It Must be a Misunderstanding, New Directions Publishers (2022)

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Leo Boix at Poetry London

Loss of memory is one of the first symptoms experienced by Alzheimer’s sufferers. It is a devastating loss that progressively hinders the ability of patients to communicate with their loved ones and to make sense of the world around them. Often, family members end up in charge of preserving memories, keeping personal histories and language alive in the face of a rapidly vanishing reality. Coral Bracho’s It Must Be a Misunderstanding is a brave attempt at dealing with some of these issues, allowing the reader to experience the complexities linked with memory loss. The book, perhaps Bracho’s most personal collection, is elegantly translated and includes an illuminating introduction by Forrest Gander, an experienced poet and well-known translator of many Latin American poets, who reveals in the translator’s foreword a close affinity with Bracho’s poems, mostly due to his own mother’s death due to Alzheimer’s. The bilingual collection explores what happens when language (and life itself) disintegrates due to a brain disorder that slowly destroys memory cells, cognition, and eventually, the ability to carry out simple tasks. It is also a moving examination of a complex mother-daughter relationship in Mexico, and what it means to take care of an elderly – and at times, demanding – parent suffering from dementia.

The opening poem, ‘Time will open out’, sets the tone of the collection, emphasising the various (and often incongruous) experiences of time and memory, the balancing act of forgetting and remembering – especially from the caretaker’s perspective – and the intricate process of mourning a loved one:

Time will open out/ like an inflatable boat/ on the shore/ of a dark river. Or else/ it will cut off./ And over there it bends/ to pluck someone from the water, maybe me./ Don’t forget—she reminds me to tell her—, / and so right here I tell her, / in the midst of so many garbled voices./

Like the eternal Lethe of Greek mythology, the speaker’s river is also one of forgetfulness. Lethe was the spirit of oblivion with whom the river was often identified. In Bracho’s case, the speaker is tasked with not forgetting the past in order to keep a record of the present, whilst acknowledging loss ‘in the midst of so many garbled voices’. It is the speaker and the speaker alone who must take charge of recording what her mother sees, hears, and feels, as well as what is remembered and what has been lost forever. Writing then becomes an act of self-preservation and survival, an effort to keep a loved one’s experiences and memories alive, even when language cannot explain life’s sudden changes.

The collection makes good use of the sequence form, especially where it is employed to explore a gradually degenerative disease which is experienced in different ways, and which leaves behind traces – at first insignificant (a name, a date, a smell), but later on more consequential:

7./ I don’t know, don’t know what they are./ I don’t know what’s happening to you all, / she comments./ Is she getting better? There’s something / they altered, but no one knows what,/ no one ever knows. / (‘Like a disease whose threshold no one can cross, she says’)

There’s an increased sense of confusion and disorientation as the book progresses, not only from the perspective of the ailing patient who cannot express her feelings, but also from the perspective of the caretaker, who often stumbles through daily conversations. Sometimes the speaker describes changes through simple descriptions: ‘The house revolves / and each room is new / when she enters’ (Observations); at other times, nature becomes a metaphor for turmoil:

They are birds that get lost / like the sun’s/ rays. They never come back, / she says again. /
(‘The queen is seated in the plaza. Behind the black waves’)
In this poem too we find the mother uttering instructions through the voice of multiple identities:

Don’t tell me what I already told you,/ one of them says,/ although the other,/ surprised/
and annoyed, is revamping herself / very quickly. She says OK,/ but she’s already bringing out a mask. /

The world is perceived in an increasingly fragmented way as the reader becomes immersed in the new reality of dislocation and disintegrating memory:

The train runs both ways,/ just as the river does, flowing below the surface/ of its crisscrossing waves:/ Fish face each other/ and jump, some/ over the others./ (‘Don’t bother me’)

Across such verses, memories are held by both the forgetting and the forgotten, and can only work if there’s a two way system, an implicit pact of remembrance. Some poems are titled ‘Intuitions’ or ‘Intuitions. She’; some ‘Impressions’ or ‘Observations’, as if the poet were keeping a journal to record daily visits to her mother in hospital – often with plain descriptions and similes, and close examinations of mundane events, as a way of following a complex, fraying thread of memory, language, and personal history. Bracho never sentimentalises or reverts to memory loss clichés. Instead, she builds on meaning and emotions through an observant use of irony, and psychological and philosophical insight, sometimes even dark humour, in order to excavate family drama with generosity, love, and understanding. This is an essential collection from one of the most insightful poets writing today in Mexico.