By Juan Toledo

Regrettably the current global pandemic has produced another kind of pandemic: the one of books about Covid and its effects on the republic of letters. With Isabel del Rio’s Dolorem Ipsum we have made an exception and here we tell you why you should make it too and enjoy reading it

Sometimes there are books we approach with certain trepidation. The reasons for such vacillations can be listed as: one, it is a classic book you are supposed to read but you lack the aesthetic inclination or state of mind to actually do it; two, it is the work of one of your favourite authors but you have already been disappointed by his/her most recent books; three, it is the work of a good friend, a person you like, admire and whose company you enjoy but you don’t want to spoil that warm feeling by finding out you like him/her more as a person than as a writer; and finally four, you are not interested at all in the genre, the theme or the book’s storyline.   

In the case of Dolorem Ipsum, by Isabel del Rio, my initial hesitation was the product of the last of those four reasons. This is because the literary price we are already paying, and will continue to pay in years to come, is the unprecedented pandemic of countless books and narratives on the crown-like virus and its “effect” on men and women of letters. A misconceived and highly contagious literary genre in response to the viral one. Most of those books are full of bathos with nothing new to say. If we add to that the self conceited and condescending idea that the “suffering” of artists and writers is more meaningful than the one of people who do not write or express themselves artistically, we then have the problem of how to record in a meaningful and authentic way what is presently happening to all of us. So, what is the best medium or format to do so? 

The most plausible answer to that question is poetry. Frank Raymond Leavis, a prominent literary English critic of the first part of the last century and nowadays a slightly forgotten figure, once said «literature should be closely related to the criticisms of life» to what he added “poetry can communicate the actual quality of experience with a subtlety and precision unapproachable by any other means» And it is precisely the poetic medium with its extended ambiguities and small certainties what saves this book from that prosaic fate even if it is subtitled Poetry in a time of pain and it is “a homage to the victims of the 2020 pandemic”.

del Rio’s poems are full of an eclecticness and emotional texture that goes beyond a mere preoccupation with Covid. In fact it is notable that the “C” word is never mentioned in its pages and I suspect it is because the actual «dolorem ipsum» of this book has more to do with the uneasiness of carrying on living than with the paralysing fear of disease and death. del Rio appears to remind us that the former has always been much more difficult, -and as far as we know more interesting too- than the latter. Would you prefer death after life, or life after death? She asks us with a metaphysical and dialectical cheekiness towards the end of the book.

In total, there are about sixty poems arranged in eleven different sections which already indicates the thematic scope of this collection. A fact demonstrated by sectional headers such as: On Destiny, Getting Personal, Mind Games, The Problem with Language, Mayhem and Flatliners. All poems, without exception, are titled and that in its own way implies a thematic order, a cataloguing of musings and preoccupations determined not only by the pandemic -and the author’s intelligent response to it- but what has preceded it and, more importantly, also what is now succeeding it. These ideas and thoughts are mostly expressed in a fluid and narrative manner which some might refer to as “intellectual poetry”. Thus, it is not gratuitous that the penultimate section is called Not So Much Poems as Stories. Similarly, a minor but -for me- significant detail is that all poems titles are written in lowercase and that the use of capital letters throughout the book is ignored. Some might say that it is a mere stylistic decision, which of course it is, but nonetheless it seems to highlight a grade of scepticism in her writing. In poetry, how it appears on the page always matters. But where this book comes into its own is in its use of that scepticism, and even certain reticence, in tandem with a poignant humour.

Take for instance trust; at the moment a sort of hard currency that most governments, the scientific community and many media outlets are having problems getting hold of. Trust, or its verbal action, is mentioned in the poem living a lie, where we read: so, who or what can you trust nowadays; not the colours / of the rainbow, not the powers of storm Celia, not the value / of gold, not the price of strawberries.  And if the price of strawberries has never registered as one of your life concerns, consider this mischievous piece of advice from starting the day which make us imagine an existentialist conversation with Albert Camus and laughing, hopefully, with him and not at him: when you go out of bed in the morning / (whether by skirmishing, leaping into the air or throwing / yourself on the floor) / you have to decide there and then, / whether you want to live / or to die. 

