My daughter was born in a flood of saltwater, her body still and tangled in kelp. As the midwife pulled my baby out from between my legs, she gasped, her stern pockmarked face turning as pale as the moon.
“Oh god, what’s wrong?” I asked, still delirious with pain. A final agonizing contraction shook my body as I delivered the placenta: a thick, slimy mass of algae and brine. My husband’s hand, which had been steadfastly gripping my own as I labored through the night, grew slack as the midwife whisked my baby away to cut the umbilical cord. She did not cry. She did not make a sound. The room was stiflingly silent, my question hanging in the air unanswered.
There are stories, ones my mother used to tell me as I drifted off to sleep, of women who loved the sea so much that they became it. Women who would go to the shore every morning as though it were their church and offer pieces of their soul in exchange for some kind of rapture. If the ocean deemed them worthy, it would transform them, webbing their toes together, turning their blood brackish, ripping gills into their necks and peeling away their human skin to reveal iridescent scales beneath. Once the sea had claimed them, they were never seen again. Some said that they drowned, others said that their transformations were simply an excuse to begin new lives with secret lovers, but I knew the truth: they were free.
When I was a girl, I used to pray to be transformed like these women. I went to the beach whenever I could, skipping school and sneaking out in the middle of the night just so I could touch the shore and feverishly beg the ocean to possess me. I longed to shed my body, already laden with shame. By eleven years old, I had started filling out into what my mother called a “womanly figure,” unfamiliar curves reshaping my body seemingly overnight. Though I had once been invisible to the world, suddenly I found myself subject to whispers, stares, rumors, and the lingering syrupy glances from men that I didn’t fully understand, but that left me feeling shaken and bare.
I wasn’t sure what it meant to give up a part of my soul, but I would have sacrificed anything and everything to rid myself of my lungs and limbs and legs and hips and become one with the sea. My efforts seemed futile: occasionally, I would cough up saltwater into the sink or find a clump of algae growing in my armpits, but the transformation I so desperately longed for never came. As the years passed and I settled into my new identity as a wife, I stopped my daily pilgrimages to the sea. The time I once spent dreaming was now occupied with housework, cooking, preparing for motherhood. I tucked my desire into my apron pocket, out of sight.
When I found out I was pregnant, I waited almost two weeks before I told my husband. This tiny, strange creature growing inside me felt too precious to share with anyone. As I took my evening bath—the only time I was left alone with my thoughts—I would run my hands along the slight, nearly imperceptible curve of my belly in wonder. For the first time, my body felt miraculous.
The moment the midwife put my daughter in my arms, I knew my childhood prayers had finally been answered. Her black fisheyes stared blankly at me, mouth agape, gills opening and closing uselessly as they searched for water. Instinctively, I unbuttoned my sweat- and blood-stained nightgown and gave her my breast. While she suckled, her tiny teeth gently grazing my nipple, I touched her chubby human leg and counted: five perfect little toes on each perfect little foot. I closed my eyes, content.
When I woke the next day, my husband was already gone. He had taken all of his belongings with him, leaving no note, no trace of his presence. I did not weep: already, his face had begun to fade from my mind into a cloudy memory. I filled the bathtub with warm water and sea salt and climbed in, clutching my baby to my chest. Together, we sank into the water, and I closed my eyes as my daughter kicked her tiny legs and swam around the tub. Soon, it would be like he had never existed at all.
I loved my daughter so fiercely I began to fear that all that love might break me. It welled up inside me until my ribs ached and my stomach swelled. Every night I would fall asleep in the bathtub holding her tight, and every morning I would awaken with my fingers and toes wrinkled like shriveled-up raisins. Occasionally, I did find myself wishing that I could brush my daughter’s hair or buy her pretty dresses, or that she had a hand for me to hold. But I cherished every part of her: her velvety soft fins, her knobby knees, the way her shining grey scales seemed to melt into her smooth flesh.
Though she could not speak, we learned to communicate in other ways. When she stamped her feet or splashed her fins, I knew that she needed to be fed or cradled or put to sleep. Fearful of the neighbors’ loose lips and judgmental stares, I did not dare bring my daughter into town or enroll her in school, but we were more than content to have just each other. I spent hours telling her stories, the same ones my mother told me and new ones that I made up just for her. I told her of the ocean, which I had begun to think of as her other parent. Like me, she enjoyed those stories the best, listening to them in enraptured silence. Unlike me, the ocean had already chosen her. It was already running through her veins.
On her eleventh birthday, I finally took her to the sea for the first time. In truth, I do not know why I waited so long—perhaps I was afraid the ocean would try to reclaim its gift from me, or my daughter would choose the freedom of the sea over the confines of a porcelain bathtub and her mother’s suffocating love—but something in my gut told me it was time. She toddled beside me on the sand, still clumsy on her human legs, as we made our way to the water. The other beachgoers made no effort to hide their whispers and stares as they gawked at her, but we paid them no mind. Our world had long ago shrank to just the two of us; everything else was white noise.
At the shoreline, I anxiously watched my daughter, unsure of what would happen when she finally touched the ocean for the first time. Though she had never seen the beach before, I could tell immediately she knew she was home. With an air of solemnity, she lay down at the edge of the water, digging her toes into the sand. I wanted to reach for her, to pull her back into the safety of my arms before it was too late, but I stopped myself. As I held my breath and waited for the tide to come in, I looked into her eyes, as still and black as a saucer filled with ink. Her mouth opened and closed as though she were trying to speak, but she did not make a sound. At that moment, a wave crashed onto the shore and engulfed her body, pulling her out to the sea.
The wave receded, leaving only seafoam where my daughter had been.
Ally Ang is a gaysian poet and editor based in Seattle. Their work has been published in The Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere. Find them @TheOceanIsGay or at allysonang.com.
not a day goes by without the belief that there is a prisoner of the desert, yes, the desert, a prison without barbed wire, an uninhabited stretch as far as the eye can see where every night the one i call prisoner goes to sleep, a lone man, surely the last one standing, sort of like the antithesis of god, the last man standing, condemned to oneness despite being the creator of absolutely nothing, detainee of the uninhabited, captive of no man’s land, of a vast stretch that never ceases to be at full stretch, the man i’m describing knows only solitude and its cacti, besides, we never find what we’re looking for between the dunes, only sand and our own foot- prints, prisoners don’t know a whole lot of people, but mine surely knows me, why yes, surely a strange sort of confusion that makes you say things twice, and perhaps my prisoner knows me from all the times i’ve asked about him in my prayers,
actually, i’ve never prayed
good lord what nerve
every day i push myself inwards,sort of like a pants pocket,closing in on this man, this student of the innermost region of my being, what is he doing during this heatwave,whose face does he picture to overcome the uniform color of the sand,the uninterrupted sand, always the same color, indistinguishably tan without respite, and does he fall asleep despite the whisper of scorpions,does he suddenly feel the urge to speak to the cacti out of survival instinct, to sit before them and recount his days, my orphan of society, but what is there to discuss when your interlocutor is a cactus, i mean what topics are off-limits with deaf-mute succulents
anyway, i digress, the way we all digress in the presence of our prisoners,they have a gift for making us reevaluate everything, Monsieur, if there’s a reason i’m here today it is to pin my coloring pages to your bulletin board, i thought i might sit down and draw for a while, the way children do when they aren’t allowed to spin in circles, they languish on a table and eventually lose themselves, in all innocence i wanted to be like them, the clumsy liberty of an adult pouring her heart out on coloring pages, by that i mean succumbing to inertia,regression is a minor sorrow in prose and adults ought to give in to it, your childish whims resurface gasping for air,adults are heartless for suffocating their childhood memories,in the name of time you might say,in that case, Monsieur, let me ask you this, why fight the return of your inner child, yes, tell me, why not just consent to his eyes, to the very being you embodied until he set fire to good manners and wandered off in mockery, grown-ups ought to let loose a little,even if it means losing what they think they own,in reality they have nothing to lose, just some neckties and some green polka-dotted opinions,but i’m well aware that every night when you’re naked, when your old man suit finally dangles on its hanger like god, it’s the cacti you talk to, you show them your drawings of abandoned women and enslaved monkeys, but what can you possibly expect from a cactus that never answers you,they are just like adults, constantly forgetting their lines when you confront them with childish questions, the cacti are deaf-mute, and later on you have the same dream over and over again the way kids do, i myself am one of them, all i had to do was betray the order of things by uncovering your inner child, i play a minor role in your dreams every now and then and there you have it,
when it comes to being humiliated, two heads are better than one
for no matter how much i argue about marxist alienation and chat with men in suits and sweet- talk in bars, i still go home alone and some- times drink a big glass of milk and other times i pee in bed, don’t tell anyone yes, i pee in bed as if to mock my philosophical façade, as if to return to the origin of my suffering, deep down this place cuts you off in the middle of your speech, all you have to do is take the stage wearing a suit and get up in front of the mic, and clearing your throat like the paralytic of the dialogue who never knows what to say in front of an audience of cacti, oh how he overflows with words and oh how he’d love to get rid of that mic and bury the cacti in his arms, but throwing yourself headlong into a sea of cacti and getting ripped to shreds and falling flat on your face, come on, doctors would never prescribe that, those men in suits standing in front of a mic would still rather be prisoners than explode with their emancipated sand, yes, Monsieur, i swear, i’ve seen it with my own eyes, childhood cuts you off in the middle of your speech, it says everything for you and silences your future while slipping past the solemnity of your voice, childhood slips away the same way the moon eclipses the sun, besides, don’t you see that the circumference never dies out, at the exact moment of perfect alignmentthe glare of the sun encircles the lunar abyss, that’s when childhood comes into focus, the second the elderly overshadow it, their act of hostility backed by a cactus,
well there you have it,i wanted to wait before telling you about time but it’s already too late, that’s just the problem, with regard to time i mean, better never than late
for a long time i thought you were the imaginary friend who keeps kids company on rainy days, a shadow that follows children on their way to school, tumbling down the slope of morning with conviction just to painstakingly pick itself back up around half-past four, when children have snack and grown-ups speed home to hit the sack, fine, and i tried to write to you on numerous occasions without really knowing where to begin or what i should tell you after this life worthy of abandon, those centuries of silence that were really just a few short minutes spent overthinking,suspenseful minutes when hands vanished into thin air and i desperately sought a table where i could finally meet you, finally, that time i never knew how to define since it isn’t much and, like you, evades description
from time to time a good old time, in other times just a pass-time, the light-dark uncertainty that certain uncertain people call springtime
for a long time i traveled in another child’s locomotive, having found it ownerless on the asphalt next to a hopscotch court, and though i remorselessly claimed it was mine, i never went anywhere since i was waiting for one last passenger to arrive before setting off, in fact i’m still waiting for him,he should be here any minute, good lord, may that child forgive me for neglecting the princely plaything i stole from him, stealing useless things is a particularly striking gesture, who would have guessed that a species like ours would do such a thing, so there you have it,i burned everything in the name of time, in other words in the most impenetrable anonymity,yes, without a name i let everything go to waste, but that’s what kids do in their free time, let everything go to waste, especially their time
