‘My Poems Won’t Change the World’ by Patrizia Cavalli
Author: Jessica Mason McFadden
October 9, 2013
My Poems Won’t Change the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Bilingual Edition) is an unmitigated, extensive collection of complex and rich work by Italy’s beloved Patrizia Cavalli, a poet who walks symphonically and sympathetically alongside her subtexts. She has an acute ear for them—what they are saying and don’t want to say, or are not saying and wishing to say—and to be a party to such conversation, for a reader, is a stunning experience.
In poems that comment on the notion of living neither with unnecessary politeness nor unbearable audacity, it is apparent that Cavalli possesses a serene frankness that maintains its composure even in the most bright, abruptly absurd—and dim, barely perceptible—moments of recounting and relaying. The emphatic collection is the gift of Cavalli to an English-speaking audience. It will, undoubtedly, be praised, celebrated, and revered, as English speakers now have their chance to be lulled into Cavalli’s Athenian state of mind and languid lyric, with its magnificent balance between fluidity and security. In the company of her trusted and talented first-translator, Gini Alhadeff, and with expert translations by several carefully-selected, highly respected poets: Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, Jonathan Galassi, Rosanna Warren, Geoffrey Brock, J.D. McClatchy, and David Shapiro, Cavalli comes to us with a assured greatness. The collection has been long anticipated and has now, finally, arrived.
Always a poet with a philosopher’s brutal honesty, Cavalli writes poems that are endowed with the contralto hum of her poetic muttering. Readers will be delighted to find that, in the difficult process of translation, an authentic and enduring poetic sound and spirit has been preserved. The entire collection is marked with dry humor that draws out of readers the lasting resonance of a subterranean roll of laughter.
Now that time seems all mine
and no one calls me for lunch or dinner, …
now that morning never has a beginning
and silently leaves me to my plans
all the cadences of voice, now
suddenly I would like a prison
Restfulness and peace read like a parody while dissatisfaction cuts in with a funny, but somehow painful, blow. Cavalli’s dynamism in poetic skill matches her deep understanding of the human condition; her timing alone indicates a sophisticated recognition of humor as having its back always pressed up against hopelessness. Cadence and timing allow her to place her emphases rigorously. Cavalli is not restless; on the page, she’s a restful poet: restfully wakeful and alive.
My Poems Won’t Change the World is a celebration of four decades of work. It begins with La Mie Poesie Non Cambieranno il Mondo (My Poems Won’t Change the World, 1974). It then shifts into Il Cielo (The Sky, 1981) and onto Sempre Aperto Teatro (The Forever Open Theater, 1999), lingering and ending on the last note of her recent Pigre Divinità e Pigra Porte (Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate, 2006). The sections cohere seamlessly, asking to be read in such a way that shifts in tone and style throughout cannot easily be articulated but, rather, must be sensed, as one would sense changes in a piece of classical music. As a composer of poetic wisdom, Cavalli is incredibly consistent, often combining her memorable and accessible capriccios with more difficult sonatinas. There are no reprises, only haunting intervals. Her key is always minor.
Cavalli’s work is obviously under the influence of Rome, where she resides—particularly, under the influence of its most conspicuously provincial sectors and borders. While Rome is central, it remains rather indiscriminate, certainly without historical insistence. Its most apparent locales are internal—the thinking person in the domestic terrain of the home, wherein refuge and despair meet, and on the many footpaths of relating: at the market, in the café, what prepares itself for her awakening in “the intransigent horizon its landscapes its hills.” While the allure of Rome will inevitably draw readers to this book, don’t expect it to reek of touristic romantic idealizations.
What is magnetic is the allure of the comfortably charismatic Cavalli, who, through her sight and its articulations, creates and revives a mythic Rome, defined as a spirit and state of mind quintessential to the human experience of desire and pleasure. She broadly offers the simplest illumination of what is most difficult to describe—the luxury of living in a state of heightened awareness of one’s inevitably blurred internal-and-external experience, experience that is moment-to-moment and cannot be charted:
It’s all so simples, yes, it was so simple,
it is so clear I almost can’t believe it.
Here’s what the body is for: you touch me or you don’t touch me,
you hold me or send me away. The rest is for lunatics.
The sardonic philosopher speaks true…to all of humanity’s disappointment, yes. But we knew it all along. The rest is for lunatics. We’re all living out this simple notion. This quip of a poem is, perhaps, the most subversive and true philosophical statement ever written. And it’s poetry.
What is more romantic than a deep and plainly stated recognition of love’s relation to the body and the body’s relation to love?
Many poems in the collection propagate romance but it is in Cavalli’s determination to always set on the page in rigorous, if not musical, terms her exact psychosocial experience in the glory of its metaphoric signification that transcends and broadens our concept of romanticism.
