#RivetingReviews: Anna Blasiak reviews THE LITTLE BOOK OF PASSAGE and AT AN HOUR’S SLEEP FROM HERE: POEMS (2007-2019) by Franca Mancinelli

Franca Mancinelli, born 1981, has so far published four poetry books, Mala kruna (2007), Pasta madre (2013), Tutti gli occhi che ho aperto (2020) and a collection of prose poems, Libretto di transit (2018). The last was translated into English in the same year by John Taylor as The Little Book of Passage. John Taylor has also translated Mancinelli’s first two books (plus some additional poems, originally intended to be part of Pasta madre) as At an Hour’s Sleep from Here, published in 2019 and, two years later, her collection of prose, The Butterfly Cemetery.

Mancinelli has established herself as a compelling voice in Italian contemporary literature. She is interested in issues of otherness and the other, of searching for self, of origins. She always looks for a twist, for a surprising turn, for a shimmering fault line which offers a glimpse of another perspective.

The Little Book of Passage consists of thirty-three prose poems about transiting, travel and transforming. Mancinelli’s tiny prose poems are packed to the brim, very vivid and very good at capturing the attention of the reader. The tropes linked to travel are heavily present: suitcases, packing, trains, buses.

‘Traveling without knowing what brings me to you. I know you’re going beyond the limits of the sheet of paper, of the cultivated fields. It’s your way of coming face to face with me: like water in its course, branching off. Looking out the window, I kept reading into your face until light came.’

The scenes the poet creates are often placed somewhere on the blurry border between sleep and wakefulness. There is something surreal about them.

‘No one soothes the squealing. There’s nothing to be tossed out as a treat. One can’t sleep alongside those who beg for food, scratch with beak and nail, in their broken flight, dirtying everything. In the morning the streets and their insatiable squealing. The big bowl of the square.’

There is a lot of silence here too, a lot of things broken, sometimes broken off, fragmentary. One of the inscriptions in the book is from Emily Dickinson: ‘To fill a Gap / Insert the Thing that caused it’. Indeed, gaps, or ‘fault lines’, as Mancinelli likes to call them, are a very important theme here.

‘There is a small fault line in your chest. When I hug your chest or place my head on it there is this puff of air. It has a woodsy moistness and an earthy smell to it. The nearby mountains with their frozen torrents. Ever since I have heard it, I cannot help but recognise it. Even when high-soaring birds fly one after the other through your voice, marking out a route in the clear sky.’

At an Hour’s Sleep from Here presents Mancinelli’s earlier poetic output. The book is divided into three parts. The images resonating strongly in Mala kruna are those of sharp objects (thorns, sharpened pencils, needles, nails):

‘a thread of light from
windowpane to door
is taut enough to make me speak
from a needle at the beginning of my body.’

In Pasta madre (‘Mother Dough’), the second part of At an Hour’s Sleep from Here, the imagery changes to something more domestic and often more primal. We have food and cutlery, but also architecture, homes, sometimes ruins; there are bedbugs and ants. The important trope here is motherhood, both in its biological and metaphorical sense.

Most of the pieces in this extensive volume are short or even very short, but they are precise, open and packed with ideas. Mancinelli often strips her poems to the bare bones, valuing the white space around the text. This, as the translator John Taylor points out, brings to mind the twentieth-century French poet René Daumal and his poésie blanche – poetry of few words gained through a process of ‘purification’. I find this brevity – letting the silence speak – a refreshing approach in contemporary poetry, which is often so overcrowded with words.

Reviewed by Anna Blasiak

THE LITTLE BOOK OF PASSAGE and AT AN HOUR’S SLEEP FROM HERE: POEMS (2007-2019)

by Franca Mancinelli

translated by John Taylor

Published by Bitter Oleander Press (2018; 2019)


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Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books, as is Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak. annablasiak.com.

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