they claim ownership of hot-air balloons instead of going to school,smart cookies spared from society as they feign illnessand simply languish by the skylight of a wall to poeticize the mediocrity of the streets, refusing to go to school is the only safe way to become a poet, but what would we say if an adult did that, Monsieur,what would we say if a tireless man in a tux was dispensed one fine morning on the pretext of symptoms, with nothing but his own four walls for protection,frozen before a desert of gesticulating men in tuxes, all on his own, disoriented with such quietude, a smoky dreamer exiled from society,
dead poets society
what would we say about the poor man in a tux if we found out by misfortune he’d deceived the authorities with his prevarications, that he’d with- drawn from the assemblies just to smoke his cigarette and sip his coffee with the sovereign laziness of a true veteran
the turmoil the error the indecision, the culprit that is time, time wasted from being without you, for i never had the courage to write to you, even if it was such an obvious way to refuse to take action, even if it was far too eloquent a language for my madness, it is what it is, i am the worst kind of unpunctuation, yes, the kind with an endless waiting period, that’s my alibi, but you mustn’t believe that pretexts are worth the science of truth,for in reality no one puts pen to paper in fear they won’t be read, the problem has just been articulated, yes, you would rather remain silent than sit on the reflections heaped up in your inner construction zone, after all, there is nothing more shameful than reflecting, reconstructing, and entering somewhere to ask for a table for one, nothing more humiliating than asking for a table for one next to all those people gathered together for a meal, even though there’s no such thing as a table for one, for there are always two chairs surrounding a table, it’s a good thing for the one who pretends to wait for the other,
but secretly sits at the table alone
Monsieur, it’s a good thing this solitude pretends to be two, for the one who waits for the other is naïve, but the one who waits for nobody is a sickly loner, then again what’s the use of hiding what everyone hides, deep down those who wait for others know a thing or two about the absent-minded little girl by the window, and they too are well acquainted with tables for one
i think of you who are my people but never present,
that must be the true purpose of an empty chair, to seat absentees,
offer them some tea,
and sit there in silence
and back we go to our coloring pages, we keep them near us, right there, almost there, and forget them as long as we can, but forgetting absentees never lasts very long, for there comes a time when you suddenly lift your head and in the unexpected blink of an eye, with a somewhat foolish look burst- ing out of nowhere, there comes a time when you must verify the assiduity of the absentee who hasn’t moved a single inch,still right in place on his empty chair, drinking his tea, yes, despite our efforts to do something else, we end up regaining our composure just to ensure the punctuality of the other, he who stays silent with us and shares a bit of this weakness, a bit of this singular mediocrity, the unquantifiable almost- nothing, a drop of the self above the immensity of a cup of tea too hot to drink, merely decorative and feigning the kinds of conversations people have over a cup of tea, needless to say, much like dear god who feigns existence, for at the end of the day, Monsieur, what’s the difference between god and tea, it’s the worst kind of silence,
the absentee still sits on his empty chair, thinking about his own absentees, surely himself, too busy coloring to consider the case of others, and that very instant of the straightened face, the instant distress that fascinates me as it transforms into a presence of mind that should inexist, the sudden awareness of the non-being, there you have it, Monsieur, i am fascinated by this gesture that never gives warning, the worst kind of gesture, it shatters the reflex known as inattention and silences self-abnegation by violently interrupting the benevolence of negligence, the astonishing virtues of waiting shattered in one fell swoop,
all that for an empty chair, forever unable to liberate what seemed to be the other,all that for what, for whom, i honestly have no clue, for whom for what how should i put it, Monsieur, just to submit an empty chair to the scrutiny of a gaze that makes nothingness burst forth from its abyss
i call you from my desert island, the absentees sneak off and persistently write to avoid completely disappearing, and i know this letter is a bit long, Monsieur, yes, fine, admittedly, sometimes i promise myself the last word, come on, after all, must i bring this dictatorial detour to a full stop, come on come on,let’s make this word the last of them all, in any event, here you will always have the last word, in all innocence i’m trying to find a kind word to put an end to my tyranny, rummaging through childish rhymes as a way to defy destiny, i know this letter is rather long, Monsieur, but remember your advantage,you can easily close these pages and go see what else is out there while i, pitiful me, must persistently write with no choice but to sit tight, this is where we go our separate ways, Monsieur, you can close the debate by escaping my voice while i have no other option than to correspond with the imaginary being that you are as a way to brave my solitude, you can silence me at any moment, and not even chatterboxes have this aptitude,for unlike my nonsense, your silence is truer to reality than any exactitude
Salomé Assor’sdebut novel One is a meditation on the unexpected and often unacknowledged violence of solitude. A book that defies genres and conventions, One stands somewhere between prose, monologue, and poetry. The text is narrated by a young woman who sits “at a table for one” and addresses a mysterious “Monsieur”—a figure who embodies various notions, including unrequited love, the reader, and the persistent absence of the other. As a statement on the male gaze and masculinity, the narrative avoids uppercase letters except for the “M” of the word “Monsieur.” Composed of a single phrase punctuated by commas alone, the text challenges the notion of time and resists the constant threat of endings.
I was first drawn to One by Assor’sinnovative uses of language. The book is full of wordplay, and Assor frequently pushes the boundary between literal and figurative meanings. In the first passage I’ve included, Assor uses the phrases “voler en éclats” and “tomber à pic,” which are woven into the image of taking the stage and “throwing yourself headlong into a sea of cacti.” The former expression, “voler en éclats,” carries the meaning of being smashed to pieces in both a literal and figurative sense. I chose to translate this as “getting ripped to shreds” to recreate the blurred boundary between literal and figurative meanings, as the expression is fitting for the physical action of “throwing yourself headlong into a sea of cacti” and the more abstract idea of an actor getting severely criticized by “an audience of cacti.”
The latter expression, “tomber à pic,” means “to come along at the right time” as an idiom. When taken as the verb “tomber” (to fall), followed by the phrase “à pic” (sharply/vertically/abruptly), however, it can refer to the physical act of falling steeply. I decided to translate this as “falling flat on your face” because it is consistent with the imagery of being on stage and possibly tripping and falling, as well as the potential scenario of having an embarrassing performance.
One of my favorite passages to translate was “i am the worst kind of unpunctuation, yes, the kind with an endless waiting period,” derived from “je suis une imponctuée de la pire espèce oui, de l’espèce la plus mal en point,” which roughly translates as: “i am an unpunctuated (person, female) of the worst kind yes, the kind in the worst shape.” “[I]mponctuée” comes from Assor combining the negating prefix “im” with the adjective “ponctué” (punctuated). I chose “unpunctuation” to reflect Assor’s usage of a word that doesn’t officially exist. “(Être) mal en point” as an expression means “to be in a bad way.” Taken literally, though, the phrase can also signify “to be bad at (using) periods,” since “point” is the word for “period.” By employing “waiting period,” which can convey a specified delay or a punctuation mark whose absence is among One’s defining features, I aimed to capture the original’s multivalence and honor the playfulness and creativity that first inspired me to translate Assor’s writing.
Born in Montreal, Salomé Assor studies philosophy at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Her debut novel, Un, was published in 2019 by the Montreal-based press Les Éditions Poètes de Brousse. Assor was recognized as one of Radio Canada’s 10 Young Writers to Watch in 2020. She is currently working on her second novel and has published work in La Revue Zinc and La Voix Sépharade.
Hannah Allen-Shim studies Comparative Literature, French, and Harp Performance at Oberlin College & Conservatory of Music. She is a former recipient of the Marandon Fellowship from the Société des Professeurs Français et Francophones des États-Unis and an alumna of the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. Her translations are forthcoming from Pamenar Online Magazine and Reunion: The Dallas Review’s monthly feature, Reunion Online.
I pull on the thigh-high stockings in front of the bedroom closet mirror.
Even with the latex bands, it’s a struggle to get them up with my hairy legs.
The wool tartan miniskirt hugs my thighs—can I move them?—and the zipper pulls a bit but still closes. I hook the bra in front and slide it to the right position.
I pull up the straps.
On top, a white shirt, then a jacket.
Purple is better. This one, she’d just bought it.
It still has the price tag: I hide it in a pocket.
I make myself up, hastily fishing through the cosmetic bag she keeps in the bathroom above the sink: concealer to cover the perennial dark circles, mascara after the eyelash curler, brick-red lipstick—Mother doesn’t like a bright red. Black eyeliner, not too much, otherwise even cleanser won’t take it off. Bronze eyeshadow up to the eyebrows.
I fasten my hair with four black bobby pins like the presenters on Top of the Pops.
I cram my feet into the high-heeled patent leather shoes, they’re square toed, professor-like. Mother is size 37, I’m 39, occasionally 40.
Only half my foot fits, no more.
Quick, before they come back.
Quick, before it’s too late.
I turn the stereo up all the way, who cares if the neighbors hear.
I jump back and forth, bouncing along to the bass of an Annie Lennox song, jumping from one room to the other, the fake terracotta floor a trampoline. I lift my arms towards the ceiling, arch my back: a siren like one of Milo Manara’s sexy creatures. I hold in my stomach as much as I can, squeezing my thighs until everything disappears behind them.
If I go en pointe I’m like Barbie.
Slim calves, bent knees, rubber and iron wire.
There’s only the music.
I remove one item of clothing at a time: I start to undress, never looking away. Spectacle and spectator, I follow my reflection in the mirror—I have to watch it happen.
Striptease, I’m Demi Moore.
I’m my mother, I’m Tina.
Birth name “Concetta,” like her grandmother, but “Tina” to everyone else.
Her body, mine: possession, invasion, I transpose myself onto her. I use her closet secretly for this genetic contraband all the time.
With both hands I lower the bra: men in the audience,I hypnotize you with my little pink nipples.
I lift the skirt higher.
You like that?
I lift it up all the way and hear you scream, ravenous.
Your arms outstretched towards me: I let myself be touched, but only so you can slip your tips under the elastic band of the only thing I’m now still wearing. I model my mother’s G-string for you, the one she keeps hidden in the lowest drawer, buried under the belts, scrunched up until it almost disappears.
I stretch higher, turn my face to the side: does someone want to fuck me?
She had me at eighteen. My father left when I was three, after cheating on her constantly. My maternal grandparents raised me. I was twelve when I moved back in with her on Via Giacinti, near the last stop of line 15, in the house where it all started. Still a hinterland commuter town on the extreme southern outskirts, still public housing. Addicts and dealers, our neighbors scare me.
When I’m home alone, I put on her clothes and climb over to the other side of the fence, I make it happen.
I’m a woman, a singer.
A stripper, little slut.
I stayed with my grandparents because my mother had to work. She wasn’t around so I would imagine her, a magnified projection, a shrine?
Mother body-snatcher, mother heroine.
Phantom, hologram, ghost-mother.
Mythopoeia instead of hugs, make your own mother into a work of art. Every thought comes back to her, a psychic evocation, a séance.
The world is her domain—horsewoman, Valkyrie, conqueror—she goes out into it.
I stay home.
Even today I don’t go out much.
But I’m here in Milan, Mother—you’re still there, you stayed in Rozzano.
Confined body, suburban body. You’re even afraid of taking the metro: underground, where the dead go.
The ideal mother, the regal woman.
Diana, Athena, Joan of Arc.
Batgirl, Storm, Cynthia Rothrock.
