This volume by the Italian poet, Franca Mancinelli, is made up of selected prose written between 2008 and 2021 and follows her bilingual collection of poems At an Hour’s Sleep from Here (2019) and her prose poems in The Little Book of Passage (2018), all published by The Bitter Oleander Press and translated into English by John Taylor, who has also written an insightful postface about her work and themes. The book is made up of intense, lyrical passages, fables, fragments of childhood memories, landscapes, reflections and, in the second half, thoughtful explorations of Mancinelli’s own poetics. They are not separated by section headings in the contents page but by gaps, reflecting the porousness between life experiences and writing, as child, adolescent and adult negotiate the world around them and discover how writing and ‘the magical value of the word’ can be a healing, transformative and necessary power existing in time (through rhythm and silence) and space (on the white page): poetry as “an act of continuous salvation.”
There are recurring images which contribute to the poetical inter-weaving nature of the prose. Some are delicate: butterflies, ash, thread, netting, rays, invisible particles, glimpses, bubbles; others solid, grounded: abyss, chasm, fault-lines, rubble, mudslides. The latter are familiar from Mancinelli’s earlier collections and draw upon the immediate environment where she lives in Fano, a seaside town in the Marche region of central Italy, a precarious area, beset by dangerous upheavals. In 2016 a major earthquake wreaked destruction on Renaissance villages in the Marche/Umbria region and, this autumn, mudslides enveloped a town just 15 minutes’ drive from Fano. In this context, the description of a fight between her parents from a child’s viewpoint carries an immediate physical and truthful presence: “vast movements were making the air shake and tilting the walls from one side to the other. (…) Shaken at its foundations, the world was trembling.” Similarly, phrases such as “the ruins of adolescence” and “my body breaking up like dry earth” and “each poem emerges from a fault-line that opens inside us” illustrate how she has internalized the landscape poetically to express some of her deepest emotions.
Borders also exist in Mancinelli’s environment. On the one side, Fano is separated from the countryside that then leads on into the foothills of the Apennine mountains forming Italy’s spine (one section in the book is called “Inside a Horizon of Hills”) and on the other, from the Adriatic Sea. Yet her borders are porous, also suggesting internal thresholds to be crossed and horizons to be reached, beyond the boundaries of identity, hovering between the real and imagined, sleep and wakefulness and through poetry opening towards the light. Memory soaks from past to present and into both poems and prose and the journeys are circular, as in T.S. Eliot’s “In the end is my beginning.”
Describing her poetic practice, Mancinelli claims that her writing is not strictly autobiographical and that, although drawn from her own experience, personal and intimate, often painful and moving, the biographical facts are transcended. She carries a notebook, observes everything and anything, then lets lines from it emerge in her prose and poetry. Her method is intuitive, allowing the space to open to catch the voice passing through her. It often involves waiting but then, in order to bring it forth, comes the concentration, the “making,” which she compares to the process of weaving. At times it demands the painful task of “an act of internal self-surgery.” When out for a walk she can find herself “on the threshold of a secret that calls out to [her],” which is followed by “this duty of obedience to an invisible presence.” It is clear from the beginning that for Mancinelli writing is a spiritual exercise, a matter of survival, working through the darkness and the wounds at its source. At the same time, it is no existential abstraction. It is embodied: “I have often felt that I carry writing in my body,” she writes, “that I have been inscribed in the darkness. (…) We are the imprint of the time that has been, of the life that has passed through us. By writing we bring to light these signs that we contain, as they are, obscure and indecipherable to us. It is like leaning over a threshold that looks into the void. We are between the unknown and nothingness.”
The opening prose-poem “The Butterfly Cemetery” hovers between fable and reality. Through a complex weaving of images, the story tells of a little girl who tries to capture the magic dust on butterfly wings and learns that she’s killing them when they wither like leaves. She stops playing with them, builds a butterfly cemetery which, with the passing of time, is overgrown by grass and her childhood games are set aside but not forgotten. One night, she’s “settled on her bedspread, like a butterfly, with her knees open” when her mother instructs her about sex and how she should from now on behave with propriety, and the little girl experiences a sense of loss: “Silently she enclosed herself in sleep, inside the summer’s golden silkworm. Her words might have concealed slight traces of a butterfly grave.” At school, among a swarm of children who are all being taught appropriate behavior, the little girl is an outsider. She defines herself as different, wonders how she can hide in the midst of that orderliness. “But her guilt had already sunk so deep inside her that it was blended with her quietness. The many butterflies she had taken between her fingers were buried, by now the white pebble borders were invisible, the wings dissolved in the earth, beneath the stairs.” In this way, Mancinelli introduces her themes, to be developed further in the book that bears the name of the first story: innocence and experience, relationships between self and other, this world and the invisible beyond, loss and discovery.
In the final passage, in a section entitled “The invisible as the facing page,” Mancinelli describes gathering images from the life of St. Lucy, the protectress of light and sight, holding the palm leaf of martyrdom in her hand. “The palm leaf she holds resembles a large feather dropped by an angel. It is a cut branch which can write on clay. (…) Every time we hold a pen we must remember this ancient branch with which we wrote as children, when we were translating from the invisible (our own body, our presence, was a recent translation from the invisible).”
This is a bilingual edition, although mainly aimed at an English readership. As in the other collections, John Taylor’s translation captures Mancinelli’s sensibility and the delicacy of her deeply felt writing. Hopefully it will also attract readers not already familiar with her work to the poetry of this fine and original writer.
CAROLINE MALDONADO is a poet and translator living in the UK. She has four books of poems translated from Italian published by Smokestack Books (2013-2022). Her own poems are widely published in print and online journals and in two publications, What they say in Avenale (Indigo Dreams 2014) and Faultlines (Vole Books 2022).
FRANCA MANCINELLI was born in Fano, Italy and is the author of four books of poetry: Mala kruna (Manni 2007), Pasta madre (Nino Aragno 2013), Libretto di transito (Amos Editions 2018), and Tutti gli occhi che ho aperto (Marcos y Marcos 2020). Mala kruna and Pasta madre have both won several awards in Italy. Translations of Mancinelli’s work have appeared in foreign journals and anthologies. A collection of her selected prose, The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose (2008-2021) (The Bitter Oleander Press 2022), was translated from the Italian by John Taylor.
JOHN TAYLOR’s most recent translations are, from the French, José-Flore Tappy’s Trás-os-Montes (The MadHat Press) and Philippe Jaccottet’s Ponge, Pastures, Prairies (Black Square Editions), as well as, from the Italian, Franca Mancinelli’s The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose 2008-2021 (The Bitter Oleander Press). His most recent books of poetry are Transizioni, a bilingual volume published in Italy by LYRIKS Editore and illustrated by the Greek artist Alekos Fassianos, and Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees (The Bitter Oleander Press), illustrated by the French artist Caroline François-Rubino. He lives in France.