I wanted to know the lighthouse to its very core. All lighthouses. Everything about lighthouses.
On Lighthouses, translated from Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (A Working Woman), never obscures its central subject. Part travelogue, part memoir, this collection of personal vignettes from young Mexican writer Jazmina Barrera, centers around her obsession with past and present lighthouses. It’s also about the act of collecting in and of itself – its inherent paradoxes and frustrations, especially when the collected object can never be fully possessed.
I spent a few weeks last summer checking and proofing the On Lighthouses manuscript in my capacity as editorial intern at publisher Two Lines Press, immersing myself in Barrera’s world of sea haze and faraway beaches. Every day, I found myself plugging in the coordinates of each of her favorite lighthouses in Google Maps street view and getting lost, just as she did, in the exploration of these isolated, sometimes forgotten places.
However, Barrera never bogs down her reader in the details. The attentive lyricism of her self-exploration pulls the reader steadily along the craggy coastlines of the world. Her language, reflected in MacSweeney’s crystal clear translation, is grounded and tranquil, at times contrasting with the turmoil of grief and isolation that Barrera feels throughout her travels: “It is perhaps true that I like lighthouses because I’m disoriented. I always feel as if I’m adrift, which is why the image of the sailor lost on the high seas is so deeply disturbing.”
Amazingly, Barrera manages to bring the lighthouse out of the realm of the maritime idyll to recast it as a symbol for human history and the passage of time. This is the fundamental success of her vignette-driven meditation: Barrera takes a mainstay of kitschy souvenir art and shines onto it a beacon of renewed curiosity and possibility.
Towards this end, we travel with her to lighthouses in the Asturias, the English Channel, Manhattan, and other faraway shores. Barrera finds lighthouses in the most uncanny and unlikely places, both real and imagined. Her fascination with these monolithic towers is bolstered by the stories of writers, painters, and scientists also enchanted by their mysterious, eerie allure and the isolated keepers who live within.
Over time, Barrera’s own pain and personal history come into view, cast in the lonely light of a lighthouse’s single beam. Her ongoing obsession, a strategy for translocating her own experience of exile, grows more understandable and evolves into escapism. She writes, “If I focus my attention on myself, the pain is magnified. On the other hand, when I think of myself in relation to a lighthouse, I feel brand new and so tiny that I almost vanish.” Later, she imagines herself “slowly transforming into a sealed tower.”
MacSweeney’s steady, comfortable translation amplifies and anchors the voice of the author. At times during my initial reading last summer, it was difficult to distinguish Barrera’s mind from my own. Each afternoon as I rode the bus back home across the Bay Bridge from Two Lines’ San Francisco offices, I couldn’t help but look far out into the Pacific, searching for lighthouses that I knew didn’t exist. Like Barrera writes, “In the mist, everything is a little unreal, a little remembered.”
This spring, Two Lines Press was set to celebrate the launch of On Lighthouses at Point Bonita lighthouse at the spectacular Marin Headlands in California. The pandemic derailed the May 17th event, which was rescheduled for a virtual launch, but I kept dreaming about the wonderfully orchestrated serendipity of gathering at one of California’s oldest and most scenic lighthouses to commemorate the birth of a book about the “loneliness and power” of such places. Now, like many other lighthouses dotting the coastlines of the world, the Point Bonita lighthouse is closed until further notice.
A fairly short book, On Lighthouses encourages readers to take time to linger in its wide open, hazy spaces. It is a multifaceted collection, vibrant in its constant search for more iterative complexity, meant to be read slowly and considerately.
Dasha Bulatova is a poet, editor, and translator born in Moscow and living in Oakland, California. She received her MFA from San Francisco State University in 2019. She is poetry and translation editor of Fourteen Hills. www.dashabulatova.online