This, Tamara Kamenszain’s eighth poetry volume, was first published in 2010 as part of the “Sur Translation Program”. The Echo of My Mother responds to the loss of her mother, first to Alzheimer’s disease and then ultimately to death coming to terms with the silences and dislocation caused by that loss, and finally reassembling her own broken identity.
As the illness takes hold, her mother’s memory deteriorates; she loses her ability to communicate and forgets words. Mirroring her mother’s condition, Kamenszain struggles for words as she begins, writing, “I cannot narrate”. Unable to talk with her parent as she dies, the poet seeks “a language so as to speak with the dead”.
The Argentinian porteño Spanish of the original is imaginatively descriptive, tumbling fluidly from the lips. This fluidity is aided by minimal punctuation – reflected in its English translation – which expands the rhythms of the poetry, emphasising the meaning of each phrase. Translated by Cecilia Rossi, the simultaneous rendering of Spanish and English texts offer the bilingual reader a deeper understanding. Rossi’s interpretation is sensitive, especially in her selection of past tenses which are so crucial to Spanish literary expression.
The volume is divided into three sections, each decreasing in size as they become deeper and more focused. The first part has Kamenszain coming to terms with her mother’s condition. A lack of understanding, an inability to explain her feelings, and the sudden realisation of unwanted change mark this tonally. There is a notable separation between mother and daughter, physically together but mentally and emotionally apart. Illness and death become the first memories that the poet cannot share with her parent.
These poems are written in the present tense, as the past and future are too problematic to be tackled.
What past tense would be of use to me
if my mother no longer weaves me?
This anchoring creates an immediacy and an intimacy for the reader during the initial diagnosis, and the first days of confusion and awareness that follow.
The middle poems deal particularly with the echoing and what is left behind:
my mother flew away taking with her the whole repertoire
she duplicated what she didn’t say put on echo the old family accent
and left me with no ear searching for recognisable sounds.
The echo represents the mother’s fading and her daughter, calling, which may be heard but cannot be answered. Echoing is equally descriptive of the poet’s literary nods to others, including Sylvia Molloy, Coral Bracho, Diamela Eltit and Lucía Laragione, and to her own previous works.
The final section, “The Cutting of the Book”, is comprised of a single poem. Here, Kamenszain seeks to reconcile the maternal loss, and its impact on her own language and voice – the future novel brewing, longing to be written. The result of which is her 2012 book, The novel of Poetry.
At the crux of The Echo of My Mother is Kamenszain’s sense of a self undone by the passing of her life’s central figure – the maternal “protagonist”, “the author of my days”. Alzheimers has resulted in the loss of all memory and all recognition of her daughter; Kamenszain is forced to re-establish her self-image by revisiting the pastin memory, language and her writing about her mother:
between two deaths the past tense now supports me
it’s a bridge that can’t be seen it’s stopped in time
beneath it walks the storyteller I never was above
pass by the stories on the run.
This deeply personal volume delves head-on into the poet’s experience, offering unique insights into a Kamenszain adrift, without the person to whom she had always anchored her identity and sense of belonging. Yet it is in her mother’s memory that Kamenszain finds the self-reconciliation she seeks as, “she who gave the beginning is also now giving the end”.