Ode to Patrizia Cavalli: My Poems Won’t Change the World

Patrizia Cavalli (Copyright Dino Ignani)

She had me at the title. I remember it well – a rainy afternoon in the Waterstones on Garrick Street, about 5 years ago. I hadn’t heard of Patrizia Cavalli before that day, but was immediately drawn in by the sincerity of her self-deprecation, the nonchalance of her pose in that armchair photo on the cover.

Cavalli is a wildly underrated poet – a poet who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page in English, only her native Italian. (Note to self: make her one.) Her poetry has been described by Giorgio Agamben as “the most intensely ethical poetry in Italian literature of the 20th century” and though this is certainly part of my admiration for Cavalli, a greater love is reserved for her humour and her authenticity. She is not afraid, for example, to write short quips like these, and call them poetry:

What do I care if your nose is all swollen.

I have to clean the house.


Lame pigeon. Ridiculous

lame crooked pigeon.

When they have defects animals

suddenly resemble humans.

The last poem got me through many a storm in recent years – the Brexit vote, the Brexit reality, a collective unwillingness to help refugees, our impatient primitivism during successive lockdowns, successive killing of women on our streets. Cavalli is a piercing wit in women’s poetry. There is no situation in which I couldn’t flick open ‘My Poems Won’t Change the World’ and find some kind of tonic for our times.

As a poet interested in landscape and place (and enchanted by both in Italy) Cavalli’s exploration of her setting is equally fascinating to me. Many favourite gems come from the same 2006 collection ‘lazy gods, lazy fate’, where she writes:

My landscape, which I thought was limitless

because disassembled and put back together again it gave me the illusion

of always new most intricate forests

of dense meadows, ruffled and unexpected,

now having reached the edge I can see: a closed

little vegetable garden, walked on and bare,

suffocating perhaps by too much care.

Some poets are hesitant to admit the boundaries of their landscapes, or themselves. What I like about Cavalli is her acceptance of the fantastical and the mundane in equal measure; her wielding of both realist and surrealist elements in her writing. I feel all the more affinity for a poet who is aware enough to confidently juxtapose the everyday with the exceptional – it gives us permission to sigh relief, to see our lives as they stand as good enough to shape good poetry.

A great debt is owed, too, to the fantastic translation of this collection by David Shapiro and Gini Alhadeff. It is not easy to capture the essence of aphoristic one-liners like “the more bored you are, the more attached you get. I’m so bored, I no longer want to die.” – which is perhaps my absolute favourite line of Cavalli’s.

Above all, though, I find her understated work and her modest (though certainly not insignificant) success a source of reassurance, in a poetic landscape which can be so nebulous, so hard to possess. Too often in poetry, it seems we are trying to say something ‘fresh’, daring, slant, previously unsaid. But we can’t reinvent the wheel of language because, as Barthes repeatedly told us, “no language is innocent”. Cavalli accepts this with her calm, concise, humanistic ethos and I try to channel this, where I can, in whatever I write:

Here I am, I do my bit,

though I don’t know what that may be.

If I did I could at least let go of it

and free of it be free of being me.

Summer Evening

Edward Hopper, Summer Evening, 1947 (via WikiArt)

Ekphrasis, after Edward Hopper 

When at last you crossed my lawn 

through the dank of late July 

all I could think of was how sweat pooled 

in the creases of your shirt 

how a knife in your eyes scrutinised  

the fissure in my chest, but mainly,

whether the pot of beans was boiling over

behind the curtain, whether the moths that quivered

overhead were headed towards a white, blazed end

and would settle soon, like ashes on the deck.

Crickets wailed as if to warn us – too late, too faint –

that already we were just two people on a porch 

and all those promises of flesh and eternity

had lost their absent lustre.

Sylvanian Families

Sylvanian Families (via iamannamaldita / Flickr)

you learn to wait for life to happen

in your single bunk, gazing up at Smila Stjärna

or across the room to the doll’s house you adorned

with little hedgehogs, little kettles, little women’s things

towards the window where you plan to escape

on your brother’s go-kart, ride in rings around

the mossy yard, string of plastic babies trailing

from the back, shitting themselves for accuracy

What have I built?

Porch Sitting in Alamo, Texas (Lee Russell, 1939)

I suppose it has something to do with the porch

where I opened the trinket shop, selling lumps 

of gravel and dandelions through the letterbox,

or the cockle shells arranged in a witch’s seance 

along the edges of our rug, inhaling the smell

of settled soot, door shut, waiting for life to happen.

Then something larger – the damp playhouse

under laurel leaves where I scrawled across the walls 

in green – no roads, just trees – and later, two garish

bedrooms in two parents’ houses, the car with no 

door handles, the dorm room’s family of silver fish.

As years went by my architecture got invisible –

things grew from me. Though lately I’ve come back

to the blueprints. Assembled chairs for friends 

who do not visit, built a little porch from matchsticks

and a tube of glue, step by step

stick by stick as if I’d forgotten how already.

Now you ask what I have built and my mouth forms

the shape of nothing. Nothing of consequence.

Migrating Season

Fifth time in five years and like always

days dragged their feet then sprinted,

until with the shrivelled fruit of August

I am sweating boxes, dripping saucepans

to another crater of this city.

Heat bears down, desk fan churns but

missing this place? Its panorama of bins,

the guy who daily examines his dick, thick pink

sky icing slender terraces – that comes and it goes.

Worst of all the kind of stomach pit,

brain ache missing right before you leave

a place and you’re packing up, boxed in

by things that don’t much matter, looking out

of a window you’ve never even cleaned.

The Marbles

Acropolis of Athens (photo my own)

Sometimes gaps tell the story –

a Scottish nobleman

one stifling summer   

something led to another and before the city

had woken up crates of treasure grew legs

and descended the fortress

years passed

six thousand islands fished

the same flag from the sea

people without a country gained a country

survived earthquakes and smashed plates

while they waited to fill the marbles’ empty spaces

now air-con fights quivered heat

at museum doors

and on the topmost floor

waits the temple of gods  

the mosque  

the brothel

a giant heap of rock being climbed

by ant-like bodies never dreaming

they could call it theirs

and on a different island it rained and still it rains

queues snake through Bloomsbury

as pilgrims pack into a long, dim room

to see displacement with their own eyes

someone sighs

The Bookworm Riddle

Translation of ‘Riddle 47’ from The Exeter Book

A moth ate words. When I heard about this wonder,

It seemed to me a curious thing, that the worm should gobble

The sayings of some unnamed man,

That the thief in the dark should steal his glorious speeches,

The foundation of their mighty meanings.

And yet the thieving guest was not one whit the wiser

For having swallowed all those words.