John Taylor’s latest translations of the Italian poet Franca Mancinelli constitute a prequel to his excellent version of her prose poems, The Little Book of Passage. Published in Italian as A un’ora di sonno da qui, the new volume consists of Mala Kruna (2007) and Pasta Madre, which originally appeared in 2013. This translation includes the sequence “Fuori dal fuoco”, omitted from the first version of Pasta Madre, but not Mancinelli’s brief notes on poetry, “A Line is a Lap” (Taylor’s translation for this can be found in the periodical Bitter Oleander).
Mancinelli’s work amounts to a meditation on various interlocking themes. Faultlines (“faglie”), across which poetry builds bridges, appear in different guises. In Mala Kruna, the connections are less metaphysical. Indeed, this collection could be seen as a sequence of conventional love poems, akin to Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband and Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. One poem has a strong Catullan flavour:
but I always have a love that walks me
as if I were its dog,
yanking if I stop to sniff
these dark drops of mine
before the storm.
Yet it is the gaps between the poet and the object of her poetry that concern her most:
I come closer, you evaporate like breath
on the glass. I open my arms,
hug your ancient trunk
and find myself alone,
looking like a cross
planted on a peak.
Mancinelli has said that, “Many lines in my poems are born from half-awake states”. Pasta Madre opens with a striking image:
A spoon in sleep, the body
gathers the night.
“How many animals migrate within us”, the poem continues. Mancinelli’s world comes to life in Heraclitean flux, never at rest in its ceaseless endeavour to bridge gaps. Amber, in which insects are preserved, is one threat to that state.
Something in us breathes
Only when we move away.
This theme is revisited in her later work. In The Little Book of Passage, a stationary body is “perfect for a knife throw”. “I only look at rivers”, the poet claims. Stagnant water, like amber, is another of her adversaries, obstructing Mancinelli’s own need to develop, something she projects onto the world itself. Her bridge-building appears to echo a kabbalistic desire to restore the universe to its original perfection, but would the water running under those bridges then continue to flow as she might wish? Her poetry may be driven by profound themes, but its frequent lyrical beauty can be appreciated on its own terms. Here she pays tribute to her middle name:
Maria as I’m called
in my deep, most hidden
face, in underground
enclosures and other
places of refuge
where near the soil I smell
brown like violets and must.
Mancinelli would like her poems to be “read with the same attention as those slips of paper left on windshields”. She and John Taylor have once again come up with a book which merits rather more.
© Mark Glanville, Times Literary Supplement, No. 6100, 27 February 2020