Poetry International Poetry International

Valerio Magrelli

18 januari 2006
Valerio Magrelli, still in his early forties, a lecturer in French at the University of Cassino, is one of the foremost poets of his generation in Italy, and already the profile of his work stands out securely against a wider span. Since his extraordinary debut volume at the age of 23, he has published another three books of poems. His poems have been translated into many languages and two volumes have appeared in English translated by Anthony Molino.
Magrelli’s most recent book, Instructions for Reading a Newspaper, is a long poem in which each of the shorter poems corresponds to a section of the newspaper, such as Games, Horoscopes, Death Notices and so on. The Letters Page is a clever device for allowing the more personalized and lyrical a look-in. Even this title suggests a kind of anti-poetry. The decision for poetry to found itself on the throw-away, the quotidian, the mechanically reproduced, recalls Joyce setting part of his epic Ulysses in a newspaper office. - With an added, disturbing, almost elegiac touch now that newspapers are no longer our dominant mode of purveying information and news. The poem anatomizes an institution, its economics, its way of reproducing reality, and subjects the familiar to an estranging scrutiny. [Walter Benjamins remarks on newspapers that their organization has a way of fragmenting our knowledge of the world is very apt here:

Man’s inner concerns do not have their issueless private character by nature. They do so only when he is increasingly unable to assimilate the data of the world around him by way of experience. Newspapers constitute one of many evidences of such an inability. If it were the intention of the press to have the reader assimilate the information it supplies as part of his own experience, it would not achieve its purpose. But its intention is just the opposite, and it is achieved: to isolate what happens from the realm in which it could affect the reader. The principles of journalistic information (freshness of the news, brevity, comprehensibility, and, above all, lack of connection between the individual news items) contribute as much to this as does the make-up of the pages and the papers style]

The idea of fragments and of anatomy unite most of Magrelli’s poetry. The body in literature has become a fashionable topic for critics of late, as though after years of being floating heads were suddenly discovered something beneath the chin. Magrelli's a poet who’s had no need to discover this peculiar fact, having explored it from the outset. Throughout his work there is an insistence on the corporeal. To give a more concrete example, one poem describes the extraction of a wisdom tooth (in Italian the tooth of justice or judgement). It is not a simple operation, the tooth has to be worked at, practically pulverized, before it comes free. I’ve translated the last stanza:

Now I can sleep.
Now the wisdom tooths been dug out,
sawn into three parts,
extracted in little pieces,
ground down to fragments so as to be pulled.

The slow progress of this stanza is characteristic the seeming redundancy of dug out, extracted and pulled (and their Italian equivalents) is part of the poems strategy patiently to extract every shining vein of meaning from the experience. The relief of sleep at the price of bodily integrity or of wisdom (giudizio) is quietly hinted at, and this kind of unconsoling awareness is sometimes even more painfully evident in the poems.

But to return to that tooth. There are other threads to this eleven-line poem which give an odd sacral quality to the object as though it was both suffering the process of martyrdom and was itself being turned into a holy relic. Its referred to as a sacred fish, its segnato (marked out as a target but also, in the context, signed with stigmata or with the cross) as well as segato (sawn, as though it were an unlucky Saint). There are also other seams of geological imagery and of artisan vocabulary which run through it and its in this context that the slow and freighted movement, the elaboration and unravelling of his language are utterly essential to the whole design.

A love poem like ‘The Embrace’ from his third book excavates beneath the domestic, and by way of the central heating is led to the prospect of millenial destruction on which the frail moment of affection is based.

The two flames recalls the eerie double flame of Ulysses and Diomedes in Dante’s Inferno. This is one example of the way Magrelli’s poems quietly situate themselves at the centre of a tradition which they question and qualify. His poems describe the process of their composition and their language keeps measuring its own capacity to observe the world. As he writes in another poem:

I think of a tailor
who uses himself as a roll of cloth.

But as Jonathan Galassi, Montale's translator, remarked of Magrelli, his poems are not simply self-referential, but always advance an argument with and about life. I’d like to end by reading one of those self-referential poems, a poem that tries to imagine how it might be to write a picture, say, like Uccello’s “Hunt by Night”, but to inscribe it in the medium of time as opposed to space. This poem seems to me a far cry from the run-of-the-mill picture-poem and an intriguing exploration of how we perceive through language:

Which is the lefthand side of the word?
How does it move about in space?
Where does it cast its shadow
(and can a word cast shadow)?
How can it be observed from behind
or set against the recession of space?
I should like to render in poetry
the equivalent of perspective in painting.
To give a poem the depth of a rabbit
escaping through fields and make it
distant whilst already
it speeds away from the one who’s watching
and veers towards the frame
becoming smaller all the time
and never moving an inch.
The countryside observes
and disposes itself around the creature,
around a point that’s vanishing.
© Jamie McKendrick
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Gefinancierd door de Europese Unie
Elise Mathilde Fonds
Stichting Verzameling van Wijngaarden-Boot
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère