Most Argentinian readers would have already recognized huevos llenos, or tener los huevos llenos. This expression is literally “to have full balls,” which in Argentinian slang means “to be fed up.” Thénon re-genders the expression with her ova, telling us that it is she, a woman, who is fed up.
Thus, Smith outlines the themes grounded by the bold, incisive voice of Susana Thénon’s Ova Completa, first published in 1987 in Buenos Aires.
Born in 1935, Thénon was a member of Argentina’s Generación del 60, though she herself did not belong to any particular coterie of poets (she died in 1991). As in the United States at the time, Argentina’s young people during the 1960s experienced a volatile renewal and reinterpretation of notions of love, sex, and family, pushing the socially acceptable boundaries of domestic and professional life. Amid the rise of new waves of feminism, Thénon voiced sharp indictments against the subjection of her sex. Following the 1960s came Argentina’s notorious Dirty War (1976–’83) during which the government violently suppressed any perceived acts of dissension or rebellion, including disappearing up to 30,000 Argentinians suspected of left-wing activism. (The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo continued to protest the disappearance of their children until 2006, and while their movement has been globally recognized, the bodies of many kidnap victims have yet to be recovered.)
As befits Thénon’s often violent subject matter, which includes brutality and murder, the speakers in these poems adopt a harsh view of humanity. An untitled poem mounts the repeated charge that “you’ve considered killing / and you feel horrible” [“has pensado en matar / y te sentís horrible”], but then moves on to imagine a totally remorseless bloodthirstiness: “how great to kill corpses / for easter I’ll make them an inferno” [“qué bueno matar muertos / para pascua les armaré un infierno”]. Amid an alarming scenario of being unwittingly trapped in a concert-hall-turned-prison, the sanctity of human life is reduced to vague appeals to an uncertainly grounded God (“Kikirikyrie”). Thénon’s work accordingly blurs the lines between the safe and the surreal. Charged with incendiary wordplay, dexterous code-switching, and wry satire, Thénon’s poems thrust upon the reader their adamant rejection of sanitized form or censorship.
On the opening page, without even the filter of a title, Thénon lays the groundwork for her indictment in a poem fraught with aggressively repeated questions about a screaming woman. Though the unnamed woman ceases screaming by the end of the poem, the poet’s cross-examination does not. Her frustration echoes throughout the collection as she puts on trial the limitations of language, history, religion, and politics. The titular poem, “Ova,” captures the aggressive assault of its subject, rape. Once again dissecting language, Thénon experiments with textbook definitions and syntax, noting that “Philosophy means ‘rape of a living being’” [“Filosofía significa ‘violación de un ser viviente’”], and chases down the implications of invasive ideologies. She appropriates the language of the courtroom in her emotionless cataloging of the details of an actual rape, all the while demanding the true meanings of violation and justice, of the landscape and politics of a woman’s body (“fed up” or abundant with eggs, as the title suggests). The cyclic, mantra-like repetition of rhetorical questions and phrases volleyed between Spanish and English seamlessly transforms the accusations of the violator into the invitations of the liberator.
This volume showcases a commanding, defiant voice that constantly redirects its audience’s focus. Throughout the poems threads an insistent question, carefully reworded: “(do you remember that woman?)” [“(¿te acordás de esa mujer?)”] — or, later, “don’t you see she’s a woman?” [“¿no ves que es mujer?”]. The voice is rooted in a relentless pursuit of accountability, observing in one untitled poem that a world without Hell is a world without consequence. Later, the speaker considers the intersection of holiness and accountability in the aptly titled “The Dissection” [“La Disección”]:
almost holy thing
is an almost holy thing
a thing almost
so almost holy is this thing
that it forcibly draws the attention
the almost absolute blindness of people
taking into account that in the final accounting
it is almost unnecessary to see to believe …
[cosa casi sagrada
es una cosa casi sagrada
una cosa casi
tan casi sagrada es esta cosa
que llama poderosamente la atención
la casi absoluta ceguera de la gente
para tener en cuenta que a fin de cuentas
en casi innecesario ver para creer …]
The subtle shifts of repetition act as a form of translation in themselves, as Thénon calls into question the condition of what we still regard as (approximately) holy. Despite Smith’s formidable prowess at translation, the deftly crafted wordplay is more prominent in the original Spanish, as Thénon balances on razor-sharp distinctions, such as the shared border between “cosa” and “casi,” exchanging these words in a rapid cycle until they acquire an almost symbiotic relationship with each other.
Thénon writes of “language consciousness,” which she calls “a passport to marginality” [“conciencia de lengua […] es pasaporte a ma marginación”]. This theme is prominently featured in “Poem with Simultaneous Spanish-Spanish Translation” [“Poema con Traducción Simultánea Español-Español”], a few words of which Smith preserves in the original Spanish. As the ironic title denotes, the poem is less concerned with language than with “translation,” which in the context of the poem refers to revisions of historical narratives. Thénon takes to task Christ’s namesake Cristóforo Columbo, who
went off to sea
(went to seed)
behold these new worlds here
(behold the unworldly filth here)
for God and Our Queen
(for God and Our Queen)
A M E N
(O M E N)
[se hicieron a la mar
(se hicieron alamares)
ved aquí nuevos mundos
(ved aquí estos immundos)
por Dios y Nuestra Reina
(por Dios y Nuestra Reina)
A M É N
(O M E N)]
As well as the quasi-translations within the same language, this poem is also notable for an ingratiating use of English (a feature that appears in other poems as well). As Smith observes, the English language was banned from Argentinian radio under the dictatorship, and Thénon demonstrates her resistance to the policing of language by boldly featuring it here.
Ova Completa shows Thénon carefully considering all manner of dark and provocative subjects, yet she maintains throughout her own coherent vision, which at times seems remarkably hopeful. For example, in one poem she suggests that the future of Argentina lies in the hands of brave young girls, to whose representative she offers a toast:
to your health, little girl
don’t stop to wait for me
the rhetoric is my problem
when I find some happy ending
and I almost found it —
I’m going to clamber up
to your silence
to share it
no te detengas a esperarme
la retórica es mi problema
cuando yo encuentre algún final feliz
— y casi lo encontré —
voy a trepar
a tu callar
Shannon Nakai is a poet and book reviewer whose work has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Atlanta Review, The Literary Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Cream City Review, Image, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. A Fulbright Scholar and Pushcart Prize nominee, she currently lives with her husband and children in Wichita, Kansas. Follow her on Twitter @shan.violinlove.