The poetry of the Swiss-Italian poet Fabio Pusterla has a distinctively Alpine touch to it; his work feels well suited to the environment of the High Alps, where rugged unforgiving landscapes highlight the fragility and vulnerability of birds and animals struggling to survive. Interactions between nature and humankind feature prominently in Pusterla’s work, and the danger the environment poses is coupled with the much greater threat that environment faces from humanity’s negligence and ignorance.
This is nature poetry a million miles from clichéd depictions of idyllic, flowery fields. Pusterla instead focuses on images of ‘black soil’, ‘viscous oil slicks’ and ‘frost that cleaves tree trunks’. There is a distinctly environmentalist streak running through Pusterla’s poems: they combine a deep appreciation of the tranquillity and contentment that can be found in nature with an underlying anxiety that this serenity is being trampled on by rampant consumerism and carelessness. However, while the poet is sensitive to the endless and often bleak battle waged between humanity and nature, his work is never overly morose or despairing. Throughout the collection are unexpected moments of grace, as described in poems such as the concise ‘On Tiny Wings’, in which mirth and joy still manage to bubble up through murky waters. These instances, when nature’s inherent threat is overshadowed by its mundeniable beauty, even if only momentarily, are mirrored by scenes depicting tender memories of childhood and family that appear in the poems taken from Pusterla’s third book, Things With No Past (1994).
It is precisely this mixture of contrasts – of light and dark, of harshness and tenderness – that makes Pusterla’s poetry so resonant. One poem that for me is a particularly powerful example of this juxtaposition is ‘First Strawberries’. A wistful memory of a little girl pretending to climb her own miniature Mount Everest in a meadow full of daisies, enchanted by the wonder of nature, is conjured up when the speaker hears a radio report of a little girl crushed by a tank in Gaza. This pairing of violence and innocence leaves a profound impression on the reader and leads us to reflect, with a great deal of alarm, on the destructive world our children may one day have to face.
Simon Knight skilfully translates the Italian text into English, and his work, securing from Pusterla a lucid understanding of the circumstances that inspired his poetry, is evident; for even in ‘the more difficult passages’ – as Knight refers to them in his preface to the book – the sense of earnestness and urgency still shines through. The introduction by Alan Brownjohn also provides enlightening commentary on Pusterla’s poetry and further enhances the reader’s experience of his work.
Ultimately the collection ends on a hopeful note, with the extended satire Stories of the Armadillo, which explores the importance of resistance and persistence in the face of adversity, the armadillo coming to symbolise a kind of undeterred rebellion as he marches on, never becoming panicked or losing courage.
Reviewed by Lauren Bennett
DAYS FULL OF CAVES & TIGERS
Written by Fabio Pusterla
Translated by Simon Knight
Published by Arc Publications (2012)
Lauren Bennett is an undergraduate student of English and Comparative Literature. One of her main areas of interest is poetry in translation.
Photo of Fabio Pusterla by Wikipedia / Albus severus