Mónica de la Torre’s Is to Travel Getting to or Being in a Destination (pp. 259-60) uses travel as a metaphor to preserve writing and history as activity and verb (the “getting to”) as well as noun or finished project (a “destination”). In each of the four sections, de la Torre outlines a methodology for “the next poem” and then arrives at a surprising destination. The process she outlines each time exceeds the product in length and works as explanatory/contextual matter, but is simultaneously preserved as part of the product. Due to de la Torre’s experimental techniques in evasion, erasure, and silencing, each of the poems-within-the-poem risks illegibility without the explanations which lead up to them. These explanations offer an account of experiences de la Torre tries to convey through language games while simultaneously pointing to the limits of language to hold the weight of violence and history. I think this is in dialogue with M. NourbeSe Philip’s attempt in Zong! “to chart the outline of a wound” by “un-telling” a story that must but can’t be told (196, 207). To explore these ideas and how they interface race through language, I’ll look briefly at the first and third poems.
The first poem “The Hanged Man Game,” de la Torre writes
… is a couplet made of nineteen letters in the first line, and seventeen in the second.
The poem itself, consisting of 36 dashes, looks like a game of hangman. The letters are unfilled. Placeholders that must be guessed at and filled with no hint at even how many words there are, let alone the content of their message. The title “The Hanged Man Game” points to this as a violence, as a game that is already over. The prefatory anecdote about an encounter at the Buffalo Bill Grave & Museum acts as a clue of sorts to what the message may be, but there is no way to know for sure the solution. de la Torre tells us:
All I knew about Buffalo Bill came from a great song by The Beatles. Show biz wasn’t off the mark: on display at the museum were films and posters advertising “buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World,” featuring cowboys and Indians, Mexican vaqueros, Arabian riders, Japanese soldiers, Irish lancers, South American guachos, and Russian Cossacs engaging in “marvelous feats, sports, and pasttimes.”
Her anecdote points to how narratives of the Wild West in media (show biz, Beatles, posters in the museum) are created by and celebrate whiteness while erasing other ethnic groups such as “Indians, Mexican vaqueros, Arabian riders, Japanese soldiers, Irish lancers, South American guachos, and Russian Cossacs.” How would one guess at this diversity from the whitewashed media depictions? The violence of erasure and exoticising in the language of the poster reducing these identities to “Congress of Rough Riders of the World” is gestured towards with de la Torre’s “Hanged Man Game,” as well as the physical violence enacted by Buffalo Bill and other white cowboys against other identity groups in the Wild West, especially Native Americans.
Poem three is more sparse but also speaks by another “untelling”:
I overheard a guy at the Grand Canyon Lodge say: “I figured out this trip is all about erosion.” Who likes to overhear things? This next poem is about overhearing:
This “poem” about overhearing disappears from the page. It is silent. It erodes. It also explodes and opens outward, bringing in sounds from the world around the reader into the text. What does it mean to create a poem that “overhears”? That listens to the conversations of the people around the room and respects the surrounding soundscape of the natural environment? Like John Cage’s 4’33” score, though here the context considers race in the erosion of history. Overhearing becomes an intervention to silencing mechanisms. Rather than insisting on authorial authority and imposing or writing over another history (eg, the whitewashing gestured towards in the first poem), de la Torre points to how listening can be an empowering site of knowledge construction. Her approach fosters empathy and readerly participation. In this way, the poem takes on a life of its own: a dynamic, living document with breathing space. (How does this interact with the lack of air/space in “The Hanged Man Game”?)
That is, the writing exceeds itself and continues as a verb, resisting static containment. Just as history refuses to be silenced and pushed to the past. There’s a lot going on throughout the poem in its surfaces and deeper canvases–tensions between erosion and building; writing and listening; static and dynamic; completion and incompletion; speech and silence; etc. This contradiction embodies the question in the title. But fuck eithor/or binaries: the way out of this riddle is to read the creative writing as having a history as well as being about history: that is, traveling is both the getting to and the destination.