A fleshy truth lurks behind the poems in Luis Panini’s Destruction of the Lover, as translated by Lawrence Schimel: the lover becomes a lover via sex. Or, better yet: a lover becomes the lover via sex. Lots and lots of sex, through both the fantasy and reality of it, through both the dreaming and living of it, and through both the writing and remembering of it. Sex, not romance.
For the speaker of these corpulent poems, the lover is formed, lives, dies in three places: in bed, in the anticipation of bed, in the memory of bed. “One body atop another body. That’s how our story began, that accident,” he confides, situating the reader at the start of a loose narrative timeline that develops throughout the sequentially numerated prose poems of the collection. Only the speaker’s desire for his lover, and the acrobatic culmination of this desire, matters. The speaker does not engage his lover’s psychology, nor plumb the layers that compile the other’s desire. The lover is a body, beloved body, on bed. Nonetheless, this material body should never be considered minor, as the literal body of the lover becomes a vast figurative source.
To destroy the lover, as the title of the collection reveals ad inicio as the inevitable end of the text at hand, it is necessary to first create him. Creation occurs via the speaker’s meticulous descriptions of his interactions with his lover’s body, which become a documentary on the violent physicality of passion. For example: “Like an arm entering the sleeve of a shirt, that’s how my pinky disappears into your foreskin’s many folds. Its knuckles remain tucked away, dressed in that excess skin after devouring the phalange.” And again: “You don’t need tattoos or moles, perforations or scars. Not a single distinguishing mark is required because it is quite simple for me to single out your skin from that of other naked animals.”
Love is an emotion that often gets tangled up/in/with sex, the body accused of confusing the heart as regards the bonds that tie. Panini, though, leads us through a love story in which love is wholly physical, in which love is borne from and remains entrenched in the world of sinew and bone, of desire and the search for its satisfaction. This is not a love story about two individuals making plans for the future, splitting chores, taking turns prioritizing the day-to-day living of each of their joined lives. And yet, love like this, like the one Panini puts forth, orgasmic by design, is no less real. No less sustaining in its duration and in its memory. No less meaningful in its profundity. No less painful in its loss. Panini delivers his message as afterthought: perhaps love is not a monopoly of the heart.
After the lover is created via twenty-five numerically titled poems, destruction occurs. As usual, it is easier to devour than to erect; destruction only requires sixteen moments of text. And yet, however heartbroken the speaker claims to be, he establishes his control from the beginning: “You neither create nor destroy me, you only transform me.” The destruction of the lover results in a change of identity for the speaker. No longer lover to his lover, he becomes absence of lover, longing for lover, desire for desire. An empty bed forces the speaker to encounter himself.
Once passion can no longer inhabit the realm of the physical, indeed once the lover is physically gone, the speaker must grapple with emotion—rejection, fear, attachment after-the-fact, acute vulnerability: “From my eyes to yours, the torment. From your skin to my mouth, the abyss. The silences. The walls. An uncomfortable millimetric distance. Between the sheets, only the hysteria remains of your history.”
But “the torment” is short lived. Flash forward a few poems, and the narrator confesses: “I’m losing your scent.” What remains, indelible, is the record of the affair, a record self-aware of its worth. A record that knows it will be made public, while the identities of its characters remain private: “Its pages contain in private a story that couldn’t survive. The one that chose to omit our names. The one that shall remain an indecisive battle on the tips of two tongues.”
As an exercise in complex translation, the text is revelatory. Firstly, it offers readers a side-by-side layout of the work in both the original Spanish and the English translation. For native readers of Spanish, or even for those drawn to the exploration of poetry in another language, this layout is a rare indulgence, provided graciously by publishing house Pleiades Press. Perhaps the most salient example of translation done right is found in poem 11, which in Spanish posits the definition of the word “nervudo,” as borrowed from the classic dictionary of the Romance languages, El Pequeño Larousse. Schimel, instead of applying a plausible replacement via Merriam-Webster or the likes, supplies his definition for “vascularity” from Wikipedia, no doubt a choice intended to highlight where relevant meaning is produced in our culture today. Furthermore, “vascularity,” the word selected to represent “nervudo,” is itself a pointed choice. Not only does Schimel replace an adjective with a noun, but he makes a literal departure. “Nervudo” is a word more simply, more superficially, replaced with “sinewy.” Schimel wants us to know what he considers important. Source, precision matter less than meaning. What matters is the idea behind the words, the thought beyond. Verbatim is a boundary that the translator need not heed.
Destruction of the Lover is a graphic documentary of comprehensive coupling and abrupt uncoupling, in which a deep physical connection is achieved with minimal emotional accessory. Love can be like this, too, Panini tells us. It can be violent in its physicality, brief in its duration, brief, also, in its heartache. Who does not want, at least once and for a sweet while, a love like this?
Ana Maria Caballero is currently seeking an MFA in Poetry at Florida International University. In 2014 her collection Entre domingo y domingo (“From Sunday to Sunday”) won Colombia’s José Manuel Arango National Poetry Prize. Finishing Line Press published Mid-life, her first chapbook, in 2016. Her writing has appeared in various journals, including Smoking Glue Gun Magazine, CutBank, Red Savina Review, and Jai-Alai Magazine. She regularly shares her book thoughts at www.thedrugstorenotebook.co.