Franca Mancinelli, The Butterfly Cemetery
Franca Mancinelli, The Butterfly Cemetery, bilingual edition, translated from the Italian by John Taylor, Fayetteville, New York: The Bitter Oleander Press, 2022. 177 pp., $24.00. ISBN: 978-1-7346535-4-0
By Michele Montanari
I have had the privilege of reading Franca Mancinelli’s The Butterfly Cemetery, which is still unpublished in Italy. It is a generous collection of her prose writings, and its title, which is taken from the first autobiographical remembrance, in fact characterizes the drafting and the construction of the entire book. The volume consists of a series of autobiographical narratives and personal essays that vary in style, in the period of time in which they were written, and that also are as varied as the species of butterflies that herald spring in Italy. It is a book that brings together not only prose writings but different kinds of prose writings, which, as the translator John Taylor recounts in his postface, confirm Mancinelli's guiding idea of an “open identity.” These pieces were drafted between 2008 and 2021, that is, between the year of Mancinelli’s first prizewinning book of poetry, Mala Kruna (now included in another bilingual volume, At an Hour’s Sleep from Here, published by The Bitter Oleander Press), and her latest poetic publication, All the Eyes that I Have Opened (which has just appeared in English at Black Square Editions).
Yet The Butterfly Cemetery is not an anthology of poetic prose or short stories, a novel, or even— at least not entirely—a book-length essay. It is a basketful of images and recollections whose final section details the genesis of the author's poetry. Mancinelli’s words possess a sober, courageous intimacy which avoids the risk of spiraling in on itself and which, instead, carries us off lightly, in flight, on imaginary wings of butterflies or—in the darkest passages—of night moths. Indeed, like the flight of fanciful lepidopterans, these pages—which open with the author evoking herself as a child—also resemble sequences of short flights, sometimes intermittent or syncopated, only apparently disoriented with respect to the overall thematic direction taken, which is remarkably coherent: an exploration of human identity and the possibility of going beyond its borders. There is no page without this orientation, this objective; sometimes this quest is subtly concealed, but more often than not it is evident and audible in passages moving from the narration of events, the evocation of landscapes or reflections on writing to imaginative visions, from the recording of reality to its phantasmagoria.
Mancinelli knows how to chisel every single word, to direct the karstic flow of her prose, in which her Weltschauung is fully present, without ever dispersing or diluting it so that the spell of writing will ultimately be fulfilled despite the oppression of reality, the pain, all the pain of a lifetime. A process of self-acknowledgment is indeed carried out in this book, sometimes by means of “inner self-surgery” (as she phrases it in a telltale personal essay), that is, an elucidation and self-elucidation that results from recognizing and accepting the importance of “demons,” the destructive factors. Evoking the female Hindu deity Kali, for instance, Mancinelli reflects on the significance of this “devastating mother.” “I met her [. . .] in Calcutta,” she explains, “in one of her oldest temples, just over a kilometer from where I was living. And I felt how vital it was to acknowledge that destructive charge which, left inside us, emerges in the other person to whom we lend the knife. While if we learn to welcome this charge, we can direct it towards whatever limits us, whatever blocks our way, illuminating parts of us that had remained dark and getting closer to what we are.”
Butterflies have short, delicate lives. They die in the joy of being fulfilled. This same delicacy in regard to the transience of human things forms the lifeblood of The Butterfly Cemetery, in which even the most corroded bitterness finds the light and air of writing in the idyll of a metaphorical passage. Many chapters, such as those evoking childhood and then adolescence, are nourished by narration and memory; one glimpses the outline of a Christmas story, of a possible domestic plot, but the “magical value of the word” (as the philosopher Pavel Florensky, whom Mancinelli cites, phrases it) remains preeminent behind every incursion into reality.
Full-bodied and dense, the pages experiment with a prose that becomes paratactic from time to time, crafted in syntax but never facilely comforting, indeed contradicting any illusion of truth. Mancinelli is her writings, all ages of her life in a time suspended on the sea and in the mountains of her native Marches region. She does not draw back from the temptation to expose her roots, the various lost “eye-branches.” The latter is a key image in All the Eyes that I Have Opened, whose title is drawn from Mancinelli’s thought-provoking distich “all the eyes that I have opened / are the branches that I have lost.” In the essay “An Act of Inner Self-Surgery,” she in fact explains the origin of this distich, which is essential for understanding her poetics:
“Once a few years ago in a woods in the Apennines, I was walking for hours, entrusting my sorrow to every footstep, listening to the light within the foliage of the trees, to disperse the circles of my torment like water enveloping a smooth boulder fallen to the bottom. When suddenly a tree with a very scarred trunk came to meet me. All the eyes that I have opened are the branches that I have lost, it said to me. Its sparse foliage opened out high, far above my eyes. You could read in its bark the history of cuts and amputations, healed and transformed into growth, obedient to light, beyond all obstacles. I continued to walk with this voice that had been articulated in me, and one clear image: there are losses that you can weep over with all your tears, fight with every effort, yet they are necessary. We would give our whole life so that they won’t happen, yet they are guiding our sap towards the shape and the place that belongs to it. [. . .] Wounds are eyes that we have never wanted to open. Instead, here they are, on our body, on our bark.”
