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To See, To Take 

By Mona Van Duyn  

Original Publisher: Atheneum
Current Publisher: Out of Print

Dilruba Ahmed writes:

If you were traveling to another country, which companion would you prefer:  an impressionable, enthusiastic (if a bit naïve) friend, or the too-wise, world-weary buddy who can’t acknowledge any detail without subjecting it to severe scrutiny, with little regard for your enjoyment?  Many of us who have traveled to unfamiliar places within domestic borders or beyond have found ourselves in both positions.  The kind of curiosity and excitement that often accompanies a new cultural encounter—whether in the Deep South, say, or in South America—typically fades to contemplation or scrutiny after time.  And with time, of course, comes the kind of perspective that helps us understand how travel poses both challenges and opportunities.

In Mona Van Duyn’s poem, “Into Mexico,” we find a speaker expressing the early euphoria of a cross-cultural experience:

It is what I have always wanted; to follow the first signs
in another language makes me weak with joy.  I am brave
out back in a courtyard, by a shack that might be the toilet,
when bulging senoras bump me on the back and shoulder me.
If they look at me I do not know what they see,
since even metaphors are changed.

During her encounters with the unfamiliar, the capacity for language to capture perception is transformed, perhaps even diminished.  In attempting to convey the conditions of the outhouse, we see the speaker “touch the paper on the roll” and falter: “it is rough, it is like…nothing else.”  Even as words become inadequate for depicting her experiences abroad, the speaker’s thrill at absorbing new sights and sensations grows evident through her gaze, one that hungrily perceives and cherishes each detail.

There is the delight of the “[t]housands of black beans” that “shine near sweet potato candy” and the unexpected “glassy hotel” rising “between little sheds of pink and orange cement.”  We see her curiosity about and revulsion at a “skinned, outrageous body of some animal” hanging “from a line,” the “rawness” of which the speaker has “never smelled…before,” or the way men “pull down their pants and squat in the vacant / lot downtown.” The speaker’s desire for a foreign experience seems insatiable: “Sweet rolls—I am trying to taste them all, / but it will take weeks—are named for creatures and the parts / of creatures, Snails, Cheeks, Noses, Ears, Dogs.”

But the ecstasy of absorbing the strange is complicated by what Van Duyn calls the “long agony of taking-in,” during which even the most ordinary objects, “pots” and “pallets,” become “unfamiliar.” As the speaker strolls among the “restless / yellow of bananas,” she comes to realize that “[a]ll the time I have lived as if you were like me. / Now, here, I am released from that stratagem.” Standing apart from those around her, she arrives at new understandings of others, herself, and the distances between: “…To be in one’s first foreign country, in approximation, / is to be in you—or to feel what it must be like to be there.” Now, the speaker feels she could “…by-pass / love, when the other eyes parry with a picture of one’s own face, / and never arrive at marriage, either true or false, / when eyes glaze and minds are more private than ever.”

The sense of alienation provoked by travel paradoxically gives the speaker the opportunity to experience her life and the world more fully.  These admissions in “Into Mexico” bring Van Duyn’s persona closer to the ever-questioning speaker in Elizabeth Bishop’s 1956 poem, “Questions of Travel,” in which a traveler expresses conflicted feelings about her roles and responsibilities: for what does she hunger, and should she? Bishop writes:

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today? Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres? What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?

The poem ends with lines from a hypothetical traveler’s notebook:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?  

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?

Van Duyn’s “Into Mexico” expresses the delight of travel through a seemingly ravenous gaze, and Bishop’s poem coolly agrees, claiming that it would have been a “pity” to have missed out on, for example, “the sad, two-noted, wooden tune / of disparate wooden clogs / carelessly clacking over / a grease-stained filling-station floor.” Bishop’s speaker expresses ambivalence about assuming the role of the watcher versus the watched, and about positing the idea of here versus there; Van Duyn’s poem asserts that experiencing the familiar as strange is essential: “One starves for this journey…a simple sensing of what is / not thou, not it, but you.” According to “Into Mexico,”

Each noise, each name, is enchanted and necessary.
I drift in bed, astonished by faintness and nausea and chills.
I would have never felt this way—is this the way it feels?

