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The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose by Franca Mancinelli Translated by John Taylor (Bitter Oleander)

The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose by Franca Mancinelli Translated by John Taylor (Bitter Oleander)

The Bitter Oleander Press have already published two books by Franca Mancinelli, a book of prose poetry and another of poetry, both translated into English by John Taylor, and this paperback of prose, poetic prose and poetics will only add to the evidence of Mancinelli as a major contemporary Italian writer.

The short prose which makes up the first section of the book is a surprising mix of the romantic, personal and gently shocking. Childhood memories and fairy stories turn into stories with corpses, frozen tears which form stalactites in the eyes, blood and portentous signs. Yet these are deftly written, engaging and lucid tales, written with an accomplishment and flair that does not linger on the darkness but works to produce worlds of magic and light, and of promise, even when things seem grim. Here’s the end of ‘Walls, Rubble’, a story of claustrophobia, paranoia and ‘not feeling at home’: ‘I believe this space will collapse: a cataclysm will fall on this apartment. I will live under the rubble in an air gap, until I reemerge, come back out free.’

If there’s a problem with this I might challenge the vague use of the word ‘free’, which is in sharp contrast to the physical and emotional realities Mancinelli uses elsewhere in this piece. It’s a problem I have later on in the book when she addresses the topic of poetry, but first there is a selection of what I take to be non-fiction pieces.

There are descriptive yet still personal responses to the hills, cities, the beach, Milan Central Station, along with a meditation on her given name Maria, which the author has deleted from her writing name. Physical description, memories, geography and the imaginary coalesce into vivid moments and portraits of place, with a final, lengthier piece, ‘Living in the Ideal City: Fragments in the Form of a Vision’, emerging from contemplation of an unsigned painting in the Ducal Palace of Urbino. Again, there are some vague phrases I would question, such as ‘unstitched by wide rips of emptiness’ as part of a response to having her backpack stolen at the station. The same story, early on, also uses the phrase ‘[t]he law was to go, to follow the train timetable, the platform’, which I wonder might work better as ‘the rule’ rather than the (I assume) literal translation of ‘law’?

As I get older I am more and more fascinated by how others write poetry, and their creative process. Mancinelli’s ideas are no exception, although at times I almost shouted aloud at some of her romantic notions of what poetry is! (I accept I tend to have a reductionist approach that starts from the notion of text and language as something to build, remix and collage with/from, rather than any initial desire of self-expression or shared emotion.)

Yet, we share many traits. I have never been taken for a traffic warden, but I too stop and make notes in the street (and elsewhere), just as Mancinelli does in ‘Keeping Watch’; and I like her down to earth summary here: ‘I am making a report, and delivering it.’ I also understand the confusion and sense of being lost as one composes, shapes and edits a poem, but I reject the idea that ‘poetry is a voice that passes through us’ or the idea that she has ‘caught something’, both of which seem like a refusal to take responsibility for what has been written. Neither, for me, is poetry rooted in my sense of bodily self or ‘a practice of daily salvation’; and I do not believe that ‘[i]t is the forceful truth of an experience that generates poetic language.’ I like it, however, when she writes of ‘broken sentences’, ‘fragments’, ‘disorientation’ and ‘other meanings’, although I do not believe poetry is anything to do with ‘salvation’ or ‘transcendence’: we experience and describe the world through language, and it is language we use to make poetry (and other writing) from. It’s good, however, to be challenged and engage with what other authors think.

Taylor, in an intriguing ‘Postface’, considers Mancinelli’s writing with regard to ‘dualities of flux and the search for stability, using ideas of home and homelessness, place/space and elsewhere, highlighting the biographical, the physical body and notions of a more spiritual or metaphysical self’, but also a more ‘existential dilemma’ and ‘ontological resonance’ dependent upon the invisible. He also unpicks the idea of the book’s title, quoting the author, who explains that it ‘is a place steeped in the memory of childhood, whose boundaries have blurred over time, and at the same time it is the space of writing […]’. The butterflies of childhood have long faded and turned to dust, but Mancinelli’s desire to make words live and fly again, informs her strange and original writing that evidence traces of both her and our being.

