[Coffee House Press; 2020]
Thresholes testifies to the fierce, brave determination of one Latinx writer to write through struggle. Lara Mimosa Montes speaks to the book’s inner turmoil in her Preface: “This was never the book I intended to write; nevertheless, it is the book that was written.” What a gracious way to speak of her writing process — I’ve held that thought as a comfort, as I listened to Montes read on Zoom and her screen froze, as I opened a blank document after midnight and started to type “review-esque memoir” and spilled several thousand words until sunrise entirely not about Thresholes but needless to say playing with its stylistic innovation, as I sealed the document shut and re-read everything I’d ever written about trauma and wept, as I researched more and put together a critical presentation on writing through therapy, as I filed it all away and started again. These too are not the words I endeavored to write. Montes continues: “Why did I decide in the writing to turn towards the book before me rather than tighten my grasp on the one that refused to be born? The same reason one might stand in the light of a dead star: to consider the time it took for that light to arrive.” I’m still waiting. I don’t know if the intimacy of knowing I seek can ever be truly found. I hardly know what it is like for Montes, raised in the Bronx, living now in Minneapolis. I can only hold onto the palpability of her book from my reading experience and hope to showcase what deeply moved me — the very invocation of holes to brave time and imbue the narrative with change.
I want to believe I picked up Thresholes at random. Maybe then I googled the author’s bio and found out Montes also has a PhD from the CUNY Grad Center, studying under Wayne Kostenbaum herself. I don’t remember. I have to admit now that I am deeply biased because I read nearly every book by Kostenbaum in my bathtub. I am particularly fond of Humiliation, and curiously my own used copy is stamped from a correctional facility. I myself now am an adjunct lecturer and MFA candidate at CUNY. I read Thresholes, while my mind and body felt like I was slowly collapsing through the pandemic, in quarantine, with the mounting grief around me in the epicenter. I live in Queens, NY, I am not from NYC, but a friend of mine tells me that the choice I made to stay is a defining point for me as a New Yorker. Montes crosses Minneapolis and NYC, and in a small sense my story has too. Minneapolis was a future I once explored, a place I could be now, instead of NYC, in a very gripping sense, considering the injustice and unrest that has ensued in and out from Minneapolis in these troubling days. Montes’ book gave me something that I’ve never felt — the book affirmed the reality of a struggle so deep inside me that I haven’t been able to voice in a long time.
While the book may appeal to readers of memoir, poetry and life-writing, Thresholes is determined not to give us what we expect or what we want. In fact, the story is hard to summarize. Montes suggests, “It never felt like writing, and it never felt like sex.” Montes writes, “I was there and yet I have no memory of that performance.” It’s easier to talk about the pieces concerning encounters with healers of some kind, the pieces about art and catharsis. The book explores why we think trauma breaks us. Does trauma really damage the brain, or is that wound inflicted on us by negative social conditioning? The book is about the effects of trauma on the mind, even as it deliberately reflects the lived experience of the body, after trauma, through trauma, in love. Montes explains, “I began to feel a persistent misalignment in my face.” She continues, “I used words like broken and asymmetrical. ‘But my jaw feels out of place,’ I complained.” There’s some kind of slippage that seems to happen between the mind and the brain, even as a void is created between self and body.
It’s essential to respect something about the very fabric of this book — that is, to embrace the holes. This is a book designed so that each of the pieces is separated with holes as asterisks in between lines of poetry and prose blocks. Often a string of short lines with holes in between reads like a cascade of poetic speech falling down a page. The space between the pieces is so central to the weight of the work. A distinction between holes and fragments is truly key to understanding this work as well. The book is not a sequence of fragments. The book comprises a whole story, a story of walking through grief, and there is some semblance of resolution in the end though the weight is everlasting. Thresholes is more like an assemblage of pieces because an assemblage has a story and an assemblage also invokes a politics of erasure and citation, akin to contemporary black art and women of color poetics.
