Book Review

Poem 66 by Susana Medina

a Wide Sargasso Sea for Lolita

Yes, it’s more poetry. Yes, it’s more poetry that is both in Spanish and simultaneous English translation. No, I will not stop reviewing this kinda poetry, so if you’re bored of me writing about Spanish poems, then you should maybe steer clear of TriumphoftheNow.com for a few months, because while I’m down here near the Mediterranean Sea, I’m a-gonna keep doing it. Teeheeteehee.

This time, I’m writing about Poem 66, a long poem by Susana Medina that has been published by Good Morning Menagerie in a stunningly attractive edition. The English translation is provided by Rosie Marteau (who has worked with Medina before), and the text is printed on accordion-folded paper, neat and thick and crisp and pleasing to touch and read and engage with. I find that the physicality of a published object is important, and I am far more likely to enjoy a text if it is a gorgeous, battered, vintage paperback, a lovingly crafted chapbook, or a hip indie book that has clearly had its aesthetics thought about, rather than a nasty giant hardback. If something feels nice to touch, is a practical size and weight, if it feels like the object as object has been discussed at some point in the production process, then I am pleased. I mean, I do also read on screen sometimes, and I probably prefer that to hardbacks – which are impractical literally everywhere except a library – but still, it is crisp, flakey, paper that I fucking love.

Poem 66 looks and feels beautiful, and I do think that’s important.

The chapbook contains only one poem, a long, semi-narrative piece that almost functions as a Wide Sargasso Sea-esque prequel to Vladimir Nabokov’s most successful paedophile novel, Lolita. It is about an unhappy childhood in 1960s Spain, full of references to Beatlemania and the Space Race, to alien abduction and miniskirts, and it features allusions throughout to an unhappy, and violent, home life that Lolita is increasingly desperate to escape. The poem ends with the foreshadowing name of Mr Humbert, citing the end of Lolita’s personal and personalised narrative as a precursor to a novel that is told from the perspective of someone who objectifies her. To be generous to Nabokov, the point of Lolita (perhaps), is that of the downfall of a man who fails to understand the humanity of the child he exploits for sex. I think the novel is problematic and has not aged well, as though we are not meant to be on Humbert Humbert’s “side”, we are meant to feel some kind of empathy towards – and be comfortable in the long term perspective of – a predatory paedophile.

What Medina’s poem does is establish the scenarios that may have led to a girl becoming vulnerable to the advances of an abuser. For that is what abusers do, they find people who they want to abuse and they exploit their weaknesses, their loneliness, their pain. Lolita as written by Medina is alone and hurt, she is used to a home life that she cannot control, she is used to a distant, violent, father figure… She is exposed to the “sexual liberation” of the 1960s and the hypersexualisation that comes with it. She is unloved and ignored, she is excited by modernisation and the changing world, by its possibilities. Medina evokes a sympathetic character, however one who is naive and innocent.

Marteau’s translation is crisp and in line with Medina’s form, which is lots of enjambement, very short lines that are sometimes only one word. Meaning is not lost or dispersed through Medina’s words, and there is lots of circling repetition that grounds the tone and the sense of the piece in clear images and ideas. Shouting and injuries and violence recur (as well as the decade-setting pop culture references), but there are also allusions to place, global places, and Medina’s prose transcends the direct retelling of a fictional character’s life, and instead offers a blue-print for the sad lives of young women the world over.

Noise and aggression flood a youth with dreams of escape, with unfulfillable ideas of escape. Medina’s Lolita looks to the skies and fantasises about alien abduction (Marteau translates Medina’s “marcianos” as “aliens” rather than the more dated (but more literal) “martians”). Something unknown of mixed and sinister intentions is heading towards Nabokov’s Lolita, and the reader must presume towards Medina’s too. In Nabokov’s text we see the girl as sex object, as “nymphet”, whereas here we see her displayed as a victim, which is not something Humbert Humbert’s narrative voice ever seeks to do. Part of Humbert’s fantasy is that Lolita is in control of him, is seducing and exploiting him. But that was not the case, could not have been the case.

Medina writes an evocative and moving poem here that dramatises the schisms of a young life and foreshadows the unpleasantness that can occur following a deeply held need to “escape” as a child.

Children cannot change their own world, and unscrupulous adults are able to selfishly take advantage of that. This is strong work, beautifully presented, well worth a look.

Buy this gorgeous chapbook direct from Good Morning Menagerie via this link.

 

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