Rupert Loydell  7th September 2022

That Which I Touch Has No Name by Jennifer K Dick (Black Spring Press Group)

That Which I Touch Has No Name by Jennifer K Dick (Black Spring Press Group)

The dialogic process of Jennifer Dick’s poems occurs in a multilingual context in which English, French and Italian interweave. The demolition of meaning and of naming provides space for a provisional reconstruction of language that evolves in sounds, alliteration and chains of words. They evoke each other in a multifaceted, polyphonic rhythm that envisages infinite possibilities. A Saussurian signifier and signified are proposed in a different perspective in which Derrida’s concept of the loss of the centre seems to be more relevant. Traditional forms are reviewed and opposed, giving way to multiple voices and different perceptions. These diverse interpretations are ‘off-the-centre’, as Derrida claims, as there is no centre, or any transcendental or universal entity to which we can refer or appeal. This concept of displacement opens the individual up to the construction of alternative views. 

     Dick’s poetry is a poetical journey that delves into philosophical and linguistic topics without an apparent logic and with no definite ending or goals. It is a wandering around, sometimes in circles and at other times in a winding path that emphasises the process rather than the conclusion. Fragments and echoes of everyday life and today’s society, such as political issues, shootings, women’s rights, scientific knowledge and the environment, are embedded in her discourse. In this way she explores language and therefore identity in a complex and comprehensive view of being human. Though we are strangers to ourselves, we take ‘another self […] into ourselves’ in an exchange that is promiscuous and generates intertextual connections. 

     References to Sappho, Erin Mouré’s A Frame of the  Book and the myth of Dibutades, the inventor of the art of modelling clay in Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis, trace constant intertextual routes throughout the collection and give direction to the narratives. It is a conversation that marks displacement and loss but also a constant attempt at replacement: 

her herding herself forward and again to go

forth into this bright afternoon unaccompanied 

by the whorls of the whims of another’s loss

                                                                      this body

unlatched

absence in

the reassertion of self

space/shame in

a presence of griefs          (‘The Body As Message’)

Quotations from Mouré are signalled in grey notes as titles interweaved into the poems. They flag up the inconsistency of our reasoning when we try to make sense of ourselves through language. Words can deceive, and the only strategy for finding a way through the labyrinth is to create alternative connections:

collect stones, shells, ants, the carcasses

    of bees, derelict homing predilections

    combing the convex codex for a hived

    intermezzo  /  in stance  /  stead

                     of intermission

    stand               and              re-geolocate     

the space          (distance)        place                (‘Figurative Blight /’)

The myth of Butades’ daughter (Dibutades in French) is thoroughly explored in the central section, ‘Afterlife’. It is the legend of the origin of drawing and painting in which the protagonist outlines her lover’s shadow, which is cast on a wall. He will leave soon, so she wishes to keep the memory of him in the drawing. However, ‘Butades’ daughter possesses no independent name./She is not in the story./She is not.’ She is therefore erased from history, ‘an illusion,/a recollection of,/ a line traced onto the wall.’ Sections in French alternate with those in English in a partial translation that is also a reworking of the story. 

The ‘process/of redefinition’ culminates in the final poems in an ‘assay’, that is, an attempt to create through memory. The poems are ‘inkling of emerging vocabularies, linguistic minefields of the forgotten, written over, re-emergent’ (‘Assay’). Space and ‘body/time/language’ are in constant movement and transformation, projecting the outline of their shadows onto our uncertain existence. The collection examines the complexity of these fundamental concepts with precision and depth.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 26th July 2022

Tempo: Excursions in 21st Century Italian Poetry edited by Luca Paci (Parthian Books)

Tempo: Excursions in 21st Century Italian Poetry edited by Luca Paci (Parthian Books)

The first thing to say is what a beautiful production this book is, and a 300+ page hardback for £15 is a bargain. The second thing is that this is my kind of anthology: it doesn’t make outrageous claims for itself, there’s no bullshit about Italian poetry being the new rock & roll, just a wide-ranging sample of what is going on, with each of the 22 authors given a brief introduction and enough pages for a decent selection of their work.

Most of these authors are new to me. I am one of the readers Paci mentions in his Introduction, who knows the usual few Italian poets (Montale, Buffalino, Quasimodo, Ungaretti), although I have got Jamie McKendrick’s Faber anthology on my shelves. It’s clear I’ve been missing out, although I don’t like everything included here. And whilst I don’t read or speak much Italian, even I can see from the Italian versions here, that there is a musicality and alliteration missing from many of the English translations.

