Collection translated to English by Isabel Sobral Campos and Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton

The phrase “echoing through time” and its variants are usually employed to describe something with historical significance, something that is believed to have recurring influence with cycles that stretch beyond a human lifespan. The phrase is often reserved for people or events or works of art that have had their importance decreed by institutional or cultural consensus, and often carries the implied weight of prophecy or destiny in its fusion of space and time. But if you dispense with the grandiosity, it is not a stretch to say that we all echo through time. We are, at least in the United States of America, not trained to think this way. We are instead taught that history is the record of the actions of “great” individuals (usually men) and that the rest of us amount to little more than the threads of the flags and banners that the “great” use as heraldry. I reject this myopic perspective; each of our lives, regardless of positive or negative labels, is a point of impact, echoing in all directions and affecting everything that will come after. This admittedly defiant train of thought is the fault of Lex Icon, a collection of poetry written by Salette Tavares. I cannot think of a more appropriate single adjective to describe this book than sagacious – it is the kind of text that challenges and helps you to push through the noise, providing a necessary clarity that can be both empowering and humbling.

“Espaço é o mais alto poema do Universo / que o arquitecto produz / é o difícil extracto do intense / que define / a qualidade da luz.

Space is the supreme poem of the Universe / which the architect produces / the hard distillation of intensity / that defines / quality of light.”

To be clear, there is no pseudo-omniscience on offer here; Lex Icon is not a self-help book and Tavares is not peddling some simple solution to life and its problems. But as you read her poetry, you realize that Tavares is consistently applying a very direct method over and over again: stop, observe, and appreciate. Several of the poems revolve around the impact of shoes or napkins or flasks, and one even explicitly around garbage. She is examining what we typically think of as the mundane detritus of human existence and recontextualizing them as the echoes of our lives, for better and worse. Tavares marvels in awe at the ingenuity required to make such things in the first place, and with trepidation at the rampant consumerism that renders such things simultaneously necessary and disposable. In a sense, she writes as a kind of preemptive archaeologist, studying the evidence of our existence and the negative space we leave in our immediate wake. She even ascribes religious significance to these objects; an absurdity, to be sure, and a knowing one on her part, but one that is both reverential and critiquing, rather than mocking.

“Poema litúrgico sobre o sapato. Durante a leitura deste deve seguir-se rigorosamente a indicação à margem. Não esquecer de o recitar em frente de um microfone ligado a vários altifalantes com grande amplificação de som. Sobre uma mesa colocar um sapato. Os fiéis que seguem este ofício devem estar descalços com um sapato em cada mão.

Liturgical poem on the shoe. During the reading, one should rigorously observe the parenthetical instructions. Be sure to use a microphone connected to loudspeakers at high volume. Place a shoe on a table. The faithful who observe this ceremony should stand barefoot holding a shoe in each hand.”

Tavares asks us to exist, even if only for a moment, within these seeming dichotomies and appreciating the perspective gained therein. My understanding of the historical context is that she is writing as part of movements that are transitioning out of modernism and toward greater experimentation, as evidenced by her multiple references to Dada. In this light, you can see Lex Icon as a embodying an early postmodern sensibility. There is a strong emphasis on the flexibility of meaning and the importance of questioning even foundational or “insignificant” assumptions (emphasis mine). The poetry lays out that the dichotomies only really exist in our minds and that, even if they prove contextually useful, they are always subject to change. Perhaps most importantly, the text pushes the reader to question the moral value judgments we casually attach to such ideas. Things can be both good and bad in different contexts and for the same reasons. Tavares posits that only by bridging the divide that we created in the first place can we begin to approach understanding the human experience.

“Dêem-me palavras que eu descobrirei as coisas / dêem-me coisas que eu descobrirei as palavras. / Entre a palavra e a coisa o intervalo é nenhum / palavra ou coisa a eloquência pertence-lhes: / à palavra porque diz a coisa / à coisa porque diz a palavra.

Give me words to discover the things / give me things to discover the words. / Between word and thing there is no gap / word or thing eloquence belongs to both: / to the word because it speaks the thing / to the thing because it speaks the word.”

I had no knowledge of Salette Tavares before reading this collection, and after reading both it and what biographical information I could find on her, I was not at all surprised to learn that she was primarily a visual artist. In her poetry, I feel the echoes of something akin to photography – an attempt to capture a perfectly distilled moment in time from a universe that is constantly and unstoppably changing. There is a kind of tragic impossibility to the task that makes it all the more beautiful. Tavares’ use of structure captures and language captures the infinite kinetic energy and losslessly transfers it into potential. She reframes the signifier and the signified into two inextricable parts of a perpetual motion machine that echo through time. She is, I think, consistently in awe of what the human mind is capable of, again for better and worse; the only thing that may be beyond our capacity is the ability to grasp the full extent of that capacity.

Lex Icon is now available through Ugly Duckling Press