July 21, 2007

forthcoming Poetry Project Newsletter review:

Heriberto Yépez, a Tijuana writer and Gestalt psychotherapist who has been showing up in the US scene a lot during the last few years, writes so as to push buttons. I remember hearing him read a few years ago at a small liberal arts college. He read a piece that had a man fucking a pregnant woman and the fetus, his son, giving the man a blow job as he did it. I remember squirming as I listened with feminist anxiety to Yépez read this. At the end of the story, it became clear that the man is George Bush and the fetus is George W. Bush and I had that ah ha moment where I realized that my desire for gender decorum had me protecting all sorts of imperial male lineages. Or another story: at UCSC a few years ago Yépez gave a paper in which he claimed “I am Bush” and then, moving from “I” to “we,” he said “Bush is our way to hide we are Bush” (this talk is posted at mexperimental.blogspot.com). If these examples are not enough to prove his provocations, then check out his video “Voice Exchange Rates” (available on youtube) where he has a cartoon image of Gertrude Stein with a swastika carved into her forehead Charles Manson style asking “why do Americans rule the world?”

The Bush as fetus reading really pointed out to me how distinctive Yépez’s work is. It manages to hide provocatively conceptual, decorum defying work behind the mask of conventional and well written realist fiction. His work often appears at first to be one thing (an off color story about fucking) and then he turns it into something else (a pointed story about political lineage). Reading his work I frequently realize that he has got me; he has played with my politesse and made a joke of it.

Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers, Yépez’s first single author book in English (he has oodles in Spanish), is similarly provocative. In terms of genre, it is probably a short novel. It mainly has three characters: two twin brothers and a woman. And the story starts in Tijuana with an attempt by one of the twins and the woman to pickup a failed romance. But really, not much beyond conversation and self-reflection happens in the book and there is much talk about drugs (is the brother using or not?), sex and sexuality, jealousy, and parental abandonment. As the book proceeds, the frame keeps shifting and the narrative is interjected with things like writing exercises, something that might be authorial commentary (“This story I’m reading now was written for a reading.”), and Michael Palmer, Don De Lillo, and Reinaldo Arenas quotes. The novel comments frequently on how it is written in English.

But it isn’t just that Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers is mainly a novel, it also seems to be a romance. But an exploded romance. It starts, as the romance usually does, with the couple meeting up again. And like many romances, which often feature lovers from opposite sides of border disputes, their union is used as a way to talk about relations between nations. At moments the couple represents the north and the south. At other moments it is the US and Iraq: “In every couple there’s a United States and there’s an Iraq. ‘United States’ is the so-called-victimizer. The master that ejects violence. The psy-ops, the war-words, the troops he sends (The Kids!). And then—on the other side—the so-called-victim. The so called poor-little-you. The one that doesn’t deserve the treatment you’re getting, your bad-bad luck, the you-know-who. ‘Iraq.’”

But because Yépez is primarily a provocateur, not a reconcileur, the romance plot keeps going astray and mutating into something that suggests there are no easy and conventional answers to the political questions of today. The woman, in addition to being a former girlfriend of one of the twins, is also part of a threesome in Toluca. The twins, at moments are twin brothers and at other moments the narrative voice suggests that they are an invention of the writer: “I felt like I was two different men, and I started to call that situation <>.” At other moments it is suggested that the whole story, threesomes and all, has been fabricated by one of the twins so he might “have something else in life.” Or the twins really are twins and they, similar to father and son Bush, have sex in the womb and outside it also. In other words, Yépez refuses to restablish the couple, to end with the conventional marriages of the romance.

It might be stretching things a little to read Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers as a romance. So perhaps another way to think of this book is as an equivalent to the “I am Bush” statement. I remember a friend angrily claiming that he was not Bush, that he had not started the war and neither had Yépez, after Yépez’s talk. But Yépez’s point was more subtle and multiple. It suggested that involvement in the oil wars extends beyond individuals and nations. It rejected lefty narratives of US exceptionalism (the sort of assumption that the US is so exceptional that it does horrible things all on its own; that other nations have no involvement) and first world passive guilt. It pointed to the ties between the US and Mexican government, the complicity of US and Mexican citizens. It rejected the idea that anyone could be innocent of anything. Wars. Threesomes. Drafts. & Mothers does similar work as it suggests that our personal romantic relationships carry wars in them. (This is a diversion but it is also striking how this book does not fit easily into US definitions of “border literature”; yes, Yépez, like many writers of the border, moves between Spanish and English but the book is fascinatingly devoid of “local” markers and descriptions, ethnic exceptionalism, nationalism, etc.)

Although part of me wants to keep returning to the romance genre because the book does end with a collapsing and exploding couple of sorts for Yépez ends with 9-11 and the twin towers: “The two planes not only announced the end of an era, but they also showed what was happening inside our lives. I read 9-11 as the crumbling of two people together, as the failure to stay next to each other, standing. And one tower was Emily, and I was the other tower, the first to fall. And then one tower was my brother and the other tower was me, and we both were destroyed by the world. And one tower was my father, and he became dust, and other tower, my mother, and she became a scream. And the two towers were love.”

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