At the age of seven, my mother is the commander of my order of Knights.
And so her absent body becomes overextended, hyper-diffused, ubiquitous, omnipotent. Mother is out there in the world, everywhere. At work, with girlfriends, Mommy’s friend. I’m just here on via Verbene with your family, Mother: Grandma, Grandpa, your younger brothers. The daughter of Biagio and Lidia, but in reality, you’re the daughter of Gods, Mamma-Cash, Saint Tina, the keeper of the wallet. I was working for you, you told me, I worked all those hours for you—it’s so difficult to actually ask her for anything.
Out of guilt my mother growls, defends herself by attacking. Instantaneously.
No, you can’t do that.
I said no.
Saturnine Mother, judge and censor: there’s never a reason, a reasoning.
It’s not because we’re poor, we are not always poor: it’s just that the money is not for me.
There’s none for me.
When a family crumbles, priorities are reconsidered.
There’s something else at the top of the list.
To get her to buy me something I have to be feeling sick, really sick, have to be at risk of something, have to alarm her: like after the first time I got blood drawn, because I was crying, she took pity—stop it or you’ll make me cry—a little doll from the hospital newsstand, the only gift I ever received outside the holidays.
Your mother is so beautiful.
She’s so young!
Her long hair is dyed red, straightened with brush and hair dryer until its waviness becomes sleek. Puffy bangs like Lorella Cuccarini. Her white skin so delicate—every summer the protective measures to prevent sunburn, the monitoring of moles—a light tap is enough to leave a mark.
Her eyes are green, mine are simply brown.
My mother loves shopping, really cares about her look. Her new boyfriend Tindaro takes her (he manages the cleaning company where she works) to the Conbìpel next to the ring road, to Orme and stores in Milan. A black tight dress, eyelashes caked with makeup, a silver heart in the center of her chest.
I’m fourteen years old when, faced with another of my unwanted requests, she finally says it: I’ve made my sacrifices. Sorry, but I’m not giving up a pair of shoes for you now.
Even when it comes to food: I can’t eat her cereal in the morning.
The same goes for all her things: no fusion, no confusion.
Mother-Fence defends her living space, carefully constructs the picket fence between herself and others with her own bare hands. Then she stands guard, ready to shoot.
Even at her son?
I made you and I’ll destroy you.
In Segatini’s painting The Bad Mothers are the ones trapped naked in the tree branches of a snowy heath—they end up wriggling in a frozen purgatory, forever expiating their guilt.
Yet every mother is an inheritance, a task we are entrusted with.
Maternal selfishness is terrifying and endearing, leaving the child to reclaim his due: the real woman behind the childhood ideal.
Every mother carries a promise that endures, even beyond the contingent disposition of facts.
It endures even when it is not maintained.
My mother’s body is the first threshold.
My fetish: her dream-body.
Her fetishes? The rings, necklaces and huge pendants I give her.
The scent of white musk, her manicure kit.
White gold, only the white kind (she hates yellow), she’s from the south—her people are from Mugnano, Napoli, and Aversa, Caserta—from gypsies. White gold, only white gold for my queen. I’m just like you, Mother: nothing but pale sheen, white splendor.
Pure, we’re pure.
My mother doesn’t talk about sex, she’s ashamed.
Tina, Concetta, immaculate conception.
Neither do I, Mother: sex is a sin, if it happens you must do it silently.
Sex is scary, should stay in the dark. Avoid it most of the time—sexual anorexia. Rather get sick, keep it hidden, keep it from becoming a subject of discussion or medical check-ups.
Sex is a secret.
One Sunday afternoon I drive home with my mother and a family friend, Otello, the fiancé of Tindaro’s best friend. He’s tall with a mafioso’s face. He lights his next cigarette with the one still in his mouth. We’d been at the San Siro racetrack—he’s fond of betting, wagers his whole salary that way. Salary? The company’s money. His fianceé has a hotel, he helps her out.
We go inside and they lock themselves up in the living room.
We’re going to watch a bit of TV, they say.
You go sleep over there, Jonny.
I lie in bed for a minute, I can’t sleep, I get up.
I approach very slowly, one foot, then the other, only my toes touch the floor.
I spy through the black plastic keyhole of the living room door.
The TV’s light is intermittent, it takes a few seconds to make something out.
My mother and Otello on the blue sofa that I open at night to sleep on, the sofa-bed I’ve used my whole adolescence (I’ve never had a bedroom). The sand-colored blanket rises and falls, illuminated by the television, the volume a bit too loud.
Up and down, a haunted mountain, a small living mountain rage.
A momentary noise, a sound.
Whenever we go out together Otello always says: your mother is really beautiful.
Mother and dad, Mother and Dino, Mother and Tindaro, Mother and Otello, then Mother and Alessandro. Tough, you’re an armored tank with everyone except for the men you choose. They can do anything to you, take you by the throat and make you pass out.
Bitch, you’re breaking my balls.
No ambulance, there’s no need, I feel fine.
It has only happened twice—only twice, you like to point out.
The first time my sister was two years old, the last she was in middle school.
My mother says: every family has its problems, there are no perfect families.
Many years later, my sister says: Mother had an epileptic attack that day.
My mother’s flesh is not flesh—it’s armor, an empty carapace, a sacrificial body perhaps. We’re only interested in extremities.
My mother’s body, an ontological membrane. I was born male, on the wrong side: her body the esoteric vehicle to another dimension.
Mother, I copy you. Mother, I copied you.
Bent, queer, screwed up.
Faggot, fairy, poof.
An astrologist told me she saw it in the symbolic circle of the zodiac: gender reversals in the natal chart, planets out of place, in fall as they say; feminine planets positioned in masculine signs and vice versa. Moon in Aries, Mars in Cancer, traditional identities compromised, altered: Amazonian women, inept or childish men, all of them emotional. Two-spirited the American Indians say, half and half: was I born to cross over, push boundaries, to be porous?
To show you another possibility, that you can transition from here to there?
The compactness of a wall is a story I have not assimilated.
Even my mother now seems like a butch lesbian: short—almost never in heels—solid, compact, sweatpants, hoodie, platinum blonde buzz-cut, covered in tattoos.
Have we been mutual catalysts?
Mother was elsewhere, Mother the paradigm of desire.
Separate the real woman from the mother you dreamed of having, a psychologist at the family therapy center in Porta Venezia told me last year, the one where I only had to pay thirty dollars per session (after four initial freebies) because they were with a senior student and not an experienced therapist.
You forgive her for everything.
Really look at her, open your eyes, see her for what she is.
Does she hate her? Does my psychologist hate my mother?
She says she manipulates me, keeps me within kicking distance so she can get antidepressant adrenaline from the anxiety I arouse in her. It’s true, I’m not objective. My mother, my father: double standards. Even in the novel I wrote.
I don’t have a father, a mother—I have a totem.
Fire or ice?
The sacred body of the Virgin Tina, bruised, half ruined: my mother’s body first disfigured by me, then thirty years of forced labor. She was covered in stretch marks after her pregnancy, then came the disc protrusions, the hernias, the endless operations on her wrists and hands, the physiotherapy, the bones that began to crumble like dry bread, the fifty-year-old fingers that have lost their strength.
She has to ask for help to open bottles and cans.
My mother is young but her body is already old.
Too much work, not everyone lives a life suited to their cellular make-up.
There are those who lose the use of their legs, but my mother the use of her hands?
My mother’s body—I’m not sure what it smells or tastes like.
It might taste like chamomile to me: like the tea I drank at home alone every time she was sick and they took her away on the stretcher. The steel teapot, my trembling body. Renal colic, tachycardia, hiatal hernia: they were always discovered later; at the time the pain was nameless, pain without a name.
And then one day: Mother has a lump in her breast.
At university, I can’t think about anything else while waiting for the biopsy results. I can’t see anything else. Mother in the bathroom vomiting after chemo: she becomes a long, thin, weighty rag that others carry around the house. An empty bag, emptied out. Suspended, in need of support. They’ll carry her to vomit.
Others will carry her—I’ll watch.
I’ll keep my position in the family ecosystem.
Mother’s body, a map on which to mark the constellations of metastases.
It’s too late, she’s full of it.
A short-lived colony, to be consumed quickly.
The mother who dies, the thing that can’t happen.
Every child’s nightmare.
Fluoroantimonic acid poured into the heart.
Make sure you take care of your sister.
But no, the tumor’s benign: the mother who lives.
Who still shines from afar.
My mother’s body is a prehistoric mystery, a comet star: invisible, I see it everywhere.
Mother, Father: this is why I write, maybe this is why I write.
Why wasn’t there the time—or the desire?—to live together.
To be people in a story with real relationships.
My parents: fictional hypotheses, foreign bodies in the vault of the imagination.
Myself, the Wild Boy of Aveyron, The Jungle Book—variations on a theme.
I was raised by my characters.
My experience of translating this text was akin to a fever dream: vivid and unsettling, yet somehow a necessary part of my own healing process. Could I possibly render a voice so tender, so bold? Could I re-create the alchemy of gritty urban poetry and indelible, oneiric imagery in Jonathan Bazzi’s prose?
I chose to accept the challenge, to find new poetry through translation. Once I overcame the urge to sanitize, to soft-pedal, the words began to rattle on the page as they do in the original Italian. Bazzi’s sentences both affirm and deny; translating them brought to mind Billie Holiday’s voice when she sings “Hush now, don’t explain,” her delivery simultaneously maternal and bitter. With scalpel-like precision, the author dissects a queer being’s lifelong obsession with their mother’s body, the personal paradigm of desire. “Really look at her, open your eyes, see her for what she is,” their therapist suggests at one point. Good advice, it seemed to me.
Throughout the text, powerful metaphors stitch the Mother Wound shut so that healing can begin: “Yet every mother is an inheritance, a task we are entrusted with.” Translation is also a kind of inheritance—a task I’m grateful to be entrusted with.
Jonathan Bazzi was born in Milan in 1985. Raised in Rozzano, on the extreme southern outskirts of the city, he graduated in Philosophy with a thesis on symbolic theology in the work of Edith Stein and is passionate about the female literary tradition and gender issues. In 2015, he began collaborating with various newspapers and magazines by publishing articles, short stories, and personal essays. His debut novel Febbre (Fever) was named Book of the Year by Fahrenheit, won the Bagutta First Novel Prize and was one of six finalists for the 2020 Strega Prize. He currently collaborates with Sette del Corriere della Sera and the newspaper Domani. His new novel, Corpi minori (Minor Bodies), was published by Mondadori in February 2022.
Of Italian descent, Canadian literary translator Scott Belluzis driven to provide English readers with opportunities to encounter vital and emerging Italian voices. His work has been published in journals such as The Italian Review, The Stinging Fly, Your Impossible Voice, and Mayday Magazine. He is currently collaborating with the Pirandello Society of America on their ‘Stories for a Year’ project. Scott holds a Master’s Degree in vocal performance from The Royal Academy of Music (London) and is a devoted interpreter of Italian baroque repertoire and contemporary opera.
