Precisely Ambiguous

the poetic metamorphosis of a U.S.-Mexico border story

Hannah Mumm, photos by Andrea Paulseth

IT’S A THIN LINE. José Felipe Alvergue’s new book of poetry and visual art – precis – challenges the way we see the borders between countries.
IT’S A THIN LINE. José Felipe Alvergue’s new book of poetry and visual art – precis – challenges the way we see the borders between countries.

The U.S.-Mexico border. An imagined line far from the mind and consciousness of the Chippewa Valley. The towns that surround it are transactional, commercial meccas exchanging anonymous bodies. The border is seen as transitive, never static; a pause in the migratory journey, never a home. Yet, for millions of border town residents, it is home. It is where their grandparents grew up, where they work and buy groceries, where their children go to school. To define the border so narrowly is dangerously reductionist, condensing individual cultures and persons into an indistinguishable conglomerate.

José Felipe Alvergue’s new book, precis, challenges pedestrian border narratives, exposing their myopic erasure of identity in a mélange of poetry, newspaper clippings, and visual art.

“The border is diverse beyond the popular concept of it,” says Alvergue, a professor of transnational literature at UW-Eau Claire. “It was important to perform a heterogeneity. Not all border narratives are about immigrants.”

“The border is diverse beyond the popular concept of it. It was important to perform a heterogeneity. Not all border narratives are about immigrants.” – Jose Alvergue, on the themes is new poetry book, precis

Indeed, precis is not about an immigrant, but rather a San Diego student. Set in the fictional border town of Sidro, California, the book meditates on her death by drunk driver while crossing the street. Found guilty of jaywalking, the lifeless victim was criminalized and the inebriated criminal redeemed. The woman was a real piece of Alvergue’s past, discovered in a terse article from a local newspaper and later identified as his student’s best friend.

Jarred by the cavalier maltreatment of her death and many others by the press, he sought to refute the common narratives of criminality and precarity that demonize border town citizens. In precis the tragedy is employed as a conduit to address systematic injustices.

Language and form are carefully combined to depict her story from every possible angle. The book performs an exploratory autopsy, Alvergue says. It reveals the details of her death and its impact piece by piece – in broken lyrics, extratextual newspaper excerpts, footnotes, and an epilogue essay. His varied approach turns the task of making meaning over to the reader, who must fit individual fragments and symbols into an interpretive whole.

precis orients the audience towards a different mode of self-awareness through form – a reflection of how we read as well as the experience of reading itself,” Alvergue notes.

Multiplicity resides within the seemingly simple one-word title, at once implying a critique of the literary precis and precarity, a question, a prayer. Impressionistic maps of fingerprints, arrows, and lines scatter the pages, always without a key. Readers may follow, but they will never reach a destination. These comprehensive roadblocks are intentional, intended to translate the limits of border town life from experience to language and unite the conceptual and experiential on the page.

For readers in the Chippewa Valley, the book performs an essential task. The narrative doesn’t simply inform of distant tragedy, but also exposes broader issues rooted in hometown soil. The face of Eau Claire is largely monoracial and Midwestern, but its body is far more complex. Despite a growing multicultural population, the presence of persons of color is muted in institutions and civic spaces.

“In the absence of nonfictive portrayals, I think people can be easily seduced by essentialist narratives,” Alvergue says. “So, a book about transgressive, transnational experiences is doubly important.”

Alvergue will read from and sign copies of precis at 7pm Friday, May 19, at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire.