Narcissism and doubt


It is hard to see past an arrogant,
self-assured style in the first English translation of Estela Lamat’s work


I, The Worst of All
Estela Lamat,
translated by Michael Leong
2009, BlazeVOX Books
112 pages

Reviewed by Isabel O’Toole

THE CHILEAN Estela Lamat endeavours to explore a realm of poetry that is usually forgotten and her use of free verse and poetic prose is ambitious and complex, yet it is hard to see past her arrogant, self-assured style and uncover the true meanings within this doubt-ridden work.

The layout of the book is also interesting. Although the wide gaps between some two-line poems may be interpreted as a meaningful silence, they may also be classed as a waste of paper. Not enough is communicated to the reader within these short poems to justify the huge silence between them. Although the lack of order may have been intentional, off-hand it seems amateurish and as if not much thought has gone into its organisation.

There also seems to be little difference between “Panic”, “I, The Worst of All” and “La Llorona”; sections which are supposedly narrated in different voices and focus on different experiences. “La Llorona” emerges as the most provocative section yet, bar its heartbreaking content, its style lacks a signature.

This begins with an extremely powerful poem that mixes images of butterflies and blood, contrasts beauty and horror and lyrically ties them together. However, it is difficult to extract the meaning or moral from the poem, and this lack of direction and message is reflected throughout the collection, resulting in an untidy synthesis of thoughts and images.

Use of repetition

Lamat’s use of repetition creates a ghostly and echoing effect, which adds to her recurring themes of loss, self-doubt, lack of identity and confusion. However, this repetition serves not as a specific and personally identifiable trait, but, towards the end, as a lack of imagination.

Despite this, the beautiful imagery is often coupled with profanity, which initially takes the reader aback, but after its first few uses, loses its impact and can instantly be interpreted as a gap-filler. At times, it becomes needlessly vulgar and can make some of Lamat’s images of natural beauty fade from memory prematurely. However, she must be commended on her ability to detail prosaic actions, even if this is somewhat clichéd:

It unveiled in the night
It’s a shattered part of my breath
A ghost like the smoke of a cigarette
Appeared in my mouth
Then it started to narrate

Lamat has a heavily embellished vocabulary which in several instances dazzles. On the other hand, her use of long words is at times unnecessary and borders on pejorative.

The long, unstructured, unpunctuated Joycean verse is likewise complex and incomprehensible to the point at which it serves to give the reader nothing but frustration:

No worm will impede me from knowing what I have to know no fucking worm red or green will make me forget that I have no roots that I don’t have a single fucking root that thanks to all the stars I have no recollection to remember that I ate a worm when I was planning to learn the laws of the universe.

Much of this collection centralises on the necessity of understanding “the poem”. Though in no way a doctrine, Lamat gets so wrapped up in trying to decipher what it is that defines a poem that she ends up becoming self-indulgent instead of self-reflective.

There is no hint at resolution, and Lamat’s spiraling obsession with comprehending poetry adds to the theme of “Pánico” within the collection but also makes her intentions as a poet unclear.

My purpose is to make the oceans be my eyes salivating tears/ I want to attract the aquatic dimensions of mirrors/ to look at myself on the most humid reflection/ and to drench my face with my eyes […]

Here, Lamat’s nautical imagery displays her beautiful imagination, focused upon herself, her elaborate language somewhat weighing down what could be said more simply. Her choice of words is well-intended, yet at times they land flatly and clumsily.

The images of chocolate and peasants that appear throughout serve to give some sense of cultural identity. Lamat’s harsh language is justifiable only as a rebellion against Pinochet’s oppressive regime, as is her bitterness towards the poverty in Chile.

In this sense, she has succeeded in alienating herself from a culture of poetry that was no doubt imposed upon her, but to a reader who has no knowledge of Chile’s recent history her success in creating something radical will go unnoticed.

However interesting and ambitious this book may be, it borders on being boring and is most definitely narcissistic. As in many cases, the poetry has most probably lost both fluidity and meaning in its translation and the result is one from which little can be salvaged.

Yet Lamat clearly has potential, her images and ideas are striking and this untidy collection is not the best example of what she is capable of. If she can conquer her poetic arrogance, she may prove to create some truly charming and meaningful poetry.

Isabel O’Toole is a student

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