Gábor Schein - Péter makes contact with his dead father one last time and conducts a conversation with him that would never have been possible during his lifetime. In his life he was missing the language; in death it is the only thing that can resurrect what never was


Gábor Schein, Lazarus! Trans. by Ottilie Mulzet, 2010.


Lazarus, an unflinching investigation of what it means to be the child of Holocaust survivors in postwar Hungary, is Gábor Schein's second novel.

Will I visit your grave? Is there anything there? If there is, it must be, I believe, something utterly different from what is engraved upon the headstone: may the deceased be tied to the bonds of eternal life. Rather this: totus homo fit excrementum. As all else in self-loathing, you hurried this up, making it happen while you were still alive.

Gábor Schein has a miracle occur in his novel. Péter makes contact with his dead father one last time and conducts a conversation with him that would never have been possible during his lifetime. In his life he was missing the language; in death it is the only thing that can resurrect what never was. There is a story to tell and questions to answer. In order to accomplish this, Péter writes a book, therefore becoming the author of his own past. With this he breaks the prohibition that the father - who robs himself of his voice the last two months of his life - issues to the son. In order to depict the family story, the first-person narrative shifts levels: He jumps from the intimacy of a two-person conversation into a narrative outer view. In that he names himself Péter and his father M., the memory gains reality; only then does the story reveal itself as a continuum. With this artistic arrangement, Schein creates an authentic hero whose wish is fulfilled.
Gábor Schein, born in 1969 in Budapest, studied German philology and Hungarian Literature in the Eötvös-Lóránd-University, Budapest. He has worked journalistically since 1994 and has acted as editor-in-chief of Irodalomtörténet Magazine since 2003. Since 1995 he has also taught at the Institute for Hungarian Literature at the Eötvös-Lóránd-University in Budapest. He has published poetry collections, like Erinnerung der Wörter (Memory of Words), Cave canem and Glasfisch (Glass Fish) as well as monographs on poetry. His prose works include essays and the novel Das Buch von Mordechai (The Book of Mordechai). Lazarus! is the author’s first German-language publication.
For too long, I believed that there were healing sentences, and now I felt even more strongly, that these, if they existed, were not pronouncable for us, their absence, however, is equivalent to failure (...)
And like earlier, your muteness- this irritated, insulting rejection of language that brought me, the one who always wanted explanations, stories that make the impenetrable bitterness at least understandable, into a situation with no way out- forces me to now speak again, henceforth without any hope of an answer, while I would like to keep your muteness as muteness all the same. Only talking can mute your death. (from: “Lazarus!”)


Autobiographies of an Angel (excerpt from the novel)

like the illuminators (poems)


The themes of memory and forgetting are not as distinct from the theme of responsibility as we would like them to be. Gábor Schein's beautifully developed and persuasive essay begins with the physical description of a specific part of Budapest, tracing it from its origins as a swamp through its development as an industrial slum and then as a quarter for the wealthy, going on to examine the regular changing of the city's street-names as a series of excisions from memory. Such excisions, he argues, lead to apathy and indifference. Corpses float down the river in 1945 but no one notices any more. The homeless and hungry of today move past us in the street but liberal public opinion uses them more to flatter its own conscience than to do anything. The Sebaldian sense of deep ground constantly opens at our feet but we move on, returning to the moral and psychological equivalent of the swamp out of which the city sprang.
The essay is rendered in its full richness by the translator into English, Ildikó Noémi Nagy.
                               —George Szirtes

Lake Weeds and Water-Lily Roots: Gábor Schein introduced by George Szirtes 

Pedro Mairal - the visions of a now dead painter/prophet as seen through the eyes of his grieving son, the narrator: Finding the missing roll was something I needed to do so that my father’s work would not be infinite

Review copy courtesy of New Vessel Press.

Pedro Mairal, The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra. Trans. by Nick Caistor, New Vessel Press, 2013.

At the age of nine, Juan Salvatierra became mute following a horse riding accident. At twenty, he began secretly painting a series of long rolls of canvas in which he minutely detailed six decades of life in his village on Argentina’s river frontier with Uruguay. After the death of Salvatierra, his sons return to the village from Buenos Aires to deal with their inheritance: a shed packed with painted rolls of canvas stretching over two miles in length and depicting personal and communal history. Museum curators from Europe come calling to acquire this strange, gargantuan artwork. But an essential roll is missing. A search ensues that illuminates the links between art and life, as an intrigue of family secrets buried in the past cast their shadows on the present.
The latest novel from Mairal (Un Noche Con Sabrina Love) reveals through barebones language and startling scenery a son's hunt for the missing scroll in the magnanimous work of his deceased father, the artist Salvatierra. Mimicking Salvatierra's work within the novel's structure—important scenes grow out from the events captured in the scroll—Mairal builds tense and concise scenes within the greater mystery surrounding the artist. The narrator's composed voice may also be an extension of the all-important element of continuity. Throughout most of the novel, the voice imitates a remote lens, remaining steady while recounting picturesque details of Salvatierra's tragic accident, all the while expressing philosophical observations and blunt observations. When charged with a powerful isolated scene, this voice proves sufficient; when challenged to convey the narrator's own investment in his father's life, the writing tends to fall flat. Yet deep into the search for the scroll, the narrator at last illustrates—sans calm explanation—his own heart. In one seemingly effortless sweep, this scene illuminates both the narrator himself and the reason behind his obsessive search. On whole this enigmatic novel delights in its understated style, even though the narrator feels slightly beyond reach.
- Publishers Weekly

