A Diluted Child

Mongrel Tongue by Megin Jimenez
The poet and her work. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Mongrel Tongue is the debut poetry collection by my friend, Megin Jiménez. She and I have written together, performed together and now teach together. This review is anything but objective.

Jiménez once told me that she identifies as a mongrel tongue. I supposed, at the time, that this was a good thing. She is, after all, trilingual. She is the child of a Venezuelan father and a Yankee mother, northern and southern halves of a hemisphere that do not yet and perhaps never will form a whole.

History is, finally, an origin story for mongrels of uncertain
parentage. Your parents are the people spreading across the
planet, taking canoes across oceans, and trekking across bridges
of ice, to the unknown. They are shaping rock in devotion to a
fertility goddess, they are dreaming up ways to live on the water.

That is how you came to be here, in the ethnic food aisle of a
Wal-Mart in upstate New York. Maybe dancing with the hips
is in the blood, maybe it’s not. Maybe a need for a sea and a
shore is in the blood, maybe it’s not. Maybe all of this and its
opposite is in your blood.

Megin Jiménez, from the title poem in Mongrel Tongue (1913 Press 2019)

I did not realize then that Jiménez meant much more with her mongrel tongue than a mere confluence of languages. This is a delta, rich with possibilities. Take off your shoes before you enter. You might get wet.

Between Languages

As a translator for the United Nations in New York and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Jiménez measures her words. As a translator of poets, she takes a magnifying glass to the task.

I believe that as a translator, you are never off the hook, not even for a single word. You are responsible not only to the poet, but to the integrity of the poem, its own presence in the world, and you are also responsible to your readers, most of whom do not have access to the layers you do.

Megin Jiménez, “Borges and the Case of the Traitorous Translator” in The Best American Poetry blog, 31 May 2010

Her father’s Spanish and her mother’s English are this poet’s native tongues. Jiménez calls it an unnamed territory in between, of which my sister is the only other inhabitant. As a child, that language lottery felt like a great burden. Now, she sees it as her superpower.

This is, perhaps, what enables Jiménez to subvert form so very well. Mongrel Tongue is a collection of prose poems and hybrid forms, text that looks like verse or resembles a strand of hair. Her opening salvo “Novel” serves as due warning that this is no ordinary poetry bundle.

In the beginning, I was a wolf watching the girl in the woods,
I was lost in the woods, I blew the house down. I was taking a
beautiful woman by her soft shoulders and kissing her, he took me
by the shoulders and kissed me, I was a man terrified in a rough new uniform, I promised to write him every day.

From “Novel”

Women on the Lam

As a child of North and South America, Jiménez is acutely aware of her mixed heritage, her mongrel identity. To be neither native nor foreign.

Women bore foreign men’s bodies,
bore their foreign tongue
bore their diluted children.
I want to tear their hearts out.
I’m a diluted child.

From “Cathedral”

The blue hair of Roman prostitutes, Rapunzel’s legendary locks, the violence of conquistadores and revolutionaries ⏤ you might imagine Mongrel Tongue lingers in the past. But Jiménez is also very much a product of our own age with its impossible equations of femininity times motherhood plus beauty.

Oh no, I got older, heavier. I realized the red lipstick was never
going to give me what it had promised, back when I was a girl in
frilly socks, with a true passion for all the shades of pink in the
crayon box.

From “They Were All Love Stories”

It isn’t easy navigating all the expectations. Jiménez offers us signposts that strike humorous poses: immediately recognizable and utterly tactile.

Sometimes the worst kind of shock
Is the kind that bumps up against your cervix.

From “What Are You Running From? or: Who Has to Be The Female?”

In Country

In Venezuela, so I hear, it’s a matter of minutes before politics enters the conversation. There is the incestuous relationship between Venezuela and its sisterly island nation, Cuba. And looming over them both is the big bad US of A.

Everyone knows the United States has cunningly planned everything
that has happened in our country
down to this interview, between you and myself,
and also everything that is to come.

From “Interview with an Expatriate”

How does one choose sides? If the US is seen as an enemy in Venezuela, the US is happy to return the favor. Yet Venezuela is one of many homes depicted in Mongrel Tongue.

My father told me once that he wants his ashes to be scattered
in the plains, where his indigenous ancestors came from in
Venezuela. I was surprised that he had thought that far ahead, that
he had desires for his remains. “You know I grew up on the coast,
but that’s never been my home. I’m an indian.” (Soy indio.)

From “Nostalgia”

In a delightful essay on her earliest memories of Venezuela, Jiménez writes of her grandmother, chickens and the lure of McDonald’s in Mérida, where she was born. But Venezuela has been in free fall for the past 1o years. Jiménez had to add this note to her essay.

[Venezuela] is not a place I can genuinely say I am “from” anymore, in the way someone who has lived through this change says it; the place I am “from” no longer exists.

Megin Jimenez, “On Consumption” in The Inquisitive Eater, New School Food, 24 Feb 2014

The mongrel has no home. The mongrel makes each place her own. From Mérida to The Hague, the Venerable Bede and Hugo Chavez, nostalgia and PMS, Mongrel Tongue will take you places.