Jazmina Barrera (Author)
Christina MacSweeney (Translator)
Two Lines Press, 2020, 174 pages hc, $19.95, Kindle $8.99
Living in Manhattan, far away from Mexico City where she was born, Barrera finds herself isolated in an apartment where she is unable to see the sky. The cold winter and its weather patterns are bemusing "[I] am constantly finding new manifestations of winter that I don't know how to classify. I've discovered that it's less cold when it snows; sunny days are windy...I've discovered sleet, a miserable cold fluid…I find more and more ways to avoid going out unless it's absolutely necessary." Solitude is an unavoidable theme in On Lighthouses for obvious reasons; however it is Barrera's stark lyricism that draws us in.
Before she visited her first lighthouse Barrera had a dream about them. After visiting the Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Oregon and others, she writes "it was like falling in love; I wanted to know the lighthouse to its very core. She became an obsessive reader of books about lighthouses. She is fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson's father and grandfather, lighthouse lens maker and constructor respectively. She quotes Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Melville, and delves into the histories of lighthouse keepers, how they keep their logs without drama but with intense description. Without getting overly technical she also writes on the history of the lighthouse, how they emerged, and became under the auspices of the government: "there's a story that when Louis XIV's corsairs kidnapped the keeper of an English lighthouse, the king requested that he be returned to his duties: 'I am war with England, not with humanity'."
It isn't quite clear why Barrera is in pain. Is it simply the winter solitude or more: the pandemic, an illness, a bad break-up, or all of it? She writes "when I think of myself in relation to a lighthouse, I feel brand new and so tiny that I almost vanish. What I feel for lighthouses is the complete opposite of passion, or at least it's a passion for anesthesia...that's why I find lighthouses so attractive: they combine that distain, that misanthropy, with the task of guiding, helping, rescuing others." She writes so well that one will find oneself not bothered by the origins of her sadness, but immersed in it. While reading On Lighthouses we perhaps become her lone beacon.
On Lighthouses is written with an almost fragmented structure. Although each chapter is based on a particular lighthouse, which enables a foundation, she interjects personal musings, experiences with other lighthouse aficionados, and some people who are oblivious. One chapter includes an interesting description of the bowery bird, the male of which builds huge nests and collects colorful trinkets in order to woo a female. At first I found myself wondering what has this to do with lighthouses. Barrera deftly brings the topic around. Indeed, many lighthouses are now safe from destruction due to the plethora of bird watchers. Birds have nested in empty lighthouses for years.
Barrera eventually gives up her "collection" of lighthouses and begins a log of her own. She does not like the term diary, it is far too romantic. Her log is a fascinating end to the book as well as more insight into why her love for lighthouses began. Beautifully written and translated, I will be looking forward to Jazmina Barrera's next project.