I’m very sick today. My head is gigantic and I am falling asleep again and again. I wake up covered in sweat and I roll in it and suck it all back into my body before falling asleep again. I feel like a cold sponge. When I am awake I am shaking terribly. The room is dark and it may be 5pm or it may be 2am. The inside of my chest feels like a teapot. I’m coughing seemingly more than I’m breathing. I roll over onto my left side and reach to my desk to grab a blue pot and I jam my fingers straight in for a glob of Vicks VapoRub, the quintessential Latino/Caribbean remedy. There’s nothing this menthol goop can’t cure (according to our mothers, grandmothers, cousins, “cousins,” and overly-friendly neighbors): bronchitis, croup, pneumonia, runny nose, bodily aches, fevers, nail fungus, acne, bruises, inflammation, sinus infection, insect bites. It’s even said to deter your pets from peeing in random places. I take the glob and put it straight onto the bottoms of my feet, as I’ve been told to do, and I sheathe them with socks. I can feel my soles throbbing under the cotton. It’s fucking hot. Being sick is feeling like everything is fucking hot. Being sick is also like feeling that everything is fucking cold. Or that everything is fucking exhausting. Vicks switches in and out from hot and cold, just like I was. It makes you feel like your throat and chest are getting bigger, more relaxed. It tickles like ants. It sits just above the skin and evaporates. I wake up just an hour later feeling like I’m walking on coals, but better.
Roberto Harrison explains in his preface to his second full-length book Counter Daemons that the title refers to computer programming language with “counter” referring to variables within programming loops that count the times a loop has completed and “daemons” referring to a program that works for the operating system. Therefore, “counter daemons,” meaning daemons that count. But before his preface, I read the title as “daemons used against X,” daemons as counters in the sense of a response (a la, counter-attack). Harrison also mentions a third reading, related to “counting coup,” a notion of the North American Plains Indians “which values touching an enemy over killing them.” So “counter daemons” as daemons that touch instead of kill.
Counter Daemons is a long lyric experiment, where the vast majority of lines and stanzas start with “i,” converting the lyric pronoun into a code variable and loop counter. This adapted pronoun and the abstract twists of phrase attached to it (“i send you the saucers that bleed…i send pleas / for the download in threes”) also re-enact the title’s hinges on “counter,” where the phrases pretend to define a solidified lyric subject but really only touch or hint at one. The targeting system of the poem’s pronoun use sits on top of the skin and scurries. It never burrows. I would categorize Counter Daemons as an example of haptic criticism in poetics, the concept defined by Laura U. Marks as an attempt to “move along the surface of the object, rather than attempting to penetrate or ‘interpret’ it, as criticism is usually supposed to do.”
Harrison is like me: born in the United States to parents from Latinamerica. In his poem “An Hispanic Identity Meaning Switches and False Twos,” he writes “I mean light, I mean dark colored turtles, one map / giving birth to another, this, flown heavy with rupture and landed after / a piece was found.” Harrison is here talking about the fundamental indecision and instability of Latino life and racial experience, especially in the U.S. Reading Harrison’s poem, I think of the ways I occupy whiteness in Latinamerica but occupy minority status in the United States. Latinos, and more explicitly non-Black Latinos living in the United States, are often selectively absorbed or spit out by whiteness. I found this poem of his after reading Counter Daemons, but in returning, I realize that the lyrical play in that book is inextricably tied to Hispanic-American living and the false/true senses of security or crisis (sometimes by turns, sometimes at once) that come along with this ethnic status.
It is no mistake that lines more abstracted such as
i am the singing that spears in your gut
the death that makes satchels for loss
in the willows i saw
i reap wheat
as lava that’s young
as a target to hear
as the soil of a plot
are quickly followed by lines like
i am the spic
(I feel it necessary to mention here that I am experiencing the physical annoyances of typing “i” into my word processing document, only to have it be magically turned into “I” by autocorrect and then having to go back and erase and re-type.) Necessary to Harrison’s style of Latino writing, and the style of Latino writing I am interested in exploring here, is a throbbing sense of self, subjecthood, abstraction, and critique. This interest in flow to and from, loops, presence vs. dissolve, and the haptic is what draws me to Counter Daemons as an example of contemporary Latino-American experimental first-person writing that I am grouping here as VICKS/VAPO/RUB/POETICS, named after the general healing salve that sits on the skin, heats and cools by turns, and evaporates, relaxing and expanding the muscles and cavities of the body.
