Age of the duck-hare: the poetry of Valerio Magrelli
published in Agenda Vol 45 No.4 / Vol 46 No. 1, May 2011
Valerio Magrelli is one of the brightest stars of Italian poetry, widely acclaimed since the appearance of his first collection Ora Serrata Tesserae when he was twenty three. The title of that collection gives a hint of the kind of poet he is — it’s the irregular, serrated demarcation between the retina and the circumferential tissue inside the eye. So specialist is the title that when he went to the optician some months after the book came out, the optician remarked ‘I didn’t realise we were colleagues, I see you’ve written a book . . .’
The scientific term directs us to a poetry preoccupied with visual perception of the world, and the forensic attention applied simultaneously to the gaze. The blank page is ‘like the cornea of an eye’ where the poet ‘embroider(s)/an iris and in the iris etch(es)/the deep gorge of the retina’:
A gaze then
sprouts from the page
and a chasm gapes
in this yellow notebook.
It’s a reflexive poetry, concerned with its own gesture as much as with what it perceives and records. The poems are animated by a careful, precise and logical attentiveness which at the same time recognises that close attention can be a deception. In an early poem not translated by Anthony Molino or Jamie McKendrick he describes his eyes as pencils which inscribe on the brain indistinct and confused images. Yet paradoxically, if the world is imperfectly grasped the act of attention is itself a kind of clarification; there is poetry in the myopic gaze:
La miopia si fa quindi poesia,
dovendosi avvicinare al mondo
per separarlo dalla luce.
Anche il tempo subisce questo rallentamento:
I gesti si perdono,
I saluti non vengono colti.
L’unica cosa che si profila nitida
è la prodigiosa difficoltà della visione.
(Myopia makes poetry therefore/having to approach the world/to separate it from the light./Time also endures this slowing down:/gestures are lost, greetings aren’t gathered./The only thing which is clear/is the prodigious difficulty of seeing.)
Writing, he reminds us, is not a mirror ‘but rather/a shower-screen’s frosted glass/-behind which, real enough,/but darkly, a body/is discerned. . .’ The rest of that poem points to a paradox where apparent stasis and monotony cohabit with writerly fecundity:
Dieci poesie scritte in un mese
non è molto anche se questa
Neanche i temi poi sono diversi
anzi c’è un solo tema
ed ha per tema il tema, come adesso.
Ten poems this month
not much, even if this one
does make eleven.
The themes too aren’t all that different
in fact, there’s only one theme,
the theme itself. Again.
(Translated by Anthony Molino)
There’s a certain Woody Allenish comedy of the inwardly directed gaze about this, the anxiously self-aware writer with a sense of the absurd yet an equal determination to pursue the apparently small-scale in the knowledge that, in the end, it’s the quality of the attention that matters.
Reading a translation, especially a monolingual one like McKendrick’s, it can be easy to forget about the relationship the original has with its own tradition and language, but a great deal of Magelli’s effect in Italian is the degree to which it’s embedded in Italian poetry and relates easily and often playfully with that tradition. A poem like ‘A te DNA della poesia’ stitches Dante into poetry’s DNA as a comic anagram and reminds us the extent to which a contemporary poet’s style and resourcefulness are bedded in the tradition of Italian poetry.
The first translations of Magrelli in English to be published in book form were by Anthony Molino, and now he is joined by Jamie McKendrick, whose selection from four books, The Embrace, has recently been published by Faber. Molino called his selections from the first two books Nearsights, the neologism being an attempt to describe ‘the effort to see, to probe, perceive, and communicate the world in a new light.’ The effort to see is also the effort to register the seeing, and the result can be ‘To write as if/to translate/something written in another tongue’ or, in McKendrick’s closer version. ‘To write as if this/were a work of translation,/something already penned in another language.’
One of the remarkable aspects of the first collection is the primacy it gives to the notebook in which the poems are written, so that it comes to have a life of its own, its existence a statement of intent as well as a constant invitation:
It’s not a glass of water that I keep
beside the bed
but this notebook.
Sometimes I sign words there in the dark
and the following day finds them
dumbstruck and battered by the light.
