Saturday Morning Chapbook: Ryan Bollenbach on Expendables, a poetry collection by Emma Villazón

In Emma Villazón’s own words, the title of her first collection Temporeras, or “migrant woman farm hands,” translated by Thomas Rothe as Expendables, compares the precarious labor of temporary female farm workers with the labor of female freelancers who “manufacture intellectual property” for companies whose “raw material is the word.”

Although, for the speakers in the collection, strenuous manual labor is exchanged for banal intellectual labor, capitalism’s insidious logic of productivity feels physically dangerous as it seeps into the speaker’s thoughts through the collection’s evocative abstractions and visceral imagery. It’s the constant threat of being made to understand the self as an instrument of productivity that Villazón renders so memorably in this collection.

Consider the speaker’s shifting perspective in this first stanza of the poem “Her Other Portrait”:

she is more than the mechanical movement
she learns to complete her shift
like she vigorously climbs the subway stairs:
the task must be completed before
the order just like feet

can run before the escalators 

By the end of this first stanza, the speaker moves from considering herself “more than … mechanical movement” to adapting the imperative to “complete her shift” with the logical rigidity of one considering the order of operations in using an escalator. Yet, these themes explode in surprising and challengingly organic ways.

In the next stanza, for example, “she pulls green geese out of her fists” then “paints fabulous paintings of pederast priests.” These collisions between machine-like authority in the first stanza giving way speaker’s surreal reclamation of personal autonomy in these lines (not to mention her artistic indictment of patriarchal religious hypocrisy) continue to unfold as the poem progresses. Near the end of the poem, capitalistic authority loses its purchase when “whatever it takes to have cake and eat it too, rings incomprehensible.” Finally, the speaker transcends this dichotomy altogether through a kind of parody of capitalist progression in the last line as “she is promoted / to an extraterrestrial level.”

Other times, rebellion, terrestrial and inevitable, happens in direct opposition to authoritative power. One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Rejected Questionnaire,” ends with a series of questions that puts a sharp point on the question’s bubbling under the surface of these poems:

is it possible to live inflamed and commit silent crimes?
is it possible to live inflamed and not commit silent crimes?
is it possible to live inflamed and not honor some crimes? (…)

For the inflamed, those women “malfunctioning” while committing “crimes” to sustain themselves within a patriarchal capitalistic system, Villazón’s poems suggest the answer to all of these questions is no. In Rothe’s fluid translations, Expendables animates authority and honors crimes (silent and not) in truly memorable verse that turns on a dime-thick line. It’s one of the most exciting collections I’ve read in a while, and I highly recommend you pick it up.

Expendables, by Emma Villazón (translated by Thomas Rothe). OOMPH! Press, November 2019. 62 pages. $17.50, paper.

Ryan Bollenbach is a writer and musician living in Houston, Texas. He formerly served as Poetry Editor for Black Warrior Review in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He currently reads for Gulf Coast and Heavy Feather Review. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tarpaulin SkySink ReviewPainted Bride QuarterlySnail Trail Press, and elsewhere. To contact, reach out on Twitter @SilentAsIAm or visit his website his website.

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