There are some key subjects here, one being a kind of obsession with death, another recent Italian history. I’m writing this a few days after being in Bologna, and one of the novels I read there was about the revolutions and bombings in the 80s, a subject Matteo Fantuzzi writes about, sometimes in general terms (one of his poems is called ‘The meaning of a massacre’), but at other times very specifically, as in ‘If from the square you start walking and stay under the arches’, which has a note pinning the poem to the specifics of ‘A bomb exploded in the heart of Bologna Second of August 1980’:

   If from the square you start walking and stay under the arches
   in the city centre and manage to pass in one fell swoop
   that crowd, the sales, shop windows, the small desk for signatures,
   if you manage not to stop in front of that homeless
   one his knees as a Christ who is begging for
   coins, and who is praying to everybody for money, if all of a sudden
   you remain strong and start running, stopping to glance
   elsewhere you will find yourself all of a sudden on the left
   the place lying with open legs and in the middle the wound
   which still gives a hint, which remembers the day
   when people were the same for that one time,
                                                            and only that one.
   All communists, priests. All bolegnesi.

I especially love that ‘all of a sudden on the left’ which is both political and geographical allusion, but the whole thing repositions the contemporary city in the past in a kind of time shift, as well as being both informative and uplifting.

Antonella Anedda, whose poems appear first in the book, is more oblique. She writes about a world of forensic medicine, anatomy (Bologna is home to a couple of collections of early anatomical waxworks and skeletons of the diseased and disabled; not to mention numerous saints’ relics and corpses) and the dead, but declares in ‘VI’ that ‘language has no innocence’, going on to say in poetic self-awareness:

   And so I write with reluctance
   with a few dry stumps of phrases
   boxed into humdrum language
   which I arrange so as to call out
   down there as far as the dark
   that sounds the bells

Elsewhere there are more mundane poems. Fabio Franzin’s narrative poem about Marta and how she has spent 25 years sanding frames for a job explains too much and seems rather ordinary, as does Mariangela Gualteri’s romantic declaration ‘I have been a girl in the rose garden / a nymph’. Really? I am not convinced.

Mostly, however, the poetry in Tempo is intriguing and fresh. Andrea Inglese plays with notions of borders and frames, force-justifying her poems inside boxes on the page; he also writes inward looking poems that consider the way they are being written and read. Valerio Magrelli’s writing can also be self-aware, but he mostly writes down-to-earth, warmhearted love poems, for instance in ‘The Embrace’, which moves from a sleepy kiss through prehistoric imagery to its memorable conclusion:

   And we are the wicks, the two tongues
   flickering on that single Paleozoic torch.

‘Lai of Reasoning Slowly’ is a ruminative and engrossing poem by Lello Voce, a poet and performer, which winds its leisurely way over several pages in stepped patterns; Marco Giovenale offers both condensed prose poems and thinner, more spacious short poems; the selection of Maria Grazia Calandrone’s work offers some longer, dense and busy texts, including a prose poem sequence about an actual murderer who killed his parents. This makes use intriguing of advertising slogans and phrases from Miami Vice as section headings or narrative interruptions. 

Elsewhere, Calandrone perhaps sums up this anthology at the start of her poem ‘Intellect of Love’:

   Poetry is anarchic, it follows only its own laws, it cannot and must not bend to anything
   except itself.
   Its inner law is rhythm, pure and simple music.
   That explains why we can be moved by poetry we hear read in languages we do not know.

I’m not convinced that poetry needs to move us, but Tempo is full of music of all sorts, and is a wonderful door into a different literary world from the one I mostly inhabit. These are excursions I intend to keep making, poets whose work I hope to find more of and enjoy.

Rupert Loydell 13th April 2022

L’Italie London by Ariadne Radi Cor (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

L’Italie London by Ariadne Radi Cor (Knives Forks Spoons Press)

Controlled nostalgia suffuses the fourteen poems of Ariadne Radi Cor’s new collection. She moved from Trento in northern Italy to London in 2009 to pursue her new job’s projects. In this journey towards a new life in a big city, the author expresses the disquieting sensations of the duality of language, landscape and weather in the interweaving of past memories and present reality. The two worlds are in conversation but never merge completely, leaving the self in an uncertain suspended dimension. The book is bilingual; not only are the poems translated into English by the author with the help of translators, but also the blurb, the foreword and the afterword are presented with an English counterpart.

