by Samantha Morse
Given the omnipresence of the ocean (in setting, cuisine, and metaphor) it is unsurprising that Ceviche is permeated with motion in both language and theme. The work’s rhythmic sound quality contributes to a sweeping sensation of forward momentum: “she pushed off from a preening dock sweating with rabid glow swung a reckless net from a worthless craft.” Yet Murray is careful not to sweep his reader away, allowing her to stumble delightfully into playful phrases: “Ceviche best served / with sea anomaly and a full-bodied pinot.”
As much as the language pushes us forward, the nature of Ceviche’s protagonist and her infamous dish makes us linger and retreat. Who or what are they? “Love at the Jazz Wharf” would have us believing the subjects are familiar human beings experiencing the desperation of love on a wharf with the “Sea below full of fish basted with brine.” There is a clear distinction between the wharf and the sea that is below it. While the poem is ‘saturated’ with marine connections, the language is clearly figurative: “Love collapsing like a tent crushed into brine careless as wet / infinity.”
Yet, early on the nocturnal patrons of Graciella’s restaurant are characterized as “obese fish” with “[t]attoo of salt water on the tongue and sting of stingray at the jowls” who insult the over-worked waitress with “mercurial barbs.” In this case, it still seems as if the nocturnes are humans. However, they assume an aquatic identity based on their proximity to the sea, which highlights their grotesqueness and vulgarity. They are consumers of Graciella’s ceviche for “so many moons” but rather than showing gratitude or pleasure in her creation, they “punished” her with “careless talk” and “judged her soul’s scurvy tonic.” Their crude malignancy is in stark contrast to Graciella’s gentleness and beautiful desperation: “When she’d pressed her / worries to a harried harpsicord, her lampblack hair fell like nets of brine on a sea- / sheen floor.”
Later it becomes less clear that these marine representations are in fact metaphoric. In “Instances of Graciella Tabling Ceviche,” “Graciella displayed formidable acrobatics in delivering the fare. She was fortunate enough to have use / of all eight arms as she floated through the watery expanse.” The description of her eight arms does not in this case appear figurative. Graciella does not move like she has eight arms. It is a fact that she does.
Graciella’s status as human or octopus is continually called into question. The language returns to the realm of the figurative when she is called “the queen of the gurgling green” then resumes its literal tone in declaring “she was an octopus / among baboons.” Is Graciella just a woman imbued with aquatic, octopus qualities? Or is she indeed an octopus? And why does this matter?
This overwhelming question goes back to the theme of motion. As we move forward through the poems, we think we better understand who and what Graciella is. However, we are repeatedly forced to backtrack, as the text presents alternating representations of a woman and a sea creature.
I argue that it is worth lingering over the question what is Graciella? because there is a lot at stake in her being an octopus. If Graciella is a human described like an octopus, then the work innocuously applies an extended metaphor to convey a woman’s over-taxed state of being in a hectic and seedy restaurant on the wharf. But if Graciella is in fact an octopus then something far more disturbing is going on. She is preparing ceviche–a dish made of raw fish–and serving it to her fellow aquatic patrons. Now we’re talking about potential murder and definite cannibalism. Though, one could argue that Graciella’s metaphoric octopus state could be cannibalistic too. Perhaps being over-worked in an industry of hospitality–dare I say as a kind of culinary artist?–is a state of delicious and exhausting cannibalism.
In spite of these harrowing circumstances, the speaker’s tone is humorously blithe. In “Instances of Graciella Tabling Ceviche”:
There were several before the dish was discontinued. In the first a
neo-classically-trained pianist was ‘up there’ obliterating the fourth genre while
Graciella processed his order. For certain comfortable dead I shall not disclose
specifics. Sufficient I hope to say that revenge is not always best served cold.
The final line is doubly amusing for its play on the cliché and untroubled presentation of murder and cannibalism. This is one of many like, successive instances that can be found in the full poem included in the appendix, all of which present a dark irony that is wildly hilarious.
I would encourage the reader of Ceviche to not be duped by the tone. For, underneath the clever carefree humor is, I think, a presentation of perverse longing, remorse, and forgiveness that is worth examining. The fact “most interesting of all” is that “the customers demanded in no uncertain terms that ceviche be put back on the menu immediately” despite its past removal for causing a “gargling pallor” to fill the restaurant. Ceviche, a hodgepodge dish of raw seafood cured in sour citrus, is perhaps a symbol of the hodgepodged, raw, sour human condition. It is a combination of all of the things that are transgressive and make us sick… but we keep asking for it to be put on the damn menu anyway.
