Lo que les dijo el licántropo / What the Werewolf Told Them
by Chely Lima, trans. Margaret Randall
May 2017 – The Operating System
Be very afraid of the full moon. There are several transformations in lo que les dijo el licántropo/what the werewolf told them by Cuban poet Chely Lima, and all of them come with teeth, blood, and a sort of vicious sadness lying just below the surface. In the title poem of the collection, Lima’s speaker (the werewolf) speeds down the highway with their own body in the trunk, “la negación / de la negación” (“the negation / of the negation”) (16/17), muffling their own screams. The metaphor between the werewolf and the transgender person is apparent, but Lima’s idea of transition is not as simple as this metaphor leads on. In that poem, Lima writes:
Un cuerpo que se mira en el espejo ajeno
no es un cuerpo confiable.
Un cuerpo que se mira en el espejo
de los que se miraron en otro espejo ajeno,
un espejo enemigo —y con eso ya son dos
espejos y dos los enemigos… (16)
A body that looks at itself in another’s mirror
is not to be trusted.
A body that looks at itself in another’s alien mirror,
enemy mirror—there you have two
mirrors and two enemies… (17)
Lima’s idea of his own body and transition is depicted often in this type of comedy of perspectives, where there remains very little vocabulary for Lima’s essential self and there is much more of an idea of the body’s potential, appearance, and changes as it exists for multiple viewers. This seems to be his body’s greatest threat.
lo que les dijo el licántropo/what the werewolf told them is his seventh book of poetry (only the second published in the United States) and has just been published by The Operating System press in a bilingual edition with the original Spanish text side-by-side an English translation by Margaret Randall (all translations in this review are hers). To a Cuban in the literary world, Lima is perhaps primarily a novelist, and most essentially a figure of the 80s and 90s. But Lima is extremely multi-genre, to the point that one of his major works is perhaps Cuba’s only rock opera to date, Violente (1987). As one can imagine, transition affects Lima’s reception and literary status, leading to articles with titles like “Reencuentro con Chely Lima, ahora como hombre trans” (“Meeting Chely Lima again, now as a trans man”), which are certainly not meant to insult but do create an idea of Chely Lima’s career as bifurcated by transition. lo que les dijo el licántropo/what the werewolf told them feels like a complication of these ideas about Lima’s entire career. It’s a big book making large claims for Lima’s identity, direction, and position as a trans man and non-binary person in the realm of poetics.
I think the mode Lima takes to achieve this is largely based on clear imagery of the supernatural, the erotic, and the dangerous. Take a poem like the untitled one that begins “Dos pasos y mirar al costado fingiendo que no siento” (“Two steps and look to the side pretending I don’t feel”):
Tres pasos y la frontera entre los mundos me recibe
con una salpicadura de fuego….
…El enemigo tiene hambre como yo
y apetece los mismos vientres blanquísimos,
las menudas vergas de yeso y madreperla,
como joyas tiernas erguidas, húmedas en el atardecer;
quiere las mismas bocas temblorosas, las mismas
no puedo matarlo. (144)
Three steps and the border between worlds receives me
with a smattering of fire….
…The enemy is hungry like me
and desires the same white bellies,
small cooks of plaster and mother of pearl,
like tender erect jewels, humid at dusk;
wants the same trembling mouths, the same
I cannot kill him. (145)
The poems move, as this one does, quickly between images that have a clear metaphorical referent (the frontera/the border coming up often in the book as a physical version of non-binary identity) and others that seem untraceable and otherworldly. Lima’s greatest strengths in this collection are in these volatile images with massive range. Bears sticking their fingers into honeycombs, prowling wolves, smattering fire, giant ferns, sandpaper cat tongues, illuminated tongues, and so on: nasty and shining versions of nature’s aspects making up this narrative of the in-between. Or as Lima says later in the book, “todo se abre y palpita y centellea” (“everything opens and throbs and sparkles”) (188/189).
When it comes to descriptions of himself, Lima’s techniques are slightly different. Attempting to avoid gendered terms in Spanish is very difficult, as adjectives are gendered based on the noun they modify. But as the book goes on, the reader will notice there is a lack of many self-descriptive adjectives. Instead, the speaker of the poems focuses on actions, commands, and statements of doing:
Yo soy el tercer ojo.
Tremo en la penumbra y el deseo me trespasa
como una magnífica espina de acero.
Yo oficio en bodas sacrílegas. (64)
I am the third eye.
I tremble in the shadows and desire shoots through me
like a magnificent steel thorn.
I officiate at sacrilegious weddings. (65)
So, the kind of lyric that exists here is gender neutral through a focus on relationships between the I and the things around it: what the I does, not what the I is or how it is composed. When gender does come into play, it is purposefully balanced or challenged. Like in “estoy dividido-dividida como una tierra fronteriza” (36). Unfortunately, these linguistic nuances are sometimes lost in translation; for instance: where this line places the verb “dividir” or “divide” in both masculine and feminine form, Randall translates it as “I am split man-woman” (37), a far less subtle version of the original line. This is a challenge of translating any gendered language into English, clearly. But here, Lima’s interest in the in-between creates additional difficulties to those inherent in any English translation. However, by and large Randall’s work here does a great job of carrying over the barrage of images, keeping them in hallucinatory high definition.
At the heart of this constellation of intense imagery, I think there is a simple, though insecure, supposition that there is a need to recognize one’s new self. “Puedo entender la angustia del vampiro / porque no se refleja en los espejos” (“I can understand the vampire’s anguish / at not seeing himself reflected in mirrors”) (24/25) opens one poem, which is about as literal as Lima’s expression gets. But Lima’s most complicated gambit is understanding that he is not the vampire. He’s the vampire, the mirror, the reflection, and the lack there of.