“Do You Hearest?”: A Review of Ova Completa by Susana Thénon, tr. Rebekah Smith
A catalogue of contrarian possibility, Ova Completa is one of the final works by Argentine writer Susana Thénon (1935-1991). Ugly Duckling Presse has brought the collection out in a new bilingual edition, within its Lost Literature series. So what was lost of Thénon, until now?
Originally published in 1987, these mature poems represent the second of Thénon’s three final books, all products of her return to the genre after a twelve-year span of not writing poetry. In those intervening years, which scholar Victoria Alcalá designates as a “transition” period (1970-1982), Thénon dedicated herself to photography and translation. The experience she gained in those two arenas solidified her grasp on multi-perspectivalism and polyphony, notable features in her final poetry collections.
The title of Ova Completa (lifted from one of the poems) sounds almost identical to obras completas, or complete works. By electing to replace the obras with ova, Thénon set up a playful dimension that taps into her longer history of remarking gender. In the back of the UDP edition, translator Rebekah Smith includes a discussion of this title, demonstrating how contrary associations lead from duality toward an explosion of meaning. Briefly summarized, Smith chose to leave the title exactly as Thénon wrote it, and highlights Thénon’s choice to include a note highlighting her use of Ova as a neutral, plural, and Latinate option. As English speakers can grasp, that Latinate egg suggests female sexuality. In her own note, Thénon adds that ova evokes the co-existing word huevos, everyday Spanish for eggs, then points toward her intentional evocation of slang involving male genitalia (huevos as balls).
Gender is in play, then, but its tropes don’t conform to spaces or meanings traditionally reserved for this thing called “the feminine” in the author’s time, something that critics have noted about Thénon’s work in general. Instead, she generates motion amongst points of reference. Because she does register a male-female opposition, we get the options enabled by that direct contradiction. Then, beyond that opposition, Thénon creates more complex possibilities by emphasizing that third term, the neutral.
The deployment of opposed and multiplying positionalities in the title poem continues across other poems in Ova Completa. A good example manifests in the double-voicing of “Poem with Simultaneous Spanish-Spanish Translation,” desacralizing European conquest in the Americas:
Cristóforo drew out his missal[Cristóforo gatilló el misal / (Christopher disparó el misil) / dijo a sus pares / (murmuró a sus secuaces) / coño / (fuck) / ved aquí nuevos mundos / (ved aquí estos inmundos) / quedáoslos / (saqueadlos)]
(Christopher shot off his missile)
said to his peers
(muttered to his stooges)
behold these new worlds here
(behold the unworldly filth here)
While the scene represents European speech, it’s an efficient reveal of the power relations embedded in the earliest conquest writings, with their symbolism arching across hemispheric history. As the Spanish versions of these lines show, Thénon herself inserted “(fuck)” into the flow of her language, so in this case, the replicated bilingual cursing serves as the most “faithful” of all possible translations.
I frankly decided to write this review as soon as I found a section riffing on the word mephitic, foul-smelling or noxious. (This appears to be part two of the poem, “The Dissection,” or perhaps the section is really its own poem, but without a freestanding title; the minimalist TOC does not specify.) It’s more mysterious at first glance than the double-voiced Columbus piece, and it multiplies in an interesting way.
mephitic, you hearest[mefítico oís vosotros / si digo “mefítico” no tengo / más remedio que añadir / “oís vosotros” / es mester de finura]
if I say “mephitic” I have no
choice but to add
it’s a need for refinement
Her opening is already amusing, but the poet insists on continuing the examination of this action, generating refinement. Smith delivers on both the grace and the humor in her dynamic translation, as this excerpt illustrates well:
it’s elegance: “do you hearest?”[es galanura ¿oís vosotros? / yo no os puedo decir / “apestoso oís vosotros” / ni “con olor a mufa oís vosotros” / y menos “con una spuzza que volteaba oís vosotros”]
I cannot say to you
“you hearest stinky”
nor “you hearest with a funky stench”
and even less “with a tumbling spuzza you hearest”
*Insert a pause here, in which I learn that spuzza, which appears in both renditions of Thénon’s poem, is Italian for stench.* Thénon gets at least double duty out of mephitic in this poem, and to capture some critique moving through and around her sprightly delivery, I think it’s important to reflect on this poem’s appearance within a post-dictatorship outburst. As Negroni states right at the start of her contextual remarks about Ova Completa, “When Thénon published it in 1987, Argentina had only recently returned to democracy, leaving behind one of the bloodiest dictatorships in history”.
