J. Michael Martinez | Museum of the Americas | Penguin: $20.00

J. Michael Martinez’ third collection Museum of the Americas has an interestingly compendious feel which runs from the title of the volume through to the notes and bibliography at the end. An equally compendious sense of ‘the Americas’ as embracing North, Central and South America pervades this volume, although it is Mexico which provides the focus for much of the writing. Museum of the Americas is divided into four sections: the first concentrates on the strange world of Mexican casta paintings created in the 18th and 19th centuries, and described by Martinez as, ‘employed in the New Spain to validate racial identity (“whiteness”) in the legislation of land acquisition & in determining land rights’. The second section explores the equally strange ‘War Photo Postcards’ created by Walter H. Horne. These latter were created during the Mexican Revolution and document the deaths and devastation created throughout that revolution. As Martinez puts it,

Employing an inexpensive emulsion called “gaslight,” Horne printed tens of thousands of postcards. Selling thousands of his “real-photo” cards to U.S. soldiers during the Mexican Revolution, Horne was responsible for a vast photographic immigration

              of nameless Mexicans desired only as epistles

                          anchored in their death;
                          the dialectic between Self

                          as Subject & Self

                          as Object separated by pains of clarity
                          into softer yellows.

These lines give a flavour of the textures of the poetry in this book. The first three lines form part of the ‘documentary’ texture to the book. Martinez in clear expository prose shows the history of the objects that he is responding to, then there is a push into the moral values of the objects. Following that, Martinez may move into what we might call a phenomenological response to the objects, using them to engage with ideas of perception and reception. Then, in the final line here, Martinez offers a more lyrical, ‘poetic’ engagement with the objects.

The third section focuses on the body further dispossessed. Here, the body which may be broken up for display as in the pickled head of ‘the “criminal” Joaquin Murrieta’ or the prosthetic leg of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, collected in P.T. Barnum’s (he of Hugh Jackman and The Greatest Showman) American Museum in New York. This section also brings into play the 1848 treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which established in law that those who ‘have not made a formal declaration to return to Mexico or “to become” citizens of the U.S. are incorporated into an inconclusive space’. As Martinez comments on later the treaty declares that these people “shall be incorporated into the Union of the United State &be admitted, at the proper time (to be judged of by the Congress of the United States)’; ‘at the proper time’ being at the whim of Congress. Martinez writes of these bodies, ‘Neither this, nor that, these peoples were a method of wind… bodies possessed & haunted by an aesthetic committed to vanishing, the world’s light opened in a hollow finger.’ This latter imagery I interpret as suggesting that the hand that might offer ‘light’, a place of becoming was itself a chimera, a device which offers but will not deliver.

Martinez also ‘quotes’ a ‘Declaration of Intention’. This is a document in part of which an applicant for naturalisation has describe themselves. Here is Martinez’ version, ‘Colour of the wild fowl of the wood & sea my complexion iridescent as hummingbird feathers, my height, that of sacrifice, of the rising trees,’; here, the body is truly ‘naturalized’ and possibly Martinez plays on the ‘self-consciousness’ of both the description and the writing of that description.

The final section of the book again moves through varieties of register to show how ethnicity is degraded and exploited. Martinez describes the appalling exploitation by Barnum of Maximo and Bartola, two ‘Aztec Wonders’; though Martinez speculates that they suffered from microcephaly and diminished stature and were actually from El Salvador or Nicaragua. The two were ‘married’; as Martinez puts it ‘Pimped for the perversity of white desire, Maximo and Bartola performed the profane.’ The section also has a first person narrative which depicts the name calling of a short order cook in a burger joint, the narrative placed next on the page to a scientific description of ‘Other-Race Effect’ or ORE, an analysis of how the faces of ‘Others’ are found ‘all alike’ when perceived by another race. Finally, here, Martinez has accounts of the funeral rites accorded his grandmother. This last contains some of the most moving and effective of Martinez’ lyric writing, and ends with the very beautiful ‘The Wake of Maria de Jesus Martinez’.

Much of this sounds rather schematic. And this is not a book which wears its learning lightly. The epigraphs from Walter Benjamin and references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty can feel self-conscious; this is writing for which the term ‘inter-textuality’ was coined. But, overall, the book forms a very satisfying whole. Its multiple registers and divisions work into a coherent trajectory which is usually immersive, unsettling and poignant. There is a deep engagement and empathy driving these texts, and Martinez demonstrates how to wield language to reflect those empathies.

Ian Pople

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