Shannon Nakai Reviews Equestrian Monuments, a poetry collection by Luis Chaves

Eleven years after the publication of Monumentos Ecuestres (Editorial Germinal, 2011) by Luis Chaves, one of Costa Rica’s most celebrated poets, follows its first translation into English by After Hours Editions. In the introductory note, translators Julia Guez & Samantha Zighelboim discuss the intricate negotiations of language in Chaves’ playful, intuitive, linguistically acrobatic poems. Rife with litanies and hyperbolized repetition, motifs rampantly cycling both within individual poems and across the entire collection, Chaves’ poems occupy the headspace of dreams and wistful memory, as well as homes reduced to moving boxes and a life pared down into lists. The speaker reinterprets reality into dreams and ponders the soundtrack of white noise in the figurative absence of intimate human presence in his life. Save for peripheral singular references to a daughter or a gold-toothed Francisca, his life is mostly inhabited by television screens and the fugue-like return to the same inventory of signposts: windmills, white stone paths, a laundry line, a loyal dog, sky, rain, and the contemplative retrospective tension between presence and absence, or what used to be and what has changed. Paralleling his expansive, ecocritical attention to the scope of human behavior is the tender refrain of addressing an estranged “you,” both absent in the home and ever present in the speaker’s dreamlike exercises in memory.

Chaves pays conspicuous attention to the recurrence of objects and episodes in life. His poem “Moving” or “Mudanzas,” charted with numerical stanzas, replays the same images of plasticine bars, the taste of menthol, unpacked clothes, and a spinning motion bridging the action of the previous poem’s windmills to a memory of a past lover in a parking lot. The constant shift in movement is frenetic, deliberate, and nonstop, and the speaker notes, “If someone else were to walk in at this moment / they wouldn’t know if we were moving in or out” or “Si otro, en este memento, entrara, / no sabría si alguien llega o se va.”

Likewise, the speaker is either lost or constantly locating himself via these repeated signs. He is vaguely connecting distinct memories through them. The kneadable plasticine dough constantly reappears: its malleability, inert substance, and arbitrary shaping pose different meanings for the speaker as he repositions and remodels it. In a similar fashion, the white stone path literally ground into his garden figuratively grounds him as an unchanged element in his life since his lover’s estrangement; he notes this marking path in the clouds in the sky, in the homunculus he muses is skipping stones in his head. He parenthetically admits, “(maybe I’m remembering this wrong)” or “(un recuerdo talvez falso). The poem that reflects this blurring and convergence of memories, “A Wedding, One Sunday, The End of Summer,” or “Una Boda, Un Domingo, El Fin del Verano,” likewise conjoins all of these distinct episodes in one structure, a one-stanza prose poem in which Chaves blends each memory linguistically, á la Cortázar, as well as visually, with one image recalling the memory of another, until the events seamlessly settle into one collective. In the following poem, “Playa Santa Teresa, 2006,” he sums up the thesis motif of his collection:

One afternoon I closed my eyes and saw the blur of so many past trips, imagining future visits to this very coast. This is how it is. Life can be pared down to a very short list.

Una tarde cerré los ojos y vi muchos viajes ya borrosos del pasado e imaginé paseos futuros en esta misma costa. Es así, la vida se puede reducir a una lista breve.

The subject of lists dominates Equestrian Monuments. In the titular poem, the words “(A Litany)” or “(Una Letanía)” follow, signaling the speaker’s constant list-like replaying of memories, such as out-of-focus photographs or dialogues in which he repeatedly lifts quotes from his family members, The Exorcist, Latin prayers, and himself from previous poems. Human activity is arbitrary, as his mother reminds him with constant corrections of “God willing”; with the futility of weeds that grow without or help or attention; the brain “seduced by frivolity” or “seducido por la frivolidad”; multiple fleeting lists; even human suffering, when he likens a trail in the sand to “the handwriting of someone who’s hurt you, and the waves come and the waves erase it”  or “la escritura de uno que te hizo daño, y las olas vienen y la borran.” In the photos of the monuments erected for Leon Cortés, the conquistador’s whole body is eclipsed, save for the shadow of an arm, in an off-center shot, while the camera focuses on the next generation of the Second Republic. Quietly inserted in the midst of stanzas renegotiated in repetition is a wistful memory:

En la orilla del Pacífico                                    On the coast of the Pacific
miráamos atentos el fuego                              we’d watch the fire attentively
como si fuera un tele inteligente.                    as if it were an intelligent TV.

Los brillos del gel en tu cabeza                       The glitter of gel in your hair
eran estrellas mortales, diminutas,                  was a host of mortal stars, diminutive,
extinguiéndose.                                                extinguishing themselves.

Equestrian Monuments is ultimately a melancholy autopsy of a failed relationship, both on a microcosmic and macrocosmic scale. Chaves’ ecocritical observations to climate change, human ignorance, the growing reliance on machinery and its encroachment on our private spaces, are closely linked to intimate details of the lost “you.” A memory of flags at a social democracy rally recalls the lover’s body leaning out of a Datsun 120Y. The sounds of the morning bulldozers and neighbors parallel the lover’s late-night return with confetti in her panties; migrants drinking coffee and tourists leaving behind non-biodegradable trails to find their way home connect to the lover’s rereading of a novel that favors natural beauty over love. He admonishes, “It’s time to go back” or “Es la hora de volver.” The constant returns of the speaker, walking multiple laps in the park or repeating his lists (an entire poem devoted to an inventory of things in a desk drawer or his life), point to an internal return signifying growth and retrospection. Quoting himself from previous poems, he grants himself permission to consider:

It’s OK to re-visit where I went wrong, to see it with my own eyes. The people we used to be are in a place where trial and error seem to repeat themselves again and again, while a song in the background tells us exactly what we want to hear.

Está bien seguir con la vista la ruta de la equivocación. En algún lugar están las personas que fuimos, un espacio donde la prueba y el error se repiten una y otra vez, con una canción de fondo que dice lo que queremos escuchar.

In the waves erasing the writing in the sand, in the postures of those who behold the ocean’s beauty in different ways, Chaves registers the conciliatory signs for healing from hurt, something akin to forgiveness. The speaker recognizes throughout the poems the inherent recurrent need for reconciliation: “The outside world seems to flow with naturalness and calm. I want the inside world that way too” or “La vida de afuera parece fluir con calma y naturalidad. Quiero que la vida de adentro también.”

Equestrian Monuments, by Luis Chaves. Translated by Julia Guez & Samantha Zighelboim. After Hours Editions, November 2021. 70 pages. $18.00, paper.

Shannon Nakai is a poet and book reviewer whose work has been featured in Cincinnati Review, Atlanta Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Literary Review, Cream City Review, Image, Gulf Stream, Midwest Review, and Sugared Water, among others. A Pushcart nominee and Fulbright scholar, she lives with her husband and son in Wichita, KS.

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