An excerpt from the dialogue between me and John Taylor, as published in the Autumn 2019 “Feature” of The Bitter Oleander, along with a selection of some of my poetic prose texts and recent poetry.
John Taylor: Your collection of prose poems, Libretto di transito, became The Little Book of Passage in my translation. While I was working on your prose poems, the word “faglia” resisted translation. It is related to what you have been saying about the presence of death in life. There were a few solutions for translating it, each of which had its advantages and disadvantages: “flaw,” “rift,” “fault,” “fault line.” You and I often discuss the semantic resonance of such Italian words, but “faglia” stands out as a key term. The word, the image, and the theme have left their marks on both of us. For the line in your prose poem, we opted for “fault line,” with its geological meaning, all the more so in that other images in your poems and prose poems likewise suggest “cracks,”“breaks,” “fissures,” and “fractures.” How do the various metaphorical “fault lines”, “fissures” and “fractures” in your work reveal something especially profound about your poetics—its sources, its goals, its intentions?
Franca Mancinelli: Thanks to your translation, I could see the importance that this image has for me. When we write, we are often immersed in darkness, like a photographer in his darkroom. It is only with time that what has been imprinted on our film resurfaces. Most words thus pass through us without our really being aware of the range of their meaning. Sometimes it is another person’s insight that brings it nearer. This is what happened with this word that reached me through our close working relationship, and through the magical force that results from paying attention, as Pavel Florensky put it. The word we initially stopped to talk about was “falda,” the “water table.” It’s the last word of an important text for me: it comprises, like a diptych, my father’s portrait next to my involuntary self-portrait. While he is off in a corner of his garden, watering, I find myself with poisonous weeds that I cannot “hoe away.” They are fed by a water table that “I can’t repair.” Although I devote my entire self to the task, I obtain nothing but a sense of failure. I wrote the word “falda” with my eyes kept tenaciously closed, and so they remained even after I had published the poem in an anthology and had read it several times in public, even after I had worked on Libretto di transito with the editors of Amos Edizioni and had published the book in Italy. Yet the gap that separates our two languages and that we had to fill in some way has repaired that water table, in the only possible way: allowing me to see it in its reality. The water table is the origin of pain, of relationships that resemble poisonous weeds. But it is irreparable (it is in the earth); it is where the water comes from, life, in whatever form it appears. Perhaps pain comes precisely from the desire to repair what can, instead, only be accepted. . . Now I read that sentence with a different tone of voice. Something has been redeemed: “I haven’t succeeded in repairing the water table.”
JT: Could we say that “water tables,” “fault lines,” “gaps”, and other wider “cracks” are actually variants on the same image?
FM: Yes, that’s right. This fault line, water table, or crack runs through the book, beginning with the epigraph by Emily Dickinson: “To fill a Gap / Insert the Thing that caused it.” Along with the other epigraph by Simone Weil, it was suggested to me by my dearest friend, the Sardinian poet Rossana Abis. Both epigraphs are thresholds for entering the book and at the same time two answers to a deep kind of questioning that was plaguing me. While writing The Little Book of Passage, I was tenaciously trying to take root: to recognize myself in a body and in a place, to make my home in the world. This is why images of shoes and feet often recur. But the earth on which I tried to place them was collapsing. . . The clothing I was trying to find, melting in the light. . . The painful sensation was that of not being able to move forward, of being relegated to a fixed sequence of events. But perhaps this is, as Emily tells me, nothing but a way of “fill[ing] the Gap” by “insert[ing] the Thing that caused it”: an apparent repetition through which change can occur. A medical drug, a “pharmakon”—both “remedy” and “poison” in ancient Greek—that brings pain inside the same pain, to transform it. For this to happen, a blank open space is needed, a space of waiting. It is this emptiness that punctuates the book into sequences. I am moved to think how this book found in the United States, beyond the ocean and the gaps of another language, a home that welcomed and acknowledged it in all its fragments and silences. When we were correcting the proofs, we realized that the facing pages gave us a new layout problem for the bilingual book, with respect to the original Italian edition. Paul B. Roth suggested a brilliant solution, which also opened my eyes: placing two blank pages right after the epigraph. The empty space translated Emily’s words. And perhaps even Simone’s epigraph. The blank pages open a gap. They open a sky.
JT: Simone Weil’s epigraph is “L’arbre est en vérité enraciné dans le ciel.” The sentence literally means “To tell the truth, trees are rooted in the sky”—though the deepest senses and connotations of her words “vérité,” “enraciné,” and “ciel” (which indeed means both “sky” and “heaven”) can be discussed at length.
FM: Perhaps, as Plato writes in a passage from Timaeus that Simone Weil probably recalled, we are actually upside-down trees, with our roots in the sky. In Kolkata, where I recently stayed for a writer’s residency, I received other messages: I recognized the tree with its roots in the sky, the ficus religiosa, the sacred fig, and just as I was leaving the airport, on the taxi driver’s dashboard, a colorful little plastic statue of Ganesh or Ganesha, the elephant god, seemingly spoke to me: “All this effort to stand on two feet. . . Look, my pachyderm weight is supported by only one foot. . . My other foot is turned up to the sky.” And I understood why I was there and also why my first place in India was indeed Kolkata, the city of Kali. I lived right in the Kalighat neighborhood, a kilometer or so from her temple. I think that I must learn from her the creative force of destruction—the same teaching of the fault line. Destruction has an immense creative potential, but it must be directed and governed so that it turns towards what really must be eliminated, towards what puts us in danger or imprisons us, and thus opens up room for birth. Otherwise, the risk is that of destroying parts of us which, instead, ask only for our attention in order to be. Often I feel knots pressing inside me, begging to be opened up, to spread into branches, to sprout leaves. Like a tree seeking room to find its own light.
JT: Apropos of India, I recall reading a long time ago—or at least I seem to recall reading—a remark made by the French poet Pierre Reverdy: “Here or there, everything is the same.” The words that I remember are in French of course: “Ici ou là, tout est pareil.” But when I wanted to use this quotation in one of my poems, I couldn’t find any trace of it in Reverdy’s oeuvre. Did I dream up the words? In any event, the observation remains incisive and demands that we define the level on which we see ourselves existing. You have traveled a lot in Italy, in Europe and, most recently, as you have mentioned, in India where you were the Chair Poet in Residence. What do you think about the remark? Is everything the same, wherever we are?
FM: A part of me would immediately answer yes. Every place is the same because there is only one life to which we belong, to which we can be reunited in every moment. However, I still feel the suffering of the tree that does not grow as it could because it is too close to a wall, or to other obstructions. In the end, the tenacity and the strength of life wins over everything, but there are things in reality that condition and shape our existence.
The Bitter Oleander, volume 25, number 2, pp. 45-72
Cover photo by Francesca Perlini