Lost and Found in Translation: The Lovers’ Phrasebook, poems by Jordi Alonso & illustrations by Phoebe Carter

A busy antique store is nestled less than two blocks from my house, attracting dozens of elderly visitors every day, especially on Sundays. People seeking antique tools, silver, teapots, remembered artifacts. But I walk over for the postcards. In front of the cash register, four boxes of densely packed postcards, arranged alphabetically, leave traces of memory and stories. They’re often priced in small grab-bag clumps: love-notes, break-ups, Easter greetings, sorrow and grief, lovers’ stories left behind as ephemera for the curious collector to discover. Postcards are a nineteenth-century invention. The first known cards, designed specifically as objects to be mailed, came from Europe, via England, Austria, and Hungary. Their popularity as souvenir items skyrocketed after the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. As objets d’art, postcards have enchanted readers and collectors for more than a century.

Jordi Alonso’s postcard collection of poems, The Lovers’ Phrasebook, illustrated with stunning pastel art by Phoebe Carter, tangles language, romance, and translation in a spiral-bound objet d’art that invites intimacy while simultaneously deconstructing what may seem at first glance to be simplistic images of everyday encounter: hummingbirds, orchids, morning hair, tea for two, sunlight in winter woods. Alonso shapes each poem around the dimensions of an untranslatable word from a variety of languages.. Each detachable postcard poem interprets a word that cannot adequately be translated into English. And yet, each untranslatable word is brilliantly illustrated literally and metaphorically by Alonso and Carter. Carter’s pastel imagery directs the reader/viewer to an inner visual world while Alonso’s poems float on top, directing the reader’s attention into and out of the gaps between the language of love and the physical dimensions of love we experience as humans.

All of the poems bring an untranslatable word into vivid relief in both form and function. The collection is a tactile delight to hold in the hand and an invitation to release each work to a distant friend, a beloved, or to an ex-lover.

Alonso opens the collection with “The Dream of an Uncommon Language,” in which the speaker immediately deconstructs a desire for a common language:

          I do not dream
          of a common language,
          of a phrase I can say in Quito
          understood in Iowa,
          and smiled at in Jordan.

The speaker invites the interlocutor to dream “in languages we barely know,/of being as untranslatable/as we are.” The speaker lures the reader into this world of untranslatable words by disrupting dimensions of commonality with unfamiliar language that also evokes the most primal human situations and emotions. One of the most striking untranslatable words, “Qualtagh” (from Manx Gaelic) is a “Noun: the first person one sees after New Year’s or a significant event.” That poem, illustrated with two lovers spooning in bed, begins in the new year:

          The new year finds me
          in the arms of a bubbly lover

          whom I was
          too eager to kiss
          last night.

Alonso’s playful language dances on top of Carter’s illustrations, coercing the reader into the role of voyeur, looking on with prurient interest as these lovers “retreat to/the single syllables of necessity/which will keep us warm:/ hat, gloves, scarf, dates, tea, you.” The list of intimate objects arouse with their particularity, yet they are simple single-syllabled items common in every reader’s intimate space.

Each postcard’s untranslatable word comes with a representative city or locale as the origination on the mailing side of the card. In “Gumusservi” (Turkish. Noun: “the reflection of moonlight on water”) evokes greetings from Istanbul. Each card, each poem, is literally in transition as well as translation. “Gumusservi” is one of Alonso’s densest and most haikulike pieces:

          Night leaves
          its light for lovers
          twined under bedsheets.

          If I toss
          a stone in the lake,
          the moon dances.

Two tercets. Simple. And musically fluid perched on a drawing of a moonlit Turkish coastline.

For all the images of lovers and the delicate balance of points of view in the collection, it is the Russian-titled “Razliubit” (Verb: “to fall out of love”) that perhaps makes the greatest impact, tucked inside the second half of the collection.

          A misplaced remote
          doesn’t mean the start of an adventure anymore.

          You think a shared dessert
          is cute, but I want my cake.

This poem’s ten couplets– twenty lines in which we experience one couple’s unraveling–disrupt the romantic unity expressed by the other poems in the collection. The poem ends with the speaker asking, “what will it take/to ransom my favorite sweatshirt?” Most readers, certainly readers of love poetry, have inhabited this familiar space: when is it time to ransom objects possessed by another? In English, we describe it as “falling” out of love. But it’s not a fall–it’s a leap or a desperate jump. Alonso offers us the Russian “Razliubit”–a single untranslatable word as a bridge over the chasm created when a couple falls out of romantic love and into the prison of monotony. It’s a compelling piece illustrated with two lovers facing in opposite directions, alone together in the quotidian reality of their kitchen.

Love poetry is a cliché in the hands of an inexperienced writer. Alonso avoids all cliché as he deftly uses concrete details to engender the untranslatable—and universal—language of love. In “Vorfreude” (German, Noun: “the feeling of happiness that arises from thinking about future happinesses.” Literally: “before-joy”), the speaker sets the concrete in an overtly musical context:

          The first violinist
          adjusting her bow.

          A letter, signed love,
          left in a mahogany box.

          Fresh cream clouding with sugar,
          a quart of strawberries on the table.

          The stretching of a new book’s spine–
          nobody said yoga felt this good.

          The pop of a bottle of Prosecco
          and two crystal flutes.

The violin, mahogany box, cream and strawberries, a good book, and a bottle of Prosecco all strike the notes of simplicity and sumptuousness. Each of these images could be a past happiness, present, or a vision of the future. Here again, Alonso deconstructs the idea of untranslatability by providing each object with a charged linguistic vitality.

The book as a commodity, a collection of postcards to be mailed and sent to destinations unknown, renders the poems themselves as separate and distinct objects in ways that differentiate them from a traditional collection of poems. They’re perforated. Meant to be detached from one another, disrupting the temptation to construct a narrative arc inside of or in-between the poems. The poems compel the reader to mail them to lovers and ex-lovers, and yet they are intricately bound together by a plastic ring, flipping to the middle of the collection means nothing—where does the collection begin or end?

In her masterpiece, Lost in Translation, writer and director Sofia Coppola closes her film about two displaced Americans meeting in Tokyo with a poignant scene in which these two lovers, Bob and Charlotte played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, have one final whispered line the audience never hears. Bob, chasing Charlotte through downtown Tokyo, pulls her close and whispers in her ear, and into her tearful eyes, a line that brings a smile to her face and a gleeful grin to his. But the audience never hears this final line. In fact, according to the filmmakers themselves, the final moment between the lovers was improvised by Bill Murray and only he and Johansson know what he said. The film’s theme is embedded deep in its title—these lovers, from two different worlds and in two different times of life, find themselves lost in a Tokyo both strange and alluring. Jordi Alonso’s The Lovers’ Phrasebook has much of the same feel and mood as Coppola’s film. The strange and the familiar, the simplicity of a glance and the depth of regret cohabitate in this collection. We, as readers, are lost, and found, in the translations.
Amy Penne, PhD, is Professor of English at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois. Her work has been featured in InFact books’ Oh, Baby! True Stories About Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love, and her poetry and essays have appeared in journals including the I-70 Review, Change Seven, Minerva Rising, Fear of Monkeys, KYSO Flash, and on the Drunken Odyssey podcast. Amy teaches composition, literature, first year college experience courses, and performs other duties as assigned.