Craig Santos Perez



Craig Santos Perez is the author of two poetry books: from

unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008) and from

unincorporated territory [saina] (Omnidawn Publishing, 2010). He blogs



Talk Shows

(Switchback Books, 2006)

by Mónica de la Torre

$14. 66 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-9786172-0-7.

Mónica de la Torre’s Talk Shows (Switchback Books, 2006), her first book of poetry in English, is divided into four sections: “How-Tos,” “Self and Society,” “Reality Bites,” and “Fitness.” The section titles echo de la Torre’s prose-collage poem about Amy Vanderbilt, the famous author, television and radio host, and consultant to the U.S. Department of State etiquette. In “How to be well Dressed: An Intervention,” Torre describes how “Whenever anyone comes upon Amy Vanderbilt she is perfectly put together.” The poem continues to contour Vanderbilt’s life: how she eliminated excess wardrobe, resisted impulsive fashion trends, and calculated the effect of certain colors and patterns. In a sense, “She chooses clothes that suit her roles in life” (11). “How to be well Dressed” ends with Vanderbilt in the spotlight, speaking in public to introduce a guest speaker. She’s wearing a “smart-looking hat […] free of wild waving feathers and flowers that bounced every time she moved a muscle.” The word “free” is used ironically hear as de la Torre critiques Vanderbilt as a representation of a “liberated woman”: “Listen to the cry of a liberated woman: ‘I choose jewelry that provides no sound effects’” (13). De la Torre, throughout Talk Shows, seems to break all the rules of aesthetic etiquette, of any oppressive expectations of writing by a woman. Her work is filled with “wild waving” words and forms. Talk Shows shows the exciting potential of aesthetic excess, exploring poetic trends/movements (such as Oulipo), and exploding the use and meaning of color, formal patterns, and sound effects.

In “Letter from one Practitioner to Another,” the speaker provides advice on writing and narrative: “You suffer from hyperaesthesia, we know. But let us trace the line that connects the dots. Dots speak louder […] If you own a car and let six people drive it, something is bound to go wrong, isn’t it? You get in the driver’s seat and can’t see a thing in the mirrors; you only notice this after you’ve started to drive. You try to slow down and realize that the brake pedal has lost some of its responsiveness. The machine is all fucked up” (7). The very next poem, “The Other Practitioner Writes Back,” responds:


Hey babe, Kiev love star! Rats evolve, I kebab. Yeh!

Try again.

Ne morose code: More grow on Kiev, love star. Rats evolve, I know, or Gerome does, or omen?

Try again, open your eyes so you can look closer.



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Rongi rattad ragisevad  -  Reudan las ruedas del ferrocarril

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                OIHO (8)

In a note, we learn that “‘Rongi rattad ragisevad’ is Estonian for ‘the wheels of the train roll by’ and means the same as ‘ruerdan las ruedas del ferrocarril’ in Spanish. Both tongue-twisters serve the same function: one can practice rolling one’s r’s by repeating them.” The language play (multi-lingual), humor, sound effects, and formal inventiveness is characteristic of de la Torre’s work. Certainly, the speaker celebrates—as opposed to suffers—hyperaesthesia.

One of my favorite poems, “Durango, Durango” also explores narrativity in an innovative way. It begins simply enough: “There once was a weeping willow that never wept.” The story then takes a “meta” turn: “This is how one who has a story can begin a story. When one does not have a story one can write a letter, for instance.” What follows is a short letter from a daughter to her father. The letter itself is not very substantial (as we would expect); instead, the postscript is much longer:

PS: Perhaps you and I could talk over the phone one of these days, about why the only time you’ve ever mentioned your hometown was when you told us the story about the locals burning down a set for a Western so as to heat their tortillas? Like you, I’m afraid of sounding trite when I talk about local flavor. Is that why I’ve got no story? There’s a big lake here that you might find attractive. You could practice your water sports while I remember the right spelling for lacunae. (17)

The mention of “local flavor” also places Talk Shows not only as a text that intervenes in banal expectations of women’s poetry, but “ethnic” poetry as well. And even though the speaker claims to have “no story,” she very much has many stories, though they may not be traditionally defined as a “proper narrative.” De la Torre works within the lacunae of story, where even the spelling of such a word becomes part of the gaps and absences of the story.

“Pattern Recognition” continues the theme of narrativity splicing the phrase “so strong is this hunger for pattern” “that we see it even when it isn’t there” and repeating the phrase “Do we all see fragments of the sun burning?” within a narrative filled with lacunae. This complex patterning implicitly informs one of the most interesting pieces in Talk Shows, “To and No Fro,” a poem written after A Woman Without Love: A Family Melodrama (directed by Luis Buñuel, 1951). The poem begins with a pseudo list of characters:

In order of appearance

Adjective 1        Devoted

Verb 1        Endure

Noun        Walls


Adjective 2        Incestuous


Adjective 3 Pregnant

Verb 2Burst

Cameo appearancesGhost wearing cat eyeglasses (29)

It’s amazing how much we learn about the story from this rather simple list. De la Torre sketches the melodrama with an innovative touch. To rest of the poem is categorized as “Plot summary”:

to break free from her oppressive situation, she’s willing to

to avoid causing her ailing husband a heart attack, she’s forced to

to appease her guilty conscience & to make her family happy too

to move on, the engineer goes to

to to to

caught in an embrace,

        the ghost strangles her husband (30)

The “talk show” continues in this way, with the ghost making its strange cameo appearances, and the reader forced to see the fragments and fragmented patterns. The “to” propels the narrative, stripping the plot down to its essential movements.

De la Torres’ other major mode of composition is experimental collage. If we think about what the practitioner’s letter warned against earlier, we can imagine the collage technique as analogous to allowing six people to drive the car (narrative vehicle). In the title poem, the second sense of “talk shows” emerges more clearly; that is, “talk shows” not only refers to the poem as a kind of staged “show” where talk occurs, but it also refers to “shows” as a verb, revealing what speech reveals about the speaker(s):

Talk Shows

—Sometimes when we go out to dinner I notice that my wife doesn’t respond to the things I’m saying. She seems to be listening, but doesn’t answer my questions. Then I realize that she’s overhearing the conversation at the table next to us.

—Get away from me! Who do you think you are, hitting my arm like that! What kind of person are you? A terrorist?

—Don’t look at me as if I was a woman with a rotten tooth, look at me as if I was me.

—Viva México cabrones! (33) (exclamation mark)

Although there’s no note on the source of these passages, we can imagine that they might have been overheard in real life, or in text, or (my favorite imagining) on various television talk shows. Whatever their source, we’re forced to interrogate each section and ask how and what this talk means. In a more complex collage poem, “Convergence: A Picture Puzzle,” de la Torre brings together passages from an essay on the history of jigsaw puzzles and a compilation of writing on Jackson Pollack. She seems to suggest that this kind of compositional method is also related to puzzles and action painting.

In 1965 came “the world’s most difficult puzzle”: Pollock’s

and makes no sense except for forcing

    Convergence, No. 10. Hundreds of thousands of Americans

my eyes to move about non-linearly.

    struggled to assemble it. “Jungle-like assemblies of the dripped

This is the first step.

Talk Shows is a wonderfully complex book, both in its forms and contents. It subverts linear expectations of narrative and surprises with its unexpected language and grammar. In “On Translation,” we read: “Not to search for meaning, but to reenact a gesture, an intent” (49). Throughout Talk Shows, de la Torre reenacts a variety of gestures and intents, shaping the poem as a dramatic talk show and shaping words to reveal how talk shows. This collection gestures towards a liberated writing that continually pushes the boundaries of aesthetic possibility.

August 2010