Sundress Reads: Review of Excursion

It’s hard to capture what Silvina López Medin’s Excursion (Oversound Press, 2020) is about. Rather, readers grasp only at what it does. Even its table of contents evades “aboutness.” At first glance, it functions somewhat like a poem. The pieces are titled by their first lines, resulting in entries such as “Breath,” and “Do you hear that creak?” that invite each row of the table of contents to spill into the next.

The collection’s 24 pieces reference the 24 frames per second that, in film, conjure movement from static images. Medin’s work is similarly incremental, each fragment an essential installment that makes the titular journey possible.

The pieces are split among two parallel and possibly converging scenes. One features a couple in a hotel; the other is set on a moving boat populated by the narrator and her brother.

The first hotel piece is “INT. HOTEL / BEDROOM—NIGHT”, while the titles of the others are variations of this template. The scenes, rooted in the “interior,” are thus defined by their positionality. Throughout Excursion, the couple is afforded a radius of movement that extends to the hallway, the bedroom during the day, the doorway. 

The boat poems, though, lack distinct titles. Our narrator is glaringly location-less, left bereft. In poem 4, a woman demonstrates life vest procedure “in case of a wreck.” The narrator reacts immediately: “I sink into the word / wreck, into what possible loss”. In this unmoored state, even the suggestion of harm enacts it; the narrator sinks while aboard. 

The narrator’s search for grounding is one of the collection’s more extractible themes. Somewhat unexpectedly, this desire continuously and newly leads her to words. As the boat embarks and accelerates, the narrator asks her brother questions, primarily because “the metal sound of his words / soothes me.” 

Words become metallized and machine-like just as the machine that transports them becomes humanized. Perusing the brother’s dictionary of nautical terms yields the converging realization that “a ship has a body, / this is the sway”. Importantly, this humanization of the ship is brought about because of the dictionary, which is itself a tool: a technical, near-mechanized approach to words.

Throughout this journey, it’s not immediately clear whether our four characters undergo any changes. But one development is certain: the vessels of word and ship become increasingly alike. Words, once thought of as vessels of meaning, are revealed to be in equal parts mechanical.

Perhaps the best example of this superimposition, and certainly some of the most memorable lines of the collection, rests in 23: “He dries his body and describes / a rudder’s mechanism / the way a surface breaks / the strength of a current thus imparting / the craft a controlled turning.” The brother mechanizes his own body in describing it; simultaneously, the naturalness of the current is contrasted with the contrived and “controlled” movement it generates. The brother embodies the composite “craft” that makes motion possible, giving this knowledge—“imparting” it—to our narrator.

With little narrative clarity to hold onto, the reader finds themselves clinging to the collection’s title as material guidance. But Medin plays with the notion of an excursion, too.

The hotel setting, which at first seems to be a tangible destination for a journey, is revealed gradually to be unnavigable, unable to be located at all. The “INT.” of their titles refers to their interior location, yet also gestures towards an intimacy that secludes them from our knowledge. In “INT. DAWN” near the collection’s end, the hotel itself finally dissipates: “The hotel room / could be what a hotel room is expected / to be, a background / for those film frames: / no image, no image, no image,”. 

Still, the collection continuously leaves us wondering where the boat departs from and heads to. As readers, we never become privy to its directionality—we only witness the motion as it occurs. 

Medin makes us aware of the impossibility of capturing destination in writing. At one point, the boat accelerates; its sails are hoisted. “it’s not said, it happens”, she writes, plaintively. “the scene becomes the final one / there’s no The End / what follows is a black screen”. Words can’t signal the end, but rather, the black screen —the very lack of words.

The speaker must spell this lesson “letter by letter” for us: “an excursion implies displacement / … you move forward / within certain limits”. Motion is defined by its bounds; what we can understand and what we can capture is preconditioned with limits.

If a piece of writing is an excursion, as she suggests when she writes “I’ve traversed the distance / from a word to a body,” then Medin has shown us the limits of the word. In the end, it is simply a small piece of machinery, just like the ship.

Similarly, the individual poem acknowledges these limits: as readers encounter the assertion “you move forward / within certain limits,” the line break itself is a form of limitation that hinders movement. 

Medina’s work is not an easy one. Deeply concerned with interiority, it speaks to itself, folds into itself. It presents characters that are distinctly uncharacteristic; the hotel inhabitants, identified as “she” and “he,” are especially formless, only existing against a backdrop of vague danger. It does not do the work of making itself understood for you. Instead, it provides passages of words to be mapped onto physical passage. It asks: what is the difference between the two?

Excursion is available at Oversound Press

Claire Shang is a freshman at Columbia University, where she is an editor with The Columbia Review. She is a writer of poetry and creative nonfiction, and a reader of mostly everything. Her work has appeared in or been recognized by Peach MagNoDear Magazine, and Smith College.

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