My Poems Won't Change the World
“The more bored you are, the more attached you get.
I’m so bored, I no longer want to die.”
So reads an entire poem by Patrizia Cavalli (translated by Gini Alhadeff) confirming for many critics of poetry what they’ve always believed: poets are gloomy, self-pitying bastards.
The (incredibly exaggerated) dilemma of poetry in these United States, at least in the minds of poets, is that no one cares to read verse. The complaint is often made: readers have no appreciation for poetry here, not like they do in Russia and Latin America and Ireland and Poland. And, it turns out, in Italy. If the jacket of My Poems Won’t Change the World is to be believed, Patrizia Cavalli is a national treasure in Italy, much the way Wisława Szymborska was in Poland or Nicanor Parra is in Chile. Patrizia’s readings pack halls and her elegant, colloquial poems have enchanted European readers. At long last, her “music,” as Jorie Graham calls it, is available for American readers to ignore.
What brought this collection to life? The answer is the concerted effort of its editor and primary translator, Gini Alhadeff, who does a very good job rendering Italian into airy, digestible English. Alhadeff has had some help along the way; none other than Kenneth Koch, Mark Strand, and the before-mentioned Jorie Graham—all relatively famous American poets—have lent their skills to the translations, as have J, D. McClatchy, David Shapiro, Jonathan Galassi, Rosanna Warren, and Geoffrey Brock. With such a large group of translators focusing on one poet’s work the results can sometimes be intriguing, albeit unfocused. The reader sees something of the translators’ individual fingerprints in the English renditions, sometimes benefiting the poems, but the cumulative effect is not unlike current hip hop records made with an all-star lineup of heavy-hitting producers. Sometimes it is better to select one producer and let them work closely with the artist, creating a unified vision.
I suppose the idea is to allow American readers to see the work of Cavalli through the eyes of poets they know and trust. But this American reader had not heard of Alhadeff, and her translations still seem the most competent, a few exceptions not withstanding. Geoffrey Brock did this with Cavalli’s Italian:
If you knocked now on my door
and if you took off your glasses
and I took off mine which are like yours
and then if you entered my mouth
unafraid of kisses that are not like yours
and said to me: “My love,
is everything alright?”— that would be quite
a piece of theater
Not possessing enough Italian to do more than get my face slapped, I’ll take it on faith that this is damn close to what Cavalli wrote, though reading later, equally pleasing translations by Brock lead me to the conclusion that his style suits my taste, which is to say that his reading of Cavalli suits my taste. And, apparently, Jorie Graham’s doesn’t.
Don’t get me wrong; the book is by no means a mess. The many hands that produced it have not inadvertently created obvious seams in the fabric. No, the tone shifts occasionally but I was never taken out of the poems, many of which are short, subtle, and compelling. Like much good poetry, Cavalli’s work can be read quickly, resulting in superficial responses, but returning to them allows for deeper appreciation. Poetry demands patience, investment, reinvestment, consideration, patience, commitment, patience, and patience. It is helpful when the work is as smooth as Cavalli’s (in most of the translations) and when the poet offers enough of an emotional core to attract readers.
To return to the subject of American audiences and their supposed disinclination toward poetry . . . While this disinclincation may be fact, I can’t help but think that if we had more poets like Cavalli, whose work drew comedy, ethics, and passion from the stillness of the everyday, and who were less concerned with abstractions and convolutions, then perhaps we’d have more readers of poetry.
Consider these lines from longest poem in the collection, and one of the few with a title, “La Guardiana,” translated by Alhadeff as “The Keeper,” which come after a little girl has pried a door open:
No mystery lay beyond that door,
it was a door a door like any other
and in the drawer was whatever was there,
everyone knew. And as to praises,
the only reward for my feats, many
at first, then fewer and fewer
—my prowess, with time, was taken for granted—
I cared little or nothing at all.
My pleasure lay only in the challenge
of unravelling that obstinate
inaccessible resistance to which
I was only the chosen instrument
of surrender: forces withdrawn
entering without forcing, only listening,
indifferent to the prize and to the profit,
the sound that rises form every sealed
thing, wanting just
to open and give itself away
but only to one ready for that sound.
With those bent wires, then words,
I practiced poetry.
Portrait of the artist as a young girl or easy metaphor, you decide, but to me this is the sort of clear, compelling work that is easy to dismiss and rich upon return.
This collection may not sway more Americans to poetry, but it certainly won’t alienate any, either. Cavalli will likely not become a household name, at least not in this country, but I, along with the other fools who write and read poems, and who sometimes (wrongly) bemoan the lack of attention poetry receives, now have one more writer of verse to recommend.
Fight on, brothers and sisters.