itself. Fertile fields. Ripe crops…A river runs through it.” I’m struck by how the speaker is on some level asking and inviting us as readers for a kind of participation in the creation of this landscape knowing that no two readers' landscapes will be quite the same. I have a nascent thought here about collective and individual memory, as well as the invitation to participate in witnessing and creating/re-creating memory, especially memory that is tied to a landscape. This is one of my favorite gestures in the book.
That moment where Madame Telsaint, Irelia, Cenalia, and Cameron are speaking and responding to one another was notable for me as well, especially in the context of the moments later on where each character is given a space to speak. I read this opening moment between the characters as a kind of choral “we” that weaves in all their voices, highlighting their collective experience. This section is held together by the “we” actions invoked by Madame Telsaint, such as “ We run… We pray… We sing… We rise and dance on air.” Later on in Scene 5 we get moments where each of these characters speak to us directly telling us about the particulars of lives; their joys, their loves, their hardship. This might be a tenuous connection but the structure of a collective speaking followed by an individual speaking is reminiscent to me of something that often happens in jazz, when during the performance of a song each instrument gets its moment to perform a solo. While each of these characters gets a chance to speak and we learn more about their lives, collectively each one of them is necessary for a greater story about nationhood, borders, anti-Black brutality, and the methods of resistance to that brutality to be told.
There is one “Interlude” that I’ve thought about, but it mostly has to do with the conversation it is having with a moment that follows it. In that “Interlude” below a CT scan of a hand, Mendez writes about her father showing her how to handle a machete: “I wince, my hands afraid of the cut. Of the blood that could tremble or trickle down a knuckle. Papi says the machete is built for reaping and revolution, farming, and food…A tool. Like the hammer or the pen.” On the following page the Machete itself speaks :
call me what you want
gift / weapon / thief…
I hyphenate you into the you
that you are tissue rot stem…
draw a line where they will pull
apart your ligaments to collect
scars cut from the altar
of your almost fist.
The tension that is created here by placing these two moments together is riveting. On one hand we have a personal story about fearing the power that a machete wields as a weapon. However the father makes it clear that the machete is a tool which can be used for good or ill. Following that the tool/weapon itself speaks asserting its power to cut away identity and the body. It also doesn't seem to care what it is called as though to the Machete it's all the same. This assertion and the CT scan on the previous page are the first moments we get that maybe some harm might befall the speaker and that something may very literally be cut out of her. This moment for me was a skilled instance of juxtaposition and resonance and it stayed with me.
I know you have thoughts on the “Interludes.” Could you touch on what caught your attention in this sequence of poems?
LV: It’s fascinating that you compared that part to jazz as it’s not a comparison I would have thought of but I see it now. Music is such a visceral experience for me, so perhaps that similarity in the way the text works is what moved me.
I also enjoyed that “Interlude” for the reasons you mentioned, especially the tension created through the sequencing of poems. The “Interlude” that follows is the first place where the poet names the illness– “Scleroderma from the Latin / meaning hard -skin.” and then deepens the conversation about illness and surgery. The poet raises haunting questions like, “Pieces of me will / also go missing. Where will they end up?” The poet chooses to further utilize the connection between machete and the surgery. Though we’re looking at that comparison and the cutting of identity it’s impossible to not also think of the machete’s Trujillo’s soldiers used to kill Haitians. The final lines of the “Interlude” on page 39 say, “But what happens when the body attacks itself? How do you heal / when you are the weapon and the wound?” What you mentioned about the machete being “used for good or ill” resonates here as well. The body is like a machete. Our bodies are amazing in many ways–they have the ability to repair themselves and create new life, but they can turn against themselves or refuse to heal. Chronic illness and pain carry complicated emotions. It is frustrating, perhaps most of all, because we can’t control it. Even so, the body is still capable of other miracles. I’m thinking specifically of the third section of the book on page 81 where the speaker/poet is pregnant with her daughter. Could we take a look at that section together? It’s not part of the play but continues to carry the strands of lineage that are explored in the first two sections of the book.
AA: The third section reads as something of a coda for me as it's shorter and focuses mostly on the speaker’s relation with family and the continuation of her bloodline through a daughter. The book is ordered in such a way that the Haitian massacre covered in the play casts a heavy shadow on this last section. I think one of the implicit questions that arises from this juxtaposition is “With so much that is lost how do we decide to live and hold on to what is here?” In the poem “The Forgotten” the speaker and her mother are traveling down a highway:
I imagine a highway of almost apologies. Words between Mami and I that got used up. Thrown on the curb. Forgotten. “Que lastima,” I whisper into the dark. There is an almost whimper in the monitor. It bends into prayer. It leaks into the cracks between us. Mothers. Daughters. Begins to fix what we don’t want. To throw away.
