from Distance is a Root
A Dialogue between Franca Mancinelli and John Taylor
A loss that we have suffered with all our fibers leaves a wound in us, an open eye. We could not have known this when the sap stopped flowing or a storm was hitting us, but what was happening was necessary; it would induce us to grow again, towards our space of light. After this book, which like every book is written along with my existence, I would like to be able to look beyond the signs of wounds and to write by beginning with the leaves that branch out against the sky—by beginning with open existence…
Franca Mancinelli and I have worked closely together on my translations of her books and her uncollected texts, as well as on projects involving my own writing, ever since our first meeting in Ljubljana, in late November 2017, at a conference devoted to literary criticism. Quickly we perceived that our conversations and e-mail exchanges about translation issues such as syntax and word choices opened out into literary, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual themes. To paraphrase a line from one of her poems, “distance” became a “root” for us: the distance between two languages and cultures; the distance, geographical and otherwise, between two writers who attempt to bridge it through translation and dialogue. We have begun elaborating this dialogue, conceiving it as a project that will take on book form. An initial sample was included in the special feature that The Bitter Oleander devoted to Franca’s poetry in the Autumn 2019 issue. That in-depth interview evoked her collection of prose poems, The Little Book of Passage, which had been published in English in 2018, and At an Hour’s Sleep from Here, which had just been published. The latter volume comprises her first two books of verse poetry, Mala Kruna and Mother Dough. What we offer here is a second sample from this dialogue, based on our discussions while I was translating her most recent Italian book, Tutti gli occhi che ho aperto (All the Eyes that I Have Opened). Our specific work on this part of the dialogue was carried out in Italian by e-mail in July-August 2020 and then in March-April 2021. [J.T.]
JOHN TAYLOR: I translated all the sequences in All the Eyes that I Have Opened before you had given them a definitive order for the publication of your book in Italy. I know that you spent much time thinking about, and experimenting with, the order in which the sequences should be arranged. What has resulted is a structure, indeed an architecture, of fascinating intricacy. You align the sequences in such a way that there is an existential, ontological, and even spiritual “progression,” but you also weave them together non-linearly through echoes and correspondences often deriving from recurrent images and key words or their synonyms. Moreover, whereas a book usually proceeds from a “beginning” to an “end,” here an “ending” also seemingly leads to a “beginning,” or perhaps I should say that various kinds of “endings” result in various kinds of “beginnings.” How did you ultimately conceive this architecture?
FRANCA MANCINELLI: I try to create a space where meaning can emerge by taking form in a sequence of texts and by transmigrating into subsequent sequences. This meaning is a fragmented trail that runs through the whole book beyond changes in space-time and in the subject who speaks, be it human or from the plant world (as in the sequence “Master Trees”), or belonging to ancient votive statuettes, to a protective presence of light (as in the poems evoking Saint Lucy), to an encamped migrant, or to a woman in her liminal daily life. As the epigraph—“cannot scatter itself / puts itself back together at every turn [. . .]”—suggests, the presence that gives voice to the book resembles the open plurality of birds in a “flock flying onwards.” What happens in a bivouac of migrants on the border between Croatia and Serbia can be echoed in the domestic interior of a woman preparing her coffee. This superimposition of levels and time periods, this multidimensionality, was created without my realizing it. In the open silence after Mother Dough, while I was waiting for another language to be born in me, the prose poems of The Little Book of Passage and other texts in verse and prose arrived, sometimes resulting from projects, from commissioned pieces that had moved my route in directions which perhaps, by myself, I would not have taken. Then, when I found myself looking for the trail on which I could bring all this together, each sequence found its place, articulating itself in a rhythm between narration and vision, between me and us, until every distinction was blurred, in order to enable something stronger to run through the pages, recreating itself every time. Three blank pages mark the cornerstones of this movement: the threshold where the theme of migrants resurfaces, perhaps the strongest external motif with respect to the more intimate or dreamlike ones in the other sections. But in the interconnection that governs all the imagery in the book, it actually makes no sense to speak of “external” or “internal.” For example, the voice that is reborn after the initial voice of the migrant woman takes on the vibrations of that violence and somehow responds to that event, transforming it and taking it to another space, on another level of reality where the drama is underscored by a countermelody, “an everlasting smile,” the one that each of us carries in our skull. Perhaps we need to go through “the deaths” of our self or of parts of ourselves, so that we can open another eye, take another look at reality. Perhaps this is what the book is asking for.