Then there was no electric light from the windows then strength and stamina mattered more then much was different than it now is
now all you have to do is press a button then light comes from all directions sitting down at the dinner table in a warm living room driving a car on smooth roads over bridged rivers from one corner of the country to the other
young people swimming in pools of modern coin will hardly believe this to be true
the difficulty the darkness of centuries
the homestead certainly beautiful in sunshine and summer glory
beautiful the bay as the sun glitters on streams and islands
and majestic solid mountains stand firmfooted as storms rage
but everyone knows women like to go into labour during the deadliest blizzards
and usually at night
blizzard snowstorm fierce storm from the north and frost tremendous gale fierce storm northernblizzard and frost and dark of night northeastern blizzard fitful squalls from the northeast the blackest blizzard from the north and similar punishing harshfrost frost gale force winds and drivingsleet and rain skinstinging weather great storm snowstorms and foulweather snowthick air immense snowfall northern snowstorm snowfall foulweather the worst weather blizzard hardfrost snowstorm and darkweather northerlywinds and snowstorms northernblizzards with immense snowfall rok and rain windspeed so great the gable on the farm shook back and forth northern rok and rattling southwestern snowstorms roughweather with extremedark squalls wickedweather darkness and snowstorm furious gale and severe storm bitter frost penetrating marrow and bone harshfrost rough seas snowstorm cloudbank from the sea biting breeze and frost snowclouds blowing over the ridge gale force winds the weather above looking sinister the windshriek growing the snowstorm beating the frozensolid roof blindingblizzard frost and the snowdrift piled against the window southwesternsquall tremendous storm snowdump and thirteen degrees below freezing storms blindingblizzards and fourteen degrees below freezing blinding snowstorm darkweather and snowstorm major snowstorms cruel and ongoing northern snowstorms grand blizzards from the north with extreme weather and snowdump snowfall terrible snowfallingstillness great snowstorm and nightmurk with dark squalls
the horse wild with fear the horse in the river the horse in the impassable the horse in the pit the horse in the peat bog the horse in quicksand the horse in wetsand the horse submerged in the river the horse submerged in the river the fleetcurrent rolling the horse in the river the ice floe swaying under her feet
reciting the lord’s prayer in her mind did not want to die so young
let nothing deter her let nothing deter her did not let herself be hindered by rough seas uncrossable waters nasty landslides snowbound mountains weather nor roadlack want nor struggle
ever prepared ever ready ever travel ready
in a quick moment a very quick moment
lit out at once lived gearing up off into the snowdrift
The poems in Herostories are made entirely of text found in Íslenskar ljósmæður I-III (Icelandic Midwives I-III), volumes of short biographical articles about Icelandic midwives, the earliest working in the late 18th century and the most recent working in the early 20th century. Some entries are memoir written by the midwives themselves, others are written by contemporaries or descendants who either knew the midwives or knew of them, and the remaining articles were written by the priests gathering the material. Given this intertextual nature, Herostories not only tells tale of these womens’ life work, but becomes a layered analysis of narrative and how cultural values are enacted in history and storytelling.
This translation is in many ways conservative. As the text is not only found but retrieved from and referring to bygone eras, the goal was to stay “true” to the original language while bringing out the poems—21st century creations merging appreciation and critique. While repetition played a key role in Kristín Svava’s previous poetry, in Herostories it is the words of others the poet arranges, highlighting what previous speakers have found worthy of mention and record. Through repetition, the poems examine questions around the historical overlap between midwife and doctor, the glorification of womanly virtue, and the value of feminine labor.
Tómasdóttir also uses repetition and form to drive home the sheer force of Icelandic weather. Many words found in the original poems are rather majestic yet very recognizable terms that happen to be compound words. Several of these compounds are reflected in the translation in an effort to preserve the immediacy of these sensory ingredients while steeping readers in a disorienting world of extreme conditions, and the linguistic structures describing such a world. Similarly, select Icelandic words have been carried over into the English, like “rok” in these poems. Familiar to Anglophone readers via myriad cultural references to ragnarok / Ragnarök, the sound and terrible efficiency of the word earns its keep. Intended as a nod to the lack of parallel in English and simpler than translation experiments that stretch beyond the “wiggle room” of found text, I hope that such inclusions, rather than keeping readers from experiencing a completely English poem, immerses them into a storm of mixed language that effectively brings to life the atmosphere of the complicated “original” poem.
Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir is a poet and historian in Reykjavík, Iceland. Her fourth book of poetry, Hetjusögur (2020), was awarded the Icelandic Women´s Prize for Literature. She has written on the history of pornography, the history of women voters, and the history of epidemics in Iceland.
K.B. Thors is a poet and translator from Treaty 7 land in Alberta, Canada. The author of Vulgar Mechanics (Coach House, 2019), her translation of Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir’s Stormwarning won the American Scandinavian Foundation’s Leif & Inger Sjöberg Prize and was nominated for the 2019 PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation. Her translation of Tómasdóttir’s Hetjusögur, Herostories, is forthcoming from Deep Vellum in 2023.
If an air bubble breaks the surface, sends out ripples then dark matter is the passing fish —Rebecca Elson, A Responsibility to Awe
I. The voices of the fish become waves on the smooth surface of the lake.
My best memories are memories of water. Hydrogen iceberg: a failed star plunging through the solar system. Sitting on the futon, unable to move my arms, I take stock of my broken bones: radius, humerus, scaphoid, ilium. The fractures match my mother’s, and my grandmother’s. Before the accident, I would have tried to find a common thread, a logical connection from one sentence to the next, but now I can only think in simultaneous fragments. Calcium precipitation, diatomic respiration, fish song.
Bilateral radial fracture: still myself, but two minutes and thirteen thousand seven hundred million light years out of time.
II. The fish sing in the style of creatures from other worlds.
I was the one who found it. The goldfish had escaped its bowl and drowned in the air, mouth pulled wide on the kitchen floor. I was all too familiar with how that twisted little body must have felt as it suffocated. I was five then. For the first time in months I didn’t feel like I was on the verge of one of my asthma attacks that always ended with me in an oxygen chamber. It was less upsetting than it was strange, spending days inside one of those plastic capsules. Just one of the many things about living in a world whose atmosphere wasn’t entirely compatible with my makeup. I can still feel it to this day: a seven-millimeter membrane between me and everything I loved.
Laplacian growth: the rifts etched in my arms follow the courses of riverbeds on Mars.
Depression is like being underwater and forgetting the importance of returning to the surface before you run out of air. My grandmother, my mother, and I have all been submerged like this more than once, each at our own tempo. A flattening of feeling, an inability to make contact with the intelligent life of this planet. The hunger stones are revealed in times of drought, when the water level drops. “If you see me, weep,” says one of the oldest of these, in the Elbe River.
My best memories are memories of water; some of them make me cry.
III. The fish are electrons gliding through the water. Their voices reach for the key of electric blue.
When a neutrino bumps into an atom in a given medium (heavy water, for example), it sends the atom’s electrons flying apart faster than the speed of light: the products of annihilation, Cherenkov radiation. A blue glow signaling the presence of a ghost particle.
Did she leave her luminous trace in the sea, too?
The first time I broke my left arm, she was still here.
No one tells you that you fall in love with your friends too. That when you look at them your eyes will light up and you will find yourself marveling mid-conversation at how beautiful and smart they are, each in their own way. No one warns you, either, that when one of them dies you become the keeper of all your shared memories, the ones no one else knows.
She was the only witness to the night I sat crying on the sand because I didn’t know how to swim back up to the surface, to embrace a breaking body. There, on the beach, we gazed off at a strange light in the sky and talked ourselves dizzy about the possibility of life beyond our world.
I couldn’t go to her funeral but I was there for our last conversation. We’d had an argument and she called me one Friday to make peace. We agreed to meet the following Monday and said goodbye. Then I felt an urge to call her back. When she answered, I told her I loved her.
She drowned the next day.
Dark matter: millions of ghost particles coursing through my hand as I picked the phone back up without really knowing why.
IV. The fish swim through Van Allen belts, singing hymns of praise to the sublime indifference of the magnetic fields.
Water’s boiling point is so high because it holds the memory of being ice in its hydrogen bonds. If water boiled at a lower temperature, life on earth would be something else entirely. Molecular memory: rivers that never forget their place. Lapis lazuli sediment on the skull of a nun-scribe.
A bilateral fracture, two fissures in space-time.
I flit through different moments, none more relevant than the rest. A nostalgia for re-living what is to come: remembering when I see a strange light on the beach that one day I will follow the path of a river on Mars while in the tenth century I lick my pen and trace an ocean-blue line on the page of a manuscript.
A subterranean current links me to my mother’s body, to my grandmother’s body. My losses are theirs too. The lineage snaps. I can’t remember all of my great grandmothers’ names. Water carries away the calcium of our bones, bringing it back to the sea.
Our ancestors speak the language of fossils.
V. The voices of the fish sustain their gentle tone through the aeons. They become waves on the smooth surface of a lake.
Anastomosis. Braided rivers, bronchial tree. Some fractures arise twenty years out of time. A hydrogen iceberg, the path of a failed star plying the universe: each of my memories a revision of the one that came before.
The crunch of my broken arms and the cluster of periwinkle eggs I accidentally squashed one summer day as I dove between the pier pilings.
I never swam there again, but the damage was done.
Martha Riva Palacio Obón’s work centers on the interweaving of the personal and planetary forces of being alive. She places herself on a continuum of geological time, in which each memory links her to the ebb and flow of her own history and future along with those of the natural world, asking the question of how these processes and entanglements make a person who they are.
In Martha’s work we see (and hear, in the accompanying sound essay) these same deeply personal themes being interrogated through different images and media. A family history projected through the prism of the endless journey of the calcium in our bones, of the ripples of memory, friendship, lineage. Of the sound of a single cricket translated into different frequencies and rhythms to become the song of a school of fish. Both text and sound submerge the reader, the listener, in the eternal music of the planet: chirp, wave, glow, snap, bubble, gasp, crunch, weep, repeat.
Translating an essay like this makes me think about the processes of change—breakage, replacement, loss, and growth. Martha’s work is already a translation of memory into image and sound. What new associations arise when a story is told in another language? What happens to metaphor, to memory? Are they the same? What new ripples and fractures are produced when images and memories are funneled through new linguistic pathways? At what point does a thing—an object, a feeling, a person, a story—become something else? Which version is more real?
Martha Riva Palacio Obón is a Mexican sound artist and author of novels, poetry, and stories for children and adults. She won the 2014 Premio Hispanoamericano de Poesía para Niños for her illustrated poetry book Lunática, as well as the 2011 Premio Barco de Vapor for Las sirenas sueñan con trilobites (which was also selected in 2013 for the White Ravens International Children’s Library Catalog and will be published in English by Bloomsbury in 2023). Her short story “Biography of Algae” was published by Strange Horizons in 2020. She is currently at work on a collection of personal essays.
Will Morningstar is a freelance editor and translator from Boston whose translation work has appeared in Two Lines, Latin American Literature Today, Strange Horizons, and the Massachusetts Review, as well as in museums and cultural institutions throughout Spain.
The more emaciated a body is the fatter a soul becomes. From a spring I drink the water, crushed with moon and stars.
Struck by the frosty knife, my youth proffered me and injured by the war machine I fled alone, nursing my wound.
Huge is the reward for being alive! So I pluck the weeds and cry.
O, my dream, today, again run through the wide plain. The leaves fall in the deep mountain valley.