This essay came about after writing several poems that included mentions of Vicks VapoRub and thinking, “Am I just mentioning this to be funny? to give white people a laugh at the casual medicine of my countries?,” and answering that with a no. Realizing that I am instead making physical what the kind of diasporic writing I do and read already does in the abstract. In my writing through critically under-analyzed media (Cher’s twitter, The Legend of Zelda, gay sex manuals, Jazzercise) and presenting it as consanguine with a gay Latino spectator I have found a way to relax my throat in a public space. This is the anxious work of framing being outside as actualizing.
VICKS/VAPO/RUB/POETICS as a form of first-person multi-lingual writing attentive to the physical health and constitution of the subject, critical object, and audience allows the Latino- and/or Caribbean-American (and often queer) subject to stage a heating and evaporating salve for themselves, their communities, and the various media and software that they interact with in their daily lives. This is not an attempt to define a genre or style, but instead an attempt to say: the current poetry climate reflects a Trump-like rhetoric more than it would like to admit. Anti-latino, anti-immigrant writing has come to the fores of the avant-garde and the mainstream; as much as the communist and anarchist scenes grow so do the hypercapitalist; poetry awards and contests use citizenship as eligibility requirements; the biggest literary magazines would rather publish white reflections on ethnic life than the work of aversive writers of color. In such a climate, the writing of Latino poets such as Roberto Harrison, Raquel Salas-Rivera, Vincent Toro, Lucas de Lima, Christopher Soto (Loma), Angel Dominguez, Manuel Arturo Abreu, Tatianna Luboviski-Acosta, Jacob Steinberg, Dolores Dorantes, Rodrigo Flores-Sanchez, Jennifer Tamayo, and many others which sits inside of the complicated cross-lingual, anxious, and exhausting place of being a Latino subject in the United States stands out to me as a possible twin of the menthol I hide in my socks.
I am very sick today. It is to be sick to have “home” be a delayed transaction. I can put Vicks on literally anything. I sweat both ways, out and in. There is nothing elegant about my position today. I would hope that my mom or abuela could sneak in through my windows to bring me Vicks, but I have moved out and my apartment is very high up. They would get dizzy from the height of it. Instead I have to go to CVS myself. CVS is like a bar of soap. Many days, I’d rather not be anywhere. I am making mucus as if someone is paying me to.
Raquel Salas-Rivera, in the note on translation to her chapbook oropel/tinsel, introduces some of the complicated bilingualism behind the translations of her Spanish-language poems into English. She says: “i still haven’t figured out how to replace my people’s obsession with eeeto (-ito): a suffix that starts at the summit, curls up, and rolls down the mountainside to express the tendersize of just about all things proximate. nor do i know how to give you eeeto in the right way (-ito), when the island is all caught up in a discourse of smallness = insignificance.” There’s this internal joke in these lines that I can’t stop thinking about. Salas-Rivera chooses not to translate the Spanish suffix –ito, which signifies that the attached noun is small (or is often just used to sound politer or casual; “te traigo una cervezita” does not necessarily mean that the beer is small), and in doing so leaves English words transformed by an added “eeeto.” This new spelling of –ito seems to just be a mimic of the sound of the suffix vocalized, but ironically it makes the suffix itself bigger and, by appearing outside of its home language, stranger. Here, the translation is transformed by the state of Puerto Rico’s colonial history, American territory status, and current debt crisis. You might at first think that Salas-Rivera is throwing her hands up and saying “I just can’t translate that!”, but the Spanish is being translated, even if not into English. This is bilingualism stuck in the middle.
