USEREVIEW 010: Engaging the Emporium

Sanchari Sur/ December 18, 2020/ Book Review

The word emporium conventionally refers not only to a commercial centre, but also to the centre of the brain where nerves and sensations meet. These disparate connotations coalesce and transform in Sanchari Sur’s traditional review of Aditi Machado’s sophomore book of poetry Emporium (Nightboat Books, 2020). Sur shows us how Machado envisions the poet as a radical barterer, plying her trade in the immaterial and invaluable realm of words and meaning.

ISBN 978-1-64362-029-9 | 112 pp | $16.95 USD


Aditi Machado’s Emporium is a collection of movement, tracking the speaker’s motion through playful and shifting language. There is enough play here to show that it is artful and not without purpose. The overarching narrative of the merchant is deceptive and can throw off the reader, for the tracking of the merchant is not easy.  The merchant here is not just a barterer or buyer of goods, because nothing in this collection is what it seems, and therein lies the beauty of Machado’s playful trickery. A subtle shift in word or movement can change context: “What’s the matter, I ask / as in what’s a matter.” By recontextualizing “matter,” Machado plays with our understanding of the crux of our problems. What we understand “the matter” to be, becomes only one of many in her “a matter.” But Machado could also be asking what “matter” is altogether, and interrogating the ways in which we glean meaning from words, suggesting that perhaps our way of knowing may only be one way.

Who is the merchant, then, and what do we know of her? I contend that the merchant here is a “she,” a woman. And by tracking a female merchant, Machado creates counter-narratives and by extension, counter-archives. She is interested in the “archive wandering hysterically like a womb.” The “womb” and “hysteric[s]” are both representative of the woman, but not any woman — a madwoman, a “hysterical” woman. By deliberately accessing the movement and speech, as well as the mental capacities of a madwoman (a genius or intellectual), Machado is creating a counter-archive of ideas. There is nothing facile about this madness. Think of Bertha Mason — not the version locked in the attic of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), but the one in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). In the same way that Rhys rewrote Bertha’s narrative, so too does Machado seek to disrupt hegemonic ideas of institutions through the movement and speech of the madwoman merchant.

Machado is interested in in-between spaces, in being “asynchronous,” in being outside of scansion. In these spaces, she contends, lie the possibilities of counter-archives and counter-narratives; a “new history.” Narrative, for Machado, is facile by itself, just like the narrative of the merchant on the silk route, or the narrative of the nation. For “nation” too lies between quotation marks for Machado, and the “narrative [of the nation] grow[s] out the landscape constrainedly.” By seeking narratives that lie within the in-between spaces, Machado’s speaker attempts to break out of these constraints. And by doing so, Machado “move[s] futures/into fuchsias.”

Apart from the nation, religion is another narrative Machado wants to disrupt. The speaker swings between the two points of the faithful “[a]gainst/the church on the hill” and the “atheis[t].” While the speaker doesn’t “believe in lapsing [from being a believer]… [her position is] like that.” This in-between position is where the speaker finds herself “shifting out/of one desire/into another/asynchronous.” This asynchronous space is the space outside of “myth,” for like the myth of the nation, the speaker also rejects the myth of religion.

The in-between spaces that Machado’s speaker inhabits are filled with “sublime doubt.” The intent is “to defamiliarize,” whether through uses of more than one language, or through play with the sounds of words. For Machado, in a turn of a few spaces, the “body” becomes “bawdy”  or “a spasm/a psalm”, or desire becomes ras (“syrup”) in Hindi and Kannada, then “rust”. These are the many “Marquezian butterflies” that litter the work, hinting at the “amazing becomings.” It is up to the reader to chance upon them and engage with them, in order to unearth the wondrous counter-archives of Machado’s mind and sensibilities.

If the merchant is interested in mining in-between spaces, then it bears investigating what Machado’s “emporium” stands for. What is the speaker buying or selling, or is there any barter at all? If the intent is to disrupt the known, the hegemonic, then perhaps, the marketplace too has been reconstructed into something else. Machado brings into question the meaning of valuable versus invaluable. What Machado’s merchant is bartering for is not material, but that which goes beyond materiality. By invoking the nature of materiality, and material desires, Machado’s speaker is seeking to sell “interior[ity].” It is the mind of the speaker that we access in these pages, the mind that engages with meaning. What we see is an exchange or translation of ideas and sounds. When the sound skips, the meaning changes, and when the meaning skips, then it’s excess. By bartering meaning through translation of language (English, Hindi, French and Kannada) and sound, Machado is critiquing capitalism and the excess of the capitalistic drive. The speaker asks: “As if I could simply / stay here with / the provocations // & if I did / what would I / sell?”  For the speaker, provocations are plenty, whether they be in the material we can touch like velvet or silk, or excesses of desire; the ability to refrain from engaging in such barter of known marketplaces is the crux of this collection. Halfway through, the merchant asks what do we have if we could strip ourselves away from our possessions; who are we without them? Whatever the poet is without her material possessions is what the collection offers on barter.

There is no obvious continuity in the collection, but that is the intention of the poet, to have nothing seem continuous, to have multiple breaks like “caesura.” At one point we encounter pastiche images that hold their own meaning, as well as an excerpted medical psychoanalytic report of a female patient “M.” These are interruptions in the narrative of the merchant and point to the counter-nature of the counter-narrative(s) already being written by the poet. Just like the structure of the book confounds, the collection too has no conclusion. Machado refuses the impositions or conventions of how we understand narratives. As the speaker suggests, “the sequencing gets shook up / the conclusion wishes to assert itself but is / concealed.” The shaking up is the only intent. The intention then is not to end in the way we understand endings, but to keep it open-ended, so that we may grapple with what an ending is. And in this grappling, Machado and her madwoman merchant want to “watch [our] interior grow.” What could be more intellectually invigorating than this?

Sanchari Sur is a PhD candidate in English at Wilfrid Laurier University. Their writing can be found in JoylandAl Jazeera, Room, EVENT, PRISM internationalQuill & Quire and elsewhere. They co-edited Watch Your Head (Coach House Books, 2020), and are included in In /Appropriate: Interviews with Canadian Authors on the Writing of Difference (Gordon Hill Press, 2020, ed. Kim Davids Mandar). They are a recipient of a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellowship in fiction, a 2019 Banff residency (with Electric Literature) and Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2020 Critics’ Desk Award for a Feature Review. More:

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