Franca Mancinelli, At an Hour’s Sleep from Here: Poems 2007-2019, translated from the Italian by John Taylor, New York: The Bitter Oleander Press, 255 pp., $28.00, ISBN: 978-0-9993279-6-8.
At an Hour’s Sleep from Here is the translation of Franca Mancinelli’s A un’ora di sonno da qui (2018), which consists of her first two poetry volumes, Mala kruna (2007) and Pasta madre (“Mother Dough,” 2013), as well as a previously unpublished sequence, Fuori dal fuoco (“Out of Focus, Out of the Fire”). As an Italian reader of Mancinelli, who is one of the most interesting voices in contemporary Italian poetry, I am amazed at how John Taylor’s truly accomplished version, along with the choice to not to include the poetic prose fragments of Un verso è una vasca (“A Line is a Lap”), have given birth to a new book. The prose pieces (also translated by Taylor) of A Line is a Lap and Other Notes on Poetry can be read in the special feature on Mancinelli in the journal The Bitter Oleander (Autumn 2019), whereas the reader of At an Hour’s Sleep from Here has an indeed original volume, one superior quality of which is that some poems, excluded from the Italian edition, have been reinserted by the author, opening out the entire space to poetry and its flow.
This act already indicates what poetry is for Mancinelli: a perpetual attempt to mend what she calls “fault lines,” the distances created between human beings, the spaces that leave others “far away, / beyond the moving line of the wheat,” the parts of us that are left behind by “the spring pruning” and change:
a thread of light from windowpane to door
is taut enough to make me speak
from a needle at the beginning of my body.
Moreover, the very words of poetry arise from this search to reunite what has been separated. As Taylor in fact points out in his introduction, “the dichotomy of union with and disunion from what is fundamental and restorative is already fully present in Mala kruna.” The search for bonds in Mala kruna is more personal and corporal, but this does not prevent considering the Other as an indispensable part of the self:
you were made by the whites of the eyes.
From bits of rubble
year by year I gathered you up.
Now I close the arteries,
come back maimed to life.
In this way emerge figures such as the “woman archway” who works at reconnecting the bonds, at capturing the ephemeral “wishes” of others, at understanding and containing them, and who extends herself to unite opposites:
and the woman archway
places one foot in the air and joins
constellations of the unborn
to the cry that has now broken the waters,
she hangs her skin from a branch, captures
the wind, is a shopping bag
of others’ wishes
vanished in a glance
on the train of my blood
The “woman archway” is a bridge which, through personal sacrifice, connects with the Other and ends up giving him voice and body, by overcoming boundaries and placing the presence and the understanding of otherness at the center of the poetic discourse:
to have my hands again
and see them opening into bridges
I tremble on the scaffolding
work until night comes.
In its absolute rigor, poetic work seeks to join and bind, all the while hoping not to see others moving off into the distance. This conscious quest is also at the heart of Mancinelli’s subsequent collection, The Little Book of Passage (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2018, also translated by Taylor), precisely in its attempt to go beyond limits (even as, in the process, her verse poems pass over into prose poems) and establish deeper relationships with reality. As can be clearly seen in this American edition, all this in fact has its foundations in Mala Kruna and Mother Dough. This latter collection, setting forth the themes of the former, works even more on the poetic voice and on the space that it manages to conquer in its relationship with the other voices, in a blending that leads to metamorphosis, in a struggle between the breaking down and the confirmation of boundaries with others:
dangling from one side of the bed,
her burned-up feet;
the floor holds her face
in its marble veins. The light spreads
like a stain. Someone,
with a thud, has spilled another day.
The streets will again be traced
by shoes walking on
confirming the boundaries
of things among things.
Taylor’s translation succeeds in maintaining the different shades of meaning: it can be seen in the gentleness and immediacy of some images that ultimately put the reader in front of fundamental questions that be answered only through constant effort. It’s the same delicate, ephemeral voice as Mancinell’s and, in its transformations, equally engages us in the struggle:
like stubborn insects
we keep flying back against this
light that will not open, that smashes us
how much longer will we beat
on the windowpane separating
oxygen from the heart?