I read mainly poetry during summer and autumn, brand new works and old ones, both English and Italian. All enchanting, here are some of them.
Plum by Elizabeth Burns (Wayleave Press 2016)
I wrote about Elizabeth’s work several times in this blog. Her pamphlet Clay was shortlisted for the 2016 Ted Hughes Award and was runner up for the 2016 Callum Mcdonald Memoria Award. Plum was published last summer, a posthumous gift to her readers; the poems were found and collected by family and friends after her death.
It is a sequence of superbly crafted poems describing a plum tree through the seasons. They are short, intense poems in couplets and triplets, their poignant images stand out in the sparing verses. The beauty of these poems is in the careful choice of words and their sounds. They express meanings that go far beyond a simple description of a tree and its fruits and dig deeply into the core significance of our life.
I read some of them at an open mic at the New Inn in Send. Elizabeth’s voice echoed in my ears, her presence beside me:
how much they want the sun
to turn their green skins
yellow, pink, purple
how their riper colours
come in a rush, a rash, a blush
a mottling of pink
the first taste –
sweet yellow flesh
around the stone
the tree grows bare
closes in on itself
snow lies along the branches
covering the places
where buds will come
The door to colour by Myra Schneider (Enitharmon Press 2014)
Myra’s rich, narrative poems tell the story of her unlimited imagination, a chain of images that unravel flawless reasoning. The colours she evokes in her poems, especially in Kaleidoscope, have the consistence of facts filtered by experience and delivered in powerful images:
is the leaves you try to catch
as they drop into winter, the flare
from the Halloween turnip’s heart
that lights up its cut-out eyes,
the dooking for apples in water,
the solid prize you bite into.
is silver so you try to hoard it
in your small room among books,
folders, boxes topped with dust,
the dangle of computer cables.
Pictures and everyday objects (like a spoon, a throw or a teapot) speak to her and open an unexpected world to the reader, create stories, make connections and reveal mysteries. The presence of some inexplicable, though realistic entities the poet perceives in the rays of the moon, in the fog or in a post box build a bridge between real and unreal, dream and ordinary:
A crucible for salt grains, ground pepper,
a dab of mustard, it speaks of moon –
not a harvest moon hanging heavy
as cow udders, but winter’s glinting coin.
The uncanny becomes familiar. Her poems convey the joy of being alive and discovering a new perspective on everyday life.
Folle, folle, folle di amore per te by Alda Merini (Salani editore 2015)
I wrote about Alda Merini in the past. I go back to her poems again and again, fascinated by her words of love that strikingly contrast with her excruciating life. This book (Crazy, crazy, crazy in love with you) is a collection of her love poems ‘for young lovers’, says the subtitle. In fact, it communicates a mature disenchanted idea of love, a sentiment explored both in its carnal and spiritual sides. Her femininity is ambivalent, maternal and passionate, vulnerable and aggressive. She is always aware of her fragility and vulnerable exposure when she falls in love, nevertheless her feelings are unconditional under all circumstances, even abuse. But at the same time she can be demanding and cruel, a predatory side that manifests itself with total abandon. Her last word is of total acceptance, our most basic instincts combined with a spiritual yearning she never denies. Naked, exposed to the reader, a mad woman deprived of everything, who takes her identity back, loving without limits. This is her revenge and her salvation.
Here are some examples of her touching poetry:
A volte Dio
uccide gli amanti
perché non vuole
(Sometimes God kills lovers because he doesn’t want to be surpassed in love)
Io ero un Uccello
dal bianco ventre gentile,
qualcuno mi ha tagliato la gola
per riderci sopra
Ma anche distesa per terra
io canto ora per te
le mie canzoni d’amore.
(I was a bird with a gentle white belly, somebody cut my throat to laugh on it, I don’t know.
But even lying on the ground I sing now for you my love songs)
Così ti fermerei
e potrei disegnarti
un arabesco sul cuore
(Perché t’amo, Because I love you)
(I’d stop you like this and draw an arabesque on your heart)
Dibattendoci come due rettili infami
mentre perdiamo l’anima
(Writhing like two vile reptiles while we lose our souls)
Eating fire by Margaret Atwood (Virago 2010)
This is a collection of selected poems from 1965 till 1995, it includes: Circle Games (1966), The animals in the Country (1968), The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Procedures for underground (1970), Power Politics (1970), You are happy (1974), Two-headed poems (1978), True stories (1981), Interlunar (1984) and Morning in the burned house (1995).
