This month, in memory of our contributor Professor Jed Deppman who founded the Oberlin College Translation Symposium, instituted a literary translation minor, and taught courses in literary translation and comparative literature, we are featuring three reviews by Oberlin College Comparative Literature graduates and students, taught and trained by Professor Deppman and other Oberlin College faculty. Professor Deppman passed away on June 22, 2019.
The first review is by Oberlin College alum, the writer and translator Cal Paule.
By Cal Paule
Destruction of the Lover is a familiar love story told in two sections, “Construction…” and “Destruction…,” the plot points of which are contained in these titles. There is nothing startling about the romance arc in Luis Panini’s original text in Spanish, and nothing especially experimental about Lawrence Schimel’s translation. However, both the original text and the translation share a strength in the language and imagery that permeates these poems about love, disillusion, intimacy, and memory. The book is starkly erotic, particularly in the first section, describing the initial stages of a relationship between the speaker and another man. It becomes clear over the course of the text that this man does not return the speaker’s feelings, and that the sex is devoid of anything but physicality to him. And furthermore, that their sexualities must remain a secret outside of the motel rooms in which the relationship is conducted. This juxtaposition of expectations in their relationship is echoed formally throughout the text, in the clinical tone belying a richness of emotional texture and complexity throughout. With each reading, this book gave more and more of itself to me, not in a sense of hiding or selfishness, but more as a tightly and precisely folded something unfolding to reveal itself, slowly and with care.
The texture I’m describing is shown in the first section: “One body atop another body. That’s how our story began, that accident. There was no need to pronounce our desire. It took us a moment to understand that language was a sickness of the throat” (19). There’s no movement in this snippet, in “one body atop another body.” A kind of frozenness seizes much of the language in this book, though the subject is passion, desire, even violence. There’s an oblique gesture to it in “language” as a “sickness of the throat,” but “blow[s],” “pulmonary distress,” (15), “scrapes” (21), “scratches” (29), “damage” (31), “biting,” “crushing” (39), “barricading” (45), “devouring” (55), “decapitation” (57), and “danger” (61), all dwell in the imagery. Whether metaphorical or frightening in literality, these violences illuminate the harshly analytical tone of the first section of this book with feeling, undiluted and powerful. It’s a startlingly beautiful effect. Love here, or at least sex, is fraught with violences, which are at turns erotic, emotional, societal, physical, and sometimes all of the above.
The societal violence experienced by the speaker and his lover, another man, are referred to here:
If we are discrete, if we act casual, we can distance ourselves from the crowd and caress one another behind some blind wall. Although a mound of sand, or the thick trunk of a tree, might also shelter us far from the mercurial light. Nobody will know. The echo of your words becomes cycles. Now I hear it as the pacing to and fro of a beast in captivity. Now it sounds like marbles that bounce inside the skull. (25)
Their passion must stay “discrete,” “casual,” “blind,” so “nobody will know.” There can be no recognition or admission of what is happening, even between them in public. The speaker describes it here as a “captivity,” and there is further a trace of madness in the following line, “marbles that bounce inside the skull.” Panini makes a wide and sweeping gesture to the public eye, “mercurial light,” temperamental, unpredictable, volatile in its graces and damnations. The risky question of ‘outness’ is here understood to be too risky for this relationship, and maddening in its confinement.