In a perfect world, we would’ve stopped comparing every contemporary Latin American author to Gabriel García Márquez three decades ago. But such was his spell: a vision so beautiful and complete it was that perfect world—and why bother looking for another? What I’d love is for this to be the last review with the dreaded Magical Realism Preface. We don’t need a perfect world when there are countless others to choose from. But, for old time’s sake:
In the 1960s, the English language literary market began saturating itself with imports from Latin America. Following Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union in 1959, the United States—in what is now a familiar panic—began supporting and sometimes installing brutal dictatorships throughout the Western Hemisphere. The novels written during this turmoil—à la One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cortázar’s Hopscotch, or Vargas Llosa’s The Time of the Hero—invented new histories and realities; a distraught imagination is left with no alternative. The magic and beauty borne from this suffering reached near fetishization in the United States, where everything south of the Rio Grande remains to this day a romance of palm leaves, muddy rivers, and hot, lazy villages where flowers rain from the sky. Americans quickly lost interest in Spanish-language authors, instead turning to homegrown novels about money, instruction manuals on making more of it, and compilations of inspirational quotes to help us feel good about wanting it. The dictators and the poverty remained.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of reading Valeria Luiselli’s debut novel, Faces in the Crowd. Luiselli’s work is a far cry from the novels of the Latin American Boom. With its short, unadorned sentences, cruel and indifferent surroundings, myriad references to real literary figures, and hopelessly irreconcilable loneliness, Faces is aligned with the generation from which it derives its title: Pound, Eliot, Kafka, Pessoa, even as late as Beckett and Borges—writers caught in the mid-century Sisyphean struggle against existence itself. She’s among the best of a new wave of translations from Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Spain that began in 2003 with Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile. To this day, Bolaño remains—if not, as Susan Sontag said in the Los Angeles Times, “The most influential and admired novelist of his generation”—certainly the most popular. During his lifetime, Bolaño raged against the world’s one-dimensional vision of Latin America. Instead of flying carpets and oversized virilia, his novels are full of angry young men, Borgesian puzzles, veiled politics, and poetry. It’s an oeuvre that’s intrigued Anglophone readers, and—in addition to every Bolaño novel, story, essay, quote, and grocery list—has spawned translations of other Spanish-language writers, whose books, it turns out, aren’t so easy to dismiss as ornaments of “the other.” Instead they position themselves, sometimes aggressively, in the real world.
Often, they do this via art. Their novels are frequently about or related to art, artists, or the pursuit of art. Bolaño’s protagonists and narrators tend to be writers. Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd is a nested doll of literary narrators—a novelist, a translator, a dead poet. In Pedro Mairal’s recently-translated novel, The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, art here is literally art: enormous murals painted on individual canvases by the narrator’s father. Unknown at the time of his death, the Argentinian painter Salvatierra leaves no instructions regarding his work. His sons, Miguel and Luis, don’t press the issue: “It seemed as though what was more important to him was having painted it, nothing more. Whatever we decided to do was fine by him.” Their mother dies shortly after, leaving the property—including the shed full of canvases—to Miguel and Luis. Unsure of their father’s value as an artist, they decide to appraise and, if possible, sell his life’s work. “It was only now that we were confronted with the entire work,” Miguel observes when they open up the shed, “its colors, its secrets, and all its years. I think we were both very curious, but also felt intimidated as we calculated the immensity of the task before us.” In Mairal’s novel—as in many other novels of this new generation—art has replaced magic as the immense, central presence. It’s become the thing we can’t ignore.
Immense, when it comes to Salvatierra’s work, is too weak a word. Each canvas is rolled and stored on a network of pulleys. Even the smallest are measured in meters—no surprise when we learn that each “painting” represents a year of his life, read left to right as a mural. Miguel’s descriptions of his father’s art make up the most evocative passages in Mairal’s short, terse novel: “He wanted his paintings to encapsulate the fluidity of a river, of dreams, the way in which they can transform things in a completely natural way without the change seeming absurd but entirely inevitable.” In a single paragraph, Miguel unravels a small segment of canvas dated February 1975: a slow, sweeping landscape of an outdoor celebration that fades, inch by inch—almost imperceptibly—to unimaginable violence. From this perspective, it’s easy for readers to gauge “the immensity of the task,” before Miguel, if not the sheer immensity of the work itself when it reflects nearly sixty years of one man’s life. But so too does its beauty suggest why a person would choose, at all, to make art: in February of 1975, acting president Ítalo Lúder issued what is now known as Argentina’s “annihilation decree,” authorizing military force—including kidnappings, torture, and concentration camps—against the People’s Revolutionary Army. In Salvatierra’s work, as in all true art, this tangle of reality is distilled into an experience; Mairal gives us the experience of that experience.
*          *          *
What I propose, from now on, is an alternate preface—something more general, daresay universal: Who doesn’t squirm in the shadow of one’s forebears? After Proust, for example, there was Virginia Woolf’s famous swoon of despair: “Well—what remains to be written after that?” To escape Joyce’s shadow, Beckett fled to a foreign language. Writers are never lacking in neuroses; the struggle against one’s literary parents can be embarrassingly Freudian.
In a 2007 essay for the New Yorker, Daniel Zalewski details Bolaño’s “fury toward the literary mainstream—deeply felt and bordering on puerile.” Before and after his own fame, Bolaño spoke out against García Márquez like an abused stepson. However, much like Beckett’s stripped-down French and Woolf’s Proustian paralysis, Bolaño’s “gratuitous attacks” (as he called them) weren’t for nothing: “He helped liberate Latin-American writing from the debased imitations of magic realism that followed the global conquest of García Márquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude—all those clairvoyant señoritas and intercourse-inspiring moles.” No shoes, then, are too large to fill; no literary father immortal or invulnerable.
The literature of García Márquez and his contemporaries is monolithic. Its shadow still drifts in pieces over the continent, no longer so stifling but to this day obscuring the world’s view of Latin America. Out of frustration, disgust, and sorrow these novelists created a separate, imaginary Latin America—one that grew so large it dwarfed the real thing. How can any young novelist expect to carve herself a piece of this imaginary landscape? How can she compete with her own version of the world? As Bolaño figured out, you don’t: you pierce it full of holes.
More so than most literary generations, today’s Spanish-language novelists are defined by what they’re not. In 2007, the Los Angeles Times announced a new Bolaño translation with the headline, “Way Beyond Magical Realism.” Last April, after the publication of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel, The Sound of Things Falling, the editors at Wired welcomed the end of magical realism, cataloguing the writers “who've dared to question whether Latin America has much magic to offer.” The Guardian, in May of this year, observed how Luiselli’s “downbeat supernaturalism feels quite different from the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez.” In his essay on The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, Patrick Nathan opened with . . . et cetera, ad infinitum. But what slips through the holes these novels create are Latin Americas so numerous, so distinct, it’s impossible to ignore the truth: that Gabo’s Macondo is only one version, and—just as there are countless imaginations—there are countless versions.
Of course, not all versions feel complete. As Miguel and Luis take inventory of their father’s work, they quickly discover that a single canvas—1961, in terms of chronology—is absent. “Compared to the work as a whole,” Miguel says, “this fragment was almost nothing, and yet I wanted to find it because that gap disturbed me, the jump in a continuous flow.” The search for the missing year leads Miguel first to extended family, then to his father’s friends, afterward his father’s enemies. Meanwhile a museum in Holland has expressed interest in the work and has initiated proceedings to acquire and transport it, creating a deadline. In true noir fashion, he pursues his father’s secrets to the rough part of town—“neglected, run down, with no sign of any new housing”—and, of course, the shadow of the man he knew changes shape into a man he never did. Unfortunately, despite Miguel’s adventures—death threats from a senile octogenarian, gunshots from a band of mischievous children, breaking into an abandoned villa—it’s this treasure hunt that takes the wind out of the novel’s sails.
Though written with a refreshing, straightforward realism (the narrator doesn’t over-soliloquize or lead us elaborately astray, the scrolls of canvas don’t scuttle about on their own, etc.), The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is still a novel of ideas and metaphor. He says, of his father’s work:
The canvas was one long open-air procession where beings could vanish and return some time later. Something similar often happens in music, when certain themes reappear with variations . . . Because of this sense of the limitless flow of nature that the canvas had, I find it hard to call it a painting, because that suggests a frame, a border that surrounds certain things, and that’s precisely what Salvatierra wanted to avoid. He was fascinated by the lack of a limit, of a boundary, by the way different spaces communicated with one another. Boundaries are suppressed in his work: each being is at the mercy of all the others, trapped within the cruelty of nature.
The missing canvas of 1961 opens up a hole, an interruption in an observable narrative. Stitched together, the canvases are a massive roman à clef, or even a diary. Miguel is disturbed by the missing segment—perhaps a year his father is ashamed to have painted, ergo ashamed to have lived. At the same time, it allows the novel its obvious narrative momentum. Miguel now has a way to probe his father’s secrets. And there are secrets. In this lens, Salvatierra is disappointingly ordinary, utilizing the simplest of fictions to express lofty ideas of continuity, identity, art vs. life, family, fatherhood. It gives the novel an air of contrivance. Is it a surprise that Miguel has a son of his own? That their relationship isn’t an ideal one? The story itself almost feels an afterthought. It’s hard not to feel the terrible absence of imagination—not on behalf of Mairal himself but his narrator, Miguel. Even Philip Roth allowed Nate Zuckerman, with only a few details, to imagine the suffering of his admired Seymour “the Swede” Levov. Where is Miguel’s unquenched thirst to know who his father was and how he lived? Where is, in other words, his imagination? It’s disappointing to think that one is obligated, as a twenty-first-century novelist, to scaffold one’s obsession with a lonely artist in a halfheartedly engineered detective story; especially when writers like Lydia Davis, Gerald Murnane, Julian Barnes, and myriad others have shown that the imagined solution, the imagined narrative, can be equally if not far more compelling. But Mairal plays it safe, and we’re left to sneak what peeks we can at the structure beneath—the breathtaking concept of Salvatierra’s life’s work, Miguel’s translation of that work to the page, and the desire to know that we want Miguel to have had. Everything else is just beams and girders.
*          *          *
Of course there’s always the Big Preface, the capital-A Art Preface in which the work in question is positioned on the massive, timeless pinwheel of capital-H Humanity. A novelist is an artist, after all—and, as Sontag pointed out in 1965—“the new sensibility understands art as the extension of life.” Who better to consult than the art critic?
In his 1952 essay, “The American Action Painters,” Harold Rosenberg defined what he saw as the new relationship artists had taken with their work:
A painting that is an act is inseparable from the biography of the artist. The painting itself is a "moment" in the adulterated mixture of his life—whether "moment" means the actual minutes taken up with spotting the canvas or the entire duration of a lucid drama conducted in sign language. The act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist's existence. The new painting has broken down every distinction between art and life.
Though far from the Abstract Expressionism and Happenings of Rosenberg’s New York art world, Mairal’s daunting Salvatierra would’ve been the critic’s ideal Latin American Action Painter. What is his work but an act?—indeed, a biography? That the lost canvas is a synecdoche for an entire year of his life—that the eponymous “missing year” can be taken as both the canvas he painted in 1961 and the 1961 he actually lived—makes it hard to cleave Salvatierra from his four kilometers of canvas. It’s equally hard to cleave the sickly shut-in Marcel Proust from the sickly shut-in “Marcel” (mentioned by name only once) who narrates In Search of Lost Time, not to mention the monolithic García Márquez from the Macondo he loved. In a way, these artists lived their art. They could not step out it. Over time, art and artist fused together; the doppelgänger became the real persona, whatever “real,” in this instance, might mean.
Shortly after the novel’s translation into English (which was brilliantly done by Nick Caistor), Mairal confided his inspiration for the artist at the heart of his novel. As he told Tweed’s Magazine:
The first idea for The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra appeared when I was watching a documentary on Jackson Pollock, and they said after he was placed on a pedestal as the best artist in America, with his photo on the cover of Life Magazine, he couldn’t paint anymore. I thought about the opposite, a painter who paints every single day, unknown, and who goes forward no matter what, and paints an endless canvas.
Fame aside—and with Rosenberg’s critique of the “Jack the Dripper” America had read about in 1949—Mairal’s construction of an alternate Pollock seems quite sound. Salvatierra indeed could be the doppelgänger of a Pollock that was never discovered, never lauded. Each is a colossus. Each presents a new, and seemingly complete, version of mingling with his art—Pollock’s bypassing of the easel and brush, instead hurling himself at his canvas; Salvatierra’s seamless sixty years of life, nothing omitted and nothing forgotten. Seen through Mairal’s novel, it’s a way of making art that no longer seems to exist. In fact, Salvatierra seems deliberate in its refutation of monolithic art and artists. Miguel’s Argentina is not the Argentina his father recorded on canvas. Instead it seems disheartening and ordinary: his commutes from Buenos Aires to his native Barrancales; the tedious paperwork required by bureaucratic arts organizations; his banal desire to connect with his surly, twentysomething son. In a global and twenty-first century, the singular, unique visions of artists like his father no longer seem complete, nor encompassing, nor even credible. They seem quaint and allegorical, their stories nothing but make-believe. Despite its lack of ambition, The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra has done what novels must do—in this fragmented, amalgamated modernity—to be novels: it has shattered the contained, “perfect” world of its fathers and revealed our messy, uncontainable, inescapable world. Art, in our novels, is a longing for the perfection in which we can no longer even believe. - Patrick Nathan