It is ‘a shield/a trench, a periscope, a loophole.’ Like the pen it is a permanent fixture, a constantly alert instrument of apprehension:
The pen should never leave
the hand that writes.
With time it grows into a bone, a finger.
Fingerlike, it scratches, clutches, points.
It’s a branch of thought
and yields its own fruits,
offers shelter and shade.
This is a long way from Seamus Heaney’s pen as spade to dig out the lore and truth of memory. Magrelli’s pen is not like anything, it is an extension of mind. Part of the reflexiveness of the poems is the transformation of the physical paraphernalia of writing into a world in itself; the page becomes ‘a room left unoccupied’. Into this room the poet carries broken chairs or journals, whatever is cast off or ‘cashiered from use’. The page or the poem becomes the last refuge of the discarded, ‘the last port of call for things/before sinking beneath the house’s horizon/in the clear light of their own sunset.’
Sometimes it’s as if the poet wanted to sail as close to inconsequence as he can, slowing the world to a stasis where he can subject it to a myopic stare, almost as if he seeks the doldrums where ‘the page lies becalmed’, and states of calm inaction:
Domani mattina mi farò una doccia
nient’altro è certo che questo.
Un futuro d’acqua e di talco
in cui non succederà nulla e nessuno
basserà a questa porta. . .
I will shower tomorrow morning.
Besides that, nothing’s certain.
A future of water and talc
where nothing will happen and no one
will knock on this door.
His second collections Nature E Venature (Nature and Veinings) pursues the same quietist inquisition. One poem imagines the aftermath of gazing:
Ho spesso immaginato che gli sguardi
soppravivano all’atto del vedere
come fossero aste,
tragitti misurati, lance
in una battaglia.
Allora penso che dentro una stanza
simili tratti debbano restare
qualche tempo sospesi ed incrociati
nell’equilibrio del loro disegno
intatti e sovrapposti come i legni
I’ve often imagined that looks
outlive the act of seeing
as though they were poles
with measurable trajectories, lances
hurled in a battle.
Then I think that in a room
just left lines
of this kind must stay
for some time poised
upholding their structure
like pick-up sticks.
The poems are a bit like the pick-up sticks left across each other, delicate remnants of an act of inquiry. It’s not surprising that the poetry should also proclaim its affection for the discarded, the unimportant, ‘all things bust/and putrefied’. Likewise ‘Gestures that go astray/appeal to me…’ The human world tends to be kept at a distance, acknowledged through technology that’s intimate and distant like the telephone, ‘la fontana di voci’, ‘a shower/where the water never changes/but the drops/differ every time. . .’(Molino). In a typical gesture, one love poem evokes the lover in terms of the digits of her phone number.
The double three,
then the nine that comes third
recall something in your face.
When in search of you
I have to draw up your figure,
I have to spawn the seven ciphers
that are analogues of your name
until the combination safe
of your living voice
The communication itself is haunted by static that ‘rucks our voices’ and the poet finds himself suspended above the conversation hearing ‘the tongue of an ancient creature/from the underworld’ calling him. A later poem finds him again haunted by the voices from another room which seem to follow him, making him the soundbox for stories he is not implicated in. This sense of his own removal from the scene is explicitly developed in ‘Removals Man’ where a metaphor for translation also suggests the relocation of the self.
Magrelli likes to set himself a new challenge with each collection: where the first explores states of stasis and concentration, the second considers more scattered, fragmentary states and the third, Esercizi di tiptologia (Typtological Exercises), 1992, is more consciously experimental and includes prose and translations. Typtology, in case we didn’t know, is the theory that departed souls communicate with the living by tapping. Maybe the tapping works both ways since the acts of writing and translating might also be seen as communication with the dead. Jamie McKendrick translates a dozen of these poems in The Embrace, including the title poem, and they’re among the most striking and impressive in the book. The opening poem, a teasing reflection on the inevitable contagion of matter, is a sly triumph
That matter engenders contagion
if interfered with in its deepest fibres
cut out from its mother like a veal calf
like the pig from its own heart
screaming at the sight of its torn entrails;
That this destruction generates
the same energy that blazes out
when society turns on itself, the temple’s veil torn
and the king’s head axed from the body of the state
until the faith healer becomes the wound;
That the hearth’s embrace is radiation,
nature’s pyre, which unravels
helplessly before the smiling company
so as to effect the slightest increase
of the surrounding temperature;
That the form of every production implies
breaking and entry, fission, a final leavetaking,
and that history is the act of combustion
and the Earth a tender stockpile of firewood
left out to dry in the sun,
is hard to credit, is it not?