Even in private, away from that “mercurial light,” the relationship between the speaker and his lover is a carefully constructed object, subject to all the specifications of masculinity, patriarchy, and heteronormativity. Schimel translates,
I’ve spent sleepless nights memorizing an anatomical treatise whose contents include a study of poses to conceal certain parts of the body so you don’t feel uncomfortable when looking at me. […] This is how I’ve managed to conceive the bodily adjustments that calm you down.[…] All to facilitate your orgasm. Metamorphosis as lure. Chiaroscuros. Jockstraps. Bait. Standing before you I offer a silhouette of adolescent muscles, hoping to not exacerbate the indecision your hormones tend to resort to. You neither create nor destroy me, you only transform me. (35)
This particular poem is loaded with transformations, with concealments and performances required by everything outside the hotel room, even when the door is firmly closed. The lover feels “uncomfortable” with the speaker’s body as it is, likely referencing internalized homophobia, or else any other number of preconceived notions of what a body is supposed to be in bed. This poem also shows the roles being played in this relationship—the speaker as the person “facilitating…orgasm” and the lover as the person experiencing it. It’s almost as if all of it is happening on a stage, there is much theatricality to “metamorphosis,” “chiaroscuros,” the costuming in “Jockstraps. Bait,” the spotlight on “a silhouette of adolescent muscles.” These are again familiar roles, and one can potentially recognize gender and age dynamics in this poem as well. This book adds to the conversation around sexuality and gender and how they relate to power in any relationship, not just explicitly gay or otherwise queer ones. How does our power relate to our desires? What parts of our lives are theatrics, and what does it mean to heighten life in bed? How murky is our emotional landscape? What purpose does the murkiness serve? Every poem is filled with this complexity of images and emotion, asking more questions than it answers.
With that richness in mind, I examine this translation with a lot of sympathy for Lawrence Schimel—this tone, so carefully crafted in Spanish to be both clinical and casual, dull and moving, is a monster of a thing to put through the dictionary. And further, Panini is so smart about it (or I’m reading into it—either way, this is a cool thing): on page 58, just before the end of the first section, he writes, “No salgas tan deprisa a esa noche oscura.” Schimel gives us “Don’t depart in such a hurry into the dark night,” in which you can even almost see the oblique reference to Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night,” but in the Spanish it’s almost crystal clear. The Thomas reference brings a different set of feelings and factors to bear on relationships between two men; a son addresses his father in that poem, which is also deeply concerned with power, and just as rife with violence and love. It was an important and productive reference in my reading, and I hope others are able to make it as well.
There are also many examples of shrewd and calculated translating in this book that accomplish some very skilled fluidity in the target language. English tends to expand clauses with extra articles and specifiers that are already worked into other words in Spanish, although occasionally it’s the opposite. Schimel is very clearly aware of this as a problem, and much of the translation is carefully tightened where possible to maintain the controlled tone throughout. Panini’s “Un clon de mármol encima de un pedestal” becomes “A clone made of marble atop a pedestal,” rather than “clone of marble” or “marble on top of a pedestal” (80-81). Schimel expands where necessary and condenses where possible to compensate, and formalizes or informalizes the language appropriately as well. It’s a one word difference on both ends of the sentence, but it’s simple decisions in clauses like these all throughout the book that add up to replicate the rhythm and tone of the poems in Spanish. Perhaps this is splitting hairs, but when you can split hairs, it usually means that the text and translation are rich enough to allow it. I thoroughly appreciate texts that can stand up to a good hair-splitting, as this one does. The translation does a thorough job overall with the tone, rhythm, and sound of the original, preserving the humor and feeling evident in all the originals without drastically sacrificing meaning or image along the way.
The memory of love gone awry is very hard to write about with anything but nostalgia. I have the utmost respect for the control Panini demonstrates in this throughout all but the last few poems of this book, where the carefully crafted tone disintegrates. He writes, “I shall burn our bed tonight. Let no trace of us remain. You and I will always retain an alphabet tattooed in scarlet ink beneath our clothes” (95). Up until this very end, my attention is undivided, but the syrup in this last poem comes from a place outside of the scope of the rest of the book. In this way, it almost doesn’t detract from the rest of it for me – I simply omit it in my memory and further reading. What I will remember this book for is far more important: the laser-cut precision of language detailing the memory of love, complicated and difficult, love under the bright distorting lights of the outside world, which creeps through the shades even when they are drawn tightly shut.
Panini, Luis. Destruction of the Lover. Translated by Lawrence Schimel. Pleiades Press, 2019.