Deeply grounded in documentary poetics, Montes thus stakes her claim within an art of curation. This practice enters the work when Montes applies the practice of citation and constructs poetic paragraph blocks about creative individuals and objects of reference. In this vein, multiple paragraph blocks, like exhibition labels, are devoted to artworks, photography and other artifacts of personal memory and collective historical significance. These works deepen the speaker’s connection to the terrain, particularly centered in the Bronx, by extending the individual through the collective. What is shared history takes on metaphorical significance.
Montes also utilizes the paraphrase and the parenthetical citation to insert her voice into critical theory. Theorists and scholars may be noted in the book, but they are usually paraphrased, not quoted — a curious way to extend dialogue. The cited author’s name alone is provided in parentheses. For example, when Montes cites Kristeva, Montes forms a question surrounding Kristeva’s work in a single sentence: “How can I be without border? (Julia Kristeva).” Is the question a paraphrase of Kristeva or a question to Kristeva? Because I am familiar with Kristeva’s body of work, I find this line particularly jarring in the book. Kristeva offers foundational work as a feminist psychoanalytic scholar and writer herself. Kristeva’s book Black Sun comes to mind where Kristeva explains how female writers may especially wrestle with depression because they contend with an infinite sense of loss. Kristeva writes, “For those who are racked by melancholia, writing about it would have meaning only if writing sprang out of that very melancholia.” Kristeva also explores how the female resists the definition of her body as bodily fluids that have been carefully contained. Montes’ rephrasing of Kristeva continues after the initial parenthetical citation. Montes’ next lines read: “The perimeter of which is feminine in form: [hole] what refuses to house / the nothing; what / refuses to wash ashore.” The breaking of the words reiterates the unbearable, immeasurable loss Kristeva essentially defines in theory.
Without sharing every minute detail of the story, Thresholes emphasizes the body’s movement through time and place in deeply vulnerable, poignant scenes, so the tangible world of objects carries the body’s emotive energy. In one prose block, Montes describes an experience in an art gallery. The episode begins with a stark picture of the context of the visit: “Among those highly stylized ruins, I felt my legs go numb. Walk it off, I thought. I ended up at an exhibition of the painter Mary Weatherford the day before it closed.” What follows is the narration of a powerful encounter with an artwork; meanwhile, the artwork was itself misidentified in the moment. The paragraph block closes, “A beautiful character study, I thought, and left the show satisfied. I later confirmed that it was actually the painting next to this painting that was GLORIA; the one I so admired was Soft Pink Copper Eagle.” This episode brought to my mind a moment I had myself at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
I was struck by the exhibition Question the WALL ITSELF. In fact, I thought I remembered the exhibition was called “Breaking the WALL,” but it was not. In the exhibit, I was so moved that a parakeet spoke to me, and I spoke back to it, but it wasn’t really. . .(Or was it?). My cousin corrected me. I think he said it was a canary, but I really don’t know. I can’t find a close-up shot of the bird sculpture in my camera roll. Re-reading the Walker’s exhibition design review, it suggests the bird spawned the whole concept — a highly poetic curatorial choice, a “book-as-exhibition.” The review suggests “the centerpiece and thematic linchpin of the exhibition was a 1974 work by the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, titled Dites Partout Que Je L’A Dit (Say everywhere I said so). . .consist[ing] of a black-and-white illustration from a 19th-century book of ornithology, a stuffed parrot, a framed text piece, and a reel-to-reel tape player, with box, playing an audio recording of Broodthaers repeating a nonsense poem that roughly translates to ‘Me I say I Me I say I / The King of Mussels Me You say You.’ ” I don’t remember how and why I got it so wrong. It’s uncanny. I somehow believed the bird had unlocked the answer to a maddening riddle for me. It’s hard to say what happened before and after.
My brain has felt like it’s been breaking ever since, just a little, on the edge of something I do and don’t understand. Montes says it so beautifully, “Consciousness floated away. I could not catch up.”
