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Theresa Cha and the subversive pleasure of poetry in her book “Dictee”

By Danilo Lopez-roman, MFA

Dans ma tête un oiseau chante toute l’année.

-Vicente Huidobro


Playing with Language


Ernesto Sabato used to say that language begins as a growl and as we grow up it is enriched by the influence of our parents, society, and school. When we have reached a vocabulary of 200,000 words, many tend to think that the ideal is to express oneself with ten or twenty. Philosophers have a much-reduced vocabulary: object, subject, matter, causal, space, time, end, and a few others. If we press them, one word would suffice, like apeirón or substance. Others will conclude that the return to a growl is imperative.[1]

In the beginning, “Dictee” seems a disorderly “book” by mode standards. On second reading the language of the unconscious becomes apparent in a very conscious way. The orderly syntax that is supposed to be the output of an orderly mind gives way to the subversive treatment of word-art. It is the eternal struggle between reason and desire [two manifestations of human nature]. Intuition is a very volatile entity; it can take one to desire.


The Many Facets of Cha


Cha appears to take the “I” of the artist [writer, poet, historian, calligrapher, storyteller, painter, graphic designer, photographer, screenwriter] to incarnate herself into other women [ancestors, historical figures, mythological beings] and speak on, through, and with them as a subject “in process” [Lacan]. This transforms language [and art at large] into a social disruptor means of expression.


The disorder starts with a table of contents that is unnumbered: one enters an art gallery and walks it at leisure. The Greek muses are but one more means Cha uses to convey the message that all the arts, Art, can be this transformative system or mirror images of the “I””, the “we”, the “us”, and the “it”. “Dictee” makes use of all techniques possible[2] to convey the dislocation and fragmentation of the memory she carries, the search of identity in place as [and] in language. The result is an experimental, loving, daring, challenging art-object filled with religious allusions and markers; invading countries, peoples, and governments; imposed and super-imposed cultures, religions, and economics.


Few events are more devastating than the loss of language, it is a form of deprivation of liberty or sleep, of being. When both or all are combined, the histories that make us become the stories that unmake us all well. The many pictures that populate the book call attention to the body as universe, the physical connections [larynx] and its correspondent vibration [sound] and meaning [word] that finds concretion in language.


The Muses and Cha


Each muse has something to say. Or Cha makes each muse say something. Even though the translation from French into English is not exact, the resonance of her tragedy and angst is captivating: a country divided by foreign powers; the official history that suffocates the many unofficial stories; the diasporas and exile; the cinematic effect of the Erato section [love poetry] with camera directions, dialogues, plenty of white space [Is it to allow for imagination to fly free? Is it to stop the reader and make her think?]; and the questioning of even an assumed universal value as love [“what kind of love is it? Is this? [p. 12].


Cha’s Catholic upbringing permeates the book and certain identification between the Theresa-poet and the Therese-nun, denoting another reversibility of persons and another proof that poetry can be revolutionary in many respects. Julia Kristeva[3] calls this the possibility of radical social change with the disruption of authoritarian discourses; in Cha’s case the imposed languages, her country’s occupation, the man-woman relationship, and the confines of performing and expressive arts, to name a few.


In the Terpsichore section, the choral dance muse, there are at the beginning a series of characters [1 to 10] that resemble dancing figurines. The poetry-prose mix in this section is the most mysterious of the book, the most symbolic, ethereal, and esoteric. She seems to show the mind and soul as containers of thought and suffering, of memory and anguish.


These are the several elements that bound the book: the muses, the use of cinematic and graphic techniques, the memory of pain and the pain of memory, the language as deliverer symbol.


“Dictee” is the practice of poetic language within and against the social and personal order. It is unfortunate that she died so soon. Cha’s birdsong will keep chanting in my head for many moons to come.

[1] “Uno y el Universo”, Lenguaje, p.92 [2] The first edition of “The Law of Love”, by Laura Esquivel, came with a compact disk that was to be played at several chapters. Russian composer Alexander Scriabin left unfinished his synesthetic musical work Mysterium (1903) which was exploit the five senses using images, colors, touch, sound, and smells. [3] La Révolution du langage poétique (1974)

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