It’s a political kind of poetry, tough, direct and punchy. It’s also very readable, sometimes almost prose like; the rhythm is dictated by the abrupt line breaks, the bewildering rhetorical questions, the wittiness and extreme irony of his verses that turn ordinary life and common beliefs upside down. These are the techniques she uses to show how things really are.
This collection from the 60s describe the crisis of the relationship with her first husband and refer to a more general crisis between man and woman. The lines are short, unexpectedly broken, to reflect lack of communication, alienation and fruitless search for identity:
I want the circle
(The circle Games vii)
There is no centre;
travel with us unseen
like our shadows
on a day when there is no sun.
(A place: fragments vi)
Reality is completely deconstructed, disassembled, while she tries to rebuild it in a more authentic way. Bitter irony, unveiling the contradictions of a ruthless world (especially ruthless with the defenceless, like women, children, animals and nature) are the weapons Margaret Atwood uses to fight an endless battle for fairness and justice:
sauntering out of the almost-
silly West, on your face
a porcelain grin,
tugging a papier-mâché cactus
on wheels behind you with a string,
you are innocent as a bathtub
full of bullets.
(Backdrop addresses Cowboy)
The poems from Power Politics are certainly the most famous ones, and rightly so:
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
You take my hand
I’m suddenly in a bad movie,
it goes on and on and
why am I fascinated
Her words are sharp, the images merciless and surprisingly funny, the reader is totally engrossed in her original reasoning and unexpected questioning. This is not just because of the pressing rhythm, the original images or the music of the verse, but more for the surprising reality she unveils and unfalteringly shows to us.
Some of her lines reminded me of Frida Kahlo’s work:
Like a deep sea
creatures with glass bones and wafer
to the surface, I break
open, the pieces of me
shine briefly in your empty hands
Similarly to her paintings, Margaret Atwood represents an inner pain using surreal images that evoke the same feeling in the reader.
In later works she rewrites myths, like Circe’s and Odysseus’s one, where the Greek hero is not a heroic figure but a boastful liar, a deceiver who takes advantage of his own friends:
One day you simply appeared in your stupid boat,
your killer’s hands, your disjointed body, jagged
as a shipwreck,
skinny-ribbed, blue-eyed, scorched, thirsty, the usual,
pretending to be – what? a survivor?
Those who say they want nothing
It was not this greed
that offended me, it was the lies.
In this way Margaret Atwood reconstructs the myth from a woman’s perspective, which can be as valid as the traditional one (the man’s perspective) where women have been confined to the background, secluded and used by men:
When he was young he and another boy constructed a woman out of mud. She began at the neck and ended at the knees and elbows: they stuck to the essentials.
Differently from Alda Merini, Margaret Atwood refuses to accept everything from men. She feels angry, contentious and relentless in pointing out the contradictions of man’s myths and the unfair treatments women suffer:
Break it, I tell you, Break
it. Geology wins. The layer
of trite histories presses you down,
monotony of stone. Oval frame.
(Head against white iv)
In the later collections she develops two major and recurring techniques to testify the renewed attitude women should implement, to carry on the never ending fight against oppression and seclusion: the importance of being a witness and the refusal to give in to romance. The heart is a ‘lump of muscle’ described with realistic unappealing details; women must bear witness of the tortures perpetrated against them and give voice to the voiceless (‘those with no fingers’). This is the new identity women should be committed to, a new reality, a darkness ‘you can enter and be/as safe in as you are anywhere’ (Interlunar).
Towards the end of this selection of poetry collections, there is the story of Mary Webster, the woman accused of witchcraft and hanged in 1680s in Massachusetts. She survived and lived another fourteen years. Definitely a true witness.
Il sangue amaro by Valerio Magrelli
The title has a double meaning, it means ‘bad blood’ or ‘sour blood’ but also ‘make oneself ill over something’. What makes Valerio Magrelli ill is definitely the present Italian social and political situation:
Giovani senza lavoro
con strani portafogli
in cui infilare denaro
che non è guadagnato.
(Il Policida I)
(Young people without a job with strange wallets where they insert money they didn’t earn)
He describes ironically the half-naked showgirls in Christmas TV programs showing off their ‘rebuilt parts’:
ed io vorrei morirti, creatura artificiale,
fra le zanne, gli artigli, la tua pelle-valuta,
irreale invenzione di chirurgia, ideale
sogno di forma pura, angelico complesso
di sesso, sesso, sesso, sesso, sesso.
(L’igienista mentale: divertimento alla maniera di Orlan)
(and I would like to die with you, artificial creature, between claws, talons, your currency-like-skin, unreal invention of plastic surgery, ideal dream of pure form, angelic ensemble of sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.)
