The venetians and other poems

Roberto Mussapi

 

  

FOREWORD

Reading Roberto Mussapi, for this Yoruba reader and writer, is an induction into startling affinities. This is only to be expected between worlds that are shaped by mythopoeic sensibilities, even where such worlds are generally perceived as being culturally divergent, My breath is caught up again and again by lines where even separated social environments, transmitted through images drawn from distanced social geographies, are united by kindred ways of experiencing. I read these lines from Mussapi’s “The Months”:

...and the tree

As tall and, like me a child Soon I shall enter, go through the door, go meet The people in the celebrating house With just a shudder brought from the outside world The effort in the sap that in the frost enlivened me Footprints before the path of pines Little shoes that would lead far away...

and I re-enter a divergent, yet complementary world that I sought to capture in my own poem, an evocation of childhood – “Visiting Trees”. But then, Mussapi’s poetic world is not one that any single poet dare appropriate – and other African poets like the Congolese Tchicaya U’Tamsi and the Mauritian Edouard Maunick spring readily to mind – since that world lends itself to universal participation, transcending, as it does, mere personal encounters, or interactions of palpable realities. Rather, it dissolves discrete entities, personae, events and experiences – sunsets, storms, lighthouse, trees, continents, heat and snow, rocks – through a fluid palette of elemental representations – light, space, the dark, earth and water. Impressionistic, yet dynamic in transmission. A cave’s ambiguous dark takes form – and paradox – through the gradual coherence of fragments of light, even as the light speckles define the darkness of a glass of wine. Such fragments, evocative of will-o-wisps, become the transmission agents that bring the dark into fusion with horizons, tunnels and ocean waves. The same process informs a train journey that moves beyond mere narrative or evocation of an encounter to become the liminal habitation of memory where life and death attain a consoling unity, just like – says the poet – sleep.

And yet, within this indeterminacy, this denial (or attenuation) of security, of dependency on, or material certitude in the familiar, what sudden shocks Mussapi administers, as if to ensure that even an acceptance of indeterminacy does not ge- nerate a bland complacency in the mind, especially of the emotions generated by an encounter or an experience. Time, that absorbent template, is landmarked with stabs and wounds – not just ours, not just the earth’s, but the planets’ – and thus we are stopped from losing our bearings completely and wallowing in the marshlands of oblivion and self-dissolution. Like the planets themselves, Time, the ultimate indeterminacy, proves capable of inflicting scars that are felt directly in the flesh, not merely through empathy:

Time does not pass over us Atemporal, it urges us, carves Its figures like tattoos, without anaesthesia Thus I felt a pain in the part of the body Which between skin and flesh drives to the occiput and heart

Experience, Mussapi invites us to acknowledge, is primarily a province of the senses, but one that is constantly extended beyond corporeal limitations. Thus, every line of the poet moves beyond its immediate context, transcends both location and temporal identity. There are mythologies lurking behind every pared down image, be it on its own or evoked in linkages and associations – and these images are indeed pared down, almost austere. Mussapi does not indulge his reader – or more accurately, his accomplice, his companion voyager – with clusters of metaphors as he evokes historic figures or archetypes. Even emotions – sparsely, indeed almost grudgingly conceded – turn archetypal images of the human journey. There is a deliberate avoidance of sentimentality, instead we experience the thorns, the pains transmitted through flesh to the region of the senses. The raucous reality of a train journey, the jerks, wrenches and switch points bring one down to earth, yet join their mechanical world to the elemental. The headlamps light up unearthly vistas, but they also delineate the cities of human habitation, while mythologies are aroused as the subterranean, turned prehistoric monster barrels through tunnels and caverns of darkness, as if penetrating into the very womb of earth and time.

In Mussapi’s poetic landscape, landmarks are no sooner established than they slip into insubstantiality and the ephemeral, where history does not appear to have an end or a beginning.

