‘The Little Book of Passage’ by Franca Mancinelli (Review)

After last week’s reviews took us to Quebec, I fancied a change of location, so we’ll be heading over to Italy for the next couple of posts – and why not?  The first book I’m looking at comes courtesy of a translator whose work I’ve covered at the site before, but today’s choice is a very different kind of writing.  It marks my first adventures in poetry for a while, but even that classification might be deceiving.  As you’ll see, the line between prose and poetry can be rather vague, and at times my latest read had me wobbling from one side to the other…

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Translator John Taylor, who (as alluded to above) brought Catherine Colomb’s excellent novel The Spirits of the Earth into English, was kind enough to send me a couple of his latest translations last year, and I recently found the time to take a closer look at the first of them.  It’s an intriguing work called The Little Book of Passage, a collection of poems by Italian writer Franca Mancinelli, published in the US by The Bitter Oleander Press.  While it ‘only’ contains thirty-three sections, one additional feature is the inclusion of the original versions on facing pages, allowing those fluent in Italian (and those, like me, with tiny smatterings of the language) to compare them with the translations.

In his short and informative introduction, Taylor provides some background about the poet and her work, explaining the shift from more conventional poetry to the prose provided in this volume.  While the style is new, though, the themes are similar:

As in her verse poetry, which similarly points to silence as it sketches moods, daydreams, and fantasies set amid carefully observed daily scenes, Mancinelli’s short prose revolves around unvoiced centers and disturbing causes which cannot be wholly defined yet which have come to the surface, as it were.  As the reader meditates on them, they reveal their intricacy and mystery.
p.xii (The Bitter Oleander Press, 2018)

Having read the pieces he’s describing, I can confirm that these are poems, or texts, that certainly require some thought, with certain themes floating to the surface.

But what are these themes?  Well, as the title suggests, one is travel, and many pieces, especially in the first group of poems, focus on journeys.  From the very start, the poems have us packing a suitcase, preparing to move on, and as we move through the collection, there are repeated images of trains, windows and the rivers seen through them.  We repeatedly return to a traveller alone mid-journey, enjoying a familiar ‘passage’:

Ecco il fiume che mi allarga lo sguardo, che mi attraversa la fronte.  Lo aspetto ogni volta. So quando arriva dal diverso rumore che fanno le rotaie sul ponte.  Accanto al sedile una piccola valigia.  L’ho preparata sapendo di andare.

Here’s the river which widens my gaze, which flows through my forehead.  Each time I await it.  I know when it’s coming because the rails make a different noise on the bridge.  Next to my seat is a small suitcase.  I packed it, knowing I was leaving. (pp.46/7)

Yet in all of these poems, there’s a sense of the importance of the journey, not the destination.  The protagonist, if that’s the right word, is a happy traveller, content never to arrive.

Elsewhere, we find different concerns, including a preoccupation with nature.  Words such as ‘leaves’, ‘roots’, ‘water’ and ‘trickle’ reoccur, with the dividing line between inside and outside occasionally blurred.  In many places, Mancinelli brings the idea of nature together with that of the human body.  In contrast with the earlier concept of travel, we see an interesting variation on the expression ‘taking root’, and the voices in the poems seem to regard their bodies as just another type of plant, with leaves of their own.

A further idea discussed in the introduction is how the idea of passage necessarily includes boundaries, and just as was the case above with where our bodies start and end, the concept of fault lines, or fissures, is an important one in Mancinelli’s work.  Hence, the continual return to the bridge over the river, where the protagonist crosses without ever reaching the other side, but also some more extreme examples:

La faglia è in te, si allarga.  Un soffio di freddo ti attraversa le costole e ti sta scomponendo.  Non hai più un orecchio.  Il tuo collo è svanito. Tra una spalla e l’altra si apre un buio popolato di fremiti, di richiami da ramo a ramo, su un pendio scosceso a dirotto, non attraversato da passi umani.

The fault line is inside you, it is widening.  A chilly gust of wind blows through your ribs and is decomposing you.  You no longer have an ear.  Your neck has vanished.  Between one shoulder and the other one opens a darkness peopled with shivers, with voices calling out from branch to branch, on a sheer slope uncrossed by human steps.  (pp.86/7)

This is one of many images of bodies collapsing into themselves.  In addition, the word ‘buio’ (‘darkness’) crops up far too often to be coincidental, suggesting that the passage the title speaks of is rarely an easy one.

The Little Book of Passage is a very short work, and fairly light on the surface, allowing a quick reader to easily skim the translations in ten minutes or so.  Of course, though, there’s far more to the collection than can be gleaned in one swift read, especially if you give the Italian a go.  Having the original text next to the translations was certainly of benefit for me.  My poor Italian forced me to slow down and revisit sentences, and the extra time I spent on each piece as a result helped me to notice key words and recurring themes.  I do tend to speed through poetry more quickly than it deserves, so this was definitely useful.

Of course, having a bilingual edition also allows you to compare the versions, written in two very different languages.  It’s fun to sound out the Italian, but when you do, the English can sound blunt at times by comparison (I suspect if I’d been attempting to translate these poems, I’d have fallen into the trap of raising the register and using more Latinate words).  Taylor’s work generally stays fairly close to the original, with the occasional slight twist in sentence structure and punctuation, and while I was initially a little unsure as to whether it could have been more ‘poetic’ (whatever that means…), after more time spent on the poems, I was happier (for what it’s worth) with the choices he made.

I suspect those who will enjoy The Little Book of Passage most are people like me whose Italian is existent but little more.  It makes for a nice collection of prose fragments that, while not hiding their subject matter, don’t exactly lay it out clearly either.  This was a rare excursion out of my comfort zone, since my preference is definitely for novels, but (as Mancinelli proves) it’s nice to go elsewhere once in a while, even if you have no idea exactly where you’ll end up…

4 thoughts on “‘The Little Book of Passage’ by Franca Mancinelli (Review)

  1. Nice to see you covering this, Tony. I really enjoyed this book—there is a lot left unsaid between the lines. A book compiling her first two collections came out earlier this year and I believe John is working with her on more translations. Franca spent a month in Calcutta on a residency last year and it happened to coincide with my own visit, so we were able to spend time together doing touristy things! I think that’s the only time I’ve been able to meet and spend extended time with a writer whose primary language is not English—a real treat!

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    1. Joe – That’s a great personal slant on the post 🙂 Poetry’s not really my thing, but I’ve been meaning to get to this for a while now, and I’m glad I did, an intriguing ‘libretto’!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Kaggsy – Well, the English is there, so it’s not that big a problem, but, yes, some knowledge of Italian would definitely improve the reading experience 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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