In My Poems Won’t Change the World, poem titles are always the ungraspable transition between the middle ground of ordinary thought and the precipitous, always distant, poetic voice of literary thought. There is one plane of thinking present in Cavalli’s work, and it is the plane of genius, genius that does not question itself. Her first lines (i.e., titles) are the sudden appearances of a strain in that plane of thought; together, they create the book’s consistently paced but brisk momentum.
Translation is not simply a matter of transfer in this collection. It is apparent on each page that translation is both the musical variant and muddled wellspring from which written and oral language practices are born. Cavalli is a translator of herself, and so she must, in order to translate, embrace a certain amount of detachment. This allows her to speak more universally; she speaks to convey away from herself so that she can convey to others, perhaps with less access to detached knowledge, what is most authentic and ironic in the practice of living. Not only does her voice arise from self-distance; it also, at times, distances her readers, placing them in the precarious position of having to choose a degree of proximity to the text. With this gesture, she pays a great deal of respect to her readers, allowing them to decide whether or not, and how deeply, they are to abandon themselves in order to be pulled in.
Something should be said of Cavalli’s cadence. It is unclear whether the cadence of the poems replicate their original state, in Italian, or if a new cadence has evolved in translation. The cadence, on the whole, is consistent across translations, yet to English-only-speaking readers, questions of cadence and timbre in relation to translation do arise. Even though I do not speak Italian, I made an effort to read both the Italian and English versions of each poem. In addition, I was able to find a video of New York University’s Casa Italiano event, Poetry and the City, a series of bilingual readings and conversations held in honor of contemporary Italian poetry. I listened closely to stylistic difference between Cavalli and Alhadeff, when they shared the stage during a reading, and observed that not only were the sounds, the pauses and emphases different, but the personalities-conveyed and the effect on an audience varied, as well. Of course, some of this had to do with differences in the personalities of readers, but, ultimately, it does provide insight into that significant change in meaning, effect and affect, that occurs during translation. On further reflection, it also suggests that translation is a larger, more pervasive process than we might first assume. Which brings us to a not-impenetrable subject: barriers between writers and readers.
Just as writers are translators, so, too, are readers. There is no limit on what is and is not translation when it comes to communication. However, there are barriers that sway emotional response and cognitive interpretation. Cavalli’s work brings these barriers to our attention, often articulating directly the experience of being pushed by or willingly pushing up against them. Cavalli embraces the fragments within her, sometimes talking to herself and sometimes talking of herself. Her Other, ultimately, is her Self. She is not afraid of taking a step back from a thought and assessing it— as a matter of fact, for this she has a great talent: “I become marginal to myself./My matter evaporates, she speaks through Jonathan Galassi translation.”
It is not easy to objectify oneself, but this is something Cavelli does with style: she accepts herself as a poetic object within the narrative moment of each poem. In this practice, having managed to separate herself into parts in order to offer witty and credible assessments, she earns her reputation as a poet of ethical import. At some points, it seems that she’s calling out to herself, from some other place, to bring herself back into being. But the poems depend upon the fact that she never gets there; in order for wisdom to blossom within the structure of the poem, she must be partially, not holistically, present. Her active engagement with fragmentation renders the fragment-formed-in-verse whole.
In all of this is wisdom, and Patrizia Cavelli is quite the obstinate goddess when it comes to dolling it out, but she does so in manageable packages. Her poems can be read quickly, which seems intentional, giving power to the immediacy and urgency of her wisdom. Desire is present driving everything, but she tempers it. Her wisdom, therefore, is not what happens to her, as a person, but what happens to the act, whether or not committed, when she writes of it. In naming, she is wise: “When I buy fruit I have to taste it/right away out on the street.”
It doesn’t matter whether she does this in literal or metaphorical form; what matters is that she states it, that she names this way of life and observes a manifestation of the human impulse in this way, captures a segment of humanity, a moment of desire and pleasure, in one frank observation.
Cavalli writes poems of depersonalization. They can be universal because they are personal and intimate without being individual and owned. It’s as if her verses are birds made up of her being that she releases from captivity with the compassion of indifference. Wisdom’s wings fall open when she opens her hands and offers parts of herself departure and flight:
and if it weren’t the birds it would be something else,
for you have your specialties for every place;
and when you come in and I surrender my senses
I’m living in unfamiliar houses again and feeling nostalgia
for things that never occurred.
She is there and not there, attached and detached. Surrendering to impulse while all-the-while knowing that there is no greater meaning in it. Such is the stuff of freedom that great poets, like Cavalli, are pressed to share. Take Cavalli’s wisdom as sound advice: think of My Poems Won’t Change the World as a straw basket of fruit from a market in Rome. Buy, taste. Right away.
My Poems Won’t Change the World
By Patrizia Cavalli; Edited by Gini Alhadeff
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Bilingual Edition
Paperback, 9780374217440, 304 pp.