J.T.: One of the several themes, and images, which fuel our dialogue about translation, literature, and visions of life is that of “darkness” and “light.” When we gave a reading together in Bologna, in April 2018, you prefaced your remarks about my book The Dark Brightness, which had been translated into Italian, with a passage from the philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s essay What is the Contemporary? In Agamben’s view, the poet—the contemporary—“is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness.” “All eras,” continues Agamben, “are obscure—dark—for those who experience contemporaneity. One who is contemporary is precisely one who knows how to see this obscurity, who is able to write by dipping his pen into the obscurity of the present.” Agamben’s deep insight seems intimately associated with All the Eyes that I Have Opened. The word “darkness,” or one of its synonyms, appears at least twenty times in this book; the word “light,” and similar terms, equally often. You narrate, as it were, the confrontation of light and darkness and, it seems to me, the necessary role that darkness plays in our coming to awareness, to “enlightenment.”
F.M.: Being in darkness allows us to sharpen our eyesight, to recognize that part of things that becomes invisible in the light. It brings our eyes closer to animals’ eyes, open to pick up the vibrations of matter. And, as Agamben says, this enables us to grasp the signals of something that is traveling towards us, of a light that is not yet perceptible: a message coming from another kind of time, from the origin. Only in its proximity can we be truly present in our time and capable of recognizing what is still being reborn. This constant presence of darkness and light had already been pointed out to me in my first book, Mala Kruna. I think that this lies at the heart of my writing, although in my latest book, it is probably even more strongly present because the very title—All the Eyes that I Have Opened—recalls the theme of the eyes, of the possibility of seeing. The more we are able to open our eyes in the darkness that we carry within us, the more we are saved, even if in an always precarious and temporary way. Darkness feeds our demons, which grow and return to take power over our life. For example, the fragments of the “Darkroom” sequence evoke being in the blackness of a relationship recognized, right from the epigraph, as an “error.” It is somehow a return to the theme of the eponymous section of the book, but with one fundamental difference: the awareness that has taken place allows one to recognize the “negative” of this experience, bringing it into the “darkroom” of writing that can transform the darkness into vision, into knowledge. It is looking from eyes that “don’t close” when facing darkness: even closed, they continue to see, to peer into the darkness, as in a game I played as a child, before falling asleep, by staring at the figures and trails that were formed and then faded away inside my eyelids, and as I have been doing again lately, in this period in which I have begun practicing meditation.
J.T.: Indeed, even as in photography one creates a “positive” photo from a negative, you seek to draw something positive—a vision—from a negative experience. The very notion of a “darkroom” informs, not only the sequence you have just evoked, but more generally your poetics and your vision of poetic creativity. Is this fundamental dichotomy of negativity and positivity, of darkness and light, becoming more important in your poetry?
F.M.: Perhaps indeed, because in All the Eyes that I Have Opened I have tried to face up to a wound that has recurrently appeared several times in my existence. My intention was to see it, for what it is, and to give it back at last to the openness from which it comes:
“bullet in the chest
to mark out trails in me
slowly you will pierce
your target in the cosmic darkness.”
[“proiettile nel petto
a segnarmi di scie
il tuo bersaglio nel buio del cosmo.”]
