Conquering the Conqueror: Heriberto Yépez’s The Empire of Neomemory

Deborah Garfinkle

Translated by Jen Hofer, Christian Nagler, and Brian Whitener. Oakland, CA: ChainLinks, 2013. 269 pages. $15.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

On September 16, 2014, “post-Mexican” writer, critic, psychotherapist, and literary provocateur Heriberto Yépez announced to the world that, after twenty years of work on his “writing project,” “it can be said that Heriberto Yépez’s oeuvre has concluded” and that the “young man” who was Heriberto Yépez has “gone” forever. Such a grand gesture may seem self-indulgent posturing if viewed from the US side of the frontera, the borderlands between the US and Mexico, where Yépez’s work is not widely known. Yet al otro lado, in his native Mexico—he was born in Tijuana in 1974—Yépez has established his reputation with an extensive and varied body of work that is impressive given his young age. Yépez has won several important national awards and, according to literary critic Evodio Escalante, he is one of “the two most powerful literary intellects” currently active in Mexico. The late celebrated poet and journalist Daniel Sada considered him “the most assured of [Sada’s] literary critics” and praised Yépez’s novel Al Otro Lado for being “the best in that genre called ‘narco literature.’” Over the course of his two-decade long “writing project,” Yépez has employed his art to transgress the artificial boundaries erected by what he and his translators term the “USAmerican Empire” that imposes its own version of reality on those individuals who have had the misfortune to be living in the sphere of its American Dream, which, according to the writer, is “the dream of expansionism in all its variants.”

Like Tijuana, the border town that shaped his consciousness, Yépez—his work and identity—resists being pinned down, especially by USAmerican narratives about race, culture and language. His extensive bibliography embraces a wide range of genres and disciplines—from experimental novels and poetry to cultural and literary criticism and translations, written in both Spanish and English or a mixture of both. Yépez also frequently collaborates with scholars and writers in Mexico and the US, forging new connections that defy boundaries fixed by external authority. Independent multicultural collaborations like these can do much to subvert the myopic worldview that, when it comes to culture, Mexico is the poor stepchild to the US’s Big Daddy and the western tradition. As Yépez’s criticism of US cultural imperialism rightly reveals, any true appraisal of the record must account for, as Yépez puts it, the droning “homochrony” of the American Dream and its towering fortress of forgetting.

Yépez’s ambition to expose the fortress’s “substructure and superstructure” sounds laudable in theory. Yet when it comes down to reading Yépez in practice, one feels that, in trying to right the record, he has fallen prey to the very same fallacy of which he accuses USAmerica—reducing a complex relationship to that of unequals—which again fails to do justice to either nation’s cultural tradition or the historical record.

Yépez’s ambition to liberate Mexico from USAmerican imperialism is especially evident in the critical work The Empire of Neomemory for which Yépez was awarded the prestigious Premio Nacional de Ensayo “Carlos Echánove Trujillo.” Ostensibly, Neomemory serves as Yépez’s exploration of poet Charles Olson’s 1951 trip to Lerma, Mexico, and the significant impact this journey to Mexico had on Olson’s career. Yet the study, first published in 2007 and translated into English in 2013, serves less as conventional literary study and more as the chronicle of Yépez’s quest to rescue Mexico’s rich cultural heritage from agents of the “Oxident” (a neologism which, we are told by the volume’s translators, signifies “a combination of Occidental and oxidized”) who have hijacked it. According to Yépez, many of the great figures of the modern and postmodern Western literary traditions may be counted among their numbers. In fact, Yépez emphasizes that Neomemory is not to be taken as a traditional critical study of Olson and Mexico within the context of American postmodernism, but as a “dismantling” of the poet and, by extension, the Empire he served. As Yépez writes, “Olson in and of himself does not interest me”; instead, he employs the book as a blade to cut the poet—who, at 6’8” was literally a giant of a man—down to size. To borrow Yépez’s own pun, Neomemory is his decapitalism of Empire’s “decapitalisms,” a 250-page beheading of Olson, one of the biggest “floating masculine heads” in the USAmerican literary pantheon. Whether Yépez’s guillotine is as sharp as his ambitions is another issue altogether.

There is no doubt that Neomemory is a daring work on many levels; as Yépez, according to the editors, “careens idiosyncratically” through time and space, he showcases his erudition through dazzling flights of free association, neologisms and puns woven into the fabric of his criticism. He begins by “Going Postal,” the pop-culture term for “rampaging violently”: Yépez creates riffs on all things postal to frame his psychoanalytic investigation of Olson’s childhood in the house of Karl, Olson’s alcoholic postman father, and Mary, a religious Catholic. According to Yépez, Olson’s family life in Gloucester was marked by discord and distance. Olson grew up among “phantoms,” living in the shadow of his failed Big Daddy Karl Joseph who projected all his hopes and aspirations on his young son after he’d been fired from his position at the post office. Like a modern Bartleby, Olson refused to show up to work after his bosses vindictively canceled his leave to take Charles to the three-hundredth anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock because of the elder Olson’s efforts to organize his fellow postal workers; and in the “abyss” Mother Mary “sowed” by teaching her son to loathe his body and love only ideas. Cut off from the “co-body,” from feminine intimacy, Yépez’s Olson finds he can only connect to the world through letters, the artifacts of patriarchy, like “a wounded Hermes” whose existence boils down “to remittance and postal hope.” According to Yépez, Olson expresses and receives his “best ideas” through the mail (or, should I say male, although the pun only works in English), making the poet the empire’s “desperate mailbox.” From this portrait, it’s no wonder that Olson felt more comfortable communing with dead Sumerians, Ancient Greeks, and Ancient Mayans, whose tongues had been metaphorically torn out by the zealous Catholic priest centuries past, than with living breathing humans.