In the first thesis of his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord wrote that, "all that was once directly lived has become mere representation." Earlier philosophers had written on the commodification of art and culture before Debord, but Debord's work was seminal in its contention that commodified art and culture had been enlisted by his so-called spectacular society to mediate the commodification of all human experience. That contention certainly hasn't been lost on the art world of postmodernity, and the specific brand of self-reflexivity that it examines has been a common artistic motif in the decades since the original publication of Debord's book. Those decades were also coincident with an increasingly ardent fetishization of art that has corresponded to skyrocketing prices on the art market. In the words of another of Debord's theses: "As culture becomes completely commodified, it tends to become the star commodity."
Art has always taken art as a subject, and the world of literature hasn't been any exception. But from the surface of the Mobius strip mise en abyme of contemporary culture, the representative images of art often appear much larger than the lives and experiences they would represent. In The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, Argentine author Pedro Mairal depicts the life of his titular artist simultaneously with the life of his art. It's a slim volume, but it grapples with big questions: what, if anything, is the intrinsic value of artistic expression, and what role should artistic production have in mediating social interaction (including interactions related to the sale and exhibition of art)?
Mairal's artist was a painter (-cum-postal worker) in life, and Mairal's novel begins and ends with descriptions of "the painting" of his that's been reproduced for an exhibit at a museum in Amsterdam some years after his death. After he was injured in a childhood horseback riding accident, Juan Salvatierra was spared the traditional expectations that his rancher father had for his other sons and learned to paint. Although the painter himself never appears in it, Salvatierra's painting was his life, and it outlived him as a chronicle of it -- and of his community. And the artistic legacy that Salvatierra leaves his community turns out to be, literally, huge. Salvatierra painted his painting day by day over the course of his entire adult life, and when he died it consisted of over two miles of canvas, which his sons find stored in rolls in the shed where their father had painted.
For the book's narrator, the second son of Juan Salvatierra, the story of The Missing Year represents a coming to terms. Neither the narrator nor his brother Luis are artists. Nor have they had artistic aspirations. Both were happy to leave the family home in rural Barrancales to study in Buenos Aires -- and to stay there. (At the time that they meet in Barrancales to deal with the painting, the narrator owns a real estate office, and his brother is a notary.) Still, their lives have been inextricably tied to their experience of their father's art. And in its turn, their father's painting has been a reflection of their shared experiences. Reencountering his father's monolithic painting is, for the narrator, a reencounter with his mute, reclusive father (who made sure that no instructions were left for how to deal with his work).
But it also means an encounter with the art world. Salvatierra didn't paint to have his painting shown. He was content in his isolation: "the odd man out, a figurative painter among non-figuratives, a provincial among artists from the capital, a practitioner among theorists." Salvatierra only ever showed two sections of his painting, at a biennial in the 1960s, and since then the painting has been in the shed. His two sons think that the painting should be seen, but they get only nominal support from the local bureaucracy. The two brothers aren't sure how they should frame their photographs of the painting for soliciting support from galleries and foundations, let alone how the painting itself might some day be acquired and displayed.
Eventually, the omnipresence of art in the life of the narrator becomes commensurate with the looming omnipresence of his father. His struggle with the legacy of his father's painting is also his personal struggle to find a life for himself outside of it. Ironically, the apparent continuity, boundlessness and irreversibility of his father's art seem to have limited the creativity of his children. So when the narrator and his brother discover that a year's worth of the painting is missing from the shed, the narrator is beset with restoring that year to the others and completing the painting, "scouring that enormity until [he] discovered its limit," in order to represent himself somewhere beyond the visual representation of his father's worldview and the purview of his father's rising star.
The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is, then, also a portrait of its narrator, the non-artist, as he attempts to reconcile art and experience in his own life by tracking down that missing year. And although the book addresses such far-reaching, global topics as the intrinsic value of self-expression and the social function of art (at the levels of both the working artists and the museum-gallery complex), its immediate action all takes place in and around provincial Barrancales. It's a slim volume, but it twists and turns in and out of the rolls of canvas in Salvatierra's shed and around the local personalities whose lives were Salvatierra's inspiration along a series of revelations in which life and art never let up from their game of imitation. Then there's a dusty, backwater heist and a smuggling plot. At large (and for such a small book it's remarkably outsize), The Missing Year is a bucolic, yet sumptuous family drama on the River Uruguay that is also a quiet farce of the international art market.
Given his subject matter, however, Pedro Mairal's style is interestingly un-painterly. Despite the mysteries and twists of his plot, his delivery is consistently measured and straightforward. Yet it's that measured clarity by which Mairal is able to conjure such vivid images of Salvatierra's painting and the fluctuations in its associated surroundings. ("People are suddenly horizontal, swept along by the invisible current.") Nick Caistor's English translation does well in staying the course of that flow. And it's timely, appearing now not more than half a dozen years after The Missing Year was originally published in Spanish, with big art like Salvatierra's continuing to fetch higher prices as the global social gentry takes greater pains to associate itself with the mythical creative class.
Critics and criticism, of course, play big parts in representing the relative value and importance of art and artists on the market. And Mairal addresses their reactions to Salvatierra's painting early, in the second chapter of his book. Until the posthumous exhibition of his one painting, Juan Salvatierra and his art have existed in a critical and biographical vacuum. And that invites a critical free for all, which affords Salvatierra's painting another life of its own. "He never gave interviews, left no notes about his work, played no part in our cultural life and never had an exhibition. As a consequence, curators and critics can fill that silence with a vast array of opinions and theories."
On the other hand, the narrator also acknowledges "that the absence of the artist improves the work... The fact that the artist isn't present, getting in the way between spectator and work, means that people are freer to appreciate it" -- and to more freely assign value to it on their own terms. The intrinsic value of artistic expression, Mairal seems to argue, is that it simply has intrinsic, priceless value, however it might be received, commodified and redistributed by the critics. "Second-rate littérateurs," as they were labeled, tongue in cheek, by Oscar Wilde in his essay "The Critic as Artist," "who, when poet or painter passes away, arrive at the house with the undertaker, and forget that their one duty is to behave as mutes." Like Juan Salvatierra, whose silent example in Mairal's book ultimately recommends that artistic expression be allowed, so to speak, to speak for itself, and in the context of whomever would engage it. - Christopher Merkel

The Missing Year, the first novel by Argentinian writer Pedro Mairal to be translated (excellently, by Nick Caistor) into English, is a slim 118 pages, beautifully crafted, and dense with often-hallucinatory imagery: the visions of a now dead painter/prophet as seen through the eyes of his grieving son, the narrator. “I saw one of those skies that Salvatierra so loved to paint,” the narrator says. “One of those deep, shifting, powerful skies. He sometimes painted scattered clouds growing smaller toward the horizon, which gave the sky its true dimension. He could create vast aerial spaces that left you giddy, as if you might plunge headfirst into the canvas.” Plunging headfirst is an apt way to describe the feeling of disappearing inside this deceptively simple narrative, where the dead swim and the living glide through thin air.
Though at first glance The Missing Year may appear to be a detective story of sorts—a quest to bring hidden family secrets to light—the plot itself feels like a red herring. The narrator’s father, Salvatierra—a painter who lost the use of his voice in a childhood horseback riding accident—dies. The narrator and his brother Luis, both of whom are well into a somewhat paunchy middle age, set out, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to find people who will bring Salvatierra’s paintings to the wider audience they deserve. A painted scroll representing a year of Salvatierra’s life turns out to be missing—an unexplained gap that becomes the locus of the brothers’ quest—and in the course of their inquiries, certain well-buried revelations about Salvatierra’s past do, in fact, come to light. The book, however, is up to something other than just digging up ordinary garden-variety dirt. Its real thrust has more to do with inducing a kind of amniotic vertigo, a liquid disorientation similar to the washing machine effect of getting knocked head to heel by a sudden vicious wave.
The fishermen of Salvatierra’s youth, for instance, are transformed into “ragged saints who are the lords of the fish swimming high in the air among the boards, pans, bags, and ladles hanging from the branches so they won’t be swept away by the river. As if they could all swim in the air just as they did in the water: men, fish, and things.” Though the two brothers plod forward like determined bureaucrats to tie up their father’s sundry loose ends, the mute Salvatierra’s vision of the human experience as treacherous, beautiful, and upside down spills into every description, every action, and prevails as the book’s secret heart.
“What,” asks the narrator,” was this interlacing of lives, people, animals, days, nights, catastrophes?” Catastrophe is a key word. The images exist outside the parameters of human control. Mutable and malleable, ethereal yet often crowded with menace, they blur boundaries, are a force of nature, act as a stand-in for the very fabric of time. Salvatierra’s paintings are at once love poems to life and deafeningly silent screams against its random injustices; the slow march to the ultimate unveiling of Salvatierra’s somewhat banal human indiscretions seems of little consequence compared to the roiling power of his all-pervasive scrolls.
While the brothers quest for the missing painting (the narrator more enthusiastically than the stodgy Luis) we learn that their sister and Salvatierra’s daughter, Estela, drowned at the age of twelve while swimming with friends. Further mention of Estela is sporadic and brief (in Salvatierra’s paintings after the accident, she looks “still alive, swimming with her eyes closed, drifting along with the current”) but her presence and the horror of her premature death (along with the terrible surprise of Salvatierra’s life changing childhood accident) can be felt throughout The Missing Year’s imagistic prose.
This is where everything begins to be flattened by the gusting wind of time. People are suddenly horizontal, swept along by the invisible current. The tree branches flail about, the animals, rain, everything slants to one side, unable to resist. Further on still, they start to appear upside down, to turn tail, until at a moment of complete loss of balance when I think my father must have been close to going mad, the universe tips over completely, the landscape does a somersault, the sky is at the bottom and the land at the top, as though my father were once again seeing the world with the fear of dangling from the stirrup of a horse galloping out of control among the trees. 
Salvatierra is himself discomfited by what he creates, “…perhaps slightly embarrassed at the immensity of his work, its outsize dimensions, how grotesquely gigantic it was: almost more like a hoarding vice or obsession than a finished work of art.” Whatever this is that Salvatierra creates, it isn’t art. Or is it more than art? Salvatierra the man falters and dies, and his paintings gallop onward.
In the end Salvatierra’s secrets are exposed and harmlessly recede, and his work is unfurled before an astounded public eye, miraculous. A circle is completed. But by the end of the book Salvatierra seems an addendum to his great work; all that remains of the man is his mute beseeching. Look! his paintings seem to say. This is time. The texture of it. Its color and variety. See how beautiful? Time is passing. You are inside of it. And, look! When you are gone, this is how time will continue without you. The paintings (and the narrative) leave us with the sense that anything can happen in this upside down life, this absurd, ever-shifting spectacle in which a voice can be stolen by a galloping horse and a daughter is permitted to drown. “Finding the missing scroll was something I needed to do so that my father’s work would not be infinite,” the narrator says. But just as time is infinite, so are Salvatierra’s paintings, which contain an unknowable supply of details that seem, uncannily, to multiply and shift, and which flow ever forward in an unbroken stream. The resolution The Missing Year offers, the circle it closes, represents a paradox: time is infinite, yes, but one day, for all of us, it will end. Or maybe—in its luminous descriptions, its steady insistence on the incomparable beauty that lives inside of each of life’s sometimes-terrible mysteries—The Missing Year is simply reminding us to stop and smell the roses. - Jessie Vail Aufiery

