Franca Mancinelli: An Essay and a Short Sequence of Clear Seawater

FrancaMancinelli-by Dino Ignani-7 second pic

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Franca Mancinelli was born in Fano, Italy, in 1981. Ever since her first collection, Mala kruna (2007), she has been considered one of the most compelling voices in contemporary Italian poetry. Both Mala kruna and her subsequent collection, Pasta madre (2013), were awarded several prizes in Italy and later republished together as Mala Kruna and Mother Dough in a translation by John Taylor, under the overarching title At an Hour’s Sleep from Here (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2019). In 2018, The Bitter Oleander Press had already published her collection of prose poems in Taylor’s translation: The Little Book of Passage.

Mancinelli’s new collection of poems and poetic prose, Tutti gli occhi che ho aperto (All the Eyes that I have Opened), appeared in Italy in September 2020. Most of the pieces from this new book, as well as a substantial number of Mancinelli’s prose texts and personal essays, have already been translated and published in journals: The Bitter Oleander, Trafika Europe, Journal of Italian Translation, Strands, AzonaL, Osiris, The Blue Nib, Right Hand Pointing, Bengaluru Review, January Review, The Fortnightly Review, Cholla Needles and Mantis.

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A Book of Poetry: A Living Structure •  A Short Sequence of Clear Seawater

NB. Readers can access the Italian texts of both the essay and the poems  by clicking on the titles below. [Ed.]

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A Book of Poetry, A Living Structure

Writing poetry is like being at the helm of a sailboat: we can have chosen our route, mapped out our itinerary, but much greater forces decide for us. What we can do is acknowledge them, not opposing them even when they compel us to make what seems to be an unexpected halt or a detour taking us away from what we thought was our goal. Anyone who has steered a boat remembers an initial sensation of complete disorientation: to reach a point, you have to turn the wheel in the opposite direction. Often we forget this, steering in the direction we would like to go and thus watching the point moving away, against all our expectations and efforts. Poetry is exactly like this, an everlasting apprenticeship: our intentions lead us to where we least expected to go. Who could claim to have what Heaney calls ‘the government of the tongue’? Like a good sailor, a poet is capable of letting currents and winds govern, of using these energies for his or her voyage.

*

We can write as if we were raising solid walls to protect ourselves from the elements. In this way we feel safe: we seem to have a language, to inhabit it. But if this house doesn’t have enough windows and cracks to let in water and wind, soon we are walled up inside ourselves, buried by our own hands. The only form that doesn’t betray life is a perilous open ruin. Only a ruin allows nature to grow again inside it and animals to transit through it. It is a threshold zone that comprises what has survived the past and what seems to emerge from the future. The traces of those who have dwelled there mingle with those of an equally long, indefinite abandonment. This is the particular form of presence that our ego should have in writing.

*

The judge who lives inside us is our own persecutor. Every time he finds us guilty. ‘Purity is a flag of mourning,’ wrote Remo Pagnanelli. Purity, like perfection, is a death sentence. What we manage to accomplish in writing occurs when the judge lets himself sink into the matter of the language and, within its rhythm, closes his eyes, falls asleep.

*

In an especially critical period of her existence, a friend of mine learned how to knit. From time to time I would receive a small colorful piece of wool, or a scarf, as a gift. Every time I found more light in her face, until all traces of her long winter had vanished. She told me how, while the whole world remained closed for her, this simple movement of her fingers around a pattern, towards a project, had saved her. In the ancient metaphor of writing as weaving, there is also this aspect of a beneficial, ritual practice, like a daily liturgy, which can almost be indistinguishable from a domestic chore, with the gestures that sustain life every day. For me, it has the same significance as the slow kinds of work to which I contributed as a child, by shelling beans and peas with my grandmother, or by cutting off the tips of green beans. Writing poetry involves no inventing, but rather a reliance on making, which is in itself an art with its laws: a field of energy is released, transforming ourselves and everything with which it comes into contact.

*

One who is dead makes no mistakes.
There is no safer place than a sepulcher.

Some mistakes mold a part of our existence. As when we make a mistake on the motorway: we must drive for miles before reaching the next exit, and just as many miles back, before we are able to turn off in the direction that we had recognized as ours. In the meantime, years can go by. We continue to make a journey that we wouldn’t have wanted to make. Our route might also be visible at times, but unreachable. Abandoning it is like a slow silent betrayal of ourselves. A kind of self-condemnation. As we follow this road that doesn’t belong to us, we slowly lose the color of life: we become pale like a blank page in the notebook of our existence. Writing poetry allows us to enter an area in which, in every moment, we can go back inside the horizon that is ours: towards what is open, until the ending begins, calling upon us to make a new start, to go back and draw again on the same original force.