If travel has the capacity to alter our lens of perception and language’s power to reflect what we perceive, Van Duyn’s poem, “Remedies, Maladies, Reasons,” makes the case that love makes us “hallucinate.” The longest poem in the collection, “Remedies, Maladies, Reasons” recounts across five pages a mother-figure whose obsessive, neurotic personality is afflicted with hypochondriac impulses.

Van Duyn’s diction in the opening lines conveys a deep-rooted sense of resentment:  the mother “dumps” the child “in bed at seven for twelve years” and “yelled [her] up to [her] feet if [she] sat on the ground, / liable to catch pneumonia.” The mother’s invasiveness is represented not only by her action of “hunting in [her] mouth each morning for a sore throat,” but also through the disturbing depiction that follows.

Food was what, til I gagged, she kept poking in,
and then, with high enemas, snaked out again;

her one goose, refusing to fatten, I showed
her failure and shamed her with every bone I had.

If I screamed that I’d run away if I couldn’t go,
she'd say, “All right but that’ll be the end of you,

you’ll get sick and who’ll pay the doctor bill?
You’ll die, you know as well as I do you will.”

I was scared to die…

Over time, the mother’s preoccupation with the body and its failings shifts from the paranoid protectiveness of her daughter to the detailed chronicling of her own grotesque health concerns.  Even when the daughter escapes the overbearing relationship and establishes an adult life and family of her own, she remains haunted by her mother’s frequent, graphic missives: “I know what to expect / before I open my ears or the envelope.” This mother

through the long disease of living, and celebrates
the “blood-red” throat, the yellow pus that “squirts”

from a swelling, the taste, always “bitter as gall,”
that’s “belched up,” the bumps that get “sore as a boil,”

 the gas that makes her “blow up tight as a drum,”

                   ….—all the things that make
her “sick as a dog,” or “just a nervous wreck.”

In truth, I’m not sure why Van Duyn was convinced her reader would stomach several pages of these unpleasant details, but her specificity does create a kind of grotesque fascination.  Readers who manage to endure the lengthy, explicit description of the fixated, phobic mother will find that Van Duyn’s poem makes a surprising turn. 

At the poem’s end, the speaker admits that although she views her mother as “a hideous machine that pumps and wheezes” who embodies the “horror, the nausea, of being human,” when she looks at her she sees “an attractive woman.” The mother of her childhood memories is “the mother [she] wanted, that [she] called to come, / coming,” a figure who “drives [her] Enemy” from “every sickening place where he hides and waits.” With the concluding question, “Do you think I don’t know how love hallucinates?” the poet closes with a knowing confession that, when it comes to love, we’re likely to perceive not what is, but that which we want or need.

Dilruba Ahmed’s debut book of poems, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011), won the 2010 Bakeless Prize for poetry. Ahmed’s writing has appeared in Blackbird, Cream City Review, New England Review, and The Normal School. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives near Philadelphia. For more information, visit her website at www.dilrubaahmed.com. (Photo credit: Mike Drzal)

Poetry Finalists that Year:

  • Gregory Corso for Elegiac Feelings American
  • W.S. Merwin for The Carrier of Ladders
  • Mark Strand for Darker
  • May Swenson for Iconographs 

Poetry Judges that Year: Allen Ginsberg, Richard Howard, Carolyn Kizer,
Thorp Menn, W.D. Snodgrass

The Year in Literature:

  • The Carrier of Ladders by W.S. Merwin won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.      
  • Josephine Jacobsen was named Consultant in Poetry for the United States. 

Other Information:

  • Mona Van Duyn (1921-2004) was born in Waterloo, IA.
  • In addition to the National Book Award, Van Duyn has won the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

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