Any sceptical stance contains the innate danger of turning itself into something much less appealing: cynicism. The sceptic does not disbelieve completely as the cynic does. The cynic is often incapable of recognising truths or versions of it because cynics tend to think in absolutes. Would you recognise the truth after all these years / if you saw it close up / would you know what to do with it?  asks del Rio in the truth is nothing but. The poem concludes with an affirmation reminiscent of the recently deceased Argentinian poet and critic Tamara Kamenszain about how reality always exceeds literature’s capacity to represent it:  truth may be stranger than fiction, but none of your stories / can be said to be false. And in the poem sufi truth appears once again but in this case subordinated of its utilitarian value: it has now been brought to our attention / that before saying a single thing / you must no longer ask / whether it is kind or necessary or true but / whether there is / any point / at all in / saying it.

It is also important to highlight the tone in which these poems are written. And tone in literary terms always means intentionality. The ironic and gentle humour serves as an emphasis of that sceptical, even agnostic stance: you are dead ahead / but it can do no harm to rebel against providence, if / there is one; / mayday, mayday. But this ironic posture can also turn into a bitter social commentary of the situation we are all in. The three-line poem compassion reads: after all this time / we finally learn the meaning of the word / by paying a heavy price. 

What makes these poems interesting and relevant is that at its core Dolorem Ipsum presents us with many witty societal criticisms wrapped in ironic statements full of mordant feelings. We find comments of people’s ecological indifference as a product of the existential frustration we feel because of our own mortality: why is it that those of us still here / cannot love this Earth so much more and / in anticipation begin to miss what we will leave behind, / a claim / on perpetuity is / this long-life discontent. We see how with this pandemic that old, and often vacuous, assertion that “we are all in it” for once has a real immediacy: we are no saviours / but we have been called / to the rescue / just the same thus alluding to our collective responsibility in controlling the virus. In as experiences go, the whole poem is an incriminatory statement about us in the privileged West (in this case the author’s own italics).

There is a whole section about identity called Belonging in which the author declares: I am left standing there / bracing the elements, by now / probably / more than four  This affirmation is revealing if we consider that del Rio is a true anglo-hispanic writer, very much at home in both languages. So, what are those extra elements she has to brace against?  Discrimination and indifference? I asked because the idea of belonging reappears later on in the poem your name listed not under Belonging but under Mayhem evidencing, as mentioned, her preoccupations beyond Covid. It reads like a litanies of facts from somebody’s Instagram or Facebook account. so, what name would you have chosen for yourself instead of /  the one you were / assigned at birth…what parents, siblings, what favourite books, films, music…preferences and orientation, deviances; shape / of nose, length of hair…attitude, temperament, / viewpoints concluding with a hilarious but somewhat irate command: Speak up, for I cannot hear you.   

As a whole, Dolorem Ipsum is more than the sum of its parts. And in more ways than one, it is a warning rather than a mere indictment. A warning against the indifference most people feel when confronted by a whole plethora of issues, starting with the ecological suicide we are embarked upon -Covid is one of its byproducts- together with gender parity, concepts of identity, language, religion, death, the ubiquitous presence of social media and some others.  Isabel del Rio in her ironic and elegant writing is urging us not to be mere passengers who, like in her poem driving by, exists just to …watch things / from your car window, fleetingly leaving all behind; / no stopping, no reverse gear, no directions, no interest

Isabel del Rio is a British-Spanish poet, writer and linguist. Born in Madrid, she has spent most of her life in London. She has published fiction and poetry in both English and Spanish. Her books include La duda, shortlisted for two literary awards in Spain, and the bilingual Zero Negative -Cero negativo. She is co-founder of Friends of Alice Publishing. Dolorem Ipsum was published in 2020 and the book includes several photographs by the author and can be purchased here. She has just published her memoir A Woman Alone in English with sections in Spanish