A poem obsessing on that which is mephitic serves as a reminder of how poetry itself – as language, as song, as public speech, as prophecy – can be something other than beautiful. In fact, if this poetry retains a link to truth in the wake of dictatorship, it takes a position as the very opposite of beauty: poetry as noxious gases emerging out of the earth, like the words of the Oracle at Delphi. They may be “stinky” but are also potentially fatal. What does it mean to be a practitioner of linguistic elegance as horrific violence wafts all around?
The poisonous triangle of poetry, truth, and ugliness would have already been familiar to some of Thénon’s contemporaries. In La dama de Elche, a poetry collection that also appeared in 1987, Uruguay’s Amanda Berenguer explores this symbolism of noxious gases waiting to burst forth from the Oracle’s cavern, and she connects it to the suppressed knowledge of those who survived under dictatorship, waiting to speak. Stench from the underworld is also a vehicle reminding the living of the dead. Berenguer explored how these “noxious” yet true words, upon their release, escape and reveal dictatorship in all its uncontainable violence.
Thénon deploys the same venomous triangle, merging poetry with a quest for truth, then with the verbal articulation of all that is ugly: unacceptable, unwanted, horrifying, suppressed. She takes her poem to another level, though, with her takedown of elevated language. One senses that she is at once for and against the word mephitic, for and against those who say it. Can precise language and imagery ever do justice to the squalid excesses of dictatorship? Or do they reveal the inadequacy of all language, delightful and filthy alike, for capturing those truths?
By the logic of this poem in Ova Completa, to write with sincerity, to speak in all seriousness about trauma and political information that no one wants to hear within a climate of strict denial, and to speak about the rule of law, is to become the straight man in Thénon’s bitter comedy act. The joke is on anyone sincerely trying to put words to horror. But perhaps we feel more than simple opposition or dismissiveness toward that figure, too. Thénon’s quest pushes us to occupy a position within the scene, serving as the you who enunciate mephitic.
rules precepts laws[reglas preceptos leyes / reglas preceptos leyes queréis / reglas preceptos leyes queréis tenéis / y decoro pecunia seguridad / ¿oís vosotros? / mientras ellos tienen olor a mierda / vosotros devenís mefíticos / mientras ellos mueren chotos / vosotros fenecéis vetustos]
rules precepts laws you want
rules precepts laws you want you’ve got
and decorum currency security
do you hearest?
meanwhile they smell like shit
you emerge mephitic
meanwhile they die wrecked
whilst you expire archaic
I and you and they remain in separate roles across the poem, and it is they who appear to suffer in the most immediate fashion. As a more educated, mephitic-saying witness who expires in a less direct fashion, the danger you face seems not just to be death but isolation. You are separated by your speech, separate unto death, from they who are wrecked, and from the accusatory I.
About that accusatory I: since Thénon herself is very much a poet of the mind, a writer who can unleash and control the word mephitic in a poem, this skit destabilizes her own role as much as any other. She references a lobotomy but does not perform any loss of faculties. As a result, the poem withdraws solidarity with, or for, or perhaps among those who say mephitic.
Fundamentally oppositional in terms of a (educated v. ignorant) register of language, this poem references death, solitude, and one’s occluded awareness of the awful deaths of oneself and others, I and you and they. Yet on the first read, it is fun, a measure of the power of Thénon’s anti-elegant practice.
The contrariness continues. For a book that demands some identification in the broad realm of the “feminist,” Ova Completa contains a fairly savage portrait of a feminist literary scholar (apparently from Vassar College, which US readers might recognize as a school historically dedicated to educating women). Thénon satirizes the professor’s vision for an anthology of women writers. One is left to wonder which aspects of the poem best represent the energies Thénon is channeling.
As the reader tries to pin this poem down, it explodes in various directions, which again says a lot about the poet’s reach. Is the northern scholar’s apparent reduction of feminism to abject victimhood the central issue, because it is too small-minded a take on what intellectuals should do for women? Is the North Americanness of the scholar the main target? (The North/South divide would activate a level of irony that Latin Americans would not need to articulate openly, because it was too well known: offscreen context about U.S. support for those brutal right-wing dictatorships around the Southern Cone.) Or, is Thénon using this professor in a less literal way – more to vent her own exhaustion with modes and discourses of gendered trauma? Female victims of the Southern Cone dictatorships suffered sexual torture, among other atrocities. Is she giving voice to a particular stage of wrath, her own sheer need to inhabit a different mental space, rejecting potential gendered victimhood, as the unbearable weight of dictatorship was beginning to recede?