The plural dimension of this book is perhaps also generated by this desire to take a breath, and to have other eyes, other possibilities of looking, not to remain stuck in the fixedness to which a trauma consigns us. In this sense, recognizing oneself on a journey, in the flow, is already a movement beyond pain, a coming back to life. The whole book is traversed by the thin thread of this flight, of this migration, which is that of the flock evoked in the initial epigraph and also of the prose of the final section, “Diary of Passage,” in which the theme of travel and the condition of migrants returns. This title, “Diary of Passage,” connects the migrants on the Balkan route to the image of the flock in flight that opens the book, as well as to that migration to which each of us is called every time we find ourselves taking a fundamental “step”—the Italian word “passo” in the original title, “Diario di passo,” also indicates this— for our own existence, every time we find ourselves facing a pass that takes us over a mountain, and suddenly another landscape, another horizon, opens up to our eyes. But it also refers to that almost imperceptible movement of transformation that we make every day in our every act, our every step. This constant state of transmigration presides over the formation of each image; it returns in the final female voice, which indeed speaks from a state of being in transit (she has in fact just arrived in an indefinite place, without knowing how) and seems to answer the question that emerged in the woods where the migrants were camping: “Why are you here?” The book was perhaps put together precisely around this question which, in “Diary of Passage,” recalls the reasons for writing when facing a reality that freezes hands and words, and which, outside that section, becomes absolute, questioning the very reason for an existence. In fact, the book ends with a trust in a form of life: an existence that can finally happen, a possible beginning.
J.T.: I’m still thinking about “light” and “darkness.” We often discuss how to translate certain deceptively simple Italian words, like “chiaro,” which is not always an exact equivalent of “clear,” depending on the context. Let’s focus on “chiarore,” a word derived from “chiaro.” The word appears three times in All the Eyes that I Have Opened:
“. . . la nuca obbediva al chiarore come una corolla.”
[“. . .my nape was obeying the glimmer like the corolla of a flower.”]
“nel folto una scossa
di chiarore rimasto –a vegliarci
come fitta pioggia che aspetta”
[“within the thicket a jolt
of glimmer left—to watch over us
like heavy rain waiting.”]
“nel chiarore d’inizio
curvi sotto una sacca d’amnio . . .”
[“with the first glimmers,
hunched under an amniotic sack. . .”]
The imagery here can be interpreted metaphorically, but it is also based on real perceptions. What is this “chiarore,” which plays a beneficial role in these excerpts?
F.M.: I can never thank you enough for the gift of your attention. Only your gaze could induce me to recognize this recurrent “chiarore”—this “glimmering.” It is linked to a moment of particular intensity in which everything can begin. I have this perception when I gaze in the twilight at the trees, at the ridges of the hills, and I feel that whatever has happened during the day has been repaired. This is when wild animals come out of their lairs and sometimes cross our paths, leaving us with a shock of beauty, like a contact with another kind of world. They appear all of a sudden, as if carrying a message, then disappear quickly into the thicket. This glimmer thus somehow reminds us that everything is possible, that everything can begin, that everything is still immersed in living.
J.T.: “Light” is also related to elucidation, to lucidity, to becoming enlightened to a greater extent than before. Light is also “seeing,” another main theme of All the Eyes that I Have Opened—specifically, how to recover one’s sight, how to gain new insight, how to acquire new possibilities of vision. In the sequence “December 13th” you make use of legends surrounding Saint Lucy, the patron saint of the eyes. In paintings depicting her, she sometimes holds out her eyes on a golden plate. You write, beautifully:
“guardo i tuoi occhi sul piatto
grani di un viso che vibra
aperto come l’azzurro
su un campo mietuto.”
[“I look at your eyes on the plate
grains of a vibrating face
open like the blue
over a harvested field.”]
How did you first become interested in Saint Lucy?
