A Story About Translation
What he said to me was quite simple,
but I had to bring into my language first.
“I went away from her, by my own
volition, in one direction,” he said,
or was the information contained
in the choice of verb, the prefix,
the tense, the gender. “You left her”
I said. “But you told me you weren’t
together.” “No,” he said, “We were
together.” Which was uncomplicated,
the truth straightening everything out
after so many tangled lies.
The Speaker in this Poem
We used to make a big deal of it—how the speaker is not the author,
rolling our eyes whenever someone made such a rookie mistake,
before we poet-splained how even the so-called confessionals
aren’t all that confessional, like try getting some autobiography
out of a Plath poem! (Hint: her father wasn’t a statue or a nazi
or even footwear.) It was a kind of foundational gospel, but
the distinction used to get us into all sorts of odd situations,
like the half hour discussion I once led that kept coming back
to how the boyfriend in the poem seemed to be less into the speaker
in the poem than the speaker in the poem seemed to realize,
and the class consensus was that the speaker (in the poem)
really needed to break up with the boyfriend (in the poem),
which wasn’t really a craft concern, but we all played our parts,
and it went much better than the conference where I realized
that the star-crossed lovers in a poem were only star crossed
because the speaker in the poem was a senior in college
and the president of a sorority that would never accept her dating
a freshman (in the poem) from her sorority’s corresponding
fraternity (in the poem). Again, not quite a craft concern,
and I should probably have been more open to the obstacle
as an obstacle, but come on people, a three year age gap
when everyone is past the age of consent? Just date the guy.
These days I think you’re supposed to assume that the speaker
is the author, and that it would be offensive in a certain way,
to assume a voice that is not your own, even though persona
abounds, and just the other day I heard a famous poet scoff,
when asked a question after a reading, at the assumption
that everything in his poems is true, though he’d be the first
to challenge a poet going too far outside of their own experience.
I felt bad for the questioner, but I’m glad the famous poet
stood up for persona, because to be honest, I miss the distinction,
the way it built a little wall between me and the reader,
the way the poem could be ninety percent true, and that
the ten percent imaginary was just enough to keep me safe,
the way it made me feel like an actor, nude on stage,
but lit in such a way that nothing could be clearly seen,
except in the most flattering shadows and outlines.
You Can Be the You in this Poem
and no one else has to know. It can be our secret,
and you can blush when your husband asks, or not,
since the desires we share are not for each other,
but aligned in parallel, which is why we look hot
together in our bathing suits but won’t have sex,
which I’ve never done with a girl by the way,
and is it ok that I called you a girl when we’re both
at the exact midpoint between forty and fifty.
You can be the you in this poem because
you’re so good at letting everyone else be the you
in your poems, at letting so many people be the you
in your life, so take a turn here, where you can not
be the speaker as long as you need to catch your breath,
and I’ll brew you some coffee, put a roast in the oven,
and make us some chocolate chip cookies for dessert.
I still believe that love cuts out the bottom twenty percent
of suffering, though with diminishing returns, and that
it goes both ways, that the lover and beloved both
suffer less, if they’re doing it right, and who says
romantic love gets to go to the front of the line?
At the end of this poem, we’ll go back to our marriages
(mine dissolving), our cozy houses (mine leaking),
and you’ll put your kids to bed, and when you
lie down exhausted at the end of the day,
you can be the you in this poem,
and you won’t have to have typed a thing.
Jason Schneiderman is the author of four books of poems, most recently Hold Me Tight (Red Hen 2020). He edited the anthology Queer: A Reader for Writers (Oxford UP 2016). His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies; he is a longstanding co-host of the podcast Painted Bride Quarterly Slush Pile. His awards include the Shestack Award and a Fulbright Fellowship. He is an Associate Professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.