Similarly, “La Musik” opens with a setup for a parody of a foreigner, now a European incorporating a little bit of Andean culture into his repertoire:
a German man came
and immediately founded the
Concentus Musicus Araucanus
one day I up and said
maybe I’ll go and see a concert
they played a sonata in C flat[vino un alemán / miró / e inmediatamente fundó el / Concentus Musicus Araucanus / un día agarré y dije / a lo mejor voy a escuchar un concierto / daban sonata en mi bemol / para dos arpas y siringa agreste]
for two harps and panflute
The poem spirals on through a series of quick references to European and elite cultures, but then it leaves the first storyline for its parody behind. Instead of finishing the tale about the German’s Musik, Thénon cycles back around to opine, “the concert wasn’t bad”. And then the poem fixates on the concert, the speaker expressing a desire to talk about the music. But instead of fulfilling this next desire either, the lines shorten:
and I want to have fun
come on[bueno / estoy muerta / y quiero divertirme / vamos / ¿dónde está todo?]
where is everyone?
The speaker insists on wanting to come inside and talk, but instead ends up alone, waiting for a conversation that doesn’t materialize: “I’m outside / you’re inside / not yet?” [yo afuera / vos adentro / ¿no todavía?])
These poems that oppose, undercut, and replace one storyline with another storyline will bring some joy to anyone who is bored by predictable or conformist narratives. To my mind, this oppositional practice lends a cross-cultural “translatability” to Ova Completa, whether the reader has any interest in Argentine history of the 1980s, because anyone can experience exhaustion with repetitive messaging and the loss of real meaning that it generates. So I propose that contrarian acts are, in and of themselves, recognizable across space and time.
As we have seen, though, these acts tend to isolate people from each other. As the poems in Ova Completa accumulate, I ask: Where are you, Susana Thénon? —which I think might mean: How does Thénon achieve something more than evasion and isolation with all of this wandering around? Does she land somewhere?—“In a room where if I am I’m not or I am who cares”[i] (en una pieza donde si estoy no estoy o estoy a quién le importa).
Scholars have observed of Thénon that one of her ultimate points of resistance to cultural presumptions about femininity is her insistent claim to privacy: a refusal to become decipherable, more accessible to others. Perhaps wandering, and self-isolating, is its own protective endpoint.
That said, Ova Completa still calls on us to care where Thénon is, even if the self she creates in her poems consists of a bundle of contradictory sensations and competing positionalities. It is only in trying to accompany her through these shells that we may perceive how the polyphony pleases us. Is it even possible to read Susana Thénon without becoming a contrarian reader? If we adopt her modes, don’t we resist her in turn, precisely by insisting that we give a damn? That’s the logical next step.
I give this book high marks overall for the sheer pleasure many of Smith’s phrasings will generate, and for Thénon’s general intelligence and humor, putting us into these energizing dilemmas. As I hope the above examples suggest, Smith is particularly good at delivering a Thénon who feels edgy, nonconformist, impatient – pushing the bounds of her poetic language out toward its limits – even as she is precise.
This edition will be useful for a wide range of readers because it incorporates a short but incisive essay by María Negroni, translated to English by Smith with Silvina López Medín, offering numerous contextual entry points for readers of English. Negroni is a most authoritative presence: with the late Ana María Barrenechea, she previously co-edited two posthumous volumes gathering Thénon’s body of work in the original Spanish, released in 2001 and 2012. The bilingual edition of Ova Completa, then, is a group effort, a lively and provocative introduction to an accomplished poet.
Note from the reviewer: Ugly Duckling Presse, the publisher of Ova Completa, is one of the various presses with which I have worked in the past. This review is motivated by a longstanding awareness of the statistical under-representation of women poets in translation to English, and more particularly, those from Latin America. In my observation, that deficit has long been aggravated by similarly low attentiveness in the arena of book reviews (let alone more extended scholarly pieces). Ova Completa is a provocative book that shouldn’t go overlooked and under-discussed. Meanwhile, as I write this note, Smith has been named a Finalist for the 2022 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, one of the few awards recognizing such work.