I found about 10 shots in my camera roll of another piece that captivated me from the exhibition: “Index (With Feeling)” by Alejandro Cesarco, a sequence of frames that captures an extensive alphabetized reference list of terms with author names and page numbers from books. As Cesarco describes, it’s part of “an ongoing series,” “composed for books he has not yet written and most probably never will,” “a form of self-portraiture that unfolds over time.” I wrote Montes and asked her if she saw the exhibition. She wrote back that she did and her favorite work was Cesarco’s. The work certainly speaks to Montes’ project and my own in the making, except he missed the word that maybe most defines the essence of the ever-present trauma: hyperarousal. Trauma may leave the body hypervigilant, vulnerable to experiences of hyperarousal. Thresholes reveals how trauma breaks us. As Montes writes, “How do you represent that which is not known [hole] When trauma renders the lyric episodic; [hole] My essence, shorn.” Montes’ book was the gift I needed, as I faced the breaking —
Maybe the fissures were just perceived.
What we don’t always know is what triggers the recognition in the forefront of our brains. The sudden mental recall, prompted by random objects and encounters, jars with the loss, whether through grief or trauma or some combination, causing the state of difficulty to come back, to flood us and remind us that memories really do haunt us. It’s often easier, if not only possible, to access fraught memories at a remove.
Thresholes reflects the impact of trauma on life-writing by claiming the episodic nature of memory and the polyvocality of inner speech. In the book, Montes wrestles with weighing more evidence: “How can I reconcile all / the voices while bearing witness to the violence.” Through a form of auto-theory, she explores the fracturing of the self and complicates the function of the parenthetical. The work argues that at any moment someone may bracket inner speech, so multiple thoughts may occur in a row, but one statement appears to claim dominance. Montes represents these other voices in parentheticals: “Inside my thought is always a second thought, an afterwards to where I originally was. In this way, a parenthetical helps me occupy / two places at once / (two times at once).” The heart exists in the duality, or even plurality, established by the parentheticals, as Montes reiterates the focus on time in the next line, “The time of the sentence and the time after.” The second time may suggest a future time, a time in which the overflow of voices may be heard. I write in the time after, holding on to the hope that maybe Montes’ project was made for a different present, but it is for us now.
In the wake of the tragic murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others, the words of Kristeva in Black Sun may resonate with humanity: “time has been erased or bloated, absorbed into sorrow.”
Montes graces us with a unique ability to foresee how time (and permission to rest in time) may empower artistic utterances through the breakage. Giving visibility to the bracketed inner speech, Montes’ work amplifies voices who relate to the splitness of a highly reflexive self. Montes writes, “Parentheses allow me to retreat from myself.” While we may be inclined to find a retreat to suggest weakness, the statement may also suggest that a valuable separation from the self occurs in the grammatical notation. Montes continues, “When I’m writing, opposite me, there are always at least two people: somebody (an abstraction) sitting next to your ghost.” Parentheses work to define territorial space: “Parentheses outline the places you aren’t.” The parentheticals allow for something to be visualized that is not ordinarily observed. The parentheticals ask readers to pause — to fall down the cascade of thoughts and recognize that the many voices of inner speech are real, even if they are hardly seen and heard.
Thresholes gives us the chance to embrace the holes both for ourselves and for those we stand in solidarity with. In fact, sinking into the holes, the reading demands that we do not need to know every minute detail of a story to celebrate a full rich life. Who are we as readers to expect we are always owed a backstory? In the same manner, we need to question whether we need to know every piece of someone’s story to affirm and understand. I don’t fully understand, even as I empathize, and that’s okay. The point is to see the holes. If I may echo Montes, “I held the breaking and called it love.”
Kara Laurene Pernicano earned a MA in Literary and Cultural Studies with a Certificate in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies from the University of Cincinnati. Currently, she is a MFA Candidate in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, CUNY and an Adjunct Lecturer in English for CUNY. Artist and writer, she celebrates intersectional feminism, queer love, art and healing. Her creative work explores hybrid image-text practices.