야외면 야월 수록 살지는 혼 별과 달이 부서진 샘물을 마신다
젊음이 내게 준 서리발 칼을 맞고 창이를 어루만지며 내 홀로 쫓겨왔으나
세상에 남은 보람이 오히려 크기에 풀을 뜯으며 나는 우노라
꿈이여 오늘도 광야를 달리거라 깊은 산골에 잎이진다
The Road to Search for the Light
Walking on the mountain path with deer and coyote, as we drink the water springing from the cracks of a boulder,
we hear from a distant slop, the sound of reed-flute overflowing with the joy of life.
My eyeballs, resembling the sunflower each day, are the bronze incense burner where plumes the lavender clouds.
At the sunrise over the east of Eastern Sea, I will let out my bursting sorrows.
My feet, wounded from the sharp outcrops and thorn bushes, after healing, when they brush by the flower petals,
picking the fruit in the green trees, I nurture them with songs and dances.
The song I sing on the road in search of the light becomes the wind that blow away the sad clouds.
빛을 찾아가는 길
사슴이랑 이리 함께 산길을 가며 바위 틈에서 어리우는 물을 마시면
살아 있는 즐거움의 저 언덕에서 아련히 풀피리도 들려오누나.
해바라기 닮아가는 내 눈동자는 자운 피어나는 청동의 향연
동해 동녁 바다에 해 떠오는 아침에 북바치는 설움을 하소하리라.
돌뿌리 가시밭에 다친 발길이 아물어 꽃잎에 스치는 날은
푸나무에 열리는 과일을 따며 춤과 노래로 가꾸어 보자.
빛을 찾아 가는 길의 나의 노래는 슬픈 구름 걷어가는 바람이 되라.
Cho Ji Hoon (1920-1968) lived during the period of much violent political and social turbulence in Korea. From 1910 to 1945, Korea was ruled by the Japanese imperial power. After World War II, Korea became independent, and then tragically the country was divided into North and South. When the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, Cho Ji Hoon was 30 years old; a professor and father of two young children. Like many others, his experience of war was very tragic: his grandfather committed suicide over the atrocities, his mother and brother died, and his father and brother-in-law were taken to North Korea. The poems I have translated reflect the harsh realities of Cho Ji Hoon’s life.
During the Pacific War, Cho Ji Hoon received a medical exemption by the Japanese government because of a chronic illness. He was arrested by the Japanese police for collaborating with other scholars on a Korean dictionary project. After his release, he left Seoul for his hometown in the country, and built himself a little hut where he lived alone for a year. The poem “Cave Dwelling Song,” written during this period, reflects his reclusive mood. The title, “암혈(rock cave),” evokes the historic resonance to Literates’ who chose to live a life of solitude. To young Koreans at the time, escaping the draft was a life and death issue. He states: “huge is the reward for being alive!” Yet, his way of rejoicing was to have fellowship with nature and humanity: “So I pluck the weeds, and cry.” For Cho Ji Hoon, connecting with nature is to be in touch with the primordial life force and its necessity.
The poem “The Road to Search for the Light,” published in 1959, opens with “Walking on the mountain path with deer and coyote.” How do you get a deer and a coyote to take a walk with you? This impossible situation is a metaphor for what the poet faced in the aftermath of the Korean War. Hostilities between the North and South continued, yet Ji Hoon’s beloved father was in the North while he remained in the South. His poetic imagination transcended that reality by “walking on the mountain path with deer and coyote.” This poem is a fine example of how he embraced the historic imperative of his time, fighting for the nation’s brighter future— “to search for the light.” It is a treacherous road with “sharp outcrops and thorns bushes,” he warns. The second stanza employs a paradoxical set of images, comparing his eyes to both sunflowers and a bronze incense burner. The poet’s eyes follow the sun every day “like sunflowers,” but also look back to history, to ancestors. Incense burners are used for ancestral ceremonies and almost every household in Korea would have kept this tradition in 1950s, at the time he wrote this poem. The incense pluming in the air is a way to summon the ancestral spirits to table.
Translating this poem, I ran into an issue with word “coyote(이리).” Literally and scientifically, it should be “wolf.” Coyotes are not native to Korea. However, I chose to translate “이리” as “coyote,” for the following reasons. I remember in Vermont, where we summered in the Green Mountains, during the day we saw deer in the woods and at night heard coyotes howl. For American readers, it is easy to imagine the deer and coyote inhabiting the same space. To my ears, the “coyote” flows much better than “wolf” within the line. I take comfort in Lowell’s view of translation as an imitation.
Born in 1920, Cho Ji Hoon is a canonical poet of modern Korea and a renowned traditionalist of Korean aesthetics. Although his poetry is written in a modernist free-verse form, his poems are deeply rooted in the literary Sijo that began in 12th century and have an intense local flavor, imbued with the sounds, smells, and colors of pre-industrial Korea. In 1939, Cho Ji Hoon’s first poem appeared in the literary magazine MoonJang. In 1946, his poetry appeared in the collection, Cheongnok Jip (청록집) along with the works of Park Mokwohl and Pak Doo Zin. The three were known as “Cheongnokpa,” or the “Green Deer Poets.” A professor of Korean language and literature at Korea University for 20 years, Cho Ji Hoon served as the president of the Korean cultural society affiliated with the university and president of the Korean poet’s association. He received numerous literary awards and published five poetry collections, as well as many books related to Korean literature and culture.
Born and raised in South Korea, Sekyo Nam Haines immigrated to the U.S. in 1973 as a registered nurse. She received her undergraduate degree in American literature and writing at Goddard College Adult Degree Program. She continued her study of English literature at the Harvard Extension school and poetry with the late Ottone M. Riccio in Boston, MA. Her first book, Bitter Seasons’ Whip: The Translated Poems of Lee Yuk Sa, was published in April of 2022 (Tolsun Books). Her poems have appeared in the poetry journals Constellations, Off the Coast, and Lily Poetry Review. Her translations of Korean poetry by Cho Ji Hoon have or will appear in Interim, Asymptote’s translation Tuesday blog, The Fourth River, Tupelo Quarterly The Tampa Rewiew, May Day, and Consequence Forum. Her translations of Kim Sowohl’s poetry have appeared in The Harvard Review,TheBrooklyn Rail: InTranslation, Ezra, and Circumference. Her translation of “The Dire Pinnacle” by Lee Yuk Sa appeared in And There Will Be Singing /An Anthology of International Writing by The Massachusetts Review. Sekyo lives in Cambridge, MA with her family.
THE FRANCISCAN ODORIC OF PORDENONE ARRIVES IN ZAITON IN 1325 AND EATS PASTA FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THE HOME OF A RICH AND DEVOUT ARMENIAN LADY
Here I am in Formosa, which isn’t Formosa yet because the Portuguese haven’t named it. A month ago I left Canton, skirted the coast, and my junk anchored at the port of Zaiton, one of Cathay’s most important cities, at least as big as one (or two) Bolognas. Here, my superior, John of Montecorvino, founded two of our order’s convents fifteen years ago. In one of them I found lodging. With me, the relics of four Franciscans who perished in Tana, near Bombay, where Christians – I know this from personal experience – are cruelly persecuted. To arrange for their remains to enjoy eternal rest, I meet with a lady from Armenia, rich and devout, who has erected a spacious and beautiful cathedral here. The lady is older than I am (I won’t see sixty again), and very elegant. She arrived in Zaiton when she was young, having just married a merchant from Erzurum who’s been dead for many years and to whom she gave no children. The impeccable old lady greets me simply and invites me to dinner. Her maidservants bring large bowls of rice, and trays with duck meat carved into nearly transparent slices, and vegetables and fruits of many colors. I eat with gusto while my hostess speaks to me of China’s false gods. Suddenly, the main dish of our feast is announced, thin fibers floating in the succulent sea of a dark and steaming broth that seems to recreate the watery milieu from which life sprang God-knows how many years ago. “It’s pasta,” the widow says, “healthy, nutritious, invigorating food, and easy to digest. Don’t you eat it in Italy?” “No, my lady, and I will confess, without fear of error, that it’s the most savory delicacy that I have tasted in my life.” We went on to discuss the conditions for the surrender of the relics and the location of the sacred remains in the temple. But since those fabulous fibers went from the table to my stomach, my mind is elsewhere. I’ve lost my head.
Only the sea, and this unquenchable thirst, and a heap of corpses on board, and the absence of God. I don’t know why these things have to happen to me. It’s true, I killed the albatross that loved me and that I adored, the snowy-white albatross who fed from my hand and told me tales of primeval giants, of goddesses with emerald tresses; but it’s usually the case that one ends up killing what one loves (Wilde said so). It’s true, I have sinned gravely against you. Stuffing myself with books, reading myself blind with the experiences of others has provided the keys to your hatred of me. But that’s what happens when you mix oil and water, or put St. George and the dragon into the same bathroom, or when you try to stop violent lunatics from hitting each other. It’s true, above all, that I am here, alone, with this obstinate, mocking sea that laughs and tosses me about at its pleasure, as if God had gone and left an intermediary to punish me for my sins. It’s true, Coleridge’s albatross loved me and I killed it.
A prolific, multifaceted writer and scholar, Luis Alberto de Cuenca possesses one of Spain’s most distinctive poetic voices. His poems, elegant yet devious, explore the expressive resources of the conversational register by making use of a variety of materials: classical antiquity, comic books, Hollywood movies, slang, urban culture. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, he has been a major influence on younger Spanish poets. Cuenca received Spain’s National Poetry Prize in 2015 for Cuadernos de vacaciones, and in 2021 he won the prestigious Federico García Lorca International Poetry Prize.