Salas-Riveras poems, almost always performed and published with both the Spanish and English translation, gear towards exploiting this middle stage, even if wearing the face of original vs. translation. These moments of transformed translation or left-out translation (the Boricua term of endearment “jeva” also remains in the English) ring out as crisp and hot when the reader is also bilingual. When I read oropel/tinsel, I read both poems and often found myself caught on the differences. For example, the poem “mi amor,” (which is translated as “mi love,” instead of “my love”) is a list poem of numbered questions and in Spanish contains 40 questions. But in English, the poem only contains 39. Which question is left out? “10. ¿recibiste mis palabras?” which would translate to “did you receive my words?” The poem is addressed to a “white love,” and asks in an intimate and forceful way several questions about the extent of the white lover’s actions for the speaker, including whether the white lover will learn the speaker’s language, will stop the Puerto-Rican debt, will speak with her father. Because the speaker asks her lover if she will learn her language, it is safe to assume that the lover figure would hypothetically read the English version. And because the question “¿recibiste mis palabras?” is left out of the English version, it becomes one of the only questions of the poem with a definite answer: no. Those words aren’t received because they only exist in the Spanish version. These moments of bilingual friction help define a chapbook that is intimately tied to the idea of what it is like to be Puerto-Rican born living in the United States and reach out specifically to the bilingual reader who has the same formation of tongues as Salas-Rivera herself. This relaxes the connection between reader and projected speaker and creates a rhetorical privacy in the space of reading.
I know a lot of bilingual writers who hate bilingual writing. A seemingly random switch in lenguaje in a sentence can cause bodily sensations of discomfort or escalofriós. For a lot of gente, it’s just plain tacky. But “tacky” in this sense, is due to the fact that bilingual switches cause the hinge words to appear grander and loom over the reader; it comes with a certain camp. It’s hard not to giggle if someone says “my arm is muy itchy,” but there are reasons to embrace and exploit these immediate visceral sensations in response to language switches and the invasion of other language sources into speech or writing. The tongue and ear’s relationship to the stomach feels most immediate and explicit for me in these moments of bilingual-discord. It’s true that I will sometimes cringe at bilingual writing done in certain ways, but writers like Salas-Rivera or Harrison, both interested in the ways tongue and language relate to the lived physical experience of Latino-Americans, would like to hear the giggles, shock, discomfort, or pleasure in response to these moves.
For me, this type of bilingual writing, one that focuses on the physical forms of the audience and in readerly response, unifies the body’s various organs and founds a split cultural identity (that of the immigrant, the first-generation American, the Latino-American) inside its splits.
Un pote de Vicks te ayuda con todo. Of course, I cannot blame a runny nose on white supremacy, but at times I’d like to. My father and I and my brother used to listen to two kinds of music in the car growing up, Caribbean jazz/dance music (Bola de nieve, Celia Cruz, the Fania All-Stars), and the Beatles. That’s basically it. The somewhat constant switches in rhythms made the car an anxious space. Once, after playing a simple salsa song, my dad played “Revolution 9,” just to show us (his kids) something a little weird. I remember feeling that there was something behind me, creeping up on me, even though we were driving. A minute into the song I screamed “turn it off! turn it off!” and took off my seatbelt and stared behind us at the treadmill road. I really like the Beatles too.
I once broke off a piece of cotton from a q-tip in my ear and couldn’t get it out all day. The left side of my head felt underwater. Have you ever sweated, like, more than you’ve ever sweated? And coughed up a lung, but like literally? For this, put a damp towel over your forehead and some Vicks on the soles of the feet.
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague is a Latino queer Leo living in Philadelphia, PA. His first collection, Oil and Candle (Timeless Infinite Light, March 2016), is a set of writings on Santeria, war, and the precarity of Latino-American lives. He is also the author of the chapbooks JOGS (2013), a re-writing of The Joy of Gay Sex, Nite [Chickadee]’s (GaussPDF, 2015), a collection of Cher’s tweets on systematic racism and violence, and Where Everything is in Halves (Be About It, 2015), poems against death through The Legend of Zelda. His work can be found here.