In Review: Repetition Nineteen by Mónica de la Torre

Mónica de la Torre’s marvelous work of art and language, Repetition Nineteen, weaves its way into the world this month to make our lives a little brighter. A vivid and thoughtful bilingual book, this work inspires readers to consider the misunderstandings and reliability of translating and code-switching, and gives us permission to fill in the gaps. There seems to be no way to read wrong, only differently. We continuously pass between Spanish and English phrases pushing forward through the pages; the first poem defines a translation as “moving every point of a shape the same distance in the same direction.”

De la Torre states in one poem that she prefers a supporting role to being a protagonist, which lends itself to the idea that translators help existing words to be understood more clearly, rather than conducting the main task of assigning meaning to the words themselves. It is up to us to interpret what is presented to us, and this freedom can send mixed messages or promote creativity. There are little language facts interspersed throughout these poems: placing an accent on the wrong syllable makes the Spanish word for “nonsense” become “shoot yourself,” and the word “stone” and “anniversary” in Korean are the same. We are warned to be careful with our words, but at the same time, to experiment with sometimes shocking and enlightening connotations.

The second section of the book begins with a long airport poem, in which there are several underlined words that can be read alone to form their own separate poem. This is then translated in several different ways, not only in traditional Spanish and English but also with “deliberate mistranslation,” emojis, and homophones. Each reinvention is a fascinating play on words put into practice, and de la Torre explains each mechanism of translation. Eventually in the retellings, afternoon becomes evening, coffee becomes whiskey, burning beds become bridges. Unspecified lengths of time become months, and speakers or objects of thought change. We are invited to compare the emotional impact of activity versus passivity – do we burn the bed ourselves, or do we simply let it burn?

The second section of the book begins with a long airport poem, in which there are several underlined words that can be read alone to form their own separate poem. This is then translated in several different ways, not only in traditional Spanish and English but also with “deliberate mistranslation,” emojis, and homophones. Each reinvention is a fascinating play on words put into practice, and de la Torre explains each mechanism of translation. Eventually in the retellings, afternoon becomes evening, coffee becomes whiskey, burning beds become bridges. Unspecified lengths of time become months, and speakers or objects of thought change. We are invited to compare the emotional impact of activity versus passivity – do we burn the bed ourselves, or do we simply let it burn?

the first poem defines a translation as “moving every point of a shape the same distance in the same direction.”

De la Torre is our translator and guide throughout her evolving work, and she cites Jorge Luis Borges to discuss the “fortunate difficulty” of poets and language creating a seemingly endless multitude of things from one single thing. She deconstructs and dismantles what she has once created in order to put it back together again, similarly but differently, analyzing each time what meaning is lost and found in this process. The third portion of the book gives us the “replay,” and we flip the book upside down to begin again from the end. Here de la Torre outlines the experience of a writing workshop with people who speak different languages, who mishear and misunderstand each other, and she lists the poetry prompts for us to follow.

“Repetition Nineteen” is an interactive book of opportunity and possibility, a spirited exploration of the cultural differences of the use of language. How much is too much or too little to speak or write, or is this unquantifiable and more dependent on what is said? Which parts of a work should we illuminate or eliminate to convey a certain effect? Language in any form is a versatile gift, and de la Torre presents it to us, wraps and unwraps it, each time with a new balance and resonance.

(Nightboat Books, Poetry, 2020)


BETHANY MARY has studied both health science and creative writing, and currently works as a medical scribe in Alabama. She was once the poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and read submissions for Spark: A Creative Anthology and Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry. She rants and shares photos of her ragdoll cats on Twitter @bethanylmary.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.