     The future is a faraway entity that is unknowable and unpredictable. Therefore, the focus of the poems is on the present in relation to the past which is unforgettable and is surrounded by an aura of extraordinariness:

Per noi solo l’indimenticabile, così non lo dimenticheremo

e comunque solo fuori casa

[…]

E papà diceva che non serviva andare a Parigi

dal momento che ero già straordinaria

For us only the unforgettable, so we’ll never forget it

and in any case always outdoors

[…]

And dad used to say I didn’t need to go to Paris

since I was already marvellous

     It is a dreamlike atmosphere evoked in the reference to La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini that connects the poem to the Italian cultural context of the time and to the illusions of memories. London, instead, is her everyday reality, which is mysterious and contingent at the same time. It is ‘a skeleton, an attendant – a skeleton […] a bowl of sugar in the rain’. She is unsettled by the absence of sunshine but eventually she learns to love London. A sense of displacement lingers in the allusion to Mary Poppins, whose bag is stolen leaving her deprived of her powers. Similarly to the heroine, the poet seems to be powerless when facing her double life between the present and the past, between London and Italy. Life goes on in London, the ‘unstoppable city’ where she finds her place but also wanders in search of meaning, in its vague ‘scent, a scent: whose, from when – whose?’ that questions her certainties:

e mi chiedo come sia possibile

se io stia occupando il posto di un’altra di proposito o per errore

e se questo fosse un mio errore

o l’errore di un’altra.

and I wonder, how did this happen

and I taking the place of another intentionally or by error

and is this my error

or someone else’s.

     It is an adventure, a journey towards a more complex identity that challenges her origins and enriches them too in a progression that is not always easy. She wishes to rewind, to go back to the past, to her ‘Tyrolean dress’, but she also wants to face the opportunities that London offers. The city is ‘a kind of Olympus, of dream of the century/an emission of our youth’, the embodiment of vitality.

     Four pictures comment on the poems; they are reminders of fragmented memories, apparently simple things but meaningful for the poet’s search, such as a newspaper clipping, a ticket for a sunbed session and a picture of a TV screen with William and Kate’s wedding showing on it. They are metaphors that help the reader understand and give a sense of deep connection to the author’s new life in London; it is an incessant movement that goes forwards and backwards between Italy and London.

     Radi Cor’s poems are skilfully crafted, similarly to the works of major Italian women poets such as Alda Merini and Maria Luisa Spaziani. Her lines express deeply felt emotions in imageries and sounds both in Italian and in the elegant and competent English translations. She recalls memories that shaped her personality in language. It is a shape-shifting identity which is enriched by two cultures and two realities. The reader is involved in this moving and ambivalent reality in which ‘by the Thames […] you sense Venice’ in an illusion of truth. 

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 7th January 2022

XENIA by Eugenio Montale Translated Mario Petrucci (Arc Publications)

XENIA by Eugenio Montale Translated Mario Petrucci (Arc Publications)

Montale’s sequence of twenty-eight poems written in response to the death of his wife in 1963 has, naturally enough, been compared to the Poems of 1912-13 written by Hardy after the death of Emma. Regarding those earlier responses to profound loss Mario Petrucci suggests that the Italian poet thought that the section from Satires of Circumstance was “one of the summits of modern poetry”. The comparison is interesting and F.R. Leavis referred to it in some detail in his recognition of the “direct simplicity of personal feeling” relating the two poets. In his introduction to G. Singh’s translation of Montale’s New Poems Leavis went on to question this simplicity in terms of the impersonality of art:

“Now I think that great art is necessarily impersonal, and that the true creative impersonality is what we have in the poignancy, the profound movingness, of Xenia…For a major poet such as Montale is, poetry is one’s profoundest response to experience. The theme of Xenia is as central, important and moving as any human theme can be, and the reticence it requires of the poet is not a refusal to recognise the full nature of what, intimately for him as a sufferer, it in reality portends; but the contrary.”

Leavis discusses the central idea of how can an “actual pondered sense of irrevocable loss” be defined and communicated and the derivation of that word irrevocable pushes us forward to think of how a voice of a “Woman much missed” can “call to me”. Leavis is not alone of course in recognising the appropriateness of a connection between Hardy’s poems, subtitled as Veteris vestigia flammae, and Montale’s elegiac words for his little Mosca. But he is perhaps unusual in his awareness of what Donald Davie also noted about Hardy’s Victorian diction and the quality of those elegies to the memory of Emma that took the poet beyond the world of the technician, “the laureate of engineering”:

“…a direct simplicity of personal feeling certainly relates the two poets…Montale is immensely more subtle, more supple and more diverse than Hardy. The fact is apparent at once in the texture (hardly a felicitous metaphor – but what better is there?) and the nervous life of their verse. Hardy had to fight an unending battle against Victorian ‘poetic diction’, and the evidence of it is there in the handful of his major victories…Montale, on the other hand, is, as poetic ‘practitioner’ (to use Eliot’s favoured term), clearly a master of living – that is, today’s spoken – Italian.”