A writer and scholar, Gustavo Pérez Firmat is the David Feinson Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. He has published several books of poetry in Spanish and English, including Sin lengua, deslenguado, and Bilingual Blues. His books of literary and cultural criticism include Saber de ausencia, Life on the Hyphen, and Tongue Ties.
the spot I’m from the lot where wounds bloom to pry open space
voice clenched inside the stone and waiting for fresh water my wind slinks out of the tree to delta into vertigos how can I arrive at different rivers what weather can I yank the stitch of rain out of for my land
north-large-whole south-little-hole noise-that-matters voice-in-tatters piddling class crossed this world that’s hacked into nations have cut my paws to chuck
homeland I’ve looked for you with no luck I’ll have to invent you you rattle my arteries are more present than the spliff at my lip warmer than the lover against my skin but the world walls up shudders won’t raise the gate of your residence for me
neither more nor less advanced in equal step with humanity my country won’t reach the heights of the grand powers but will share its ladder red bird rage-lark there will be blue sky for a river fresh cry for a mouth a white season for weapons I will be born in this country bulrush-ministry parliament-of-mourning-doves
du point je suis d’où fleurissent plaies à fracturer l’espace
voix fermée dans la pierre en attente d’eau fraîche mon vent se détache de l’arbre pour ramifier vertiges comment atteindre d’autres fleuves de quel temps extraire pluie pour ma terre
nord-grand-entier sud-petit-tiers bruit-qui-compte voix-sous-bottes basse moyenne ai traversé monde que voici taillé en pays me suis coupé les pattes
pays mien je te cherche en vain il faut t’inventer tu secoues mes artères plus présent que le chanvre à ma lèvre plus chaud que l’amoureuse contre ma peau mais le monde mur autour des convulsions me refuse où te domicilier
ni plus avancé ni moins avancé à pas égal avec l’humain mon pays n’ira pas aux sommets des grandes puissances mais partagera sons échelle oiseau rouge rage-allumette ce sera bleu ciel pour rive cri frais pour bouche saison blanche pour les armes je naîtrai dans ce pays ministère-roseau parlement-tourterelle
deadended clouds the frail dolls of morning latch on to the airlift
each dive drops the heart back into its childhood what branch shudders so ecstatically a wing will not devour it
oblivion the hanger I hang the flags from so I can offer the alms of my hand
behind each being a sheet glows here I am without markings the sea is no mast
cyclonic gown footing slipshod in your floods in your rains I remain dry what a revel if I open my window it’s because you are a pledge
nuages en impasse poupées frêles les matins s’attachent à la fuite
toute chute ramène le cœur à son enfance quelle branche jouit si folle une aile ne la dévore
oubli cintre où j’accroche drapeaux pour donner ma main en offrande
derrière chaque être luit une voile me voici sans empreinte la mer n’est pas un poteau
robe au cyclone perdre pied dans vos déluges dans vos pluies m’étancher quelle fête si j’ouvre ma fenêtre c’est que vous êtes une promesse
am I poor
burned up, my newborn blood grew up inside a lack limb too much for the body to lift
my mother chopped down sugarcane bum harvest for the History that played dumb in the scholarly account
my flesh still mulls the slash the historian filed away in the void
nowadays am I poor don’t reach for your abacus
every tax to keep me quiet settled my shame fully paid up and I’ve still got a couple gobs to lob into the brimming evening of your capital
brûlé mon sang nouveau-né ai grandi dans le manque membre trop lourd pour le corps
ma mère a coupé la canne à sucre nulle récolte pour l’Histoire foutue muette dans le conte scolaire
ma chair rumine encore l’amer que l’historien a archivé dans l’oubli
maintenant suis-je pauvre n’attrape pas ta machine à calculer
acquittée toute taxe de me taire dépensée ma honte il me reste ces quelques crachats à jeter dans la nuit pleine de ton capital
coming for the lack coming in pieces hyphen closing the road murk-made animal coming for sleep throat slashed deep
sown in rafts at my feet a strait the tributary limps into my head the fogs skirt past bowed the word grows brittle the next step dust the gardens darkness locks belong to me I’m on my way to be finished off in daylight
viendrai pour l’absence viendrai cassé trait à fermer route animal ténèbre viendrai au sommeil gorge décapitée
semée en radeaux à mes pieds étroitesse où s’épuise branche contournent ma tête les brumes arqué le mot s’effrite poussière prochain pas à moi jardins clos par l’opacité je viendrai achevé au jour
These four translations come from Jean D’Amérique’s third collection of poems, Atelier du silence or The Workshop of Silence. D’Amérique is a prolific writer with an exceptionally well-tuned ear (honed by his early years in the slam poetry scene) and a rigorous and unflinching moral outlook. It would be an oversimplification to say that his poems are about Haiti, the nation of his birth and upbringing, and the political, economic, and cultural situation therein, but it would be a disservice to pretend they are not deeply concerned with it. When we see a poem like “homeland,” where the speaker has to “invent” where he is actually from, a poem that makes a government out of the natural elements and beauty that surround him, we come close to understanding the aspect of Haiti that animate him—the land itself, the origins of its songs and sounds and scents: bulrushes, larks, mourning doves.
In D’Amérique’s poetry, there is a dexterous ambivalence towards what others tend to take for granted—the kind of ambivalence that allows poetry to flourish. A nation, D’Amérique tells us, isn’t just its government, nor is it only its people. A language isn’t a simple tool but one inflected with history and still spattered with blood and injustice, as well as a material to be melted down, recast, wielded in new and surprising ways. The subject matter here is heavy—poverty, natural disaster, the first country to truly abolish slavery being shoved off the world stage for centuries—though the poems themselves are often unassuming and small on the page; we might go so far as to say that this is a kind of formal imitation of the nation’s geographic size and outsized historical/experiential weight.
But just as Haiti is more than its history and its geopolitical status, and just as D’Amérique is more than his passport, these poems bristle with surplus—consonance and puns, tenderness and anger, meditations on the nature of poetry and music and scathing indictments of regimes. His poetry abounds, and in its abundance resists the kinds of shortsighted, divisive categorizations that seek to reduce the world’s complexity so it can be more easily fenced.
Born in Haiti in 1994, Jean D’Amérique is a prize-winning poet, playwright, and novelist who splits his time between Paris, Brussels, and Port-au-Prince. He has published several collections of poetry: Petite fleur du ghetto (Atelier Jeudi Soir), Nul chemin dans la peau que saignante étreinte (Cheyne), Atelier du silence (Cheyne); and Rhapsodie rouge (Cheyne). Author of several plays, he has received the Prix Jean-Jacques Lerrant des Journées de Lyon des Auteurs de Théâtre for Cathédrale des cochons (éditions Théâtrales) and the 2021 Prix RFI Théâtre for Opéra poussière. His first novel, Soleil à coudre, is out now from Actes Sud.
Conor Bracken is a poet and translator. He is the author of Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press) and The Enemy of My Enemy is Me (Diode Editions), and the translator of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center) and Jean D’Amérique’s forthcoming No Way in the Skin Without This Bloody Embrace (Ugly Duckling Presse). He lives near Cleveland, Ohio. Translator photo by Lupita Eyde-Tucker.
As they did at around four o’clock every Sunday, the brass band was setting up for a performance in the town park. Pauline Chartreux packed the chairs tightly just beside the pavilion, where nothing impeded the sun’s rays; no need to set them under the black locust trees for shade on this cool April afternoon.
“What a glorious spring day!” said Madame Socovic, handing her a coin. “It was about time we saw some nice weather again.”
The attendant mumbled only a vague pleasantry in response, for a stranger had caught her attention: an amiable-looking man in his forties, tall and thin, with dark hair. You could see in his eyes that he was compassionate and curious about his surroundings. He wore a well-tailored suit and stylish shoes.
Mayor Bergeron stood on the podium in his capacity as bandleader, whispering last-minute reminders to the musicians. By now nearly all the chairs were occupied, and people were turning around to comment on each other’s clothing and share their news.
Pauline Chartreux observed the newcomer out of the corner of her eye. She wondered what he might be after.
The mayor’s wife arrived, in a muslin dress that was too lightweight for the season, and took her seat beside Madame Socovic. Her husband raised his right hand, as though her arrival were all he’d been waiting for, and the band launched into “Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka.”
The stranger, who had been leaning against a tree trunk, now walked slowly around the pavilion. He looked to be in shock, but the attendant couldn’t imagine why; she saw nothing out of the ordinary about the concert or the audience. He came up to her, handed her a coin, and took a seat.
Pauline Chartreux sat down well behind the audience and crossed her hands over her belly, like a shepherdess minding her flock. The musicians performed fifteen pieces or so—an indiscriminate mix of classical repertoire, military marches, and recent pop tunes.
After the concert she started folding up the chairs. She noticed the stranger, still glued to his seat, keenly eyeing the musicians as they put away their instruments.
“Did you enjoy the concert, sir?” she called out to him. “The band is good, don’t you think?”
As if waking from a dream, the man said, “Beg your pardon? Oh, yes, of course. Do they play often?”
“Every Sunday. Other musicians play here sometimes, too. On Saturdays. Next week we’ll have a folk group from Limousin.”
But the man’s mind was clearly elsewhere. Smack in the middle of her sentence, he wished Madame Chartreux a pleasant day and left the park.
She saw him again every afternoon that week, scrutinizing the passersby for an hour or two. At the pharmacy one morning, she learned that he was a doctor by the name of Daniel Pile and that he’d just taken over a local practice upon the previous doctor’s retirement.
That Saturday, he arrived right on time for the folk music show. The audience took up only three rows and consisted mostly of young moms and little kids. As the performers began singing and dancing, the attendant observed Dr. Pile glaring at the audience members with evident annoyance. He got up and left during the second song.
As he walked briskly to the back of the park, Daniel Pile was thinking about the four patients who had come to see him that morning, making this his busiest day yet. Either all the local residents were in excellent health or they were reluctant to trust a doctor who was new in town. Maybe he ought to leave and start over somewhere else.
Pile noticed a man near the swan pond, dressed in blue, with an even, expressionless face. He started up a conversation and observed the man as they discussed the weather forecast and the bakers’ strike. His mouth moved only to let words out; it didn’t budge otherwise, neither to smile nor to frown. His eyes were a blank page. There wasn’t a wrinkle on his face, even though his gray hair suggested he was a man of a certain age. The doctor wanted to touch the man’s unlined cheeks but couldn’t think of any pretext to do so. Four of the musicians from the brass band in the town park, whom he’d initially taken for brothers, had that same face—featureless and free of scars or, indeed, of any distinguishing features whatsoever. And in the audience at the previous Sunday’s concert, Pile had spotted a half-dozen people suffering from the same anomaly.
Night was starting to fall; he thought it was time to go home. Then he saw a young woman approaching, her stride constricted to baby steps due to the tightness of her long green dress. Her straight brown bangs were long enough to cover her eyebrows, which made her look rather peculiar. She was making her way down the path, vigorously shaking a soda can. She stopped near the puppet theater and seemed to be looking for someone. Her gaze rested for a moment on Daniel Pile before settling on a red-haired young man sprawled on a bench. Affecting an inscrutable pout, she headed resolutely toward him across the park. Out of curiosity, the doctor followed her. The brunette held the can in her right hand, behind her back, and kept shaking it.
An old man was sitting at the foot of a sycamore tree. Beneath the brim of his off-white canvas cap, his face simply radiated impishness. Daniel Pile had a soft spot for faces like his, creased with the vestiges of childhood laughter. The old man looked up calmly at the woman, who was holding the soda can out to him.
“Could you help me? I have tendinitis and I can’t get this can open.”
He smiled and pulled the tab. The soda shot out of the can and splashed all over his face. The old man closed his eyes.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” the woman cried. “I must have jostled it too much. Here, I’ll dry you off.”
A white towel appeared in her hand. She unfolded it and placed it over the old man’s face. With her fingertips she traced the curve of his eyebrows, his eye sockets and cheeks, his nose and mouth and chin; she swept her fingers across his forehead. And then she gathered together the corners of the fabric, which remained stiff and rounded. She walked away, apologizing once again, upon which the man replied that the pleasure was all his.
Daniel Pile looked at the old man’s face and was astonished by what he saw: not a single feature, no expression whatsoever. It would be impossible to guess his age. The charming air of mischief he’d had just moments before was gone. There was nothing left of him on which to pin a description, aside from his notably large ears.
Pile went up to him and said, “I saw what just happened to you, sir. I’m a doctor. How are you feeling?”
“Very well,” the man said, showing neither surprise nor interest. “No big deal, just a few drops of soda.”
“But what about your face?”
“What, are you afraid the sugar will attract wasps?”