McKendrick doesn’t include the prose pieces that are an integral part of Esercizi di tiptpologia but they’re in Antony Molino’s second book of Magrelli translations, The Contagion of Matter, and they add greatly to understanding how this poet’s imagination works. They have a Ponge like forensic attention to the object in hand, whether cigarettes, the suburbs of Rome, or his water polo adventures. His water polo piece is dedicated to Nanni Moretti, another enthusiast of the sport, and we might remember that Magrelli makes an appearance as a dermatologist in Moretti’s Caro Diario, a film whose mordant humour his poetry has much in common with.
One piece considers the plaster casts for Henry Moore’s sculptures in a Toronto art museum. The casts seem more convincing, more authentic than the bronze realisations. The spirit of creation lives in the originating material, much as the spirit of poetry might be said to live somewhere in the space between conception and completion.
Some poets gravitate naturally towards, or are animated by the possibilities of an over arching structure. Magrelli’s next book, Didascalie per la lettura di un giornale (Instructions for reading a newspaper), is a single long poem whose sections correspond to the sections of a newspaper, with titles like ‘Date’, ‘Price’, ‘Bar Code’, ‘Review Page’, ‘Children’s Corner’. It is not the individual content of these pages that interests Magrelli, so much as the random arrangement of the world into a set of concerns granted a significance beyond their station by the imprimatur of money and lasting for twenty four hour before their Cinderella-like reversion ‘into a pumpkin, expired news,/money out of circulation, wastepaper.’ The most recent book represented in Jamie McKendrick’s selection is Disturbi del sistema binario (Disruptions of the Binary System). The poems in McKendrick’s selection are from the final sequence which derives from Wittgenstein’s ambiguous drawing of the ‘duckrabbit’, a which can be seen as a duck or as a rabbit (a hare for Magrelli) and is therefore a figure for the ambiguity with which the world presents itself to us, or with which we perceive it. It allows Magrelli to riff on one of his favourite themes, doubleness or duplicity, and the nature of perception, which have been a constant since Ora Serrata Retinae. The last poem here is an apparent leavetaking of language, hinging on the notion that double vision sabotages ‘the dream of a shared language’ and that what’s left is a troubled legacy:
Forked creatures, immune to the word
loomed before me,
and were invulnerable to the truth.
I had entered the age of the duck-hare,
the era of iron, of silence.
Magrelli is clearly determined to renew his work in further, edgier explorations. This might make him seem a schematic writer, but, as McKendrick notes in his introduction, whatever the framework in which each successive book operates, there is a fundamental cohesion in the poems, and an unmistakeable stamp of concerns and personality which comes through the work of both translators. Quizzical, sceptical, mordant, unsettling, playful and deadly serious, the poems seem to issue fitfully, like sudden impulses long incubated, and their force grows in the accumulation, and in the reader’s repeated encounter with them. Maybe their success has something to do with their lack of self-satisfaction, the fact that they perpetually acknowledge that their medium is slippery. ‘I should like to render in poetry/the equivalent of perspective in painting’,
To give a poem the depth of a rabbit
escaping through the fields and make it
distant whilst already
it speeds away from the one who’s watching
and veers toward the frame
becoming smaller all the time
and never budging an inch.
The countryside observes
and disposes itself around the creature,
around a point that’s vanishing.
(‘Vanishing Point’, translated by Jamie McKendrick)
(Books referred to in this essay: Valerio Magrelli, The Embrace: Selected Poems, translated by Jamie McKendrick, Faber and Faber, 2009 (published in the US by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux as Vanishing Points); Nearsights: Selected Poems by Valerio Magrelli, edited and translated by Anthony Molino, Graywolf Press, 1991;Valerio Magrelli, The Contagion of Matter, translated by Anthony Molino, Holmes and Meier, 2000.)