They are symbols of an artificial and degraded reality that apparently prevails in today’s Italy. In a similar way the section about Christmas is emblematic of this disillusion. The festivity is now meaningless, a promise that will never be attained; Jesus Christ himself is the victim of his own beliefs and there is no justice, no change and no hope in a better future. Baby Jesus might as well turn over in his manger and have a nap:
Sta’ nella mangiatoia, accucciati su un fianco,
rimettiti a dormire, lascia perdere,
tanto lo sanno tutti, che ti aspetta la croce,
vittima, tu medesimo, di questa creazione malvagia
di cui sei lo smarrito spettatore, la preda
abbandonata sul ciglio di una curva.
(Babbo Natale gnostico)
(stay in the manger, crouch on one side, go back to sleep, forget it, everybody knows the cross is waiting for you; you are the victim of this evil creation, the lost viewer, the prey abandoned at the edge of a bend)
In Valerio Magrelli’s poetry everything is ambivalent, contradictory and this mirrors our own feelings, desires and words:
Impaurito dall’altezza e lontano da te,
significa in ultimo:
attratto da ciò che ci separa.
Il panico di chi teme di cadere
riflette il desiderio di cadere,
ossia di superare il vuoto che divide.
Tutto si intreccia, tutto si confonde
per generare nostalgia.
(La lettura è crudele VIII)
(scared by the height and far from you, it means at the end to be attracted by what separates us. The panic of being afraid of falling, that is to surpass the emptiness that divides. Everything is intertwined, everything merges to engender nostalgia)
As Italo Calvino writes in his wonderful book Invisible Cities: ‘Falsehood is never in words; it is in things’.
My favourite section of the book is the sequence of fifteen irregular rondinets (sort of rondeau, short love poems popular in 16th and 17th century France). The broad topic is ‘rivers’, and a river is mentioned in each of them, but it’s just a pretext to speak again about our fake myths, illusions, vain fussing and fretting. The only thing that really counts is: ‘ascoltare chi ami’ (listening to the people you love).
The collection ends with a casual warning:
Sul circuito sanguigno
È come nel sistema circolatorio:
il sangue è sempre lo stesso,
ma prima va, poi viene.
Noi lo chiamiamo odio, ma è solo sofferenza,
la vena che riporta
il dono delle arterie alla partenza.
(On blood circuit. It’s like in the circulatory system: blood is always the same, first it goes and then it comes back. We call it hatred, but it is only pain, the vein that brings back the gift of the artery to the start)
The collection retraces the story of a virtuoso violinist, George Bridgetower, son of a white European mother and a self-styled ‘African Prince’. He was discovered by Haydn and brought to England to perform at aristocratic courts. Beethoven met Bridgetower in Vienna and composed the Kreutzer Sonata (Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major Op. 47) for him, originally titled Sonata Mulattica.
Rita Dove’s work is based on historical documents, but she also imagines the life of the young musician in England and in Austria following his successes since he was a child prodigy. It’s a mixture of facts and literary imagination that don’t avoid episodes of sheer discrimination.
Bridgetower was a ‘phenomenal musical talent’ since he was ten years old, his success was mostly unexpected and the reactions of the audience enthusiastic. The poems recreate the atmosphere of the time, the emotions of the young musician and testify the spectators’ reactions:
...The son, a lad of ten or twelve,
bore a hue that seemed cast in darkest bronze;
he was smartly dressed, possessed an admirable
restraint, and played the Viotti concerto
with an eloquence and refinement
rarely delivered by his more celebrated seniors.
(Mrs. Papendiek’s Diary (1))
I was nothing if not everything
when the music was in me.
I could be fierce, I could shred
the heads off flowers for breakfast
with my bare teeth, simply because
I deserved such loveliness.
If this was ambition, or hatred,
or envy – then I was all
those things, and so was he.
(Concert at Hanover Square)
The verses are rich and musical, evoking for the reader Bridgetower’s own melodies. It is ‘a tale of light and shadow’ like most stories of past and present celebrities, of ‘heavenly music’ and profound depression:
I step out.
I step out into silence.
I step out to take
my place; my place is silence
before I lift the bow and draw
a fingerwidth of ache upon the air.
This is what it is like
to be a flame: furious
but without weight, breeze
sharpening into wind, a bright gust
that will blind, flatten all of you –
yet tender, somewhere inside
The collection ends with the most eloquent, inclusive metaphor:
Master B, little great man, tell me:
How does a shadow shine?
(The End, with MapQuest)