“And time ah time that disjunctive / factor that almost runs out here / and therefore impedes us / from reaching the great why / and the superhow of this thing / almost holy / so tam tam almost holy / so almost almost / almost so holy,” states Argentine poet Susana Thénon (1935-1991) in a poem called “The Dissection” (14). Indeed, the search for the holy may be futile, but it is one that this major poet of the sixties generation in Argentina refuses to give up, no matter if “god help us or god don’t help us / or god half help us / or he makes us believe that he’ll help us / and later sends word he’s busy” (52). Blending linguistic precision, sharp sociopolitical critique and wry humor, Thénon’s poetry is a must-read, and translator Rebekah Smith should be commended for her passion and dedication in skillfully translating Ova Completa into English at a juncture when its message most needs to be heard.
The book’s title is a pun on the term Obra Completa, or “Complete Works.” “Ova” is not a word in Spanish, but in Latin it denotes “egg.” As Smith explains in her translator’s note, the Spanish word for egg – “huevo” – is a slang term for men’s testicles; to have “huevos llenos” in Argentine slang means “to have full balls,” which we’d most probably translate as “to be fed up.” But by using the Latin feminine form, according to Smith,“Thénon re-genders the expression with her ova, telling us that it is she, a woman, who is fed up” (136). A concern for the injustice of gender inequality is a current that runs through the entire book, indeed from its first pages: “that woman, why is she screaming? / don’t even try to understand / look at the beautiful flowers / why is she screaming? / hyacinths asters / why? / why what? / why is that woman screaming?” (7). Though the speaker’s question remains unanswered, she refuses to stop asking.
Meanwhile, in a hilarious, biting satire on North American academia, cultural appropriation, and literary canon formation, Thénon presents us with the figure of “Petrona Smith-Jones,” an “assistant professor / at the University of Poughkeepsie / which is just a weenie bit south of Vancouver / and I’m in Argentina / on a Putifar grant / to put together an anthology / of developing, developed / and also menopausal writers” (53). “Smith-Jones” states that she is looking for women writers who are “feminists / and if possible alcoholics / and if possible anorexics / and if possible rape victims / and if possible lesbians / and if possible very very unhappy / this will be a democratic anthology / but please don’t bring me / the independent or sane” (54). This statement stands out as a scathing commentary on the stereotypes that all too frequently drive North American readers’ expectations of women writers in general and Latin American women writers in particular. Thénon is fed up.
Another natural trigger for the poet’s ire is the harsh legacy of the US-backed military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, during which time thousands of people were illegally imprisoned, tortured, and murdered, most often “disappearing” without a trace. Thénon published this book in 1987, just four years after the dictatorship’s end, and its legacy is evident throughout the text: “you’ve considered killing a body more or less formed / your error is in the calculation / you start with just one corpse / and go on to thousands / there’s no end to this round” (34). In another deeply chilling, Kafkaesque poem, a woman attends a concert only to find herself jailed; when she wishes to call the police, she is told that she is already in their custody: “‘and what’s going to happen to me?’ / ‘it depends who’s on duty’ […] ‘but this is insane / where are the other people?’ / ‘confined sector / first sub-basement’ / ‘why / are you doing / this?’ / ‘come on auntie / don’t tell me you’ve never been to a concert’”(56).
With a Rabelaisian, carnivalesque mixture of high and low diction, jarring syntax, and invented words, Thénon’s poetry is extremely challenging for a translator. (Thus far, only one other book by Thénon has been translated into English: Distances, translated by Renata Treitel and published by Sun &Moon Classics in 2000). In her translator’s note, Smith states that she spent five years working on this translation of Ova Completa and modestly admits that she could easily spend five more. A clear example of the challenging nature of this text can be seen in one poem where Thénon uses old Spanish to mock our tendency to conceal the basic realities of our embodied human existence behind euphemism and elegant phrasing. Smith captures the spirit with humor and spunk: “mephitic, you hearest / if I say mephitic I have no / choice but to add / ‘you hearest’ / it’s a need for refinement / it’s elegance: ‘do you hearest? / I cannot say to you / ‘you hearest stinky’ / nor ‘you hearest with a funky stench / […] it’s called language consciousness / instransgression / pavement / that slides into the Monument” (15).
Indeed, “language consciousness” was clearly a major task for Smith as she underwent this project; I can easily imagine her spending hours deliberating over every choice. The results are delightful, such as when a fictitious mosque named “Oj-alá” (87) is rendered in English as “Al-Hopeso” (25). One of many linguistic legacies of seven centuries of Arab rule in Spain is the common Spanish expression “ojalá,” literally meaning “May God grant” but secularly translated as “Let us hope,” as in “Let’s hope it’s sunny tomorrow.” Here as in numerous instincts throughout the text, Smith’s skillful translations delightfully capture the linguistic play of the original.
One critique I have of this edition is the publisher’s decision to publish the English and Spanish versions of the text consecutively rather than en face. According to Smith, the editors of Ugly Duckling Presse are moving away from page-facing formats due to a belief that they take away from the reading experience in both languages. To an extent I can understand this argument, but I must admit that my personal preference is for the page-facing format. To me it’s a little like the difference between taking an afternoon walk in a beautiful wooded area with or without a camera. If you prefer to enjoy the continuity of the experience, then stopping to take pictures will indeed prove to be a nuisance, breaking up the flow.
On the other hand, for someone like me who is not naturally observant of surroundings, a camera can become a kind of third eye that drives me to look more closely, to notice details I might have missed otherwise. As a bilingual Spanish-English reader I felt frustrated as I flipped through the book to search for the original Spanish version of each translation. I view the translator’s choices as an art that – for this kind of poetry especially, with its precision akin to that of a clock-maker – I wanted to see displayed front and center.
In so many ways, Thénon was a poet ahead of her time. As so many of us are seeking a decolonizing, intersectional approach to justice issues, Thénon offers poems that draw attention to the sociopolitical assumptions we take for granted. Rather than allowing us to fall prey to what acclaimed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the danger of a single story,” Thénon offers a plurality of voices, a poliphony embedded in the mixing of linguistic registers, the variety of allusions, and at times actual dialogue within the poems. This writing is open-ended and, like Smith’s translation, like all translation, unfinished – which is ultimately so much better than the alternative. This is poetry that leaves us suspended and unsettled; therein lies its strength: “you cover my eye with sun / well done / because I’m dead / and I want to have fun / can I come in now? / not yet? / I should wait / like before? / a little more? / like before / the mirrors / the sun / I’m outside / you’re inside / not yet?” (44).
Thénon, Susana. Ova Completa. Translated by Rebekah Smith. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021.
Jeannine Marie Pitas’s most recent translations are Marosa di Giorgio’s Carnation and Tenebrae Candle (Cardboard House Press, 2020) and Selva Casal’s We Do Not Live In Vain (Veliz Books, 2020). She lives in Iowa and teaches at the University of Dubuque.