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, we talk about saying something ‘fresh’, something daring, something tantamount to reinventing the wheel of language (though we should know by now, from Uncle Barthes, that “no language is innocent”). While it’s ideal if these things are a biproduct of poetry, on the whole I prefer to stick to Cavalli’s calm, concise, humanistic ethos and 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.