JULY 9, 2020
HOW DO YOU BRING loss into language? How do you find the words for what is no longer there or has yet to be? In exploring these contradictions, Lara Mimosa Montes’s THRESHOLES offers a drifting, yet driven, meditation on grief and healing. Stylistically, this book is a hybrid, highly referential text weaving together abstract lyrics, autobiographical prose, art criticism, and histories of the Bronx, the author’s birthplace. Montes’s archive is hyper-present in this work, and one of the pleasures of reading THRESHOLES is sifting through her incandescent ruminations on art, dance, poetry, film, sociology, and philosophy. Shards from other texts — by Etel Adnan, Judith Butler, Clarice Lispector, Anne Boyer, and many others — circulate like flotsam, at times a revelation or a place to rest. Reading this book, one feels a bit like a beach-comber marveling at what the tide has left behind. Fragmented and emergent, THRESHOLES draws together an expansive range of topics on death, the body, trauma, knowledge, healing, oppression, language, and art. Yet the book feels cohesive, bound together in Montes’s percipient vision.
At the center of the book is the death of a loved one she calls “R.” Montes’s grief is humbling to witness:
After R. died, away went my focus. I didn’t lack the words so much as feel overwhelmed by their direction. Where were they carrying me, and what if I was not ready to follow? You are where your ghost lives. Sometimes living in two places at once (Minnesota and New York) caused me to feel as though I did not live anywhere because no one ever knew where I was.
We are undone and then remade by grief. In THRESHOLES, negative spaces emerge in the writing. What cannot be said is as important as what can be brought into language. These are the titular thresholes, which, as the wordplay suggests, are both an abyss and a passage. Montes explores what happens when the self is allowed to unravel in grief, becoming porous and difficult to locate. Montes writes:
How would “I” change if I allowed myself to turn towards the pain, rather than live in constant aversion of it? What followed felt like the fulfillment of some necessary spiritual obligation; by doing the work, I am learning that in order to live, I have to learn how to transition from one state to the next — how to become nerve gas, hemotoxin, and snake again.
Montes embraces the self as a state of transition, exploring how place, text, and event spill over and reshape the continuity of “I.” In her preface, she recalls that when she was asked about what she was writing, she would respond, “It’s more like the book is writing me.”
Healing is explored as a practice unfolding between the body and writing. In Montes’s lyrical abstractions, blooming into critique, we can see the influence of anticolonial feminist writers such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Cecilia Vicuña, or Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Like these other artists, THRESHOLES reflects on the ways that writing is tied to the lived experiences of the body, finding lucidity at the limits of perception:
I took the shape of what was asked of me like
that carries the garbage leeward upon the shore
In this vein, Montes explores the body’s deep memory. She probes how trauma can live in the viscous matter of the cell or in the body’s effervescent chemistry. For example, when Montes can’t shake the feeling of a “persistent misalignment in my face,” a sensation of the jaw being “out of place,” she seeks out a massage therapist, called S., who specializes in in “intraoral neuromuscular” treatments. In these massage sessions, Montes describes a metaphysical release, suggesting that the body’s near-primordial knowledge challenges our very notions of the human:
Body as geological record: strata, rock, action. These, the shards. Tissue lets you discover it, and when it can, it gives way, yielding new impressions. In orienting my attention towards my body, its histories as well as its cellular capacities, S. is teaching me how to reconsider my own formlessness, the ways my person has been bound, unleashed, divided, and reborn. What it knows is older than I am; what it holds and gives of itself is more than I could ever recount.
Montes not only examines the unmaking and remaking of the body through writing, but also through place. THRESHOLES moves between two urban homes, the Bronx and Minneapolis, with the Bronx playing a privileged role. Montes thus reclaims the traditionally masculine figure of the flâneur, the wanderer of the urban landscape whose observations organize the city’s teeming complexity. THRESHOLES focuses especially on works of art with connections to the Bronx made in the 1970s and 1980s, the decade or so prior to Montes’s birth. This was a period of extreme social and economic struggle for the Bronx, especially for Black and Latinx residents. In the fallout from racist redlining policies and “urban renewal” projects, most notably the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, the borough suffered extreme housing insecurity and the loss of essential services. As is often the case, the intensity of oppression coincided with incredible artistic ingenuity. As the city and capital abandoned the Bronx, a spirit of radical community-based creativity took hold.