Some time ago I read this phrase: “The page is the only place in the universe God left blank for me.”
Pedro Mairal’s short novel The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is more about these blank spaces than the usual full ones. It’s a novel where the things that are left out are just as important as the pieces we’re given. Through a series of vignette-like chapters which are set, unlike most contemporary Argentine novels, outside of the scope of Buenos Aires, Mairal shows us what life is like in the parts of the country that don’t get as much attention. Life in the small village of Barrancales centers around sneaking things across the Uruguayan border, fishing on the bank of the river, and crazy old men whose shotguns have been rigged so they can’t actually shoot innocent passersby. There’s also an old shed that’s been locked and abandoned for years, protecting sixty canvas scrolls from the weather.
It’s these scrolls the protagonist, Miguel, is after when he returns to the village following the death of his parents. That’s when he unearths the life work of his late father, Juan Salvatierra: a continuous mural that begins shortly after the accident that rendered the artist mute and carries on until just days before his death. The sequence—dreamlike, beautiful, at times laden with artistic metaphor, speaks about what Salvatierra himself couldn’t:
I think he saw his work as something too personal, a kind of intimate diary, an illustrated autobiography. Possibly because he was mute, he needed to tell himself his own story. To recount his own experience in one never-ending mural. He was content with painting his own life, he had no need to show it. For him, living his life was to paint it.
What Miguel and his brother don’t find among the scrolls in the shed is one of a painting, which seems to have been stolen. Miguel has reason to believe that this particular scroll was the same one he vaguely remembers being slashed by one of his father’s friends during a whiskey-fueled, though otherwise inexplicable, duel. As it turns out, Salvatierra’s “missing year” was a little more intriguing than anyone wants to expect of their docile, artistic father.
Mairal’s prose, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, reflects the missing painting: honest, powerful, haunting. In a mere 116 pages, the reader confronts the truth and mystery of the things that we leave behind. The novel seems to rely on the principle of omission—Mairal doesn’t so much tell his readers everything as he does leave them wondering.
The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is ultimately satisfying despite its loose ends, beautiful despite its sometimes ugly themes. - Katherine Rucker

I’m excited to be reviewing one of the first books from a publisher that just set up shop in 2012: New Vessel Press (you can check out their webpage here). Their mission is to publish books in translation from all over the world, and I think they’re already doing an excellent job for bringing us Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra (Salvatierra, 2008; tr. from the Spanish by Nick Caistor, 2013).
When he was nine years old, Juan Salvatierra was in an accident and never spoke again. The only way the family could get him to communicate with them was through drawings, so that’s what he did. Then, at the age of twenty, he began a monumental project for no one but himself. For the next sixty years, until he died at the age of 81, he painted “what is essentially a diary in images [in which] he himself does not figure.” Every day he painted on one of his long canvases, and at the end of the year he’d date the canvas and roll it up, never seeming to care about their fate. The next year would begin on a new canvas, but it was an otherwise seamless transition.
At his death, his two sons, Miguel and Aldo, return to deal with what their father left behind, including the more than sixty scrolls that, if you lined them up, spread across more than four kilometers, a life flowing by “like a river.” We learn in the first of the sixty-one brief sections that
Rivers run through the entire story. The family lives by a river that marks the Argentinian border with Uruguay, in which Salvatierra’s only daughter drowned many years ago. The painting is like a river. Time and the passage of life is like a river. Though the image is there consistently, it doesn’t overwhelm. It’s peaceful and contemplative; really, it’s like sitting down and listening to a river.
There is an air of melancholy as well. Our narrator, Miguel, takes us back and forth in time, telling us about his father but also about himself, about his own attempts to understand his father while his father was alive. Now that all he has is a giant painting, he finds himself drawn into it for the first time.
In particular, he looks for evidence of his sister, Estela, who drowned in the river years ago. His memory of her has faded, and even the static pictures of her that he still possesses just don’t evoke much. But, the painting does:
I was nine when Estela died, and have only vague memories of her as someone playing in the house or who annoyed mom because she wouldn’t eat. I have two black-and-white photos of her. She is always the same, frozen in the instant, and I’ve looked at them so often they mean hardly anything to me now. That was why I was so moved to see her painted in color and with that ability Salvatierra had to picture the things he loved in a few brushstrokes, making them come to life. His images slide, move on, won’t stay still. They flow towards their own end, their dissolution in the landscape.
The missing year in the title is 1961. As Miguel and Aldo sift through the scrolls, they realize that one is missing, the one for 1961. While the book keeps going back and forth in time, it pleasantly recasts the past as Miguel tries to figure out what happened to the painting, why it is missing, what it means for him and his family. It’s a moving portrait of someone trying to preserve and find a life. -

Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra combines superb storytelling with the type of narrative that, despite the lack of supernatural elements, seems to have one foot set in magical realism. With a prose that’s simple but very beautiful, Mairal crafted a short novel full of vivid descriptions, raw emotion, and enough brilliant passages to be considered a celebration of language.
When Juan Salvatierra was nine years old, he was bucked from a horse and dragged through the woods because his foot got caught. The accident left him mute. At the age of 20, he discovered a new way of expressing himself and began secretly painting a series of long rolls of canvas. His paintings, which he kept working on for six decades until the day before he died, chronicled his life in Barrancales, a village on Argentina’s river frontier with Uruguay.
After Salvatierra’s death, his two sons, Luis and Miguel, return to Barrancales from Buenos Aires to deal with the paintings and the shed in which their father worked and kept the painted rolls. While examining the canvases, which stretch for over two miles in length, the brothers realize a year is missing. They both want to find it, but for Miguel, it becomes an obsession. What happened that year? How much of what he remembers has to do with the missing roll? What secrets are painted there? As he tries to solve the mystery of the missing canvas, Miguel will learn the impact his father’s paintings had on everyone and just how thing the line between art and life can be.
The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is the story of a few generations seen through two lenses: Juan Salvatierra’s mute life, and the new, transformed realities that gave life to his paintings. The narrative starts with the human characters clearly in the spotlight, but as it progresses, the almost magical nature of Salvatierra’s scrolls becomes the main character, the place in which past and present meet, a force that reaches from an earlier period and changes what happens now, something that significantly transformed everyone who came in contact with it forever:
 ”Frequently is happens that when I see something I know how he would have painted it. I see figs in a bowl and imagine how Salvatierra would portray them. I spot a tree, a grey-blue eucalyptus for example, and see it as if it were his creation. Or people (this usually happens to me in gatherings after I’ve had a couple of drinks): I sometimes see them as if in oils, boldly colored, with red and yellow faces, Cubist guffaws, or making a gesture he would have caught, a way of tilting their face, crossing their legs, or sitting.”
Enigmatic as it is immersing, this book feels longer than it is because it gives the sense of covering an entire lifetime and offers closure, twice. Also, there are a plethora of elements that come together to enrich the narrative: tension, love, secrecy, jealousy, anger, passion, frustration, and determination are only a few of the ingredient Mairal used to concoct his tale, and putting them together resulted in a book that deserves to be read.
Mairal’s poetic flashes, fascination with memory, knack for imagery, ekphrastic prose, and attention to detail make The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra great, but they are in this translated version thanks to Nick Caistor, an award-winning translator who deserves recognition for this tome. Also, this was my first book from New Vessel Press, a relatively new  independent publishing house that specializes in the translation of foreign literature into English. If this one was any indication of the quality of work they put out, it certainly won’t be the last book by them that I read. - Gabino Iglesias

