Poem That Never Ends

by Silvina López Medin

reviewed by Constance Hansen

Silvina López Medin is the multiple award-winning author of six books and a play. She was born in Buenos Aires and lives in New York, where she is an editor at Ugly Duckling Presse. Poem That Never Ends (Essay Press, 2021), winner of the Essay Press/University of Washington Bothell Contest, is her latest book and her first written in English.

Poem That Never Ends is a hybrid work that centers three mothers: López Medin, her mother, and her maternal grandmother. López Medin probes matrilineal inheritances, from the congenital hearing impairment shared by her mother and grandmother, to the emotional and psychological wounds, to the silences. A lexicon of sewing stitches the book together, as both the mother and grandmother worked as seamstresses. López Medin conjures her predecessors through their daily labor and mines the psychological nuances of the language of the trade: “Needles, pins. Sharp points. Can slip from the hands of a seamstress anytime. Can stick in your skin before a red dot expands.”

In its form, the book embodies a multimodal means of communication shared by a family in which hearing loss exists. Some pages read as dated diary entries, others as lineated, lyrical poems; individual words and phrases set in a bold typeface represent the minority of spoken language that would be audible to the mother and grandmother. The family photographs reprinted in the book were taken on López Medin’s mother’s phone and texted to the author: “The photograph of the photograph. Like a memory retold. Is that the wound? What’s lost between the original print version and my mother’s digital one.” Two pasts exist in a picture of a picture, one transposed over the other. Patterns and designs drawn by the mother and grandmother, as well as family photographs, all contribute to this visual narrative. Art itself is frequently referenced, from Roland Barthes’ comments on photography (regarding the wound or punctum of an image) to photos of an art exhibit, printed full-bleed. Meaningfully, López Medin writes, “My sons and I visit The Perfect Home II, a full-scale replica Do Ho Suh built of his former New York apartment. It’s made entirely of fabric stitched by hand.” A perfect home can only exist where no one lives—a museum.

The opening poem in Poem That Never Ends describes the pulling up of blinds—illumination—and the book continues this action throughout with López Medin’s attempts to illuminate the past. López Medin writes, “I asked my mother to send me the letters that her mother used to send her [ … ] she must have received around 126 letters from her mother during her lifetime. Each time she received a letter, she would read it once, and then rip it into pieces. She was able to send me only 2 of her mother’s letters.” Much like the fabric cut from a bolt to make a dress, memories are the preserved results of a past punctum.

The book’s scattered bolded words symbolize what little is heard among all that is lost. These words in bold are later combined in a coda, a poem wrapping itself around a dress form and singing: “from the darkness – my son – touches the edge of – me – almost transparent – receding – a place – to grasp – mother like my mother – a structure that – protects – a present tense – stretches the word all [ … ].”

Poem That Never Ends balances polarities such as absence and presence, revelation and discretion, and intimacy and distance. A visual motif of dashes operates in paradox, by turns representing stitches (a coming together) and perforation (a tearing apart). One poem written in Spanish is offered to the mother within the book, yet the rest is in English, at a cool remove. López Medin states that she and her mother “need some deferment.” Communication difficulties extend beyond hearing impairment. López Medin’s mother is “a present tense person” who evades questions about the past.

López Medin writes about her mother, “Her mother abandoned her for 3 years. From the time she was 3 years old until she was 6, my mother lived with her aunts.” The word choice “abandoned” rings with significance. During the time of abandonment, López Medin’s mother’s mother, who lived just under two hundred kilometers away, never visited. López Medin’s mother never learned why, and therefore neither will she.

The final title poem in Poem That Never Ends repeats the anaphora mama as it considers the role in tension with its bearers. Roles can be oversimplifying and constrictive by nature. As such, there’s a restlessness to the contradictory mamas, and the repetition takes on the incantatory tone of a benediction in the final scene of this powerfully filmic, ingeniously constructed book.

Published on November 11, 2022