F.M.: It was an invitation made by a journalist from Bergamo who organizes a yearly reading-concert devoted to Saint Lucy. Bergamo is in fact one of the Italian cities where the cult of the saint is deeply felt, and where children fall asleep, on the eve of December 12th, waiting for her gifts. I wrote these fragments by collecting dust and refractions from images of the saint’s life, in particular from the altarpiece by Lorenzo Lotto kept in Jesi. I didn’t put much faith in these texts until, as I was rereading them while I was putting together All the Eyes that I Have Opened, I realized that they fit perfectly into the plot of the book, not only because Saint Lucy is the patron saint of eyesight, and is often depicted with her eyes on a plate or in a bowl, but also because her figure contains ancient pagan elements linked to the darkest day, the winter solstice, after which the light begins to increase again. This is an end and a beginning like those repeatedly included in All the Eyes that I Have Opened. This young woman that lines of oxen could not move, nor fire burn, has become an indestructible presence: a light that goes beyond all obstacles, resists all violence. This sequence, along with the one devoted “To the tiny bronze offering bearers found on Mount Titano,” represent a moment of ritual and prayer from which to draw light and strength before entering the “Darkroom” and facing its destructive demons.
J.T.: Many of the various legends about Saint Lucy fit in perfectly with the main theme of the book, as expressed in the title. In fact, it comes from one of your poems in this book:
“all the eyes that I have opened
are the branches that I have lost.”
[“tutti gli occhi che ho aperto
sono i rami che ho perso.”]
When a branch is removed—broken off by chance or sawed off intentionally—an “eye” remains. There is great pain, but this new “eye” can enable one to see something else, or differently.
F.M.: This possible connection occurs to me only now, thanks to your eyes! It is true that, according to the many versions of the legend, Saint Lucy miraculously recovered her eyes after having offered them as a gift, after they were taken from her in martyrdom, or after she had herself torn them out. I heard this two-line sentence from a tree in a wood located in the Apennine Mountains—probably a beech, one of my “master trees.” A loss that we have suffered with all our fibers leaves a wound in us, an open eye. We could not have known this when the sap stopped flowing or a storm was hitting us, but what was happening was necessary; it would induce us to grow again, towards our space of light. After this book, which like every book is written along with my existence, I would like to be able to look beyond the signs of wounds and to write by beginning with the leaves that branch out against the sky—by beginning with open existence.
J.T.: Franca, when we work together on my translations of your poetry, and when we debate a difficult choice between two English synonyms for a given Italian word, you often suggest to me to choose the simplest, most common term (if no other criteria bear on the matter), and you especially tend to prefer the alternative that is more “aperto”—“open.” It is here that the realistic or empirical propensities of English must accommodate, and sometimes yield to, the semantic richness and resonance of Italian. English likes to focus on a single fact, a particular, whereas Italian—your Italian—likes to employ a term that can have simultaneous meanings. “Alberi maestri” is a prime example. It means “master trees” for you but also indicates the “mainmast” of a ship. The semantic resonances of “master,” “tree,” and “mast” are set to work, and they work together. In English, we have to choose, whence the more open title of “Master Trees” for this section instead of some concoction that would also somehow bring “masts” into the affair. Openness and multiplicity are important to you, stylistically and philosophically.
F.M.: I am reminded of an Italian expression that is used when someone is digressing, is losing the point of what he is saying: “Say it in poor words.” I believe that poetry takes place within this “poverty,” this essentiality, on the path that leads directly into the heart of things. This poverty is not scarcity, not lack; on the contrary, it is a possibility of fully possessing what we have by recognizing it in all its value and meaning. It is a poverty that comes from humility, from being close to the earth, and for this reason it has everything that is necessary in it; it does not tolerate decorations and frills. The words I bring onto the page are the same ones that live daily between our lips. The difference lies only in a sort of dilation of time that the poem operates, asking us to intensify our attention as much as possible, pausing on the threshold of another dimension. In this suspension, the meaning of a word can open up, like the crown of a tree that finally finds its space of light. This is how other meanings can also find life, half-sunk or buried in the matter of the language. Poetry often composes itself in me by following these illuminations that I feel when a long-blocked vital conduit opens, when through the contact between two images, or through the unforeseen pause of an enjambment, emerges something unexpected that was pushing through the layers of language. In this possibility of openness and life, it is this creative action that poetry effectuates on language, freeing it from the deposits of communication, from the sediments produced by our instrumental and deaf use of words. Each word can thus again resonate with ancient echoes, vibrations not yet translated into a form, and open us, even for an instant, to the dense weave that binds us to every element of the cosmos.