Books and movies very often remain interesting right up until the end, but concluding a narrative in a satisfying way seems to require an almost impossible fortitude. Plots fizzle; characters fall by the wayside; half-hearted morals are haphazardly dispensed. Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, on the other hand, repeatedly provides the reader with such a satisfying sense of closure that one is tempted to dive right back in after finishing that slender novel so as to simply luxuriate in those 39 last phrases and paragraphs. These capstones are emblems of the sound construction of all of Mairal’s novels, stories, essays, and poems, which are always clear, deft, and compelling.
Mairal is a master craftsman comparable to compatriot Jorge Luis Borges, though he does not share that writer’s fascinations and fetishes. Mairal is drawn more toward quest tales and bildungsroman than toward labyrinths and mirrors. He first garnered critical and public acclaim with the 1998 publication of Una noche con Sabrina Love (One Night with Sabrina Love), the story of a teenaged boy who wins a contest and must then figure out a way to collect his prize, an evening with a beloved porn star. (The storyline was later employed in Argentine director Carlos Sorín’s 2002 hit film, Intimate Stories.) At the risk of spoiling Sabrina Love’s typically wonderful ending, it is perhaps the most moving account of a boy losing his virginity that I have ever read.
The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, Mairal’s debut translation into English, is the story of four continuous kilometers of artwork across sixty massive canvases painted over six decades by the narrator’s father, the eponymous Juan Salvatierra. A larger-than-life figure, Juan and his sublime paintings are depicted in this volume by his son, Miguel Salvatierra, who describes them and reflects upon them in 39 succinct and perfectly-framed vignettes.
Miguel and his brother Luis are obliged to go back to the little town where they grew up by the inheritance their deceased parents have left for them. When they arrive, on the border between Argentina and Uruguay, they are met by their father’s gargantuan oeuvre. The brothers would like to sell the shed where it is stored to a local businessman, but first they need to get rid somehow of Salvatierra’s sixty painted rolls. It is no simple task. They are greeted with indifference and incompetence by the municipal authorities. But the brothers eventually succeed in attracting the interest of an Amsterdam art gallery, which sends a team to scan the canvases in their entirety and deliver them digitally to Holland so that a final acquisition decision may be made.
“We occupy the places our parents leave blank,” Miguel says. But Juan Salvatierra, with his four kilometers of forms and lines and colors, has left very little blank. On an early inspection of the paintings, Miguel wonders, “What was this interlacing of lives, people, animals, days, nights, catastrophes?” His father’s paintings seem to contain every thing: glory, tragedy, boredom, the land, and the people on it—even Miguel himself.
So influenced is Miguel’s vision of the world by his father’s paintings that it proves virtually impossible for him to observe and opine on his own: “I knew—I had learned—what kind of skies interested him and so some afternoons when I went to the shed after school, I would say, ‘There’s a good sky outside,’ and we would go out to look. It’s something I still do without realizing it, although my father has been dead these many years.” Anyone who’s lost anyone who once took part in their daily life will sympathize with this sort of slip. It is the urge to call a sibling to share in the outrage over the defeat of a favorite football team, the reflex of starting to fill a water bowl for a dead dog.
But not everyone’s daily life is so wholly determined by someone else’s way of seeing. Mairal’s master craftsmanship lies in touches like the “I had learned”. The dashes are a rare flourish of punctuation in otherwise steady and straightforward prose; this is what makes, pushing the phrase to stand out so starkly and so ominously. Miguel does not naturally share in the rich cornucopia of his father’s vision: he has had to learn. His role is the toddler chasing in vain after a grown man’s loping stride. It gets preserved in “I had learned” like an ancient bug in amber, still containing traces of life. At one point, Miguel recalls an adolescent erotic nightmare. In it, he clings to the body of a naked woman. “But I squeezed her so tight,” he says, “she began to soften, to crumble into colors.” The young boy transforms his erotic energies and Freudian conflict, trying to let go of his father’s sway, leading hims not to freedom but to frenzy: “Terrified, I would get desperate, smear her against the sheet as if trying to kill her, as if trying to reach her, until she was no more than an impossible, beautiful, two-dimensional figure, painted forever on the canvas.”
In the last sentence of Vignette 28, Miguel reflects upon a canvas portraying his own ex-wife and son. “My father had succeeded,” he says, “in capturing what had slipped through my fingers.” In learning how to see like his father, Miguel has lost his unmediated access to the world. Yet this is another inheritance from his father, who was made mute as a child when he fell from a horse; the same fall which forced Juan Salvatierra—as an invalid—to accompany his female relatives in their domestic activities. Unable to express himself in words, Salvatierra paints. Thus what is negated in the father is now, in this volume, rejuvenated by the son.
The ultimate fate of Juan’s paintings is to drift silently like a digital river down the walls of an Amsterdam gallery, engulfing their viewers in what Miguel calls “my memory, my childhood. Salvatierra’s years, the time we had together, his colors and all his effort, his talent, his days, his enormous, silent affection for the world.” The paintings become “cine mudo,” Spanish for “silent film” but literally “mute cinema.” Where his father’s works bleed into one another to form a continuous whole, Miguel’s writing focuses instead on frames, well-crafted and individual objects. If Juan Salvatierra’s art is one of excess, Miguel’s is one of meticulous restraint. Each of the 39 little chapters in this book strikes a perfect balance between plot and meditation. There is never an idea or even a single word too many or too few.
This contrast between the styles of father and son is rooted in the sharp divergence between their respective notions of time. “Sometimes the force driving things on like a torrent is so strong that the figures start to lean, to lose their balance,” Miguel writes of his father’s work. “There are parts of the canvas where they are painted horizontally, dragged along by the rushing current of life, as if the force of time were greater than the force of gravity.” For Juan Salvatierra, time is duration. It is Henri Bergson’s two metaphysical spools, where one unwinds the tape of life as the other winds it up.
For Miguel, time is the measured tick of the clock. Miguel’s narration frequently lingers on minute observations, and these details become some of the most powerful passages in the book. We learn, in one instance, where his father’s canvases come from: “In the best of cases, the canvas might be proper white material meant for painting on; in the worst, when the money was only just enough to cover our household expenses, it could be sacks we asked for from the grain silos after the grain had been unloaded. Between those two extremes, Salvatierra could make his canvas out of anything: old tarpaulins, armchair upholstery, bedspreads, awnings.” We learn that he made brushes out of cheap horse tails or hair from the inside of pigs’ ears, retrieved on Tuesdays, or else “the tiny feathers collected from the floor of the cages out in the yard where Luis kept a canary.” Mairal’s supreme matter-of-factness is a kind of lyrical perfection, and it enables us to hold in our own hands the tools of Juan Salvatierra, a touch that makes complete our fellow feeling for Miguel.
As the hands of a clock return again and again to the same positions, Miguel must revisit his past. At the same time, he must strive to free himself from the fluidity of his father’s vision, according to which “there is no ‘inside,’ no home; everyone is vulnerable in the constantly evolving world of color.” Such boundlessness is unsustainable as well as terrifying, and the time has come for Miguel to erect within the world the walls that will permit him to safeguard against the ravages of contingency. The opportunity is afforded him by the mysterious disappearance of one of Salvatierra’s canvases. As he says at the end of 27:
Finding the missing roll was something I needed to do so that my father’s work would not be infinite. If one part was missing, I wouldn’t be able to take it all in, to know it in its entirety. There would still be mysteries, things that Salvatierra had perhaps painted of which I knew nothing. But if I could only find it, this world of images would have a limit. The infinite would reach an end, and I could discover something he hadn’t painted. Something of my own. Yet these are interpretations I’m making now. Back then I was simply obsessed with finding the roll; I didn’t even think about these things.
Miguel embarks upon his quest to abolish the infinite. He tracks down the missing roll in Uruguay, where he also makes a plan to smuggle the rest of the paintings en their route to Amsterdam. Problem seemingly resolved. Family fortune secured; father’s ghost defeated. Freedom checked; fluidity dammed and drained.
However, unlike in the writings of Borges, Mairal’s prose is not a pendulum that swings back and forth between two extremes. We are not brought from absolute limitlessness to absolute limitedness. The real brilliance of Miguel’s quest for restraint is the restraint it itself shows in its unfolding. The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is an ode to measure. It is an homage to the quotidian. It is also the story of three generations of men and of the relationships between them and the extent to which they are defined by work, and by works. Like many of Mairal’s novels, it is a sort of bildungsroman, in which our hero makes his peace with time not only by finally managing to mark its passage, but also by seeing how endings bring about beginnings.
The conclusions to each of the chapters in Salvatierra are so satisfying because they are always bidirectional, providing a thoughtful summary of what we have just read as well as a delicate suggestion of what we are about to read next. And at the end of the novel, Miguel sits with his son, now twenty-three years old, at the museum in Amsterdam where they watch the digital version of Juan Salvatierra’s paintings float by:
Gastón and I could see that the fish and circles in the water painted on what we had thought was the end of the last roll matched up exactly with the circles and fish of the very beginning, painted by Salvatierra when he was barely twenty.
Order is neither the opposite nor the equivalent of chaos; we the readers want neither to merely let time wash over us nor to stop time by the book’s end. Like the novel’s flashbacks and scenes from the present plot, times and timings coexist for Mairal, as do order and chaos. There is no moral to the story of Juan, Miguel, Luis, and Gastón Salvatierra. It’s just a story about a man who mourns, and in so doing, becomes himself. -