*

For me, a book of poetry is a lighting point, a possibility of vision: a brightness that reaches zones which, just beforehand, were inaccessible, having caved in under the accumulation of time and its happenstances. I write when something from the darkness beckons to be watched. I proceed in this way, groping, day by day, with the blank pages that life needs, until I feel that I must stop, try to understand where I am, turn around and acknowledge the direction that has guided me. At this moment, writing returns to the earth, rediscovers its foundations and grows into a construct of meaning. As in a childhood game when, sitting or kneeling on the floor of my room, I begin to arrange the pieces of paper into sequences that come together and are taken apart. There are lintel poems, poems that build the load-bearing walls, and others that take on the function of cement, lime, and concrete. I jot down in my notebook the link that connects one text to another and one sequence to another: most of these links are vibrations released by the opening or the closing lines of a text, or by what surfaces as their guiding image. I thus sketch out hypothetical maps, letting the emerging meaning take crossroads and parallel directions, until it is possible to recognize the form in which each piece has its place, its most open and, at the same time, most exact possibility of meaning. This is a phase of the work in which we write with what we have written, acknowledging what coheres, what can remain, and what confuses and destroys what is being built. The project takes shape slowly, through the very arrangement of the texts, the concatenations of meaning that gradually become indissoluble, giving us awareness, opening our eyes to what we have written. Little by little this trail is recognizable, becoming our guide, orienting us in our choice of the pieces to be sacrificed if unnecessary weights or ornaments have resulted in the overall pattern. Often in this same movement, the particular order of the texts enables meanings to surface, from the writing, and to assert themselves clearly, therefore reaching us. Other meanings, still wrapped in the weave of language, will be released over time, after the publication of the book, and be intercepted by other eyes who will give them back to us in the form of unexpected gifts.

The space that is being created resembles a living structure: we have done nothing but witness its birth and follow it, in its ramifications, sacrificing everything that entailed a dispersion of energy. A book is completed when it can accommodate a trail of meaning and allow a passage, and therefore a transformation, albeit imperceptibly, between the first page and the last one.

When I was writing the texts that would make up Mala kruna, Mother Dough, and The Little Book of Passage, I had no idea what form these books would have. The project remains dormant in a first long phase, but it is somehow already inside the weave of the language, just as the eggshell is formed only after the yolk is composed. All the Eyes that I have Opened was born in a different, more surprising way. I had always given little credit to commissioned texts resulting from those small unexpected opportunities that sometimes nourish poetry; I would look at them in a suspicious light, as if they were less genuine, less necessary. Yet in recent years, due to a deep personal need for metamorphosis, I have accepted these commissions because of the certainty of meeting up with what is “other,” something that has been important for me since the publication of Mother Dough, a book born in a sort of implosion, of inner collapse. Moreover, I recognized in these commissions the vestiges of an era when poetry still partook of community life: for temporary, limited occasions, someone would turn to the creative force of words, acknowledging their significance for the polis, and to me this seemed a vital little miracle to care for. This is how this unexpectedly plural and open book was born, with its voice moving from a migrant woman on the border between Serbia and Croatia to ‘master trees,’ to ancient votive statuettes, to the saintly guardian of light and eyesight, to a woman in her rarefied daily life: at the center are the wounds—the open eyes—of a difficult relationship, the ways in which it was overcome thanks to “gleams,” and its recurrence in the “dark room” where love is error. While I was sitting on the floor and searching for the form of this book, sequences that initially seemed distant to me and consigned to the project that had given them birth, found themselves together in a single trail of meaning, where the motif of seeing, of closing eyes and opening them, had been kindled again, including, through different voices, the reverberation of the same open identity, like a flock of migrating birds that takes on other forms but is never scattered. This book, like the previous ones, is comprised in a circular structure: the ending is also a beginning, a possibility for the presence that has taken on a voice to begin again, to recognize itself in a life, and for the reader to go back to the first page, to resume the journey. The short circuit of this ending and beginning recurs several times in the book, especially in those transit zones, of high tension, which are left to the blank pages. The need for these open portions has accompanied me ever since Mother Dough, which is structured, as subsequently The Little Book of Passage, indeed through blank pages that create a rhythm between words and silence, and that bear neither a title and nor any section or text number. In All the Eyes that I have Opened, I adopted Fabio Pusterla’s suggestion and let a small spiral emerge from the blank pages: as if inside the trunks of the trees, and inside our primordial stone pages.

—translated from the Italian by John Taylor

Note: The original Italian text was published in “Materiali di Estetica,” Poesia, edited by Stefano Raimondi, No. 7.2, 2020, pp. 75-80.

