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I love essay collections and I hate essay collections in equal measure, especially when they’re as good as Isabel Zapata’s Alberca vacía/ Empty Pool. Mostly, this is because a good essay makes me feel – in that nebulous way feel is often used when you can’t quite put into words exactly what you feel – but also because a good essay can also make me so specifically and incredibly envious that I want to throw out all my own essay drafts and never write anything again. (Hello, old essays! I’ll get round to finishing you one day!)
Anyway, what I’m getting at is that Zapata’s essays made me feel in both of these ways, as I greedily gobbled up the entire thing over the course of one afternoon a few weeks ago.
Published by the Monterrey-based indie editorial Argonáutica – which specialises in bilingual editions of work by Mexican authors, poets and essayists – Alberca vacía/ Empty Pool includes nine essays in the original Spanish by Zapata, plus an English-language translation by Robin Myers. (I read Robin Myer’s English translations of the essays, which make up the latter half of the 136-page book.)
The essays run the gamut in both style and substance, from the somewhat fragmented but otherwise conventional ‘My Mother Lives Here’ – a tight meditation on the death of Zapata’s mother and the objects she left behind – to the essay-in-ten-parts ‘On Birds’, which is perhaps the only one in the collection I didn’t love. (Or, more accurately, didn’t get, in the same way I don’t get a lot of Didion’s writing or that famous braided essay by Lidia Yuknavitch.)
More than one of Zapata’s essays hones in on a specific animal; others consider translation, photography, reading, writing; most include black-and-white photographs interspersed throughout. At first glance, it’s an eclectic collection, one made cohesive by a persistent undercurrent of loss, preservation and documentation. Or, memory.
And as I said, this is the kind of unbearable essay writing that makes me a little bit sick with envy, the kind of essay writing where you can feel the consideration that went into crafting each and every line. Take this quote from ‘My Mother Lives Here’ (‘Mi madre vive aquí’), the first essay in the collection and perhaps my favourite: “Reading the books my mother marked means talking with her, and conversation is a form of love. That’s how we vanquished death.”
And then there’s this one from ‘Against Photography’ (‘Contra la fotografía’), an essay which questions exactly who and what we preserve and why: “The dead’s presence in photography is a placebo against the anxiety of their absence.” Or this one, which strikes me right in the chest, from ‘Ways to Disappear’ (‘Maneras de Desaparecer’): “You have to be emptied before you can be filled.”
In short, Zapata’s essays (and Myer’s excellent translations) are concise, considered, insightful. And really bloody good.
About Isabel Zapata
Isabel Zapata (Mexico City, 1984) is a poet, essayist and co-founder of Ediciones Antílope.
Other Books by Isabel Zapata: Las noches son así (Broken English, 2018), Una ballena es un país (Almadía, 2019), In vitro (Almadía, 2021)