As these prose writings focus on the significant places of her youth and various disturbing or frightful events, we can already perceive the sensitive and thoughtful poet in the little girl holding and contemplating dead butterflies between her fingers. Moreover, Mancinelli at once reveals and denies her part in the creation of her own poetry. It can be likened to a gift found without her knowing so; it is born from small seeds lodged in the silences of adolescence and early adulthood; it ultimately emerges, as if unfolding, from countless notebooks: a poem which is, as often happens, brought to light by moments of aphasic pain—and that subsequently casts light.
This is how words “grow in solitude before finding a way out,” before opening “our captivity to the world,” as she states in “The Enchantment of Death: Briar Rose.” She “yields her words” to things, to others, as she defines the act of poetry, gathering the words in her poems and poetic prose texts. We reap the benefits in this book. A mere membrane separates being a poet and managing to carry out the task. In The Butterfly Cemetery, we find a poet in embryo: “in-vocation,” one might say. Only after the central part of the book do we sense that she has begun to “make poetry”—a “making” that recalls the ancient Greek “poiein,” to which she often refers—so much so that, in the final section, the little girl who has become a woman can generously provide us with precious pages about how and why her poems are born. “Over time, through writing,” she explains in the personal essay “Poetry, Mother Tongue,” “I have been given the opportunity to reverse the direction and the meaning of this broad self-destructive potential around which I was gravitating: this is how I found myself within the poiein, within the possibility of creating, of changing something through myself.”
If in the first texts we glimpse the childhood of this author who is growing up and becoming an adult without renouncing the ingenuity of her gaze, her playfulness, and her sense of wonder, by the final pages we still sense the at once tenacious and delicate grip of that same little girl who has been watched over and cared for, inside, and who, unaware, let the butterflies wither under the stairs. There are no easy rhetorical ploys in this book; it is with an intention of honesty (and without any narcissistic affectation) that the author cites the literary masters (Eliot, Proust, Rilke, and Pessoa) from whom she has learned during the arduous apprenticeship of writing. In this way, she gives us the background of her poetry and prose-poetry collections. In At an Hour’s Sleep from Here, she already offers this glimpse: “I read lying down, the book on my chest / is my third lung opening, closing again. // Like an amphibian I was on the shore.”
We can speak of autobiographical, but also “biological” pages. In Mancinelli's writings, vital lifeblood and serums are secreted; at the same time, organs and limbs are dissected. We can spot the drops of blood, the small red circles fallen to the ground around a wounded body, to recall a crucial image in “A Very Risky Game.” Her writing is also biological because of the strong presence of natural subjects: animals, birds, insects, and trees are the protagonists of the book along with poetry that itself becomes a living subject whereas humans seemingly remain in the background, on the horizon of her gaze. The poet Joseph Brodsky comes to our aid in this sense when he recalls that man is an animal who makes poetry and that in poetry lies man’s “genetic goal.” In “Poetry, Mother Tongue,” Mancinelli herself underscores the “protection” that poetry offers our species. For her, lines of verse are
“tracks left by sound that we can keep in mind whenever everything around lights up with small blinking lights, baits, and advertisements, and we must struggle to keep the view open, not to lose the route. Traveling on the motorway, you happen to glimpse, beyond the guardrail, a transparent wall on which dark silhouettes of flying birds stand out. They are the stylized images of a hawk with spread wings. These figures have an immediate meaning for birds nearing this stretch of road: the figures turn them away, preserving them from a crash. Something similar produces a shock of beauty inside us. Poetry embraces and translates its vibrations. This is why poetry protects our species, directing us towards something authentic which belongs to us and to which we are destined by coming into the world.”
Like a butterfly in flight, this book begins with a small home cemetery for butterflies and ultimately exalts life. It does so through a journey that progresses from a childhood within household walls, to adolescence, the seedbed from which poetry will sprout during the author’s university years. This journey (which can be likened to a quivering of vital cells) ends with the personal essay “The Invisible as the Facing Page,” and with this sentence: “Every time we hold a pen we must remember this ancient branch with which we wrote as children, when we were translating from the invisible (our own body, our presence, was a recent translation of the invisible).” Eliot wrote, in a poem quoted by Mancinelli: “In my beginning is my end. [. . .] In my end is my beginning”. Here, the end and the beginning lie in the hands of a child who writes down the invisible, translates it by embodying it, makes poetry out of it on her side of words, an “ante-litteram” of the adult game of writing poetry, a process that we follow with emotion and intellectual fascination in this book, which charts a genuine search for meaning.
This article is the revised and expanded version of a review which initially appeared, in Italian only, in Gli Stati Generali, 31 May 2023, https://www.glistatigenerali.com
Michele Montanari is a writer and a critic. He has worked as a reader for La Nave di Teseo publishing company and has collaborated with various artists, such as the singer John De Leo, the actor and writer Roberto Scappin, and the illustrator Andrea Serio. He has contributed to newspapers and magazines, among which Gli Stati Generali. His first book of poetry, Psicogiardini, was written as a response to Andrea Serio’s invitation to write poems on verdure to accompany his illustrations; the book appeared in 2022 and will soon be reissued in a deluxe bibliophilic edition.