Reading Zemborain and Alcalá

On Mauve Sea-Orchids & Some Maritime Disasters this Century
by Bonnie Jean Michalski

The more we read the more we are trained to expect specific things: what was your last experience reading a poem that was center-justified? My guess is you were reading a greeting card. Here’s an aphorism: Good poems meet our expectations; great poems upset our expectations. Though I call it an aphorism to cover my back, I think I believe that one. It feels good to be shaken up; it feels significant to have expectations blown out of the water.

Lila Zemborain’s Mauve Sea-Orchids is center-justified. It is made up of three long poems whose titles are not the least bit afraid of beauty or the lyric: “la orquídea y el moscardón/orchid and bumble-bee” “los pétalos furiosos/the furious petals,” “malvas orquídeas del mar/mauve sea-orchids.” It is also written in a tone so hard to pin down I don’t even know where to begin. It doesn’t convert well to one or two-page excerpts for easy digestion. It is best experienced at once so that its strangeness can wash over the reader. The declarative mood is a near constant. You are told that there are such things as loveglands, and yes, yes they emit the smell of baking bread. It is scientific and sensual; sensual and scientific. This book marries those terms in a way I cannot in this format. (Scisensual. Sensuatific. Still I keep trying.) And it makes me want to misuse adjectives. Mauve Sea-Orchids is pedantic in a good way. Soporific in a good way. Written entirely in the present tense, Mauve Sea-Orchids narrates constant activity of minutia; reading this book feels like watching a nature documentary that takes place inside an organic body and slowed down just a second or two so that the movements of its simulated natural world become trance-like.

Mauve Sea-Orchids is translated by Rosa Alcalá. Soon after reading Orchids I ordered Alcalá’s out-of-print chapbook, Some Maritime Disasters this Century (Belladonna*, 2003) from an online used bookstore. This chapbook dates back to when Belladonna* was primarily a reading series. Its materials are humble but its design is beautiful. A woodcut image of a ship’s sails pop out from the corner, tiny rust-colored waves enveloping them. “Some Maritime Disaters this Century” remains one of my favorite titles in the world. The poems are spare but densely populated with giants of political, poetic, and philosophical history (Rumi, Levi-Satrauss, Derrida, Garcia Lorca, Langston Hughes…).

After reading Alcalá, I can see why she was drawn to the work of Zemborain. Alcalá uses line breaks to play with meaning in a way that is strangely akin to the many meanings made by Zemborain’s near run-on line structure. Zemborain loves the semicolon. The semi-colon connects ideas softly: it correlates rather than mirrors ideas. I imagine Alcalá saw possibilities in that. And I imagine the rangy tones in Mauve Sea-Orchids allowed her to capitalize on the grammatical possibilities of translation. Nor are Alcalá’s poems voiced by a single speaker. They have a collectivity that is trance-like in the same way Zemborain’s scientific-sensual marriages are trance-like:

     …I am

     the memory
     of milk You

     would not
     recognize me

     After the heat
     Of sugar

     Mills I shine

     Little ghost
     Sifted star

     (from “Polvo”).

It also moves on a level of minutia and in a way that feels slowed-down:

     you voice hands
     over knees

     and beg

     your body
     folded as much

     as outward

     sways its

     …my dis/focus

     (from “This Way of Talking”).


     The landscape superimposes its figures over 
     the sordid reading of facts; bluntly,


     Texts on horse medicine
     And a girl on a Vespa

     Cross the Roman Bridge

I cannot wait for the meeting of these two minds!






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