Up close, the doctor couldn’t see a single hair or pore on the man’s face, nor even the tiniest of capillaries. The face was human, but it was as though it were covered with a taut layer of soft silk. The old man left, taking tiny steps, and Pile followed behind him. The park was about to close; security guards on mopeds were chugging along on the paths, asking folks to leave.
In the weeks that followed, Dr. Pile returned frequently, bringing books and medical journals with him. He exchanged pleasantries with the attendant, then spent long hours sitting on a bench near the main entrance. Now and then he saw featureless beings pass by. Aside from a few clues as to their age, gender, and (in some cases) occupation, there was no telling them apart.
It took three weeks of waiting, but finally he saw the young brunette again. This time she was wearing a white tulle skirt and a long yellow tunic. Holding a soda can, she walked past the doctor without so much as a glance in his direction. No one would call her a beauty—her nose was a bit too prominent for that!—but her eyes were distinctive enough to compensate. She took the circular path alongside the swan pond. A woman in her fifties, knitting in the shade of a linden tree, looked up at the sound of someone approaching. Her pink complexion was a perfect match for the yarn she was using. The strange brunette held out the soda, pointed to her right hand, and said she couldn’t open it.
Pile hurried over. “Allow me,” he said, grabbing the metal cylinder.
The young woman looked at him, first with surprise, then with rage. Without breaking eye contact, he slid his index finger over the tab.
“Come to think of it,” he said, “why don’t we have a soda together, at the café across the street?”
Sitting in the sun outside Le Caboulot, the stranger seemed more wary than aggrieved as Daniel Pile explained who he was and how things had gone for his first few months in town. Her name was Alice Lespovy, she told him, and she’d always lived in the neighborhood. She’d gotten married young, to a piano teacher. He’d disappeared two years later, never to be heard from again.
Upon hearing the word “piano,” Pile took a harmonica from his jacket pocket. He put it to his lips and played a few muted notes. Alice’s eyes went misty.
“Stop. Please stop. I hate the harmonica.”
He immediately put the instrument away.
“My father was a country doctor,” he said. “He’s the one who taught me music.”
She quickly pulled herself together and said, “You followed in his footsteps, then?”
“I was a florist first, then an insurance underwriter. It wasn’t until my wife and son died that I took an interest in healing people. That’s when I enrolled in medical school.”
Alice was starting to stand up when Daniel Pile asked her, “Why do you do it?”
“You know perfectly well what I mean. You wipe your victims’ faces and take them with you.”
She snickered. “My ‘victims’! That’s a bit much. I don’t hurt them. And I certainly don’t ‘take their faces’! They still have all their human characteristics: a nose, a mouth, a pair of eyes—”
“But not what matters. Not what makes them unique, what makes them distinctive. I’ve spoken with several of them. It’s not just that blank mask they all wear; their minds are empty too. They take no interest in anything. They come and go, they work and eat and keep busy, but they have no emotions.”
“And don’t you think they’re happier that way, Dr. Pile?” she said, emphasizing his title.
“What’s your goal?”
She shifted her weight and nibbled on her lower lip.
“Come along with me, Daniel. You’ll understand.”
They climbed Trois Grenadiers hill, up toward the water tower. Pile took the young woman’s hand. She didn’t pull away, but her smile was noncommittal. She led him to a cul-de-sac and opened a gate, revealing an elegant stone house surrounded by high walls. They entered, walked through a dark passageway, and came out again through another door. To Pile, it seemed like he was back where he’d started. In the middle of the yard was a band pavilion. Several musicians had already taken their places; some audience members were seated as well, patiently awaiting the start of the concert. A bit farther away was the cabin where Madame Chartreux stored her chairs. The doctor went up to an old lady in a purple dress—or, rather, a mannequin dressed in purple. Her face was wrinkled to perfection. Daniel touched it with his fingertips and found it warm and alive. Then he spotted the man with the off-white cap, the one whose features he’d watched Alice steal. There was a wax figure of a standing woman, dressed like the park attendant, but her face was just a smooth mass.
“That’s right,” Alice said. “Madame Chartreux is one of my clients.”
While they drank tea together on the veranda, Pile’s curiosity got the better of him.
“On a technical level, how do you do it?”
She threw her head back and burst out laughing.
“What, you really think I’m going to tell you?”
“That towel you use to take away your so-called clients’ features—it must be soaked in some kind of substance. You could tell me that much, at least.”
“It’s a family secret. My mother was a chemist; I can’t say any more about it. But there’s no greater mystery about it than there is in, say, photography.”
“Shut up and kiss me, Daniel. I’m dying for you to kiss me.”
Pile got used to seeing the wax figures installed in the garden. Sometimes he even helped his girlfriend freshen them up. They were sheltered by an electric tarp that automatically unfurled at the first hint of rain, but even so, they took a beating from exposure to the wind. There were leaves to pick off of them and dust to remove from their clothing; their hair needed primping now and then. Madame Chartreux’s double still hadn’t gotten her human face. The attendant had twice refused to open Alice’s soda can, on the grounds that “those chemical drinks are bad for your health.” Daniel Pile thought she might be smarter than she looked. Joining the crowd around the pavilion were Madame Socovic, the watchmaker, and the hairdresser, and two musicians had joined their colleagues on the bandstand.
The first time Alice went to the little house behind the town hall, Daniel Pile showed her around his living quarters, the examining room, and even the cellar.
“And what’s in there?” she asked, pointing to a door next to Daniel’s bedroom.
“My butterfly collection.”
He took a key from his pocket and opened the door. This small, square room with the shutters drawn housed the most stunning butterfly specimens Alice had ever seen. They were arranged by color. To her right were the blues, ranging from lightest to darkest, followed by the purples and pinks; to her left, yellows and oranges, greens and browns. In the center were blood-red and black butterflies, one of them a giant. There were only a few white butterflies, but their wings had a satiny sheen. Alice expected the labels beneath each specimen to be in Latin, but instead there was a first name, followed by an initial and a date.
“Why do you give them names?”
“Why do you put real faces on your wax figures?”
In a display case near the door were two magnificent butterflies. One was a tiny specimen, pale green with glints of white; the larger one was midnight blue with specks of gold.
“Why are they kept separate from the rest?”
“They’re the first two I caught. A special souvenir.”
“Where do you catch them? In East Asia? There are no butterflies around here with such gorgeous coloring.”
“Oh, they’re around,” Pile said breezily, “if you know where to look.”
On her way home, she stopped by the town park and asked the attendant her opinion of Daniel Pile.
“Is he a good doctor? What are people saying about him?”
“That he’s trustworthy enough,” Pauline Chartreux told her, “if you’ve got the flu or a nail infection. But apparently he has some awfully strange methods when it comes to caring for the dying. He insists on staying with them, alone, and playing music for them right up to the end. But, hey, maybe that helps them get to the other side!”
Daniel was more tender toward Alice here at his house, more relaxed than he was at hers, where he was always afraid he’d fall asleep and she’d take advantage of the opportunity to steal his face. In his own home, though, he felt secure. One day he told her as much.
“Don’t worry,” she said with a laugh. “Your face is of no interest to me. You haven’t been living here long enough.”
He understood then that she was in it for revenge.
“Nobody in town seems surprised to see well-known people suddenly walk around with blank faces. Don’t you find that odd, Alice? And why no reaction from the families of the faceless?”
“You don’t know them, Daniel. We live among apathetic people. Lacking in intelligence, if you ask me. It’s like they’re all bathed in blissful, self-satisfied ignorance. Before and after my treatment, there’s hardly any difference.”
Pile had noticed this phenomenon before. This place had no character to speak of; the town planning was vague at best, and the population was chockablock with morons.
One evening he returned home to find Alice standing at his door, shivering in the light drizzle.
“I’ve been here for an hour,” she complained. “Where were you?”
“With one of your ‘clients,’ as you put it. Monsieur Granier. He just died.”
She followed him into the kitchen, where he poured himself a glass of wine.
“Are you in a bad mood because you couldn’t save him?”
“He didn’t have a butterfly!” he blurted. “Just like last week, with Madame Leplat. This maddening compulsion of yours is impeding my work.”
Alice asked him what he meant, but he demanded she leave.
By the time Alice returned the next day, he was in a better mood and treated her with kindness. After they made love, she asked him, “What do you play for your patients who are, you know, transitioning? Are we talking ‘Camptown Races’ or ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee?’”
He took his harmonica from his jacket pocket and put it to his lips. A melancholy tune filled the room. Alice ran, screaming, out to the hallway, her eyes wild and her hands pressed flat against her ears. He caught up to her in the living room and held her close.
“What are you afraid of? You think the tune kills off everyone who hears it? If that were the case, I’d have kicked the bucket long ago.”
“You know I hate the harmonica. It sends shivers down my spine. The very thought of you playing it at moments like those . . .”
Later, while making coffee for her, he began to tell his story.
“It was nighttime. We were driving back from Italy. My wife and my son were asleep. It was raining. I don’t remember what happened. When I opened my eyes, the car was in a ravine. A tree had broken its fall. I managed to make my way out. My leg was injured. My wife and Frédéric had been ejected from the car. They were lying farther down the hill, a few yards apart. I crawled down to them. We were on a mountain road; I had no chance of getting help for them in time. I instinctively took out my harmonica and played them the tune you heard earlier, to comfort them. I don’t know who wrote it, but my father used to play it for me when I was sick. He said he’d learned it from a fairy. Frédéric died right away, with his head on my knees, illuminated by a headlight from our car. That’s when I saw something emerging from my son’s right eye. It was hesitant, quivering. I kept blowing into my instrument. It was the only thing I could do to contend with my fear and despair. Something came detached from the eye—just a shiver of pale green. I couldn’t understand. I grabbed hold of the thing and saw that it was a butterfly. My son kept a small tin box in his pocket for his marbles, a whistle, all his little-boy treasures. I emptied it out and put the insect inside. And then a few minutes later, his mother died too. At the sound of my harmonica, a butterfly slipped out of her right eye. A gorgeous one, the deep colors of midnight.”
When Alice left, the doctor understood that she wouldn’t want to see him anymore.
A few weeks went by. His patients presented with insignificant maladies: sore throats, gastritis, sprains. Nothing to suggest an impending influx of Lepidoptera. He’d only been present for five or six deaths since he’d set up his practice here, and two of those didn’t count. As winter approached, Pile hoped that the damp cold would bring its fair share of germs to town, but the natives were a sturdy bunch. He’d come to the wrong place for butterfly hunting.
One Sunday afternoon he went to the town park. Madame Chartreux, who noted what a long time it had been since last she saw him, was all smiles. The brass band’s concert was about to start. More than half of the musicians on the bandstand, the conductor among them, were identical. Pile looked around at the audience. He recognized the mayor’s wife by her jewelry, the pharmacist by his goiter, and the parish priest by the prayer book sticking out of his pocket.
He ran to Trois Grenadiers hill in a rage. No sooner had Alice opened the door than he was ordering her to put an end to her activities and threatening to report her to the police if she persisted.
“I suppose you find it more proper to lie in wait for people to die so you can pin some poor creatures for your collection?”
“You’re so self-centered. You know you’re putting me at a disadvantage when you steal faces. It’s even occurred to me that you’re purposely targeting the old and the weak, the ones most likely to die soon, just to make me watch them for nothing.”
Her only reply was a disdainful smile.
