Reviewed by Adam Eaglin
“The stages of passion elude her”: Alicia Borinsky’s book Frivolous Women and Other Sinners (Frivolas y Pecadoras) consistently surprises with its verve and stamina, introducing an eclectic cast of characters from mothers to prostitutes and witches. Through her more than a dozen books of poetry and prose, Borinsky has sharpened a campy, seductive style that continues to great effect here. This time, the book’s series of women struggle with and revel in their own (and others’) lust and desire.
Frivolous Women unfolds like a showy stage performance, as playful as ever in both the Spanish and—to translator Cola Franzen’s credit—the English as well. With an indistinct setting, somewhere between fantasy and the Buenos Aires of Borinsky’s memory, the narrator leads the reader from person to person, story to story, often shifting focus abruptly. The book is somewhat diffuse, cycling quickly through narrators and content, but the montage encourages an accretion of emotion and insight across its 200-plus pages: a type of portrait-mosaic. Each poem adds an additional layer of perception, each woman, each character, has her own history and texture. Take, for instance, the early poem, “almost in a hurry,” which succinctly portrays a woman who hides a fatal diagnosis from those around her. Brevity heightens
a vague whiff of unfiltered cigarettes
she dresses in light beige
in summer she looks naked
was a distraction friends
didn’t know she was dying
Like the poem, one of the book’s strengths is the speed with which it moves—both within but especially between poems—to tell stories of women confronting desire and mortality: “doctor doctor / let’s enjoy my symptoms / exposed / outstretched / she entices him / let’s do this that and the other / before we die / above all the other / meanwhile her daughter waits” (“courtesan”). Though they move quickly, the poems invite and reward multiple readings.
Borinsky, who, in addition to her poetry and fiction, is a literary critic and professor, has an academic and personal interest in gender studies and Latin-American culture. In her book, she chooses to focus primarily on nameless women. In different bodies, this “she” becomes a many-faced amalgam, a woman that is both one person and many. The problems and emotions that beset Borinsky’s women—lust, desire, acceptance, transience—are both defined by, and independent of, their gender.
The book has seven sections, and near the middle, they grow more explicitly theatrical in subject. Not all of the book’s titled sections cohere to their respective theme, but most of the poems in “Puppet Theater” play with the idea of femininity in the form of stage performance and marionettes. A later section directs its attention at “The China Venus,” an artful erotic performer; it is one of the stronger series, perhaps because of its focus on one of the rare named characters in the book: “Her beauty is / neutral, tailor-made for the consumer” (“strip-tease”). Borinsky emphasizes that the performer loses control of her own image: “They will grow old before her / She will keep on smiling / Her nervous hands on her hips / Legs spread” (“the interminable strip-tease of the marionette”) and “she reappears in the dreams… / she disturbs the clerks and salesmen / evokes nostalgia in old women” (“strip-tease”).
It’s an added pleasure to have the poems in a bilingual edition. Cola Franzen, the translator who worked with Borinsky in close collaboration on these poems, produces a capable translation. The poet enjoys informal speech and turns of phrase, which can often be a challenge to capture in translation; although the colloquial English doesn’t always compare to the idiosyncrasies of the Spanish, as a whole, Franzen’s efforts are successful in capturing the vernacular of these breathless poems.
It’s rare to find a poet who is as unabashedly narrative and playful as Borinsky. Add to that her pleasing idiosyncrasies in language and subject, and Borinsky’s new collection is an unusual and worthwhile read.