shadowslongshoreman by José Daniel García
translated by Jesse Tangen-Mills
Toad Press, 2017; 28 pp
Reviewed by Zack Anderson
Serge Gainsbourg’s 1958 song “Le poinçonneur des Lilas” narrates the distress of the anonymous ticket-puncher who gradually loses his mind in the bowels of the Métro, trailing “a carnival of confetti” back to his bed and seeing only transfer maps shine in his “earthenware sky.” Like Gainsbourg’s ticket-puncher, Cordoban poet José Daniel García’s chapbook shadowslongshoreman also participates in a sort of subterranean affect-labor relation in which the speaker invites damage into body and psyche as a means of generating the unproductive expenditure that is poetry.
In the first pages of shadowslongshoreman, floating somewhere between an epigraph and a footnote at the bottom of a page, the speaker declares, “I live in an archipelago of brume. / My job: separate / the light from the fumes.” These lines set the collection’s preoccupations with the triumvirate of alienation, fog, and job, with the added possibility that the work of separating out the light exposes the speaker to toxic “fumes.” Gainsbourg’s poinçonneur performs the monotonous work of punching tickets, which ultimately penetrate his dreams and possess his body. Similarly, the title poem suggests that the shadowslongshoreman “will describe fractals with my finger / over the ashy skin of dusk.” He is released from this manual, contaminating labor only by “first light / birthed from a cinder, / and signaling the end of the shift.” García threads the motif of skin throughout the chapbook, signaling the virulent, transmissible, infectious quality of labor alongside the shadows that denature labor into unproductive art.
The title of the collection also troubles the ordinary circulation of labor and use-value. What is the task of the shadowslongshoreman, after all—to bring the shadows ashore, or to load them for export? García’s book is so compelling because of this threatening ambiguity. In addition to shadows, the speaker tends to traffic in anti-utilitarian states of mind, like hallucinations, visions, and dreams. In “(laceratedletter),” for instance, the epistolary address revolves around what appears to be ergot, the agent of mass mania:
You are the avatar
of the amber bird
that inoculated rye
in Salem’s bread.
For every crumb
a fermented dream
or a rung of
Jesse Tangen-Mills’ masterful translation shines its eerie light here, tracking the metamorphosis of “crumb” to “dream” to “rung” to “fog” until the sounds configure their own pattern of fog. Hallucinogenic vision then becomes a sort of ultraperceptive state where “You can see a haystack / in a pin.” The visionary state cannot last, however, and the speaker announces that “Plumed sorcery / on wilted paper is your poetry, / a useless labor.”
If the speaker’s aim is to disturb the typical economies of meaning in favor of Bataillean expenditure, the most interesting part of the selection appears in the final poem, titled “(apocryphal manifesto of New Spanish Poetry 1979–2019).” This poem is framed as the “Apocryphal diary of a transition. Found in a garbage bin.” By foregrounding its own imposture, the poem frames itself as a shadow-text, once again disturbing the boundaries of language that participates in a closed economy of meaning and that which does not. The poem conducts a sort of exorcism of its addressee, Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee:
I must re-construe
your gnawed knee,
your eyes like slight slits
on an exotic and ob-
your spokesperson body, Annabel,
a kite’s lantern.
I must reconstruct you
and bury you
in a sepulchre of radioactive algae.
Presented as a “manifesto of New Spanish Poetry,” the poem poses an inside-out version of the anxiety of influence, where Poe’s dead girl is pieced back together and then reburied. The apparition of Annabel Lee at the end of shadowslongshoreman is especially intriguing since García’s work places itself in relation to Poe and his French translator Baudelaire, as well as the tradition of South American poets such as Lautréamont and Pizarnik. Once again, this seems like a deliberate affront to an economy based on ownership and intellectual property, a kind of protest that echoes the end of Gainsbourg’s song when the ticket-puncher punches “one last little hole” in himself to escape from his live burial in the Métro.