“This collection matters so much to me,” he continued. “In the end, I’m not even doing anything wrong; I just play music for the dying. I make it easier for them.”
Dr. Pile’s office was closed for over a month. As luck would have it, he ran into Alice in the street as soon as he returned to town.
“Been away?” she asked, gesturing at his suitcase.
“Indeed. I was in India.”
“No. I was training at a medical research lab.”
“Oh,” she said indifferently. “I’ve heard people die in the streets there. I suppose you must have dozens of butterflies with you.”
During his absence, Alice had been busy as a bee. Plenty of folks had agreed to open the can. It was high time he intervened.
Two weeks after his return, he was called to a young man’s bedside and was unable to save him. The boy’s mother died shortly thereafter, followed by his sister. Once the tally of the dead had risen into double digits, newspapers started running headlines about this mysterious epidemic. The symptoms resembled those of a few diseases endemic to Asia, but specialists couldn’t reach a consensus about which one this was. At last Daniel Pile had the practice of his dreams. His collection kept growing.
One day a lady came to fetch him for her neighbor, who had been sick for several days but refused to see a doctor.
“Especially not you,” the lady said. “But she’s in a very bad way this morning, and the other doctors are busy, so I came anyway.”
He was not surprised when she led him to Alice’s house. Upon entering the bedroom, he saw that the neighbor wasn’t mistaken: Barely a glimmer of life remained in the young woman’s eyes. Nevertheless, Pile sensed that she could recognize him. He took her hand and began keeping watch.
Knowing how she abhorred the harmonica, he waited until the last possible moment to play his melody. When it was all over, he went down to the garden for a final visit to the band pavilion and its habitués. A violent wind had been blowing for several days, and most of the wax figures looked the worse for wear. A few had fallen over and broken in half, their faces vibrant as ever despite being covered in dust. He returned home, now and then patting the little tin box in his pocket. It contained one of his finest butterflies: orange, with streaks of gray and brown.
Like much of Monique Debruxelles’s short fiction, “The Chimera Pavilion” is set in a funhouse-mirror version of rural France. These small towns may appear quaint and postcard-perfect from a safe distance, but a closer look reveals them to be rife with hazards. Upon arrival in any of Debruxelles’s fictional villages, tourists and newcomers ought to be given fair warning: If the supernatural forces don’t kill them, the local gossip and long-simmering resentments between neighbors just might.
When we first meet Daniel Pile, he is getting settled in a new town and struggling to keep his newly acquired medical practice afloat. Many residents seem to be avoiding treatment even though they suffer from a novel affliction characterized by a “faceless” appearance; worse still, he seems to be alone in noticing the preponderance of expressionless faces and vapid personalities among the local population. Just when the reader might expect him to investigate whether there’s something in the water, Dr. Pile discovers instead that there’s something in the soda cans: a mysterious chemical used by a grudge-holding local woman to wipe away her neighbors’ facial features. But saving his new neighbors from the threat hiding in plain sight isn’t a simple matter for him, in practical or ethical terms. He’s a perfectly capable physician, but his preferred medical device is the harmonica he plays when patients are on their deathbeds—and that music is intended for his benefit, not theirs.
In addition to Debruxelles’s hauntingly visceral imagery, the pleasures and challenges of translating a story like “The Chimera Pavilion” extend to its pacing. The revelation of Dr. Pile’s ulterior motives is gradual, and so is the change in tone—a vague unease that intensifies almost imperceptibly into a pervasive sense of dread. Word choices naturally contribute to that effect, but in the process of translating this story, I found punctuation and paragraph breaks to be just as important.
One key example of this falls early in the story, when we learn that Dr. Pile has concerns about the viability of his practice: “Either all the local residents were in excellent health or they were reluctant to trust a doctor who was new in town. Maybe he ought to leave and start over somewhere else.” Looking back at this passage with the knowledge we’ve gained by the end of the story, Dr. Pile’s meaning is brutally clear—his “butterfly hunting” would be easier in a place where more people were both sick and trusting of doctors—but without that context, it seems harmless. The reference to the locals being “in excellent health” initially sounds like a joke rather than a complaint; their supposed reluctance to trust an outsider would provide a logical explanation for his business troubles. Moreover, I think it’s natural that we as readers fill in some context that isn’t strictly on the page: “Maybe he ought to leave and start over somewhere else” because he needs to make a living or because he wants to find a community where his services are needed and appreciated. While the original French text has no paragraph break after that sentence, I’ve inserted one in the English translation to make this brief passage more visible on the page and encourage readers to linger on this brilliant moment of subtle misdirection.
Monique Debruxelles is the author of four short story collections and co-author of three crime novels. Her short fiction appeared for the first time in English in 2022, in The Southern Review. Retired from a career in the civil service, she lives in a suburb of Paris and writes the mystery and magic that lie beneath even the most mundane routines.
Laura Nagle is a translator and writer based in Indianapolis. Her translations of prose and poetry from French and Spanish have appeared in journals including AGNI, The Southern Review, and The Los Angeles Review. Songs for the Gusle, her translation of Prosper Mérimée’s 1827 hoax, La Guzla, is forthcoming from Frayed Edge Press.
From a rocky perch you scan your eye over the scene for a moment. Then you recall once, a long way back, you’d set off from this very spot. —Steinn Steinarr
Welsh-blue canvas facing the southern mountains.
Saturation of colors in which the spectator is aroused by bleating sheep.
Projections reflected off of an exterior wall.
Video shot with a fisheye lens, as if completely underwater.
Teapots, cups, plates, glasses, spoons fall softly.
A woman watches the spectator from the wall.
She makes her way through seaweed and coral reefs.
She keeps smiling, nothing disturbs the feeling.
She mouths: The world was on fire and no one could save me but you while Chris Isaak plays in the background.
The spectator becomes an interactive entity.
The garden houses two red armchairs of monumental scale,
a gigantic lamp dimly flickers.
In another corner a medium TV displays
photographs framing parts of a naked body, mountain horizons, bursts of color and texture, memories of flashes:
rhythmic essences of video clips, paradoxes, detonators for found feelings, shots of dialogue:
identification and similitudes: visual code: mass media:
paintings swirling behind the glass.
Multicolored blanket covering a prone body. Frost of sweat and wine. The relic of a saint amid the light footsteps of summer. An aurora borealis under an arm. A desert mirage on snow-covered ground. Familiar territory of childhood.
Eat wild truffles until you pass out.
A celebration of prayer, a plea for the deer.
Airship trailing a metallic line until it reaches a point of t h a t distance.
While proceeding /aimless/ in the sand /ferocious/ among fleeting aerial serpents she observes (captive eye before cosmic opacity):
b r i e f g l i m p s e s o f b e a u t y.
Sonic sketch. Heart percussions in flight.
State your name: Hydrocodone-acetaminophen at the foot of a snowy peak.
The spectator drinks words by the gallon. History intervening on his eyelids.
Black stains on the wet.
Phrasing.Delimiting word or mother tongue.
Auroras borealis.Spiral galaxies.
Lowered onto tongue, one capsule, every six hours, as needed.
Waving arms.Save me.
Smells and marks out. In the immensity, he tackles. Inside geysers, an ageless paradise.
One moment identical to the next. and to the next. and to the next.
Fingernails skin shoulders left ear. A bomb flies across the sky.
A point of that distance. That’s what we are.
Can you hear the nearby song, each time deeper inside?
Let’s burn away. Without a trace.
Sentado en una piedra recorres con tu vista el escenario un instante. Recuerdas entonces que una vez, una vez hace ya mucho, echaste a andar desde este mismo sitio.
Lienzo de azul galés frente a las montañas del Sur.
Saturación de colores donde el espectador es provocado por balido de ovejas.
Proyecciones reflejadas en muro al aire libre.
Video grabado con lente “ojo de pez”, casi de manera total bajo el agua.
Ella mantiene la sonrisa, nada rompe la sensación.
Mueve los labios: The world was on fire and no one could save me but you mientras se escucha de fondo a Chris Isaac.
El espectador se vuelve un ente interactivo.
El jardín alberga dos sillones rojos a escala monumental,
una lámpara gigante apenas ilumina.
En otra esquina un televisor de mediano formato presenta
fotografías de partes de un cuerpo desnudo, horizontes de montaña, estallidos de color
y texturas, recuerdos de lo fugaz:
esencias rítmicas de videoclips, paradojas, detonadores
de sensaciones encontradas, imágenes de diálogo:
identificación y similitudes: código visual: medios
pinturas que se mueven detrás del cristal.
Manto multicolor sobre cuerpo tendido. Escarcha de sudor y vino. Entre las pisadas ligeras del verano una reliquia de santo. Aurora boreal bajo el brazo. Espejismo del desierto en tierra nevada. Conocido territorio de la infancia.
Come trufas silvestres hasta perder el sentido.
Celebración de plegarias,
rezo para los ciervos.
Aerostático sobre línea metálica hasta alcanzar un punto de e s a distancia.
Mientras avanza /al azar/ en la arena /feroz/ entre aéreas serpientes fugaces observa (cautivo ojo ante opacidad cósmica):
f u g a c e s d e s t e l l o s d e b e l l e z a.
Trazo sónico. Vuelo de percusiones en el corazón.
Enunciar su nombre: Hidrocodeína con acetaminofén a pies de nevado.
El espectador bebe galones de palabras. Intervención de la Historia en los párpados.
Manchas negras sobre humedad.
Fraseo.Palabra que delimita o lengua madre.
Auroras boreales. Galaxias de punto radial.
Calado en lengua, una tableta cada seis horas, según el dolor.
Balanceo de brazos. Sálvame.
Huele y demarca. En la inmensidad, ataja. Paraíso de los años en géiseres.
Instante idéntico al siguiente. y al siguiente. y al siguiente.
Uñas piel hombros oído izquierdo. Una bomba vuela por los cielos.
Un punto de esa distancia.
¿Escuchas el canto cercano, cada vez más dentro?
Ardamos. Hasta desparecer.
“Coda” is the final poem in Rocío Cerón’s poetry collection Borealis. In her book, Rocío explores language’s limits as disjointed images pile up into an improbable still life—arctic landscapes, relic-filled cathedrals, clinical operating rooms, the motionless anticipation before a dropped bomb, a catastrophe built without verbs. While these poems stand alone, Cerón’s multi-vocal, fragmentary, imagistic approach on the page bears strong traces of her live performances. I encourage any interested reader to visit her site for videos of Rocío performing from Borealis, where her poems are fully realized in the multi-disciplinary practice she calls “expanded poetry.” The energy and rhythm of her readings have had just as much influence on my translation as our conversations on individual word choice and meaning. Thanks for reading.
Poet and multimedia artist Rocío Cerón is based in Mexico City. Her work transits between artistic languages creating transmedia pieces. She recently has released the sound poetry album Sonic Bubbles (2020) and the poetry collection Spectio (2019). Follow her creative process on instagram.com/laobservante/ and read/hear/see her work on rocioceron.com.
Dallin Law is a translator from the Spanish, focusing on experimental Mexican literature. His translations of Rocío Cerón have also been published in The Canary, Poetry Daily, Denver Quarterly, and Circumference. He is a graduate of the Translator’s Workshop at the University of Iowa.