By Cal Paule
It’s funny, but I forgot where I left my copy of this book. It’s lost for now, but luckily I have a pdf version. If, though, it were the memory of the exact color of my mother’s hair, or the angles of a roofline above my hometown, I might not be as lucky. This is a book deeply concerned with nostalgia and its relation to love and memory. It acts on the idea that attention to the details and memories of love is a kind of love; that to forget is like leaving or losing all over again. The weight of feeling in these poems is in the stacking and sequencing of details. The book is a selection from the original, a longer collection by Nelson Simón called A la sombra de los muchachos en flor. Lawrence Schimel’s translation is titled Itinerario del olvido, or Itinerary of Forgetting. “Olvido” is a very particular word, and I think “forgetting” captures its essence well, even if it also has the connotations of “obscurity” and “oblivion.” These contexts inform Schimel’s translation too, and it is the dynamic between the great loss of presence and the powerful attention of memory that fuels the nostalgia permeating the book.
The sixteen poems included in Itinerary of Forgetting form a series of numbered, entwined texts which read much more like one whole than individual pieces. The coherence is one of the aspects of this book I like best––how all of the parts are necessary for the whole, and the whole is an arc tracing the journey from “an island to which I am forever tied” to “cold, luminous cities that, intermittently, will offer me an embrace with the silent friendliness of a wet nurse” (3,5). In language both sentimental and funny, Schimel translates all the accompanying grief to the great loss of lover, mother, and Havana, left behind for a shadowy future in the US. He works to recreate that last day––last touches and walks, embraces from friends, thoughts and feelings from the moments before leaving:
Behind you the serious buildings
accumulate, the remains of an ancient splendor
you didn’t know and, half-mumbling,
like someone tossing a prayer up to God,
you feel their musical names escaping from you;
and your voice shudders, collapses, trembles, cracks
with each gust of nostalgia: The Hotel Vueltabajo,
the ruins of La India and the Hotel Comercio,
the Globo, the Milanés, and at the end, like a chimera
of grey stone or the ostentatious jewel inherited
from our grandparents, you see arising
toward the powerful light of the island’s sky,
the spires, plinths, and fine stone lacework
of frogs and seahorses of the Palacio de Guasch
crowning the corner.
you tell your lover that you want to stop,
to reconstruct (like a house of cards)
all of history, to remain for a few minutes
before a mute building
which years before was called La Ópera, and to hear
time passing (13)
The careful “reconstruction” of this moment is tenuous and fragile. It is that last day, and on a walk with his lover, the speaker stops and is overwhelmed by all the detail of the “ancient splendor” of that part of the city. It’s a thorough image, lush, but the speaker describes this act of reconstructing “like a house of cards.” I find this passage particularly fascinating because it is doubly reconstructed, a memory of remembering, which to me reads almost like a math equation. A series is a mathematical string of numbers which change by being added on to in set ways as the series progresses. This passage is an example of the set ways that memory changes over time. Each instance of remembering is a “reconstruction,” and is added onto every time. It is its own form of loss, to lose the original remembrance of a thing, like losing it all over again, it’s fragile, that “house of cards.”
The nostalgia that permeates these lines is anything but simple. I find Simón’s writing here to be an iterative and tightly executed examination of nostalgia, memory, loss, and love. To heighten the metaphor even more, the text is translated into English, yet another “reconstruction” of the memory which must necessarily change its substance. I can’t help but wonder if this was a factor in Schimel’s choosing this book to translate, as I find it a compelling theme throughout.
Many of the poems in Itinerary of Forgetting are long and sprawling, illustrating the attentive love the speaker has for Havana and his community there. The heart of this book, for me, is in the middle of it, in a very short poem given here in its entirety. This too, is a memory from an earlier moment in Havana, but it has the force and clarity of the present:
This is your dream, he said as if extending
a soft carpet before my feet.
This is your dream,
and his voice, red as the curtains of an opera house,
has opened before me a new space,
an unimagined site, a hallway of fear
down which I advance alone,
followed only by the hound of my shadow,
now thin and silent—
intangible creature that no one sees pass by
beneath the airport’s weak light. (31)
This is a tonal shift from the meditations on nostalgia in the previous poems, and focuses my reading and attention into a single moment that changed everything for the speaker. The speech act, “This is your dream, he said,” encounters something the speaker was completely unaware of, and makes him aware of it. It is an act of recognition, of identification, and completely changes the course of his life, ending here “beneath the airport’s weak light.” It opens up an “unimagined site, a hallway of fear” when the speaker’s lover identifies his “dream,” an empty opera house or theater, rich and beautiful when full of people but frightening in this lonely context. The character of this fear is the self, the “hound of my own shadow,” which is unseen by others on the journey to the US, but which the speaker here is haunted by.
The language in this poem blows me away in its simplicity and compression. The image is compelling and elegantly constructed, and it helps to characterize the relationship with the lover in so few words. It’s like he’s saying, ‘of course you should go, you want to, and I love you, and so I think you should go and be happy and be without regrets.’ That’s a difficult and painful moment, on both sides, and it’s completely familiar even though the context is very different from my own. Lawrence Schimel does an excellent job of reinforcing precisely this throughout the book.
In the next poem, another short and poignant piece, the speaker describes the bond that forms between his mother and his lover for the first time in his absence. The word choices are many, in part because English offers many synonyms, and in part because much of the language used by Simón is simple: “cuerda,” “se unen,” “hueco,” “lazo” (36). I find it delightful that some of the most emotionally specific and resonant poems in this book arise from language with little surface-level specificity. Rather, it is the way the signifiers are strung together that indicates a specific tone or feeling over another. Schimel translates these words respectively as “cord,” “come together,” “gap,” “knot” (37). In context, these are signifiers of love. It’s a serious choice to make, as a translator, to so definitely set the tone of a poem in one realm or another, a risk. Schimel’s translation captures what I feel to be a similar purpose to that of the Spanish which implies a joining, a full circle, a closure over shared emptiness between the speaker’s mother and lover.
Although this book is an excerpt from a larger work, I’m continually impressed by its ability to stand alone. It’s a testament to the cohesiveness of Simón’s writing that it is able to, and to the translation for retaining that coherence in English. I wonder, though, what the motivation for translating an excerpt was for Schimel, or if that was the publisher’s choice. Whatever the case, I’d love to see the rest of the text translated, and experience the book as a whole. Itinerary of Forgetting ends at the journey discussed throughout:
I travel the platforms of oblivion
while I feel life closing behind me
like the dark mouth of a tunnel
in which you are the only point of light. (55)
There’s an implication of memory’s narrowing, of the past “closing behind” him, where his lover is “the only point of light.” This image, and its refusal to turn towards (not yet! not yet!) the speaker’s experience in the US, is the final polish on the tightly focused lens of this book. I’m not often a fan of nostalgia in poems, as I think it’s a difficult mode to execute. However, the level of analysis which accompanies these dense and complex images of the past holds my attention. They ask me to reconsider the nuances inherent in memory and the translated text alike. They also ring completely genuine, poignant, painful, and quietly funny. This book succeeds where others fail because it does not linger on its inability to fully know or pin down memory and the past, but recognizes it. It embraces the expansive unknowns, the gaps, the oblivion, the forgetting, inherent in being a person who remembers things, but not everything; it holds them, examining each one with care.
Simón, Nelson. Itinerario del olvido, Itinerary of Forgetting. Translated by Lawrence Schimel, Skull + Wind Press, 2020.
Cal Paule is a writer, translator, and teacher from St. Paul, Minnesota. They received their Bachelor’s Degree in Comparative Literature and Creative Writing from Oberlin College.