TRANSLATED BY LIZZIE DAVIS
JAI-ALAI BOOKS, 70 PP.
Though toddlers can often be seen stomping the beach in little two-pieces, a girl’s first true bikini is a significant milestone. This style of swimsuit is impractical, an exercise in wedgies, a small amount of material held on by tiny, tied strings. When women tie on their first bikini, they are sacrificing functionality for form, making a concession to so-called sexiness.
This is an apt metaphor for the experience of being a teenage girl, which Elena Medel was when this collection, Mi Primer Bikini, was originally published in Spain in 2001. I was born the same year as Medel, in 1985, and reading these poems, which won the prestigious Andalucía Joven Prize the year they were published, was an uncomfortable form of time travel. Medel was sixteen, a high-schooler in Córdoba, when she wrote most of them. As Lizzie Davis writes in her translator’s note to this bilingual edition, “some of them were composed in the backs of classrooms, her hand cupped to hide the marks on the page.” And though Medel has since published two more collections, two chapbooks, and a book of essays, as well as started her own publishing company, these first poems are unique because they are infused with the emotions and experiences of being a girl at that age, the body ready for that first bikini, and the mind trying to make sense of what that means.
Medel evokes this feeling of being watched and consumed in the collection’s first poem, “I Will Survive.” It begins, “I have an enormous collection of lovers. / They comfort me and adore me and with them my ego / pushes through walls and reaches the rooftop.” She begins with the power of being desired, a sexual swelling of pride, but also, perhaps more interestingly, the comfort she finds in knowing she is wanted, and therefore, of value. The next lines, however, complicate this: “When I’m with any of them, /or all of them at once, I feel the heavy burden/ of millions of pupils on my rump / and millions of insults hound my ears.” As she steps into her sexuality—pulling on the bikini—she is accepting and using her power while also exposing herself to society’s watchful eyes, to ridicule and judgment. Medel captures this hunted feeling, a feeling of being both chased and already caught, using animal words. What Davis translates as “rump” is, in the Spanish, “la grupa”—literally “croup” in English, a word specifically for a horse’s rear end, evoking the feeling that the narrator is not only on display, but under tack, controlled.
These poems are at their best when they play with the tension in dichotomies of the feminine. For instance, the evocation of soft, transparent rain as protection, which fills the speaker’s body’s crevices as she becomes absorbed in inspecting her own skin in this first stanza of “Candy”:
Broken over the rainbow,
I discover rain is my only armor.
At night pools form
in my shoulder
while I count my freckles.
Or, this final line of “Bellum Jeans”: “And it’s a luxury to die having skipped breakfast,” which reads like the epitaph for a Hollywood starlet, a tossed-off fuck-you buried in an ode to disordered eating.
“Fishing Day” is another of the collection’s strongest poems. It is more narrative than most of the collection, which is, as in the poem “Habitat,” generally propelled more by the rhythmic engine of sound and voice (“I’m swaddled in fireflies that spill out in faraway places”), punctuated when that engine backfires into an explosion of raw feeling (“My bedroom ceiling is Hollywood. / No one will ever / see me cry in its clitoris of neon”). The poem begins with the narrator, at nine years old, telling a boy she loves him. The boy answers, without looking at her, that he wants a fishing pole. Already a servant to his demands, the narrator weakens herself further, sacrificing her usual comforts—rag dolls, a pretty dress, afternoons watching Knights of the Zodiac—to save up her money so she could buy him the pole for Christmas. Though the gift pleases the boy, the narrator ends up with the fishing pole, spending afternoons by the river, her dress still dirty, still missing her television show. When she tries to give the pole back, the boy no longer wants it. “Tell me,” she cries, “is my body really a dump?”
calm down, your lips are the shape of a comet,
I fell asleep satisfied, naked, hugging the fishing pole,
a thread of saliva lingering on my Adam’s apple.
Now, a few years later, the narrator wonders why she is thinking about all this—what has brought the fishing pole back to mind, when she no longer cares about the same things—the pretty dress, Knights of the Zodiac. Older and able to recognize the power in her desirability, she answers her own question:
I think it’s because
I finally managed to turn myself into your hook.
At last, you bite.
All these poems are brave and raw and dangerous—delicate suspension bridges hung over caverns of sexuality, femininity, childhood, and womanhood. When the poems are strongest, the reader can stand on them and look down into these caverns, seeing clearly where the light hits, guessing at their dark depths. The weakest of the poems hang from cliff edges that crumble under pressure, too soft and mobile underfoot (“We’ll dive into blades of grass, / painting your ankle with jam”). Yet even these poems maintain Mendel’s voice, which, at just sixteen, and despite the clear influences of Sylvia Plath and Alejandra Pizarnik—her predecessors in precocity—has its own, discrete music and point of view.
Davis’s translations are always serviceable, and often great, though some choices seem arbitrary. The collection is divided into three sections, originally titled, in English: “Top Less,” “Piercings,” and “Monokini.” In her footnotes, Davis explains that “Top Less” refers to the “common European practice of not wearing the top of the bikini,” and “Monokini” is the “regional term for the bathing suit bottoms that children wear.” Davis’s choice to change them in the translation to “Top,” “Piercing,” and “Bottom” seems unnecessary. It’s true that an English-speaking reader might not immediately understand the references Medel is making, but these section headings were already in English, and could be explained, as they were here, with a footnote.
“Con Las Botas Puestas,” an early poem in the collection, translates to “With His Boots On.” This is a specific idiom in English, a phrase of honor in battle, the dignity of a soldier who “dies with his boots on,” taken in the middle of fighting. Though the idiom originated among cowboys in the American West, it has entered the Spanish lexicon as “con las botas puestas,” as in the 1985 song of that title by the metal band Angeles del Infierno (referring, no doubt, to the Iron Maiden song “Die With Your Boots On”). Rather than translating “Con Las Botas Puestas” to “With His Boots On,” however, Davis chose to translate it to “In His Boots.” Though this phrase has the same meaning, it doesn’t have the same idiomatic associations.
Despite these small arguments, most of the poems are rendered beautifully. Translation is like lepidoptery: in order to observe a butterfly clearly and accurately, one must catch it, stretch it out, pin it down, while trying to maintain the memory of the living insect’s movements, the way it rides the wind, the things that make it beautiful. Medel’s language is slippery and liquid, and sometimes, in capturing its essence or meaning, certain qualities are, perhaps necessarily, lost.
Many assume the “bi-” in bikini comes from the suit’s two parts, but most likely it refers to Bikini, an atoll in the Marshall Islands where the United States conducted tests of the A-bomb in 1946. The best explanation for this is an analogy drawn between the explosive force of the bomb and the visual impact of the new style. Medel’s poems of female coming-of-age embody this phenomenon, expressing and harnessing the explosive power of female sexuality, while simultaneously evoking its heart-pounding peril.