This point becomes more clear in looking at “Don’t Talk of Forgiveness,” which follows the customers’ petition for ceviche:
It was very strange but don’t take my word for it ask the night itself. How it
muttered its off color remarks. How it would respond to critique. I toss a certain
smidge of salt at the thought. But it’s true ain’t it. True as danger is loud is startling
is. We watched the paper crane at rest on the back of the circus vender man’s flat
hand outheld. Araby begets araby. And then comes the rains. Huffing luminously
with startled breath. Oh oh and in haste. Just don’t talk of forgiveness. May it dangle
strange and intent to the last what doesn’t fly. And may my merry weather friend
with artistry rustle the beads.
The speaker supplants his word with that of the night’s, who mutters “off color remarks.” “Off color” meaning both “indecent” in this case and “smutty” as in being of a wrong or inferior color; dark. This is the world as ceviche. The incoming rain at first seems to imply some sort of cleansing and rebirth. But the water is far from soothing. There is a certain agitation, slightly sexual and ecstatic with the rain’s luminous huffing and “startled breath.” It is not unpleasant, but this rapid and erratic state of agitation is not calming. And then comes the zinger: “Just don’t talk of forgiveness.” Yet while forgiveness remains ineffable, the speaker does not ask for it to be ignored. Rather, “May it dangle strange and intent to the last what doesn’t fly.” The dangling forgiveness becomes a point of fixation. It may be unspoken but it is undeniably crucial and lingering. Perhaps it is not worth talking of forgiveness in the ceviche world of disorder, crudeness, and acidity. Forgiveness is given after an injurious act is committed with the understanding that it will not be repeated. But in the ceviche world the act likely will be repeated, as we keep asking for the fucked up dish to be put on the menu. So let’s not talk of forgiveness. But let’s leave it dangling. In that way, we are actually forced to think about it more as we vacillate between forward motions of transgression and the backlash of remorse.
Perhaps this reading is entirely amiss. But regardless, I am confident in asserting that Ceviche’s euphonic, playful language and intriguing characters will linger in the reader’s mind long after its pages have been abandoned–an experience compelling presented in “Singer”:
When she was done I heard her in the hallway and then, farther, in the lot, and then,
farther, in the street, and then, farther on the highways and in the fields and in the
woods and even as far far away as my mind’s final rooms.
Appendix (reprinted by permission of the author)
Instances of Graciella Tabling Ceviche
There were of course several before the dish was discontinued. In the first a neoclassically-trained pianist was “up there” obliterating the fourth genre while Graciella processed the order. For certain comfortable dead I shall not disclose specifics. Sufficient I hope to say that revenge is not always best served cold. Another time the ceviche itself lacked comportment. Not a few of the guests were beset by its foul language and lack of visible remorse. Graciella was thrice interrupted in her perorations of apology by guests who were to quote a line cook “bat shit crazy.” I am loath to discuss the so-called “Meal of Lamentation.” Round after round was stirred up in the kitchen with haste. The sous-chef was recalcitrant when aggressively second-guessed about his “ceviche-infused tour.” Graciella displayed formidable acrobatics in delivering the fare. She was fortunate to have use of all eight arms as she floated through the watery expanse. A gargling pallor filled the rooms. But enough of this. There were many startling instances and I haven’t the time to enumerate. Perhaps most interesting of all in the final analysis is that customers demanded in no uncertain terms that ceviche be put back on the menu immediately.
Love at the Jazz Wharf
was love too much to bear. Love there was tiresome jazz plugged with brine. For once let me disable my motion sensor stern black the typography hum along the gray horizon. Sea below full of fish basted by brine. Love as much as I could stomach. Shiftless the advancing rain from the horizon undress me with your typography. Motion me to undress in turn slovenly the stern I pause across the sheets of gray horizon. Love collapsing like a tent crushed into brine careless as wet infinity.
Samantha Morse lives in L.A. where she is an English doctoral student at UCLA. She has published essays on the Victorian Gothic and Spanish feminism.