Many of the Bronx-based works explored in THRESHOLES bear the trace of this structural violence. Montes lingers on effulgent photographic portraits from Sophie Rivera’s series Revelations: A Latino Portfolio. By using a kind of back-lighting unconventional for portraiture, the faces of Rivera’s subjects radiate light against a dark black ground. Her subjects appear to emerge from darkness, angelic and perceptive. However, only 14 of these portraits remain, as the majority were destroyed in a studio fire. In another section, THRESHOLES recounts the story of a series of painted brick sculptures by the student artist collective K.O.S. — Kids of Survival — started by the conceptual artist and teacher Tim Rollins. When Rollins asked students to “reclaim” an object from a vacant lot for an assignment, one student returned with a brick, which he painted to resemble an apartment building on fire. Inspired by the student’s revolutionary gesture, the whole class returned to the lot to collect bricks and paint them, creating a miniature burning city that became Untitled (Bricks) (1982–’83). In focusing on this significant period in the cultural history of the Bronx, Montes reckons with one of her own sites of origin as well as the borough’s resonating iconography, its artists and vanguards, its trauma, its exploitation. But how to understand the Bronx amid so many different representations? Montes writes:
When I think of the Bronx, I think of language coming
apart, always before me, threshing;
The Bronx appears to be another threshole in this book, a door continually opening.
In this way, THRESHOLES is in conversation with the artwork from which it draws its title, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Bronx Floors: Threshole (1972). In the Bronx Floors series, Matta-Clark, who studied architecture at Cornell, would enter abandoned and condemned buildings in the Bronx and excise large geometric chunks out of the floors and ceilings. Matta-Clark documented the cuts through photography and photocollage, creating impossible perspectives of these derelict interiors. In Threshole, Matta-Clark cut a rectangular hole in the floor directly before the threshold of a doorway, photographed it, and collaged the images, resulting in a woozy rearrangement of the optics of space.
Matta-Clark’s “anarchitecture,” as he dubbed it, was in response to urban development spearheaded by notorious New York City planner Robert Moses from the 1940s through the 1960s. This was a “renewal” whose benefits were profoundly unequal. Tenants were displaced by the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway and abandoned to slumlords. As the K.O.S. brick sculptures grimly reflect, the collapse of housing code enforcement and the closure of firehouses led to a series of deadly apartment fires in the 1970s (sometimes set by landlords in order to collect insurance money). Many buildings in extreme disrepair were simply left to collapse into rubble pits and vacant lots. Matta-Clark’s architectural cuts rebel against the indifferent utilitarianism of public housing. Resisting a strategy of containment and enclosure, Matta-Clark opened these already dangerous spaces to reveal the violence of austere functionality.
Reflecting on Matta-Clark’s wordplay, Montes writes that the artist
had managed to graft a poetic idea onto a space while curiously maintaining an approach that strikes me by today’s standards as pretty masculine in its relation to and understanding of material, matter, form. As a woman writing alongside this work (and maybe in homage), I have wondered how to translate that process, a series of gestures, back into words.
Taking a sledgehammer to a wall certainly has an air of masculinity about it, but I understand the maleness that Montes refers to in Matta-Clark’s work to be more subtly located in the act of literalizing metaphor. There is something masculine about the idea that one can simply manifest wordplay, a certain confidence in the stability of matter and one’s ability to control and manipulate it according to one’s desires. In her attempt to return the concept of the threshole back to its mercurial metaphorical state, Montes restores the concept of the unknowable.
I don’t mean to suggest that the feminine essentially lacks form or confidence, raising hoary stereotypes of feminine incompetence or incompleteness. Rather, I take Montes’s interest in a revised écriture féminine to be an acknowledgment that one can find strength in fluidity. The solidity of form is not necessarily a strength, as the crumbling bricks in the Bronx show us. THRESHOLES fearlessly explores what it means to come close to formlessness: “To open a state of enclosure / To disappear the restoration / To be as beautiful as you once were / To come into contact / with that which / you cannot hold.”
The threshold is a space of anticipation, a middle place between coming and going, what was and what will be. It is a space of loss, but also possibility. THRESHOLES is about that vertiginous portal between one space and the next. It fulminates in the feeling of immanent transformation — a revelation or perhaps completeness. The book’s elegy is not a linear progression of “moving on” from the loss of R., the Bronx, or what the body knows, but learning to exist within these openings. Montes dangles her legs over the void. It takes courage to spend time in this boundary, to peer across it, and see what it holds or doesn’t.