Hardy’s yearning to create a bridge between the Now and the Then, to give voice to the irrevocable, leads Leavis to “recognise that she [Emma] exists only as posited by the poet’s nostalgic intensity”: she is the woman with whom he was in love forty years ago. “But Mosca in Xenia is the highly individual woman apart from whom daily life was inconceivable until the catastrophe of her loss, and is almost inconceivable now”. Almost…and yet Montale’s achievement is to make her “so compellingly actual” in the “evoked day-to-day ordinariness”.
I possess no great facility with the Italian language and my reading of translations of Montale’s work is dependent upon my sense of trust in the way in which they present themselves. Let it be clear: I think that these new poems by Mario Petrucci are remarkable in the way that they capture a profound response to experience. The translator’s introduction makes it clear to us that he knows very well indeed what is involved in this subtle and complex work:

“The familiarities of a shared life are allowed to brim but never to spill over, as they might under less dextrous or more assertive hands, into sentimentality. Those details, things as things in themselves, contain the emotion.”

William Carlos Williams would have course have recognised the centrality of this awareness of the ordinary out of which our lives are composed and Petrucci highlights for us how “Around household bric-a-brac and household oddments – a telephone bill, old books, his (as he elsewhere puts it) totem of a rusty shoehorn – Montale constructs a humble reliquary of loss”. As a translator Mario Petrucci presents a firm method of approach:

“I should add that I skirted, initially, the Matterhorn of Montale commentaries, not wishing to commence Xenia in the boa grip of academic conclusions or with that pressing sense of an author’s sanctified objectives. This might seem cavalier, even heretical, with someone as elusive and allusive as Montale can be; but it paid the language, as well as the poet, a different sort of respect. It allowed a fresh and unencumbered approach, one that (for all its dangers) facilitated a certain freedom to express and reinterpret the spirit of the verse. I was able to come to textual insights in my own way rather than second-hand.”

I find this focus upon the translator as reader and literary critic admirable and the living quality of the result is there for all to see.

“At the Saint James, Paris, I’ll request
a single room. (No love lost there
for the uncoupled client). So, too,
in the mock Byzantium of your
Venetian hotel; then quick on the scent
of those friends of yours in their
switchboard hutch; only to start
again, my clockwork charge all spent,
with that longing to have you back if
only in some gesture, or knack.”

The power of Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13 is held in the architectural magnificence of a structure such as the opening stanza of ‘The Going’:

“Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here…”

And the musical yearning, the echo, is caught then with the rhyming “Where I could not follow / With wing of swallow” before the last line draws out as the vibrant ‘g’ sounds merge into open air:

“To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!”

Petrucci’s Montale attempts a more matter-of-fact record of loss:

“No glasses, nor antennae,
poor insect – such wings
you possessed only in fantasy –
a bible broken and much less
believable, this night-blackness,
a flash, a clap and then
no – not even the squall. Perhaps
you never left so soon without
speaking? Though it’s laughable
to consider you still had lips.”

For anything equivalent to Mario Petrucci’s Xenia we must turn perhaps to Simon Marsh’s STANZE (c.f. my review from 7/3/16) to read

“you promised me Dante after supper
the circumstances no longer exist
only changes in air scent
intensely captured light
page-bound radiance of individual days
when we last scooped vacant autumn oysters
from low tide silt at Minnis Bay”

And, as if to bring some wheel round full circle, I am delighted to announce Riccardo Duranti’s translations of Marsh’s poems into Italian, a versioni italiane, published by his own Coazinzola Press which has also just produced a beautifully presented version of John Berger’s Collected Poems available from http://www.coazinzolapress.it

As this moment of the year’s turning let us raise a glass not only to the fine poets, whose sensitivity to what they read and experience makes their publications so worthwhile, but also to their publishers such as Arc (www.arcpublications.co.uk) and Coazinzola.

Ian Brinton 30th December 2016

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