Shannon Nakai reviews Mariana Spada’s THE LAW OF CONSERVATION, translated by Robin Myers

Home » Issue 92 » Shannon Nakai reviews Mariana Spada’s THE LAW OF CONSERVATION, translated by Robin Myers

Shannon Nakai

The Law of Conservation

By Mariana Spada

Translated by Robin Myers

pages. Deep Vellum, 2023.

In Mariana Spada’s newest collection of poetry, Ley de Conservación, translated from Spanish to English as The Law of Conservation by Robin Myers (Deep Vellum, 2023), the speaker of the poems critically, evocatively, and lyrically considers the point that distinguishes a “before” and “after” in a person’s life. The point takes form sometimes as a specific event, sometimes as spontaneous retrospection as the present voice demands an answer from tangible, sensual, painful, thrilling memories of the past. Such a point necessitates the question: what changes and what, as the title implies, should be conserved from the “before” form? In “Una Velocidad de Escape”/“The Speed of Flight,” Spada writes:

             una velocidad de escape
             se mide siempre en relación
             inversa a lo que se deja.

             the speed of flight
             is always measured in inverse
             proportion to what’s left behind.

The part that’s left behind captures the quietly insistent attention of the speaker. In the poem “Retorno”/“Return,” the subject discards clothes before boarding an all-night bus, the distance of which:

            … deje entrar el olvido.

            A lo mejor el momento crucial
            que separó con un corte preciso
            lo que sostenía esa vida
            y lo que tensaba esta otra, ya es historia
            y los restos de tu pasado
             en algodón y un poco de poliéster
            fueron a disgregarse entre los cerros
             de un basural
             saben picotear las gaviotas.

            … will let you start forgetting.

            Maybe the crucial moment,
            the one that made a careful cut
            dividing what sustained that life
            and what pulled taut this other one, is history already
            which means the remnants of your past
            measured in cotton and a little polyester
            were scattered on the brilliant
            slopes of a landfill
            where the gulls go to peck.

For Spada, these are more than mere moments or relics, but entire encapsulating existences. As titles like “Retorno”/“Return” or “Estival, Ida y Vuelta” / “Summer, There and Back” suggest, the timeline is not rigid. The speaker can go back. In the imagistically-charged poem “Comamos” /“Let’s Eat,” the speaker delicately, urgently beckons the lover to return to the past, to last night’s jasmine-soaked yard and a conversation recalling summer holidays at the beach, lemons and flowerbeds, to return like a love that will come back, a promise “de noches plenas y días fuertes” / “of full nights and ardent days.” The speaker lingers on the sweetness of last night’s past full of promise and thus the poem rests entirely on a recollection, an issue to return.

Similarly, the body inhabited in the past has undergone a transgender procedure, but Spada’s speaker still claims the memory of that former identity in declarative language. In the poem “La Primera Descarga”/“The First Shot,” the speaker announces, “Yo fui el muchacho …” / “I was the boy,” conveying simultaneously two seamless transitions: one, a male-charged rite of passage from boy to manhood, as the beer-and-grenadine-swigging father teaches the son how to cock and aim a rifle. The other, a subtly rendered change from boy to girl. Over the shuddering convulsion of a springing shot, the body is now accustomed to handle explosively potent power, but this time as “a girl prepared to shake the coast …”. Spada’s language wields this transition in breathtaking subtlety, a tribute to Myers’ acute translation acumen, as the original Spanish contains no noun for girl, but only the gendered adjective “lista” (“ready”) as opposed to the male (“listo”).

Against the delicate, fertile, and powerful mystique of femaleness, Spada’s speaker considers the violence and brutality associated with male identity. A newly bodied woman emerges in a Venus de Milo glory into a bath, whereas an older brother’s journey into puberty is clumsy and formidable. In one poem, a friend dreams of her father’s abusive hands, the punches which defined maleness. In another poem, a father’s hands build a house. An interesting translation note here: the original Spanish spotlights the father– “Mi padre / dio forma con sus propias manos” –but in the English version, the subject of the line is “My father’s hands / gave form …” Myers methodically connects the motif of hands that can destruct and construct, and as the poem “Teodicea”/“Theodicy” continues, the speaker likens the father figure, capable of planting orange trees and extirpating them, to God who can give and take away (and perhaps a subtle nod to fathering daughters, as the motif of oranges is strongly linked throughout many poems to femaleness). The speaker, like others in her position, must negotiate agency in this disproportionate imbalance of power.

Power, perhaps, is the most emblematic theme: many poems center on its dormant potential: rifles, keys in the ignition, foam on a ship’s keel. In “Calling It a Day,” Spada literally guts the poem on the page. The left-aligned stanzas celebrate the female rituals of beautification, juxtaposed against the right-aligned stanzas of dead girls left in the streets, in the trash. This alludes both specifically to Argentinian gendered violence (readers of Susana Thenon’s Ova Completa will intuit the similar use of repetition evoking the horror of female suffering), but also to the topic of gender in general. The speaker negotiates a conflict within her own body that at different intervals inhabited different genders, and the implications of having belonged both to the hegemonic brutality and to the community victimized by the hegemony. No wonder the collection ends with a poem entitled “Mi Género Fue Lo Que Me Hizo Esto”/“My Gender Did This To Me.” Elsewhere, she wrestles with “la parte que se desprecia / la otra con la que podrías vivir …” / “the part that hates itself / and the part you can live with…” . In some poems, the change is specific to the speaker’s experience. In others, she invites a universal audience to the reality of change over time. In a poem situated in the in-between of geography and linear timeline (“Entre La Plaza y El Cementerio” / “Between the Park and the Cemetery”), Spada states, “Está bien, pienso: todas fuimos otra en el pasado.” / “That’s fine, I think: we all used to be someone else.”

In such a case, this begs the question of identity. Who are we, what do we make of ourselves, after such a change? And to what extent is the former self still a part of the present one? For Mariana Spada, the answer can be located in a theme of stripping, of stopping, bottles clinking, trash collector’s removing the remnants of yesterday, highway lines dividing the world into two equal parts, the coming and going of moments, the divine giving and taking away, a speaker who makes sense of the past through writing poems and who hopes for a future in which she grows old with her lover in a love that can always come back.

Shannon Nakai is a poet and reviewer whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Cincinnati Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Atlanta Review, Cream City Review, Heavy Feather, Cimarron Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. A former Fulbright recipient and Pushcart Prize nominee, she holds an MFA from Wichita State University, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Follow her on Twitter @shanviolinlove.