J.T.: I also recall an insightful remark, about your poetic language, made to us by our publisher, the poet Paul B. Roth, in an e-mail dated 19 April 2019. Paul’s impression, and I agree with him, is that you go “deep into each self-experience where language is not used to being.” You have just said that you must intensify your attention and, as it were, wait on a threshold for what will come to you—an “illumination,” for example. In this sense, you are a receptacle. But is there also, simultaneously, a more active role that you must take on when you write? I mean, as you rework your poems, the first versions of which are often jotted down in notebooks, do you also increasingly sense a kind of tension that you must attempt to resolve? That is, not only meanings which you will receive, if you are sufficiently receptive, watchful, and patient, and which will enable you to shape the poem, but also hidden meanings that you must actively seek out, stalk, hunt?
F.M.: I have always felt words as an impossible translation of life. What escapes through the mesh of language is precisely what beckons me. Poetry is born from what exists before and beyond words. It is the language of the unsayable and the untranslatable which, deep down, constitutes our existence. A pre-Babelic language, a primal language: the vibration that runs through matter. Every time we speak we collide with a limit that is in language itself. It is a border defined by man to relate and commerce with his kin and kind. We wander around this bounded space, like animals born in captivity that have lost the call of the open wilderness. Poetry preserves in itself an ancient memory that induces us to feel imprisoned, to feel estranged in the cages of language. There is a struggle, with every syllable, for a second of breathing, for a millimeter of vision beyond the bars. For this, John, as you recall, there is nothing else to do but exist in an open presence, as mediums of this primal vibration that passes through us, and to let it resonate in us. The traces that remain in our notebooks may contain some motion, some iridescence. Over time, and with our craftsmen’s tools, we will try to free more gleams, other filaments. This is the intense task that leads to giving a form to, and watching over, what otherwise would remain within the invisible, the imperceptible. When we fashion this form with the utmost care and dedication, something happens that surpasses us. The tension that has guided us releases a work that we can acknowledge as complete precisely when, in the etymological sense, it is not perfect, has not been “thoroughly done,” it remains open to life, which continues to pass through it, over the passage of time, in the varied eyes of those who will recognize another gleam each time, another emerging filament.
J.T.: The key images in your poems also “open out,” into several meanings or onto several levels. Let me take an almost paradoxical example, a poem from the sequence “Fragments for a Dedication.” A burial, which is an image of enclosure par excellence, announces a “beginning,” and the hands immersed in the earth are “roots at work.” Those hands symbolize something promising. They will eventually enable leaves to sprout, flowers to blossom:
“burial. And beginning. I am potted
and possessed. I live in the earth’s
custody, with hands immersed
like roots at work.”
[“sepoltura. E inizio.
Sono invasata. Vivo in custodia
della terra, a mani immerse
come radici lavorando.”]
F.M.: Yes, it’s true that poetry often takes me into this place of an end and a beginning, into the force that is released from apparently opposite poles, into the energy in which the possibility of a transformation is gathered. I have experienced this tension towards a metamorphosis in my existence as a state of suspension, of waiting for a profound change that would lead me beyond the return of events related to my painful wound. This is already present in my first book, Mala Kruna; it becomes central in Mother Dough and urgent in The Little Book of Passage, through which runs imagery involving a fissure, a water table, and a fault line, a place where converge opposing forces that are equally powerful, capable of both destroying and creating. In All the Eyes that I Have Opened, the theme of seeing recurs several times, and also that of seeing with closed eyes, from inside, as in an attempt to focus exactly and, at the same time, to go beyond this clear-cut vision to reach the initial point, the origin at which one can re-establish one’s own being: “I point my eyes and my area / is rounded off, the circle of my life.” This way of seeing is achieved through the experiences of pain and loss that occur several times in the book, the various subjects who speak from time to time. And it is sustained by a vital force, obedient to the light, which recalls, through the “master trees,” how every wound is a possibility of vision, a possibility to keep growing, towards the form that awaits us. The long-awaited metamorphosis often occurs against our will and desire, in events that we sense as negative, nefarious. In fact, this transformative movement is underway; it constantly takes place in our present; if we do not sense it, this is because we lack the eyes and the attention necessary to recognize it and to make sure that it can find space within us. For this, we need to know how to abandon ourselves to the loss, to the many deaths that we undergo: to let parts of us disappear so that a new beginning is possible. A burial is very similar to putting a seed in the ground. It depends on the eyes we open to look at the act. I like to think of our dead, and of the deaths that we undergo in existence, as seeds planted in the earth waiting for the water and the time needed to make them sprout. These lines that you have quoted also arise from the double meaning of the Italian verb “invasare”: to plant in a pot and also to invade someone’s mind and soul, inducing him to lose rational control—whence your English rendering of “sono invasata” as “I am potted / and possessed.” In the ancient world, for example, the sibyls and priestesses were possessed by a god. This voice that speaks is protected by the earth and lives in its custody, because it is “planted,” and, at the same time, because it has gathered into itself another force that allows it to work, to create with its root-hands. This fragment, together with the others in this sequence, are in fact devoted to the transformative work of art.
