By Rebecca Gaydos
Reviewed by David Nilsen
Güera is a Mexican-Spanish slang word for a white woman or a woman with light-colored hair (güero for the male). It is often used as a familiar term between friends, but can also carry a mildly derogatory, dismissive tone. Rebecca Gaydos employs it as the title of her new poetry collection, a book that explores the disguises and identities provided by language, the way the meanings of words and phrases can be hard to arrive at and are almost always compromises. There is always more digging that could be done to get down to the machine language of human thought, but do we really want that?
Gaydos chases these questions around in the often unpunctuated lines of her poems, teasing the reader by taking the very questions of obfuscation she is ostensibly posing and obscuring them further inside riddles, nonchalance, false declarations, and nonsense. She drops not only the word disguise but a host of synonyms—opacity, vague, image, cipher, mystique, mystery—but never points to them as significant. These seem less like breadcrumbs leading to answers than mascots watching their host poems perform demonstrations of Gaydos's linguistic disillusionment.
Güera is a disorienting read until you realize disorientation is half the point. Sentences and fragments of sentences tumble and scatter in the collection's early movements, poems that seem to speak of lovers, places, and the self in codes that feel cute, almost careless, and opaque. Gaydos tells stories she doesn't want us to understand, and it is only in flashes of revealed purpose that we begin to see the bigger picture. In an untitled poem that is part of a longer piece called "Tiny's," she writes, "Present me to myself through a big disguise." That, it seems, is what she has been doing already, reshaping and reposturing her own identity in a sequence of hazy verbal dioramas. In the collection's title poem, she tells us, "The obvious stopped being obvious / it slipped."
At points, Gaydos shows her cards and lays out her premise more plainly, as in "The Land Before Time":
I was born naturally
In the 1980s in a birth center in Goleta, CA
Naturally is what happens if your mom doesn't have an epidural
But what's the point of all these riddles
She takes a pedestrian statement—commonplace and easily understood both as a sentence and as a fragment of identity—and questions it. Naturally is a word that requires knowledge of context in order to be understood in the first sentence, but it's a knowledge almost everyone possesses—we know what natural childbirth is. We are so sure we know what it means that we forget a layer of context even exists in the sentence. We don't stop to do the work of translation; it happens automatically. Gaydos puts a speedbump in our path, however. She points out the work of translation taking place, and then, in the last line, she impishly questions the very questioning she just performed. What's interesting is that she employs very simple language in this task throughout the book. She takes everyday speech and smears it with her hand, showing how necessary mutually assumed meaning is for understanding our conversations.
Gaydos repeats this exercise of taking plain language and turning it in on itself throughout Güera, with varying results. I'll be honest: there are points when this game gets tiring, like the stoned philosopher guy we all knew in college who just wanted us to really think about our hands for a little bit, just really think about them. At some point, you wanted to tell him they're just hands, man.
The exercise is mostly spared from getting overly tedious when Gaydos moves beyond questioning words to questioning the identities those words can represent, and this is where her title comes in. Gaydos is a white woman living in California, and she toys—dangerously, at times—with the blurring of racial and ethnic and linguistic identities in a space heavily influenced by Mexican culture. In the end, she doesn't question the validity of cultural lexicons and the identities they contain, but she does walk along the seams holding these lexicons together (and apart) and kicks the gravel around, disturbing the heavy air. In an untitled poem in a series exploring these "identity interstices," she writes:
The heart is a stupid heart, it was put here by the countries. One girl was so
drunk she was carried off with pee in her pants. Since my pants were black my
pee would be white. But somehow the joke came off racial.
Somehow? The feigned naivety in these verses seems to indicate the Rebecca Gaydos speaking in Güera is a character, a ruse. The Rebecca Gaydos who has an English Ph.D. from Berkeley is well aware of her words, but she lets her textual dopplegänger get into trouble to see what happens, to see if smoke will lead to fire if she rubs racially tense images together fast enough on the page. I would have been happy to have seen this idea played with more thoroughly in the collection, because the passages that handle these subjects are as brief and mischievous as the rest of the collection.
Gaydos also explores—again, teasingly, fleetingly—the ways in which identity and image serve as transactions when interpreted by others. Our first communication with another person, even before words enter in, is done by our appearance, from which so much of our identity is inferred. In one untitled poem Gaydos references "my own image, the basic transaction," and if this is true—our images are transactions we exchange with others—it's an interesting insight into all manner of xenophobic -isms and phobias. Where there is transaction, there is the possibility of unequal exchange, of imbalanced capital, of power being exchanged or forfeited. It would be an interesting trail to pursue, but it is only hinted at here. Gaydos seems to indicate the social transaction can, in fact, be stripped down to an even simpler economics, one denuded of racial and cultural context, as in these two lines in which she tenders her physical avatar, the self that interacts with the world, for attention. These appear alone on their page:
here to make an exchange
look at me
There is a lot that could be unpacked in Güera that is instead left off the page. In a collection whose central premise is the essential obscurity of all language, perhaps it makes sense for so many deep pools to be skimmed right over, left for later thought. Or maybe Gaydos is just playing a game, teasing us with meaning that isn't really there, meaning spun from the fuzzy banter of her opaque verses. She does, after all, end her book with these words:
I'm bad at telling what's what
I never take things personally