It’s refreshing, in this age of ubiquitous self-promotion, to pick up a book modestly titled My Poems Won’t Change The World, the first substantial American anthology of Patrizia Cavalli’s work. Well-known in her native Italy, Cavalli is the author of six volumes of poetry. I picked up the most recent, Datura, in a small nook of a bookstore in the Dorsoduro district of Venice last month; it was the last copy on the shelf. Her poems are honest and elegant, and like the title, wary of affectation. She explores the emotional traffic between friends and lovers — often using a combination of first and second person — with a quirky self-effacement that echoes early John Ashbery. Cavalli’s poems don’t so much arrive as materialize, like a façade through a fog; she tells the reader what exists beneath the banal: “The more bored you are, the more attached you get.,” she writes. Then she continues, “I’m so bored, I no longer want to die.”
Translations of Cavalli’s first five books, published by Einaudi between 1974–2006, make up My Poems Won’t Change The World. In the early poems, the themes of her oeuvre are already present — life as a distraction from time (death); the headiness of longing and concealment; the physiology of desire. Her lyrics are like fizzling vignettes, some of them two or three-line stanzas, sentiments pared down:
Together eternity and death threaten me:
neither of the two do I know,
neither of the two will I know.
What do I care if your nose is all swollen.
I have to clean the house.
Her poems occur motionless as the world moves, the poet as a frictionless witness. Cavalli’s lyrics live in hypothesis, on the verge of something about to happen, whether it be loss or love or the outcome of desire:
I comb my hair
ready or not
here I am.
But no love-talk—
I can’t take it.
As for love, I just
want to make it.
A part of Cavalli’s appeal is the uncomplicated rapport she establishes. The poems’ effortless enjambments (“Because the air absorbed us/in its climate. The head/cocked to the side, the cheek touching/a shoulder and almost caressing it”) mimic the shape of a body it describes. According to Gini Alhadeff, who edited the collection and collaborated for many years with the poet, Cavalli’s Italian “is so effortlessly, naturally idiomatic,” and this comes through in the translations. Their loose, cadenced quality feels musical but never constricted, in contrast with the austere and polemic lyrics of poetic forbears like Eugenio Montale and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
In Cavalli’s best poems, there is an aura of disengagement; it’s a wonder that they are also profoundly personal. She writes as if she exists apart from the world, a resident outside the machinery, and thus her poems never seem self-indulgent, even as she gives us flash communiqués of her inner life:
Love not mine not yours,
but the fenced-in field that we entered
from which you soon moved out
and where I’d lazily made my home.
I watch you from the inside, you out there,
strolling distracted on the outskirts
and coming closer now and then to check
whether I’m still there, stopped and stunned.
Cavalli once told a reporter: “I have become rather an expert knower of myself and it could be that a certain fondness has developed.” Without relying on sentimentality, her poems undertake an intimate examination of the self. With its treatment of pronouns (usually “I” or “you”), Cavalli’s poetry has a good deal in common with the tight stanzas of Kay Ryan and Mark Strand. But her work differs from them in its treatment of the feminine, an unguarded exploration of female sexuality and desire:
So, let’s see how you flower,
how you open up, the color of your petals,
how many pistils you have, what tricks you use
to scatter pollen and replicate yourself,
whether your blossoming is languid or violent,
what posture you take, where you lean,
if while dying you dry up or go sour:
come on now, I look, you flower.
The association of the feminine with the allegorical flower is implicit, but its Cavalli’s renascent sensuality that surprises, and courses through the poems in this collection.
Geoffrey Brock, the editor of the The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry, and one of Cavalli’s many translators, wrote of representing individual poets with multiple translators, a choice that places certain demands on the reader, “namely that you try to hear your way through the varied voices of different translators to the original voice that lies beyond them.” My Poems Won’t Change The World features translations by many disparate and accomplished poets, including Brock, Strand, Jorie Graham, Jonathan Galassi and Rosanna Warren, as well as Alhadeff.
It may seem like an odd assemblage of voices, but Cavalli’s lines sound seamless no matter who is doing the translating, and her keen wit carries through, unhindered by irony. In “The Keeper,” her dazzling poem sequence, an allegory on poetic craft and sexual love, she writes, “it wasn’t science, it was devotion.” She was referring to opening locked doors, but I took the phrase to be the essence of her poetry, one which transcends the rudimentary physics of gender, genre or language.
My Poems Won’t Change the World by Patrizia Cavalli (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is available at Amazon and other online booksellers.
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