The Languor and Airy Tenderness of Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World

Mira Rosenthal

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. 277 pages. $30.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Most foreign poets can only dream of the line-up of translators Patrizia Cavalli enjoys for her selected poems in English, My Poems Won’t Change the World. The simple fact that the likes of Jorie Graham, Jonathan Galassi, Kenneth Koch, Mark Strand, Susan Stewart, Rosanna Warren and other major American poets chose to translate her work provides strong affirmation and signals their high regard. It gives credence to the idea that translation is, in the end, a kind of homage. Or, as editor Gini Alhadeff puts it in her introduction by way of one of Cavalli’s lines, the process of translating her poems “wasn’t science, it was devotion.”

Such devotion is, apparently, not unusual for Cavalli in her native Italy. According to the book’s jacket copy, she rouses adoration from crowds in sold out halls whenever and wherever she reads. Yet she remains largely unpublished in English translation in the U.S. (the only other book-length translation, again a selection and again under the same title, appeared in 1998). This book is clearly meant to establish her for the Anglophone reader, not only with its selection from five volumes spanning a lasting career but also with the illustrious poets signed up for the task.

At first I wasn’t sure how to take the inherent modesty of the title. Bland fact? False pose? Flippant irony? But as I read through the poems, Cavalli’s temperament quickly set a tone of casual playfulness combined with the theme of how one might go about loving the world, or loving in the world, regardless of whether or not it will change. Many of these poems take place indoors in a languorous moment when the speaker has nowhere to be. “Stopping suddenly,” one poem begins, “no destination / at the top of the stairs / that no longer led me anywhere […]” Such moments are than often interrupted by the external world in some way, as in this short lyric (most of the poems are untitled):

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 watched 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.
      (trans. Moira Egan and Damiano Abeni)

Here, the speaker and her lover enter an enclosed, fenced-in, lazy realm that gives rise to love. She remains there, stopped and stunned, watching the lover in the outside world. In another poem, unseasonal bright light causes the speaker to lock herself “into the symmetry of the rooms,” though more often the poems present a moment when the outside and inside collide—the smell of frying onions and meat escapes onto the street, a “milky twinkling on the shutters” draws the gaze into the distance, a “surging skein of sounds” causes the speaker to declare, “I am inside / and the outside enters me.”

The word “languor” holds a prominent place in Cavalli’s lexicon. It signals that poetic awareness arises in lazy moments—often in a “closed house, with nothing to do”—when the mind is simply drifting and the heart is open. In one poem, a morning lost in the “closed piazza of the marketplace” leads to this realization:

I say hello and then hello and hello
I open heart and mouth and then I close them.
The heart opens a lot, it even rises,
ah it rises too far and here I am dismayed
inside a long-gone morning . . .
      (trans. Jonathan Galassi)

Although the speaker is outside here, again she is in a closed arena in which time seems to disappear. Such a space allows for a more detached observation of how the mind works, which often leads to a feeling of tenderness. This is described in another poem as a war of thoughts that the speaker coolly observes, watching the “inert buoy of the mind / which the more you push it down / the more it pops back up.”

I would argue that these poems are actually deeply invested in trying to change the world, not through such direct means as political engagement or social critique but, rather, through love. Edmund White describes her poetry as a “phenomenology of desire.” To be more explicit, Cavalli is interested in the way love can dissolve—albeit always only briefly in a languorous moment—the distinction of self. It’s an unusual and welcome stance in the current climate of irony, detachment, and innovation without resonant emotional content in American poetry. This philosophical underpinning is summed up in one poem:

Chair, stop being such a chair!
And books, don’t you be books like that!
They’re there the way you left them, jackets sloughed.
Too much matter, too much identity.
Each one the master of its form.
They are. They are what they are. By themselves.
And I see them separate one by one
and I’m planted too like a little square
for these objects—solid, single, frozen.
It will take a lot of airy tenderness,
a sympathetic flurry to move and rearrange
these master-forms that never change, because
it’s not true we come back, we don’t go back
to the womb, we only leave,
we become singular.
      (trans. Jonathan Galassi)

My Poems Won’t Change the World enacts such “airy tenderness” time and again, trying to rearrange and see beyond the master-forms of experience. She describes it in another poem as “sovereignty of simple tenderness, / the true sure gesture that possesses.” This detached gentleness is quite endearing and, combined with her colloquial tone, a bit infectious, especially if you read the book in one sitting. Cavalli wins us over with her tenderness.

There are, of course, elements of style that add to the irresistible quality of her voice. Take the iambic lilt and rhyme of the above lines “to move and rearrange / these master-forms that never change […]” When approaching poetry in translation, it can be difficult to assess whether such elements are inherent to the original or part of the process of rendering the poetry in English. In her introduction, Alhadeff stresses the importance of sonic qualities in the original that many of the translators try to convey, though their varying approaches lead to strikingly different voices. Cavalli is the kind of poet who in essence writes the same poem over and over. Yet with numerous translators, her voice seems to stray this way and that. It’s as if the translators are all trying to do the same impersonation; they are akin, though each accent is slightly off in its own way.

Or, to put it differently, Jorie Graham’s Cavalli has more discursive meat and innovative spicing on it than, for example, Rosanna Warren’s more traditional fare of pentameter. I found myself most partial to Jonathan Galassi’s voicing, which felt unobtrusively true to the kind of colloquial tone and metrical backbone that Alhadeff says imbues the original. Contrast the colloquial ease of Galassi’s translation of “Chair, stop being such a Chair!” above with the dense opening of one of Graham’s translations: “How I was there and maybe there was a river / and this summer light unexpectedly ceased / gently darkened by nervous newly arriving delicate / clouds.” Although I love the ricochet effect of “there” in the opening line, it feels conspicuously tricky in contrast to the voice found in many of the other translations. Graham’s translations are beautiful, but I read them with an acute awareness that they are Graham’s translations.

All the same, we are in incredibly good hands here, both the poet’s and her translators’. My Poems Won’t Change the World doesn’t exactly change the playing field; it doesn’t do anything so unlike what we are up to in our own Anglophone tradition that it will provide a new model. But then again, that’s not what Cavalli would even want to do. Rather, she exerts love, she demonstrates humanity, she reminds us:

O stay where you are! Here
in the uncertain hour of a late afternoon
looking outward and looking in
I see this beauty
all I see is beauty.
Something that convinces, asks to be seen,
though it does nothing, just stays where it is,
and merely by existing wins me over.
      (trans. Gini Alhadeff)

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