Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli has become known for her lucid, supremely accessible work which lends itself well to translation. The themes which unify her work seem to center around the process of reimagining the domestic. In her writing, housework, childcare, traditionally feminine crafts (such as weaving), and relationships with men are topics that she inverts completely from cliché through playfulness and humor.
My Poems Won’t Change The World was translated by a wide group of American poets: Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, Jonathan Galassi, Rosanna Warren, Geoffrey Brock, J. D. McClatchy, David Shapiro, and editor Gini Alhadeff—who spent the last five years working closely with the author on this volume—all contribute versions to this gathering of her work. It is a tribute to Cavalli that her voice transmits with such clarity, undampened by those of the notable poets who have rendered her work into English.
The long poem, “To Weave Is Human,” is available as a preface to the prose and image collage, Text on Textile, written and arrangedby Isabella Ducrot and released as an early number of The Cahiers Series. Its translator is Olivia E. Sears; when read alongside the poems from Selected, it too blends in seamlessly in terms of theme and voice.
An untitled poem from the 1992 collection The All Mine Singular I serves as a fitting introduction to Cavalli’s work. In it, she reverses traditional gender roles with a measure of play that conceals a sarcasm so fine-edged its touch could be mistaken for the brush of a feather:
You sit at the head of the table
heady with wine,
and hold forth,
made proud by my tears.
But I’m the one who’s crying
and I won’t move.
So you get up, be useful,
pick up the plates!
The first few lines depict a man in his accustomed, socially approved role, sitting “at the head of the table” and holding forth, taking pleasure in the negative reaction his lecturing provokes in his partner. The language that Cavalli deploys is wonderfully descriptive, faux-regal. The man is a king, “heady” with wine, secure in his illusion of control over a passive, weeping listener. But then, beautifully, the speaker turns the tables on him, like a magician posing as a waiter, she pulls the cloth out from under the plates: “But I’m the one who’s crying / and I won’t move.” With these words the passive weeper suddenly has power, the power implicit in deliberate stillness, which demands action from her foe. The man must rise and do the dishes.
In a poem that appears fourteen years later in Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate, Cavalli examines the common held belief in male entitlement to comfort. She examines how that belief is formed and expresses her own desire for experiencing its benefits:
I feel such overpowering envy
for the eleven-year-old son who’s dozing
fallen into his mother’s arms
to enjoy his turn of pleasure
At first glance it would appear that the speaker is simply expressing the desire to be mothered, but the fact that the child she envies is a figlio—a son—at the edge of adolescence was a deliberate choice. The boy is beautiful, and at least in sleep, he is passive, two features usually reserved for (and idealized in) young females:
At my age how could I compete
with that fine hair, that brow
which pulls back all the better to surrender
to the sure power of those hands
that close him in their caresses
The word “compete” is telling. The speaker wonders how she could become an object of desire for a powerful, loving parental figure who fondles the sleeping boy with “not lustful caresses but undisputed / sovereignty of simple tenderness / the true sure gesture that possesses.” Additionally, these lines imply an integral reversal of accepted social power structures. The strong, sovereign parent, however loving, in literature generally occupies the paternal role. Here it is a mother. She chooses to use her power for his comfort. When the boy becomes an adult that gift becomes expected, something the man-child feels entitled to and seeks out when selecting a mate.
Since the speaker has already said that she feels herself in competition with the male child, since the expected binary of roles has already been laid out, the speaker finds herself suspended between genders asking:
what do I want, to give or to receive?
To be what I am, yet not a female daughter
but a feminine son, an absolute son,
an undifferentiated son.
Society, embodied in the image of the mother, does not answer. However the last lines of the poem do point out this problem and in doing so suggests a reply: “Mother of mine, / what went wrong, why didn’t you convince me?” The Mother did not convince the speaker of her role as predestined nurturer because that is not her role. She will have to seek out others on her own.
“To Weave Is Human” is a playful examination of the artificiality of gender roles. Cavalli opens with lines that refer to the tradition of Elizabethan dedication and address, “Dear readers, here we weave for you a play: / Isabella Ducrot conceived the plot / and cast its stars: The Weft and Warp of cloth.” She immediately skewers her homage to traditional forms by correcting a practical error suggested by the order of the cast. The “Warp must come first,” because otherwise the weft has nothing to weave itself around.
By gendering the Warp, defining it as male, Cavalli sets the stage for another set of assumptions, this time about the personalities that she ascribes to the pieces of thread (which are identical in composition, differentiated primarily by their direction in the loom). In her telling, the Warp and the Weft engage in a cartoonish, melodramatic romance:
This is why each Warp is driven mad
wanting to meet the Weft as soon as he can;
and she is just as desperate to be found.
for she — no, she can never stand alone —
alone she is nothing, no one, incomplete —
and fat and slack she falls, a lifeless thread.
The Warp and Weft become stereotypes of the male and female as presented in western pop-culture. They play out the traditional gender roles they are assigned, describing a chase in wonderfully human language whose implied conclusion feels exactly as inevitable as any romantic comedy. She takes the metaphor as far as it will go, “is this not / a drama in itself, the very play/ of the married state?” and then cheerfully undermines that statement by pointing out that the “married state,” like weaving, is a human invention and therefore completely artificial, though strictly enforced:
Rag or brocade
every woven textile thus results
from this enforced embrace, a grand design
that only human minds are meant to grasp
and execute; and thus a marriage that
could not in nature ever find its place.
Take the spider, poor thing. It dupes.
The spider doesn’t weave; the spider gules.
Taken as a body of work, the poems in Cavalli’s Selected Poems reveal a mind that is deeply interested in the nuances of human relationships and the ways that men and women interact. This is a very strong collection that combines an interesting love of narrative and theme with a wit that makes each poem a pleasure to read. Several vital unifying themes in Cavalli’s work run through the poems like threads; threads that clearly bind “To Weave Is Human” to the Selected Poems. Text on Textile is, appropriately enough, an extremely tactile book; the images and Ducrot’s essay on weaving expand on the complex themes explored in Cavalli’s poem, providing a thought-provoking work on a form of art that, as a traditionally female craft, has been sorely neglected.
As a poet, Cavalli has only begun to get the attention that she deserves in the English-speaking world. Her work is uniformly good, its images always lucid, the wit is never displayed simply for show. Her poems might seem simple on the first reading, but that is a product of their immaculate surface. They linger in the mind, and achieve their fullest effect upon rereading.
Bethany W. Pope is the author of two poetry collections, A Radiance (Cultured Llama Press, 2012) and Crown of Thorns (Oneiros Books, 2013).
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