J.T.: Roots, seeds—these are essential natural elements for you. Franca, I would say that this poem sums up one of your deepest aspirations:
“I branch out according to the light
to open my chest wide
with the strength that comes from a seed.”
[“ramifico secondo la luce
a spalancarmi il petto
con la forza che viene da un seme.”]
F.M.: Yes, maybe this is literally true: becoming a tree is one of my deepest desires. It is also for this reason that I recognize trees as “masters,” guides, and references in existence and, moreover, what we can hold fast to in storms, what allows our earthly ship to make its voyage. Jacques Brosse’s Mythologie des arbres (Mythology of Trees) is a book that I loved very much and that I came across during the period in which I was writing the lines of the sequence you have just quoted. But I have always instinctively looked to trees as protectors, at least from my early adolescence, when I found myself on the edge of my circle of friends. I would be reassured, with respect to the sense of estrangement that I felt with my peers, if I found myself in the nearby presence of a tree: the witness of my inner sufferings, the most trusted confidant, who did not need any words, and at the same time the ally who reminded me of a deeper and more solid kind of belonging. Over the years I have never stopped seeking out trees, to keep their branches in my eyes as an untranslatable answer to a question that I cannot pronounce, and that lives in me like the sap that governs every act. These primordial intermediaries between the earth and the sky came back to speak to me during the period when I was writing The Little Book of Passage, when I was struggling, neither recognizing roots nor ground into which I could sink them. Through an ancient image which, from Plato, reached me via Simone Weil, trees reminded me that I was looking in the wrong direction: “Trees are rooted in the sky.” Perhaps this is why I have always looked and continued to look at branches, especially bare ones, at dusk, when they stand out against the dark blue sky like textures of a language that we have been unable to decipher. Between humans and these living beings there is a distance made up of an intimate, molecular proximity; perhaps one day we will be able to overcome it; perhaps it is destined to remain like this: a distance like a root that nourishes us, that allows us to grow. It is the same thing that exists with human relationships which are, as it were, rooted in the sky, and which, for this reason, enable marvelous foliage to open out on the earth, branching out according to the light. Something similar has happened with our encounter, John. It is one of those fundamental encounters which, like master trees, guide our existence.
Franca Mancinelli was born in Fano, Italy, in 1981. In John Taylor’s translations, The Bitter Oleander Press has published her prose poems (The Little Book of Passage) and her verse poetry (At an Hour’s Sleep from Here). Her latest Italian collection is Tutti gli occhi che ho aperto (Marcos y Marcos, 2020). [Photo: Claudio Mammucari]
John Taylor is an American writer and translator who lives in France. His most recent books are Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees (The Bitter Oleander Press) and a “double volume” co-authored with Pierre Chappuis, A Notebook of Clouds & A Notebook of Ridges (The Fortnightly Review Press). [Photo: Françoise Daviet-Taylor]
All photos by Samuele Bellini. All rights reserved.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, July 13, 2021