Italian poet and stage director Laura Fusco’s two poetry collections, Liminal (tr. 2020) and Nadir (tr. 2022) tell the stories of refugees crossing into Europe. The English/Italian translator of both volumes, Caroline Maldonado, received the PEN UK Translates Award in 2019 for the first volume.
Those two titles Liminal, which means a situation in between, and Nadir, the lowest point, could be interchanged. Both collections gather poems about refugees, waiting around in makeshift camps at a border, or in temporary housing; hoping to be admitted to a new life, or be sent back to their country of origin. Nadir is more about children, which adds another ironic connotation to the term nadir (since they are low).
Liminal and Nadir focus on the crisis in the wake of the Syrian civil war that broke out in 2011, and other conflicts near or farther from European borders. At the height of the crisis, more than a million displaced knocked on Europe’s doors annually (today, the numbers are up again due to the war in Ukraine). About six people die daily in their attempt to reach Europe, or one in 18. These people leave home, not usually, as far-right extremists say, because they want to strike it rich in wealthy western countries, but because their own region burst at its seams, no longer able to offer them shelter and care.
Treating this crisis as a cancer in its midst, Europe itself can also be seen as at a nadir. Aside from xenophobic fearmongering, also more moderate parties or overall EU policies don’t always help. As Fusco shows in these two books, promises to refugees are the easiest to break. Her poems don’t point a finger to any particular source of blame. Rather, by placing the people and not the problem in the foreground, the refugee issue is treated as a fact. How we behave around it makes us all responsible.
Asphalt runs under the wheels of army trucks
towards a familiar story.
He’s 38 and is still killing time while the sun consumes itself
and the bare trees tired of waiting for green
let their leaves explode like a song.
He speaks to the tv camera’s little red eye
to the journalist who’s offered him a smoke.
Smoke from the cigarette joins the bonfire’s then a gust of wind
covers a pearl sky.
If he finishes one dream he moves on to another.
The beauty of these poems is their fluidity. All the poems are composed in unbroken stanzas, and they use refugees’ own citations found in interviews, the internet and TV reports, songs and graffiti. They assemble scenes that rapidly glide into the next, and then the next, like chain-smoking. Apart from the endless waiting in aid facilities, camps or temporary housing, landscapes shift as much as their inmates move or are being moved. I was never quite sure where a certain poem was set, apart from some where the location was specifically given. This suits the dreamlike uncertainty that the refugees live in, with one foot in the present, one foot in the hellish past where nevertheless loved ones and cherished traditions have been left behind, the other foot in a future that is vividly imagined but might not be so rosy. These poems witness their protagonists’ pitiful actions and disarming resolutions, holding on to their individuality, their group identity, their humanity, and their history.
They walk down the railway tracks
following a dream that has brought them to a 500 litre
saucepan of rice.
(From “The Balkan route”)
There are also shifts between narrators. In one or two poems I thought that I had caught the poet’s voice, but by the end of those poems it seemed that refugees were speaking after all. The poems are often narrated by a collective, as well as in third person or even directly addressed to someone. Fusco’s most common operative is group portrayal. Yet, by lifting out scenes featuring individuals, a reader will find that the group has acquired faces, and that this unsentimental bunch expresses an interesting personality.
A special place is reserved for children. As said, Nadir concentrates almost entirely on the plight of children refugees.
The footsteps on the road that take the place of others
in a different order.
With other names.
Hard to learn.
Because different from the heart.
Easy to learn.
Because children learn them.
Those closest to the future.
(From “I will live in Rue la Marne“)
That last line gives a chill. It’s not only that some refugee kids come without papers stating their age, and in some cases are older than they are, but as a result of what they’ve experienced in their short lives, their view of life isn’t like of a child who’s been brought up in safe and secure conditions. That makes them wiser beyond their age, to use the cliché. Closer to the future can also mean closer to death.
One factor that also contributes to kids getting wise before their years must be the morbid closeup that our media sometimes takes: the worse the story, the better the scoop. The irony is that refugees are desperate to stay in touch with the world and with current communication means.
1 interview with 1 news programme to tell them what it feels like,
whether we’ve stayed
whether we’ve gone,
whether our loved ones have all died.
How does it feel?
Children are exploited in this cat and mouse media game, whenever some Gutmensch organization spreads their angel wings. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei flies in a white piano for a gifted Syrian kid to play on, after an hour and the filming completed, it’s taken away.
“A million likes”
She is brought down from the deck
in a vest and little pink dress,
holding the hand of a policewoman,
with a warrior’s face, a cuddly toy and that’s enough.
Like a heroine in a videogame.
In a few seconds her image gets a million likes and hearts,
Now time that weakens even those heroes who’ve won everything
is waiting for her.
But she… ‘you must resist’ they’ve written next to the hearts.
Here and there, the syntax is a little unclear. “Now time that weakens even those heroes who’ve won everything/is waiting for her.” Maybe it’s the translation that adheres too faithfully to the original in places, or it might also be the line breaks that aren’t always so artful. But mustn’t complain. Most poems are truly moving, and amazingly for such a grim subject, are a pleasure to read. Laura Fusco, so the impression is created, give refugees an engaging voice.
JACQUELINE SCHAALJE is a translation editor at MAYDAY.