A living, breathing, often dazzling portrait of the universal familial struggles inherent in growing up desperate to escape one’s roots, Nick Caistor’s translation of Pedro Mairal’s slim, perfect novel is packed with more life than even miles upon miles of artwork, imagined or otherwise, could ever hope to convey.  Salvatierra’s sons, in particular his youngest Miguel who serves as the story’s narrator, are vivid, fully realized visions of complex, conflicted, and nuanced human beings who on their quest to unravel the truth about their father’s past, come face to face with portraits of their own futures and the circular nature of time itself.
As the novel opens we learn that at the tender age of nine its titular character Juan Salvatierra was rendered mute after sustaining injuries in a horse riding accident. It seems this event quickly dashed any hopes that the small boy’s overbearing father Rafael may have up to this point entertained about his son’s masculine-fueled future:
So he became the little dumb kid, the idiot of the family. They let him play with the women, and did not demand from him the proofs of virility the other males in the family were called upon to demonstrate: firing a shotgun, lassoing or riding steers. He spent his time with his cousins, who fetched and carried him, treated him like a doll, played at being schoolmarms with him, and taught him everything they knew.
Free from the expectations placed upon his siblings, Salvatierra would grow to develop a love for art, and from the age of twenty onwards would embark upon a deeply personal, highly ambitious project which found him creating over two miles of interconnected artwork (the end of one piece blending seamlessly into the beginning of the next) spread across sixty large rolls of homemade canvas.  Each canvas represented not only a year’s worth of effort, but also served as a lasting testament of the noteworthy occurrences in and around his rural home of Barrancales.  Upon his death, having left no specific instructions with regards to how to handle his life’s work, Salvatierra’s two surviving sons return home from their big city lives in Buenos Aires to settle his small town affairs, only to discover that one roll is inexplicably missing from his otherwise complete collection.  As the title suggests, it’s this now undocumented gap in time that serves as the novel’s central mystery.
While searching for answers, brothers Miguel and Luis will have to contend with a hapless local government that’s ill-equipped to preserve their father’s legacy, a grocery store owner who puts pressure on the pair to sell him the land where their father’s work is currently stored so he can build a parking lot on it, and a varied cast of local characterssome far more deranged than otherswho each shed a tiny sliver of light on just why the canvas disappeared and where it could currently be residing. The only thing that becomes clear in all this chaos is that finding this missing piece of the puzzle and preserving their father’s entire collection for years to come will not be an easy undertaking.  That is, if they even want to continue to bother to try.
Luis would prefer to leave the past, and the missing painting of it, behind them.  However as Miguel continues to view more and more of their father’s artwork, he becomes fascinated with Salvatierra’s seemingly uncanny ability to beautifully capture the ordinary things that others around him have missed.  Within each new roll of artwork he views, Miguel continues to uncover hidden truths about not only his father, but himself, and as a result he becomes increasingly obsessed with finding the missing piece and restoring the work to a completed state which can be viewed and understood end to end without interruption.  It’s here that the novel’s short, concise chapters mirror Salvatierra’s art, both recapping what’s just occurred and hinting at that which is yet to come.
I stared at the painting, absorbed in it. It was shortly after this portrait was made that Silvia and I split up. There the two of them are. My wife and my son. As if I were rediscovering them exactly where I’d left them. As if they had stayed there waiting for me without moving in the shadows of the canvas for more than ten years. I knew Silvia was partly to blame, but here was Salvatierra showing me what I had lost. I found it hard to contemplate. My father had succeeded in capturing what had slipped through my fingers.
No matter how far they may try to run, are sons ultimately destined to become just like their fathers?  Can the past ever truly be buried or does the truth have a way of eventually escaping into the light of day?  Does learning more about your father’s life after he’s gone change your opinions of who he was to you when he was alive?  What does it mean to say goodbye?  Miguel and Luis will lead readers on an unforgettable journey into the heart of these difficult questions and all will be forever changed by the unexpected answers that they unearth along the way. -
Juan Salvatierra is a mute, silent from the age of 9 following a riding accident.  He lives a tranquil life with his wife and two sons in a village on the Argentinian border with Uruquay, spending his spare time painting in the shed.  When he dies and his sons begin to unfurl the canvas rolls, they discover a mural two miles long on which their father has told the story of the past six decades.    Only one year is missing and the by-now-middle-aged boys decide that it must be found.
Salvatierra’s motivation? Possibly because he was mute, he needed to tell himself his own story.  His sons’ motivation?  To make complete what had been interrupted, so that the painting can be displayed in its entirety. As they work their way along the mural, they revisit their childhood, their adolescence.  Nothing is omitted in this interlacing of lives, people, animals, days, nights, catastrophes in which the boys seem more alive in the light shining from the painting in some portraits he had done of us eating green pears when I was ten years old, than in our current lives with their legal documents and contracts.  (They are estate agents in Buenos Aires.)
The memories evoked are not always pleasant.  There are brief flickers of darkness but a spell is cast and the brothers pursue the missing section with a determination worthy of Don Quixote.  Yes, this is a quest, with the occasional dangerous moment though in the main this is a light-hearted adventure …. until the canvas from 1961 is found and with it Juan Salvatierra’s missing year …. and closely-guarded secret.
More than the boys had bargained for, leading to discussions on whether what happens to someone belongs to his own time;  you shouldn”t bring it up again.  Conversely knowing the truth of a parent’s human foibles and mistakes can release you from their omnipresent grip, presenting you with the opportunity to strike out for yourself.  The narrator’s conclusion?
We occupy the places our parents leave blank ….. I inhabit the words that Salvatierra’s muteness left untouched. …. I feel that this place, the space of the blank page, is mine, independently of what the results might be.
What began as an adventurous quest for a missing painting has resulted in the discovery of the narrator’s own identity. - lizzysiddal

   The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is a slim novella -- 39 chapters covering just 116 pages -- but Mairal immediately grabs the reader with an appealing hook and then circles nicely round and round, through past and present. The story is narrated by Miguel Salvatierra, and begins with his brief description of the centerpiece of the novel: his dead father Juan's painting, a four-kilometer-long roll of images that unspools daily at the Röell Museum in Amsterdam, a work that was sixty years in the making.
       The heart of the narrative deals with Miguel and his brother Luis trying to figure out what to do with their father's great work, stored in a shed in the Argentine town of Barrancales. There are more than sixty heavy rolls stored in the shed, each covering the span of a year, the near-endless painted image seamlessly continuing from one roll to the next. The brothers make arrangements with the Röell Museum who want to purchase the canvas(es), and two representatives come to document it, scanning the entire length of the picture. As it turns out, one of the rolls -- covering the year 1961 -- is missing, and Miguel decides to try and find it.
       Alongside these events, Miguel fills in some of the background, describing the painting with its scenes-from-a-life, and also describing Juan Salvatierra, mute since his teens, employed at the postal office, but dedicated to his painting: the mile-long canvas was truly his life's work -- and, in capturing so much of his life, also a representation of it ("a kind of intimate diary, an illustrated autobiography").
       Miguel suggests about his father that:
Possibly because he was mute, he needed to tell himself his own story.
       Recounted in a fairly straightforward manner, The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra slowly pieces together Juan's life, and the history of the painting. Meanwhile, Miguel's own life is relatively unexceptional and uneventful -- he has a small, sleepy real estate business; he is divorced -- but dealing with his father's life-work, and trying to solve the mystery of the missing year, leads him to a personal transformation as well, as Miguel turns to writing: just as his father was driven to fill the blank space of the canvas, so he finds he is driven to fill the blank space of the page.
       The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra is full of circularity, and loops repeatedly back even as the whole slowly advances, which is a nice way of presenting the story. Despite the immensity of Juan's creation, it is also an almost understated narrative, emphasizing that even as what Juan did was exceptional, it was also something that was, in a sense, very everyday; Miguel, who has never really done much with his life, proves to be the perfect narrator for this story, striking the perfect tone.
       This is a well-told, poignant story with a fair bit of suspense to go with the interesting (but almost never too forcefully imposed) meditations on life and art -- a surprising lot packed into such a short space. A fine piece of work, and a very nice little read. - M.A.Orthofer,


Sommer Browning - Pain is followed by compassion is followed by laughter, and repeat.


Sommer Browning, Backup Singers. Birds, LLC, 2014.

With BACKUP SINGERS Browning follows up her sold out debut, Either Way I'm Celebrating, with an even rawer and starker, and again darkly humorous navigation of friendship, marriage, and motherhood. The result is a more overtly political assessment of the absurd deficit between what we're confronted with and what we're equipped with to deal with those confrontations: "It's a girl, / and the wires she needs // open her hands / before they're fists."
 Browning combats this deficit with relentless anaphora and repetition, reducing seemingly impossible relationships to their most basic element--a love that begets an unconditional loyalty: "I’m here! I didn’t run!"

From Friend

It was cold. Virginia winter. Throwing lit firecrackers down the hallway. Apostrophes of scorch. The Irishman below us. How I would dress for Third Street Diner. How I told you he spanked me before work. The heat didn’t work. Where did you go when I went to work? You must have gone to work, too. We worked so much. All the money we worked. What a time to fake bourgeoisie. I might have had my apron cinched around me. I might have had ones blooming from my hips. Might have drank there until the bartender told you I needed to leave. Might have left there. Might have.
This is the hardest part. Describing our sex and its absence. The nights we sleep alone. Nights we sleep next to each other, nights we touch, drunkenly wrestle, these same nights we go home with other people. Nights we are brothers in bed. Arm and arm, side by side in the alleys, facing each other’s jokes about cocks, death—wait, If we could show each other the worst thing in the world, something so gruesome we’d never be the same—hangings, infections, accidents, insertions—would we? What if the thing wasn’t an image? What if we had to do it to each other? There is a plane wreck, only us on the island, how long before we murder each other with our experiments?
Sommer, I’m dying. I get this message on my phone in line at Rite-Aid. Sommer, I’m dying, you scream in my ear at the rock show. Sommer, I’m dying, you write in closing on a postcard from San Francisco. Sommer, I’m dying, it’s my heart, Sommer I’m dying, can you feel this? Is it normal? as we stomp through the snow to get cigarettes. Jesus woke up, but who muscled the boulder away? Some prince kissed the beauty, but who wrote it all down? Let’s go to the mummy exhibition, let’s read aloud Fear and Trembling, let’s slow the flow through our carotid. Sommer, I’m dying. Present tense. Subject. Verb. The thinning blood vessel, the soft pulsating stone, retina shriveled and rattling around in the skull. I can hear it when I jump. Then don’t jump, I say.
How long does it take to get to a funeral? The windshield wipers crazily smearing drops across the window, out of pace with each other so one consistently runs over the other until the other careens so far to the left it falls off the windshield hooking itself onto the edge of the car the pathetic machine-sound of it straining to work to do its job right to make everything okay and then solid blur pressing against the windshield Vaseline on the lens through which we gaze at the femme fatale soft details make her immediate danger all the more clear.
We pull into the Walgreen’s parking lot to search for tools. Since my first car needed pliers to open the window, I’ve kept tools in the car. Before this, we were received at an Irish pub by Sarah and her family and friends to celebrate the death of Sarah’s mother. I doubt celebrate is the right word. I convince you to drive us back to New York so I can take another pill at the funeral in the language of death I want to say thank you.
Alcohol affects the frontal cortex causing those under the influence to lose their