I get the sense that there is a silence between mother and daughter about how they may have hurt one another and while there may have been moments of near reconciliation, those moments never came to fruition. At the end, the poem moves to the “almost whimper in the monitor” which I read as coming from the speaker's daughter. This near whimper takes on the shape of prayer and becomes a gesture towards reconciliation. Through the speaker’s daughter, the beginning of a bridge starts to take shape over this gulf between the speaker and her mother; the child becomes a new link in the family which might allow for repair and apologies to at last be said.
The end of this section is also something that I’ve thought about since finishing the book. “The Names” is composed of blank lines with a footnote that reads “Please write the names of the ones you have in the blanks provided. If you run out of blanks use the margins. If you run out of margins use your palms. If you run out of palms use your tongue and lift their names up until someone else can hear it.” This is an interesting reversal of a prior moment in the play where a series of blank lines are to be filled in with the names of those that one has lost. In both instances I found the gesture of invitation and instruction as a reader to actively participate in the creation of the text direct and moving. Mendez is explicitly asking us to participate in what she’s created so that we may name our dead and our living; it is an affecting and powerful thing. In both instances too, the power of a list of names and the sheer potential magnitude of them was compelling. An idea that no list on paper, no space on the body might be enough to hold all the names, but that the place where they can be held is in speaking them, in putting those names into the air for someone to hear and know that name. In this instance within the third section there is a feeling of gratitude and joy in listing those one does have. The potential bounty for those we have around us in this moment shimmers and reminds me that in our living we are bonded to those we do have and that we aren’t ever really alone.
I know you mentioned threads of lineage woven through this section; I’m curious to know what in this portion of the book spoke to you.
LV: All of what you’ve brought up interested me too. My reading of “The Forgotten” was slightly different. I didn’t read the “whimper” as a gesture towards reconciliation because I don’t think that’s necessary. There’s a sort of quiet understanding between mothers and daughters that will occur in the absence of a verbal apology. The “apology” appears in acts of service like doing something the person apologizing knows the other person likes such as making their favorite food. The hurt won’t be brought up again. If it is brought up, it will be met with dismissiveness. Perhaps I’m not explaining this process well but it’s all nonverbal and it will be clear when tension dissipates. I agree that the child is a bridge between the speaker and her mother. I read the “almost whimper” as a moment of understanding– that motherhood can be all consuming and even the smallest noise raises a mother’s attention. I also think the choice to follow that poem with one called, “The Mother,” which is full of understanding how difficult it is to be a mother is a purposeful gesture. In it the speaker is sitting in her bathtub cataloging all the ways this space is the “only time of day she has to herself” where she can think or cry or both and trying to remember when her body was only her own. We see how desperately precious those minutes in the shower feel.
Continuing on the topic of motherhood, I want to note how the book moves towards tenderness in its final pages especially in “The Final Blackout.” The title is perhaps alluding to the first blackout in the book which is the poem with the poet’s birth certificate blacked out called “Inheritance.” “The Final Blackout” has a sonogram of the poet’s daughter. The text below is one of the most moving poems. I wish I could quote it all but I won’t because everyone should buy the book and read it themselves. A snippet of it reads, “I am not whole. But I am enough. Somos lucha. Eres mía. Your hand in my hand– – the light that slips in even after the final curtain has closed.” This turn towards tenderness feels like a balm after the heavy work the poet has done to document the violent genocide of Haitians and the excavation of her personal medical trauma. The poet has lifted this history out of the dark and brought it into the light. In the final moments of the book, her daughter brings in light. In the final poem “The Names” the poet continues to invite us to engage with her work, Mendez asks us to “lift their names up until someone can hear it.” Naming the unnameable, naming hidden history, and lifting readers out of the darkness feels like the most significant work a poet can do.
Alfredo Aguilar is the author of On This Side of the Desert (Kent State University Press, 2020), selected by Natalie Diaz for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. He is a recipient of 92Y’s Discovery Poetry Contest and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Frost Place. His work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Waxwing, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Born and raised in North County San Diego, he now resides in Central Texas where he is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers.
Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She earned her MFA at Rutgers University—Newark and has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts, National Book Critics Circle’s Emerging Critics Program, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program at University of Texas-Austin. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, AGNI, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.