And so, in Neomemory, Yépez leads us from Olson’s Freudian nightmare of a childhood, through the critic’s encounters with Melville, Pound, Rimbaud, Borges, and the other dramatis personae of western modernism and postmodernism. Then he arrives at his destination, Lerma, Mexico, where Olson, the self-professed “archeologist of morning,” had journeyed on his private expedition to decode the Mayan hieroglyphs. Yet, according to Yépez, Olson was not, in fact, acting on his own accord; he casts Olson almost as if he were an antagonist in a Graham Greene novel, an agent in the service of USAmerica complicit in the Empire’s co-opting of Mexico’s cultural memory. This dark portrait also resonates with the handiwork of Friar Diego de Landa Calderón, bishop of the Yucatán, who had immolated the Mayan record after the Spanish conquest, leaving the world a record of fragments with incomprehensible glyphs.

Yet by the book’s end, it doesn’t really feel like Yépez has made new incursions across the border to conquer those he accuses of being conquerors. One major weakness is that for Yépez to succeed he must discredit Olson the man to elevate his own prestige as a critic. After all, Yépez frankly admits that Neomemory isn’t about Olson at all; it’s about Yépez attempting to decapitate Olson, whom he considers to be, at least in the field of literature, USAmerica’s primary agent in the cultural co-opting of Mexico. However, for the final execution to work, Yépez must convince us that

Olson represents all of what there is in each one of us in the Co-Oxident, all of what is there and, at the same time, all of what cannot be in us of this Whole, which is in itself impossible. All of us are Olson. Each one of us constitutes an avatar of the United States.

And “Olson’s tracks . . . lead us to the avatars of empire.” Everything in his analysis hinges on this inflated portrait of Olson, even when he himself admits that no man “can really represent an entire culture.” But Olson’s been dead since 1970. Just three years after his death, critic Marjorie Perloff, in her “Charles Olson and the Inferior Predecessors: ‘Projective Verse’ Revisited,” argued that for all Olson’s pretentions about originality, his acclaimed essay was “essentially a scissors-and-paste job, a clever but confused collage made up of bits and pieces of Pound, Fenollosa, Gaudier-Brzeska, Williams and Creeley.” Even during his lifetime, not everyone was on the Olson bandwagon. In his review of “Projective Verse,” poet Thom Gunn wrote that the writing in the essay “was the worst prose since Democratic Vistas.” Yépez’s portrait of Olson as some USAmerican conquistador rings hollow based on these inflated claims. It’s as if Yépez believes that if he blows enough theoretical hot air into Olson’s effigy, the long-dead writer will be grand enough to become the lead float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade—a big target and, thus, easy to shoot down. But given too much air, the balloon will burst. Olson was a giant of a man, but his life in death reads like the dust on Ozymandias.

After reading The Empire of Neomemory, sadly, I’m not sure I’ve learned much about Olson, the impact his trip to Mexico had on his development as a writer, or the contradictions inherent in the US’s appropriation of Mexico’s cultural heritage. And that’s a shame. I kept wanting more than all the abstract talk about bodies, time, space and imperial amnesia. Yépez’s neologisms, the lingua franca of his criticism—with hyphens and cos, neos, metas, bios, geos and posts tacked on in front—feel like the fossilized tropes of the Freudian and post-colonial lit crit of some thirty years ago. As a result, the reader often stumbles over the self-conscious prose, as is the case in one particularly impenetrable passage in “Moses of the Yucatán”:

Unfaithful, erotically split, divided, labyrinthized by his mythomania, fantasizing vacillating between his totemic petriotic loyalty of the United States and his compulsion toward a knowledge of the clandestine cultures of the world, ubiquitous, bifurcated, deformed out of pure interbelittled disfragments, polyphonic excisions, and Janusian self-throat-slittings, Olson desperately hunted down a principle that might unite it all.

How to make it all cohere. How to build a co-here where everything existing is united. Olson’s “will to cohere” has only been understood in the dimension of coherence, of Apollonian integration: that is, of logic, of meta-recounting of atypical junctures, yet not in its dimension as a site, as pantopia as co-space, co-here or co-where.

One might argue the fault lies with the translators, but they collaborated closely with Yépez and provide scrupulous evidence in the form of footnotes that they have remained as faithful as possible to his voice. Yet paradoxically, the fault does, essentially, lie in translation—that is, a portrait of Olson cherry-picked to suit the critic’s teleological purposes and his attempts at channeling Olson’s mercurial style. To carry out his analysis, Yépez must distance himself from the very thing that makes the late poet, in my view, so original, memorable and worth writing about: the flesh and blood human being, filled with contradictions, who searched for new means of expression in the post-war world where “man [had been] reduced to so much fat for soap, superphosphate for soil, fillings and shoes for sale.” Olson resisted the consumer world and its end-stopped poets. Still, Yépez is right. Olson was no archeologist; yet he wasn’t much of a conqueror either. After spending less than a year in Mexico, Olson threw in the shovel. The locals and the official archeologists annoyed him. They got in the way of his dream of finding the Mayan Rosetta Stone. Olson the archeologist, like Yépez the writer, had moved on. While Yépez vanishes into No-Man’s Land between frontiers, after Lerma, Olson returns to his native land. The prodigal son goes back to his roots: his post-office father, the sailors, Ishmael and Gloucester, the whaling village and the Sea that had so informed his artistic vision. For twenty years until his own death, Olson, the poet-sexton, worked feverishly excavating the dead in Dogtown’s graveyard, Maximus’s voice scrimshawing exquisite poems on their forgotten bones. Ironically, many of the joys in Neomemory are in Yépez making us want to return to Olson and his genius, which are precisely what he would like us to forget.

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