De/Formations at the Margin: Body Beyond Metaphor

Thoughts on Sergio Loo’s “Operación Al Cuerpo Enfermo / Operation on a Malignant Body,” from translator Will Stockton

Elæ Moss
Elæ Moss
May 7, 2019 · 6 min read

New from the Operating System’s Glossarium: Unsilenced Texts series!

Operación al Cuerpo Enfermo / Operation on a Malignant Body, a dual-language hybrid work by the late queer Mexican poet Sergio Loo (1982–2014) with an introduction by Jonathan Manila, translated by Will Stockton. Currently available direct from the OS, at your local bookstore, and to the trade via Ingram.

“If any book has the ability to help us see beauty in a body abundant in transformations — from youthful health and vivacity seared with love and desire, to the slow intensification of decay and disorientation — as well as read and understand these changes through multiple linguistic iterations, Operation on a Malignant Body is it. Will Stockton’s renderings of Sergio Loo’s destabilizing poetry into English are just as challenging as the original Spanish: they diagnose prejudices about sexuality, illness, relationships and belief systems, to name only a few; they are risky in their resistance of melodrama, pity and simplifications; and they are sonically beautiful. This collection is resuscitating, prescribing an approach to how we can comprehend the body riddled with illnesses, both psychological and physical, how we can fathom the reality of illness as “a succession of language,” because “Metastasis is synonymous with fear. And it spreads,” just as a “body can reveal itself through tests, analysis, x-rays. Not the power of the doctors.” The body across this book is a “contradiction” between what is seen and from where: Loo reminds us that “reality is the succession of language,” and that those who care for us may know how our bodies function, but they do “not know what it wants.” — Curtis Bauer, Texas Tech University


My illness is language. It spreads through the word. Is moves through the word to the receptor: communication: infection. I skipped over the facts: I have a sarcoma that’s about to break the femur in my left leg, I tell my family: infected. The best thing to do is talk, they claim. Internal peace lies in your surroundings, they tell me: atmospheric: that is to say, we all need to talk. You’re going to get better, they say. They’re going to cure you, they state. Happiness is a convex syntax, positive: I’m going to be fine, I repeat to myself once every eight hours after eating. I’m going to be fine, they answer with their hands on my shoulder. Pats on my back for support: positive communication: illness like a process of disassembly through optimism.

[Want to read more? further dual-language selections from Operación al Cuerpo Enfermo / Operation on a Malignant Body can be found here on Waxwing.]

In Illness as a Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), Susan Sontag inveighs against the discursive tendency to think disease in terms of likeness: in terms of the people certain diseases are likely to a ict, and the personi cation of disease as something we must — if we are strong enough, deserving enough —fight. Metaphor, Sontag claims, enhances suffering and dehumanizes the diseased. In these books, Sontag asks us to see diseases simply as diseases — as nonmetaphorical, disconnected from sin, shame,
punishment, and dessert — arguing forcefully that people often don’t seek treatment because of the weight of representation associated with their conditions.

Sergio Loo is sensitive to Sontag’s critique of metaphor — to what the speaker’s mother calls the “many myths suffered alongside cancer.” No one deserves cancer. And AIDS is not the viral form of homosexuality. Yet refusing metaphor isn’t the poet’s option. There is no way for Loo to represent the experience of cancer without recourse to words that are, at the same time, distinct from the objects and sensations they represent (cells, bones, fear)
and intimately bound up with other words in the network called language. While there is no world without language, there is also no language without metaphor.

Rather than refuse metaphor, Loo (following, perhaps most immediately, Rimbaud) embraces its formative and deformative powers — exploring the power of language to create, preserve, and stabilize, as well as destroy, distort, and destabilize, the world the cancer patient inhabits. The cancer at the center of this book — an Ewing’s sarcoma in the left leg — spreads throughout the body of the author, the narrator, and the narrative. It overtakes the form of the book itself, which morphs from a collection of prose poems into a novel, a television show, a movie, and a sketchbook. Cecilia (who has, in some unspecified way, deformed her own body)and Pedro (dying of AIDS, with flora sprouting from his flesh) become versions of one another and the narrator, their “diseases” variations on the theme of abjection: the alienation of one’s own body. As metastasis becomes a metaphor for desire itself, cancer becomes (self-)mutilation becomes AIDS becomes the disease of nonconformity attacking something called “health.” The body itself becomes a book, an object of study, such that Cecilia, in a somewhat futile effort to cordon herself off from the world, becomes her own “margin.” The operation of which Loo’s title speaks is, in part, the operation of language as the relentless making and unmaking of metaphor at the corporeal level.

By translating the book’s title as Operation on a Malignant Body, rather than the more straightforward Operation on a Sick Body, I have tried to double down on Loo’s own metaphors of unstoppable becoming and isolate a word that is everywhere present but hardly mentioned: malignancy, the growing deadliness that eventually claims the life of the author who unfolds himself (se desdobla) in the pages of this book. I intend for the term to mark the passing of the author who casts himself into an uncertain future with his
closing incantation of “I will get better.” I mean it to emphasize the abjection of the body itself, which is where this book begins: the suspension of a numb, cancerous leg, the narrator surgically severed from himself through anesthesia, through a scalpel, while he presents on the table and in the poem as “open flesh.”

Otherwise, I have aimed for as direct a translation of these poems as possible. Liberties taken for the preservation of rhythm have sometimes entailed deviations from the original. But few books are as aware of the fact that translation is itself a change, a becoming, an act of movement, with the translator, like the original writer, like the reader, like the patient, working to stabilize, if only momentarily, a meaning continuously on the move.

Sergio Loo (1982–2014) was a Mexican writer at the forefront of contemporary queer Latinx poetics. Prior to his death from cancer at the age of thirty-one, he authored several collections of poetry, including Sus brazos labios en mi boca rodando (2007); and a novel, House: retratos desarmables (2011). In this collection, Loo leverages his diagnosis with cancer (an Ewing’s Sarcoma in the left leg) to explore anatomical, linguistic, and social relationships between queerness and disability.

Will Stockton (translator) is a professor of English at Clemson University. His books include Members of His Body: Shakespeare, Paul, and a Theology of Nonmonogamy (Fordham University Press). With D. Gilson, he is also the author of Crush (Punctum Books) and Jesus Freak (Bloomsbury).

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Elæ Moss

Written by

Elæ Moss

is a multimodal creative and social practitioner, curator, scholar, and educator. Founder/Director @The Operating System. Faculty @ Pratt. [they/them] #resist

The Operating System & Liminal Lab

The Operating System is a peer-facilitated experiment in the redistribution of creative resources and possibility. We are committed to gathering resources for citizen action, to transparency, to a unique publishing model, and to continuous evolution. We are based in Brooklyn, NY.