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A Short Sequence of Clear Seawater: Introduction by John Taylor

The nine prose fragments grouped together here as ‘A Short Sequence of Clear Seawater’ can be considered, in the author’s own words, ‘poems that have no line breaks.’ ‘The structure of the sequence is circular,’ adds Mancinelli in a personal message to me, ‘from the beach in the first text to the sea in the final one.’ Also essential for her in this new piece are the thematic dichotomies already informing The Little Book of Passage, At an Hour’s Sleep from Here, and All the Eyes that I have Opened: sleeping and awakening, opening and closing eyes, and love as a beneficial but also a potentially destructive force.Moreover, taking off from these dualities and with her characteristic light touch, Mancinelli suggests a narrative pattern that links up these prose fragments. It is typical of her most recent writing that the vestiges of a story—the bits and pieces remaining vividly and sometimes disturbingly in memory—are organized into sequences. In an in-depth interview with her, which appeared in the Autumn 2019 issue of The Bitter Oleander, I asked her why she adopted ‘haunting, fragmentary poetic forms’ instead of longer poetic forms, let alone short stories or even novels, when she was returning to crucial events in her past. ‘I am unable to tell stories for a long time,’ she answered, ‘because I am unable to maintain the fiction. What I can do is focus my attention on a fragment of reality and let life itself emerge in its light and in its flow of forms. I don’t invent anything when I write. I restrict myself to perceiving, to capturing what is approaching, trying to lean out as far as possible.’ In another telltale remark about her use of poetry and prose, she writes: ‘Writing a poem in verse involves a sacrifice. It is like keeping only the seed or pit of a piece of fruit. You can sense its bitterness. I have been tempted several times to write in prose precisely to collect what was around that single saved nucleus. [. . .] What I create, by supporting it with my entire self, suddenly stops in the blankness, breaks off. This fragmentation belongs to me, corresponds to me intimately’ (see Poeti e prosatori alla corte dell’Es, edited by Giancarlo Stoccoro, AnimaMundi Edizioni, 2017, pp. 104-105).

This translation is unpublished and the original Italian sequence is also previously unpublished, except for the final text, which first appeared in Figure d’acqua: Dodici voci della giovane poesia (with an engraving by Luciano Ragozzino and published by Marco Vitale, 2015).

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A Short Sequence of Clear Seawater

I gather on the beach the remains of something that has died. Only this can I hold—the rough pleasure of touch—before handing back.
*
A lawnmower, morning—your life had grown in the dark. The taste of this sprouting and then suddenly a droning of order and death—something that needs to be done. With your eyes closed, you guide this machine.
*
Waking up, sleeping. No longer having eyes to close or open. Your feet like your hands, your belly like your forehead. Scattered in your body bits of glass from which a leaf emerges. As after millennia, the day asks you to get up.
*
Before leaving the house, you gather all the lights: on your chest, your wrist, you shine. You are a constellation that will soon walk in the streets, take a bus, a train, a plane.
You lower your eyelids, enter the darkness of whispering voices. Those that eternally pressure. But you tighten the little hooks—the relentless shine.
*
Stay still. He must believe you to be one thing among others. You or the balcony railing. You or the wall plaster: the same compact warmth of this sunny morning.
He has chosen you. He comes towards your stare. —He climbs your body. He aims at your face.
*
I carry you to the water, push you to go back into the sea. At one footstep from the cliff, I push you. To make you fall. Painlessly, with closed eyes, as if there were no more land. Come into this flight held up by hands. You will be in the air, glide like a linden seed.
*
The edges of the bed crackle. Windows closed, shutters lowered. We hug each other like a drop of water—what remains of green. If we make a movement, the sheets rustle.

*

You can’t stand fake pockets. On the chest, or in pants. Seemingly, in the shape of. They deceive until the very end—but you feel the seam: it pushes back. They cannot, they are not made to let in.
*
Silence has grown on your face: a thick beard makes you different, unrecognizable, almost someone else. You have your hands to put back together, nerve by nerve.
*
Water where you swim alone, one stroke after another. A short sequence of clear seawater, broken only by your gestures. Suddenly you awake. You have touched a big jellyfish or a floating heap of trash. You stop just long enough for the alarm to subside inside your cells. To make out the substance of this foreign body no longer matters. Only to close your eyes again in the sea, go back into your movements, draw the circles that carry forward.

Note: The original Italian sequence is unpublished, except for the final text, which first appeared in Figure d’acqua: Dodici voci della giovane poesia, with an engraving by Luciano Ragozzino and edited by Marco Vitale, Milano, 2015.

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The Translator

John Taylor is an American writer, critic, and translator who lives in France. Among his many translations of French and Italian poetry are books by Philippe Jaccottet, Jacques Dupin, Pierre Chappuis, Pierre-Albert Jourdan, José-Flore Tappy, Pierre Voélin, Georges Perros, Lorenzo Calogero, and Alfredo de Palchi. He is the author of several volumes of short prose and poetry, most recently The Dark Brightness, Grassy Stairways, Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees, and a “double book” co-authored with Pierre Chappuis, A Notebook of Clouds & A Notebook of Ridges. His first two books, The Presence of Things Past (1992) and Mysteries of the Body and the Mind (1998), have just been republished by Red Hen Press.

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