You affects the frontal cortex causing those under the influence to lose their
You affects the frontal cortex causing those under the influence to Melissa their

You are the frontal cortex causing those under the influence to Melissa their
You are the frontal cortex am those under the influence to Melissa their inhibitions.
You are the frontal I am those under the influence to Melissa their inhibitions.
You are the frontal I am those under the influence and Melissa their inhibitions.
You are the frontal I am married under the influence and Melissa their inhibitions.
You are the frontal I am married under the influence and Melissa is inhibitions.
You are the and I am married under the influence and Melissa is inhibitions.
You are the and I am married with the influence and Melissa is inhibitions.
You are the and I am married with the influence and Melissa is dead.
You are the and I am married with a influence and Melissa is dead.
You are engaged and I am married with a influence and Melissa is dead.
You are engaged and I am married with a baby and Melissa is dead.


This poem is called Safe Bets.

Safe Bet.

Sorry let me start over.

This poem is called Safe Bets.

Safe Bet.

Sorry I can’t believe that, let me start over.

This poem is called Safe Bets.

Safe Bet.

Shit, sorry. Again.

This poem is called Safe Bets.

Safe Bets.

It is a safe bet that Slavoj Zizek is eating a donut.
I w many many clocks, the clockman said of his first day. As the butcher cuts meat, the architect hides the sun; hesitancy blooms urge. Tonight, there is a horse in the painting above your bed. Tonight, a mole on the back of your love’s hand. At day’s end, the grocer pulls shutters across the glass complicating the thief’s anonymity.
There is an enormous amount of joy that comes with the announcement of a new work by Denver, Colorado poet and illustrator Sommer Browning, and the recent AWP in Seattle saw the release of Browning’s second trade poetry collection, Backup Singers (Birds, LLC, 2014). Given the amount of her quirky and hilarious comics were utilized as part of her first poetry collection, Either Way I’m Celebrating (Birds, LLC, 2011) [see my review of such here], I must say that a book by Sommer Browning without comics is unexpected (and even slightly disappointing). Still, there aren’t many contemporary poets with her penchant for tight lines and terrible jokes (Montreal poet David McGimpsey is a rare exception), and the results are absolutely stunning. Constructed in four sections, the first two sections are striking for the fact that they each contain groupings of single-page, untitled prose lyrics, collected in such a way that they could be read singularly, or as a narrative of accumulation, each poem acting and reacting against the ones that sit prior. One could say that her individual poems are also built accumulatively, each phrase and line pushing and piled, allowing for the oddest connections to exist in the reader’s imaginations. The rush of her prose also makes one wonder just how these poems might be heard, most likely as striking as how they appear. 
Goodbye fast-forward, goodbye alphabetical order, so long curlicue of the g’s tail looping on and on into each o and so on, icy line prismed into meaning: Varda on the absolute voyeurism of a door or the way the last drop releases the bottle into peaceful vacancy. Cassette tape roadkilled the DOT. On and on until the bun in the oven explodes golden over the Thanksgiving table, on and on stormy celluloid, on Donner and Blitzen, ontologically beautiful portmanteau Juneteenth, this most personal ecstasy drawing a monster from mythology.
There is a joyful, lively energy to her poems, one that can’t be diminished even through poems that might appear cranky, discordant or just damned odd; instead of wading through the dark, even her poems that work through some darker subject matter or references are radiant with energy (with some poems that rush at a near-manic level of urgency), one that is utterly intoxicating and impossible not to get caught up in. As one poem opens: “I told you he spanked me before work, how weird it was, how nearly non-sexy. Where did you go when I went to work?”
How long does it take to get to a funeral? The windshield wipers crazy across the window, out of pace so one runs over the other until the other careens so far to the left it hooks itself onto the edge of the car, the pathetic machine-sound of it straining to do its job. We pull into the Walgreens’ parking lot to search for tools. Since my first car needed pliers to open the window, I’ve always kept tools in the car. The bandage over the cure. Before this, we were received at an Irish pub by Sarah and her family and friends to celebrate the death of Sarah’s mother. Is celebrate the right word? I convince you to drive us back to New York so I could take another pill at the funeral. In the language of death, I want to say thank you.
Sommer Browning is one of a small number of contemporary American poets composing tight, observational lyrics on how to live in the world, all of whom utilize subversion, distraction, discomfort comfort and use of the straight phrase, and a blending of lightness against such very heavy dark subject matter. And when I suggest a list of such poets, I would include: Emily Pettit, Bianca Stone, Hailey Higdon, Hillary Gravendyk and Emily Kendal Frey. Browning uses terrible jokes more than most (far more subtle here than in her previous collection), but often as a distraction against more serious topics. In my mind, these are a grouping of poets who manage to say an enormous amount through allusion to far darker things; and when they do speak of such plainly, it can catch a reader off-guard, and nearly be missed.

There is a reason
division is an operation.

A reason I know
the math behind the body.

It’s a girl
and the wires she needs

open her hands
before they’re fists.

The third section of Backup Singers is made up of the forty-one part sequence “Multifarious Array,” a space in which she’s able to stretch out and display her talent for composing, point by point by point, across a wide canvas. Part of what appeals about Browning’s writing (and comics) is in the way her unusual perspective and humour allows her incredible insight and observations, as “Multifarious Array” opens with: “A broken Xerox machine dominates the corner. It doesn’t reproduce mistakes, doesn’t allow gradual fade, it’s broken because it forces vividness.” The sequence even allows a perspective into Browning’s own work, existing as an extended lyric essay on the work of an unnamed poet, as Browning writes:
Her poems live between intimacy and devastation. After I read them, I marvel that within each, a feeling welled and filled me, then receded.
Conjured at a different angle, the worn memory becomes the missing piece. -Rob McLennan

Sommer Browning’s latest book of poetry has quickly risen to the top of my must-read pile. Via her twitter presence as well as the various poems/excerpts I’ve read online, Browning’s proved to be one of the funniest, most clever and honest poets rocking the indie scene right now. This is a book you’ll want to read while lounging with some liquor on a lazy Saturday afternoon. - Michael Seidlinger


These new pinking shears won Best of 2012 New Pinking Shears.
          When I hear walking in the shadows I think of Fleetwood Mac.

This icicle won Best of 2012 Icicle.
          When I hear moo shoo gai pan I think of Wayne’s World.

Fresh eggs won Best of 2012 Fresh Eggs.
          For god so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son reminds me of The Bible.

Your movienovel won Best of 2012 Movienovel—sorry, I meant Movienovel soundtrack
          Someone hates these cans! See, there, now I’ve touched it. Looking good, Billy Ray. Feeling good, Louis reminds me of being a child.

This coffee stirrer won Best of 2012 Cylinder.
          Skype reminds me of Cindy King. Postcards remind me of Brenna. When I hear rigamarole I think of my father.

Blagojevich’s prison sentence won Best of 2012 Prison Sentence.
          This screw won Best of 2012 Sex.

Hypnotherapy reminds me of Kristin Prevallet, Beth’s play, Herzog and how I could have stayed at his house once, had a whisky in his glass, would have to keep it a secret, but I can tell everyone that I didn’t.
          This branch, this eyelid, this limp won Best of 2012 Branch, Eyelid and Limp, respectively.

Fourscore reminds me of Abraham Lincoln.
          This pulse won Best of 2012 Sign of Life.

Alison reminds me of Buckminster Fuller, and Buckminster Fuller reminds me of Alison.
          Montana won Best of 2012 Empty Place.

Kelly also reminds me of Buckminster Fuller.
          Kelly won Best of 2012 Buckminster Fuller Reminder.

Hope chests remind me of chiffarobes which remind me of Hazel Motes which reminds me that everyone is a church and I bow in you.
          Flannery O’Connor won Best of 2012 Flannery O’Connor until we renamed the award.

The thorax reminds me of misery, of the washing of hands, of the edges of puzzle pieces, of teeth filed down, thin layer of oil on all the lakes.
          Dibujos remind me of Orlando.

Avi file formats won Best of 2012 File Formats. This is actually the only winner I’m sure of.
          Casey’s other names are C!B!, Goosey Gander, Case & Queso American because if the world is infinite, perfection exists.

The square won Best of 2012 Non-Circle.
          Be the change you want to see in the world reminds me of boiling water, of ironing, of cardboard.

Have a good one won Best of 2012. Period.
          Yeah, I walk through the valley of death and I, like, fear nothing.


our bar Fingerbang, we say.

One atom carbon, one oxygen, the tailpipe says.

This is the day of the expanding man, you hear Donald Fagan say
and ask the Food Lion cashier, How much for the dead mums?

Finger her … like in a line-up? says the comedian, you say.
If we have a boy, we’re naming him Donald Fagan, I say.

One atom carbon, one oxygen, my mother says her father said
as he listened to the anti-zeitgeist. beeeeeeeeeep,

they make Eddie Murphy say.

Only two drops under the tongue, the homeopathic remedy says.
A spoonful of sugar, the unrelatable entity says.

How much for the dead mums? I say to remind you that I remember what you say.
-------------------, my husband says.

A man without language is an ugly, balding woman, I think I hear everyone say.

Happy minute, the bartender at The Buffet says and we agree,
the Assisted Suicide is a good name for anything.


—Bettye Swann
for Julia Cohen

I’m right back where I started. The piano is religious in its corner.
The ocean laps everything breaking its surface.
The rhythm dissolves the polyester over the speakers.
Is it true that digitally, anything?
And the always foolish heart, victim of also, victim of saxophone, victim of women. Good things come,
The merry-go-round, then money records, Jehovah, just you.

Won’t it make you feel bad? The pair, then one triggermoon?
Vibraphone rots true cello heavy-love.
Katydid swims in my perm.
Four-track tile heart & soul.
Backup singers;
no, really—get back.

Sommer BrowningEither Way I’m Celebrating. Birds, LLC, 2011.


We only shelled out a buck,
knew The Snake Man

was a sham and Electra,
someone’s mother. We were promised

The Smallest Woman in the World,
but expected some specimen in a jar.

Instead, The Smallest Woman in the World
asked for money to buy a wheelchair, said

she was from Trinidad.
We’d never heard of it.

 Denver, Colorado poet and artist Sommer Browning’s first trade collection, Either Way I’m Celebrating (Austin, Minneapolis, New York, Raleigh: Birds, LLC, 2011), subtitled “Poems & Comics,” is a charming collection of funny, odd and brilliant poems interspersed with comics that exist like poems themselves, as opposed to illustrations between poems. After years of numerous chapbooks, Browning’s first collection seems concentrated around a trio of suites, from the first thirty or so pages of single-page poems loosely constructed as a single unit to the extended lyric-prose sequences “Vale Tudo” and “To the Housesitter.” The mix is striking, and so very well packaged, from the shorter individual poems at the offset, and the mix of comics that both bookend the entire collection, and are slipped in between sections. As much as the comics write like poems, they also feel like what Terry Gilliam spent years creating as “links” between sketches during episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, those stand-alone animated sketches that took us from what came before to what followed.
The short, sharp lyrics that open the collection write small, philosophical and witty distances, moving from the lyric line to prose poem, a section of poems that cohere, in part, for the blend of styles, all of which revel in her odd humour and dark moments, interspersed with surreal light. Still, for the strength of her shorter poems, it’s in the longer sequences where Browning’s poems really shine, allowing herself the room to stretch out her meditative and oddball directions, as in the opening to the poem “Vale Tudo,” that reads:

Never believe the concierge.

MK and I drove all over hell, Long Island, to find a hotel, motel, that provided pay-per-view so we could watch the Liddel-Sobral fight. Griffin and Bonnar were fighting again, as well. Last time they fought, they both won. MK and I asked the concierge if the hotel had pay-per-view. We wrote down the name of the event, and he went to check. The lobby was the lobby of a plush planet of businessmen and servants. There was a bar. When a beer bottle scuttled across a table, a silk tie squeaked loose. The concierge came back; the news was grim. A child with a buoyant noodle walked by in her underpants; I noticed the staff using fake British accents.

As Browning herself writes, “Vale Tudo, a Portugese phrase meaning ‘anything goes,’ is a Brazilian mixed-martial arts combat fighting style. There are few rules, Fighters are unarmed and incorporated any form of martial art, such as Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, or traditional boxing techniques, to submit or knock out their opponents.” Who else could possibly imagine composing a poem-sequence blending hotels with mixed-martial arts with the Walt Whitman Birthplace Historic Site, and do it so well? Closer to the end of the twenty-two-page sequence, the poem reads:

Historic Sites are usually a crock of shit.

The building is boring. The parking lot is boring. The wet birds are boring. The rain is boring. The vines disguised as telephone wires are boring. The cars are boring. The red fence around the place is boring. The low clouds are boring, the way the threaten rain is boring. Walt Whitman, we are sorry we missed UFC: 62.

There is just something about the longer sequence that seems entirely built for the mind of poet Summer Browning; something about the space that allows her thoughts and lines to freely, openly roam. It’s as though the shorter poems are nearly too small to contain her, as in this section from the twenty page “To the Housesitter,” that reads:

The House

is shaped like candy. And the candy inside its dribbling refrigerator is shaped like mouths. And the house. It sits on a hill shaped like a hill. It’s shaping, its flat parts peak, its inside furrows, then opens to grab you. Then, you are shaped. Now, you are then shaped, and your then shape punctures the house. Something nuclear. Something west-end and beachy. You are still at work. Like the men. - Rob McLennan

If Sommer Browning lived on Whiskey Island she would build a small, yet comfortable house out of broken furniture, tires, and ship-parts. She would keep seagulls as pets and feed them pieces of her hearts and tell them jokes. The one thing out of all the things in the universe she would bring with her to this island would be an astronaut suit. She would wear the astronaut suit and dance and the seagulls would also dance. At night you would hear a sound drifting over the water and that sound would be laughter. You would consider this laughter, and you would know there was a party, and you would get in your rowboat, and you would row, and you would sink a little bit, and you would bring Sommer Browning a toaster as a gift, and you would have so much fun.
Either Way I’m Celebrating is that much fun, and more. Part of that “more” is a potent dosage of grief and melancholy misunderstanding, but as these poems continually remind us, “It’s only a sin if no one laughs” (from “The Meat from the Dream the Heart Knows”). That Sommer Browning’s poems are sometimes disturbing and devastating makes the humor that is the glowing, optimistic spinal column of this book that much more sincere, and that much funnier. Indeed, these poems are very funny, acknowledging everything from DVR to Socrates, playing charades, floating away. For instance, in “Foaming Doberman,” Batfink, a cartoon from the 1960s that parodied the then-new Batman, parallels a crying axolotl, a bizarre-looking species of mole salamander, leading to a variety of associate emergencies, one of which is “little // girl swallows typewriter.” The poem ends with a wild attempt at resolution that is just as dangerous as it is hilarious: “Send the wood chipper ambulance. Send the / Charles Bernstein ambulance, call an ambulance.” Whether we’ll be bloody and shredded or taking a sponge bath in theory, we need help. Help with what? Lampooning, singing, careening, and having a little bit more fun than we think is safe. Wake up. This is serious, but not very, but, yes it is, kind of, well, yep. Hey, are you choking or laughing?
In “Notes About Art Pepper,” (Art Pepper was a brilliant, well-known saxophonist with a similarly well-known heroin addiction) Browning casually lifts the veil from things, and it’s going to be funny or it’s going to hurt, but, either way, it’s going to make music. The poem begins, “Every photo of the Parthenon without scaffolding is at least forty years old.” What such a fact suggests about perception, significance, and authenticity is a kind of thesis for what this book has to say about art and poetry. The poem continues:
In a notebook, I have notes about Art Pepper.

Something he said, tender harshness.

A child pulls a dandelion out of soil. A row of wind-crooked trees

becomes unbearable. Want to hear a good knock-knock joke?
Ok, you start.

Pain is followed by compassion is followed by laughter, and repeat. Sommer Browning knows this, and kindly, innovatively, helps us along.
Either Way I’m Celebrating also explores issues of spectacle, consumption, and desecration, particularly in “Vale Tudo,” a poem sequence that overlaps a failed attempt at ordering a pay-per-view boxing match, a description of the Walt Whitman Mall (an actual shopping mall in Long Island), and a botched visit to the Walt Whitman Birthplace Historic Site. When asked in an interview in Mildred Pierce Zine what she thinks about American cultural consumption, Browning says, “I’m fucked in the head enough that these things haven’t dulled me into a glassy eyed torpor,” and that is certainly clear here. Throughout this poem episodes of humorous misunderstanding, “Walt Whitman, we are sorry we missed UFC: 62,” mix with statements of understated sorrow, “We make love. We watch more television.” At one point, lines from Leaves of Grass merge with a bank sign on the mall’s façade. Rarely has a questioning of moral and cultural values been so elegantly coded.
A child said what is the grass? Fetching
Emigrant Savings Bank it to me with
full hands How could I answer Get more
money for your money the child?... I do
not know what it is any more than he.

Laced, like all good addictive substances, with a little something extra, Sommer Browning’s comics appear throughout Either Way I’m Celebrating, and are indicative of the overall let’s-all-relax-and-have-fun-with-poetry-because-yeah-this-is-serious-but-what’s-more-serious-than-what-makes-us-laugh tone of the book. You’ll have to buy the book from Birds, LLC to have the awesome experience of seeing these simple, hugely intelligent little masterpieces in their completeness. But the awkward laughs aren’t limited to the comics or the poems. A quick glance at one of the title pages reveals an extended list of other works by Sommer Browning that includes, but is not limited to, “The Bowling with Brandon Shimoda (Greying Ghost, 2010),” “The House (Cannibal Books, 2009),” “Fifty-four drunken decisions (2008),” “Disturbed look on drugstore clerk’s face (2007),” and “Claire Preston’s black eye (1988).” If Either Way I’m Celebrating isn’t enough, track down a copy of I Wonder if Balzac Had a Good Pianist, a Flying Guillotine chapbook of Browning’s comics and one-liners.
Witty without being ironic, charming without being sentimental, funny without being cheap, Sommer Browning’s first book is an enormous, continually shifting, and generous act of pleasure. That these poems’ delight is scarred and a little wayward makes them all the more appealing. And of course, as the title suggests, this is a poet who, above all else, is optimistic, buoyant, and, in a fucked up, essential kind of way, hopeful. Indeed, “You thought the glitter was rain.” The effect is astounding.

Note: This review first appeared in Whiskey Island. - Nick Sturm