And if we choose to ally with, and linger with denizens of the watery kingdom, anchors shift with the tide and the motion of the waves. Immersed in such transience, do we sometimes feel that only love is left as the one defiant response? Well, not if we treat that emotion as an absolute, as a refuge or anchor for the insubstantiality of existence, since even the moments of intimacy, though celebrated, only leave us with ambiguous images – a woman’s head that bends over one, ‘like a slope of shade’. A slope of shade. Protective? Reassuring? Or yet again, simply insubstantial, slipping from grasp.

No matter. Mussapi the poet is nothing if not even-handed. The complementary image of indefiniteness, equally insubstantial, remains perhaps Mussapi’s ultimate note of consolation. Maybe contentment – or at least reconciliation – is attained when, in turn, the self learns to identify with ‘the soul that goes up in smoke’ , the ‘incorporeal being’ or ‘the forgotten man’ who ‘walks int the shade that approaches, cut to the bone in that timeless sheet’?

Then, even the most evanescent experience may be embraced as a most appropriate rite of passage, which is what the human voyage ultimately concedes.

Wole Soyinka

 

Translators:

Alistair Elliot, “The splendour of the dark”; Thomas Fleming, “The months”; Eric Nicholson, “Pliny’s words from the flaming volcano”; Laura Stortoni, “Aeneas’ vision”; Patrizia Villani, “Voices”, “The poet’s gaze”, “As tears go by, Ophelia”, “The poet’s reply to Harun Al Rashid”, “Words of the diver from Paestum”; “Christmas. Paris, Texas”; Charles Wright, “History and the sea”, “Letter from the stone age”, “Socrates’ words about birth and death”, “Star magic”, “The night of 10 August”.

 

 

 

 

 14-11-2006, 15:07

like the life that was leaving me, out of focus. Tell the Romans and the Christians in days to come that Pliny discovered this in the fire of the crater, the full intelligence of a woman, and in it the secret of himself, and only in that incandescence did I attain her height. Pliny burned in the name of a woman, and in her turned to stone, to remember her forever.

 

AFTERWORD

A Journey in the Poetics of Extraordinary Life

Roberto Mussapi is a man of deep passions hidden under a cool, urbane surface. His poems are likewise composed in a smooth, precise language and accurately cadenced verses, but they soon plunge into the reality of things and back into memory and the past, eagerly taking the reader with them. They keep searching for the roots of daily experience in a land of visions and reflections peopled by ancient myths and legendary figures, those that gave the world its symbols and ageless yearnings.

His translations of English, French, and American authors speak clearly of his unceasing interest for the masterpieces of world literature. A cosmopolitan writer, his poetry has also been defined ‘Orphic’ because of the visionary and incantatory quality in the language and images of his first collections of verses. Strongly linked to the Italian tradition from the classics to the great modern protagonists of our poetry (Dino Campana, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Eugenio Montale, Mario Luzi), he remains constantly open to European and overseas masters of the twentieth century, in particular Eliot, Yeats, Rilke, Dylan Thomas and, more recently, Seamus Heaney, Yves Bonnefoy and Derek Walcott. The American Hart Crane is also one of the influences that this poet acknowledges, in particular the rich use of metaphors and the structure of the modern long poem found in The Bridge, an example of heroic quest, personal and epic, which deeply fascinates Mussapi, who has recently published a

 

long ‘epic’ poem called Antartide based on the adventurous voyages of discovery by Scott and Amundsen. He also shares Crane’s belief that poets have access to a higher state of consciousness, and is convinced that there are no limitations to the substance of poetry and that our age and Western civilization can still accommodate the epic form.

Mussapi’s poetry comes to life on the page as a powerful re- vision of the ordinary which transforms common objects and daily gestures. The language, charged with images and a high level of perception, transfigures them into manifestations of the ‘divine’ in human beings and in the life we pass through day after day matter-of-factly, and too often take for granted. His poems enhance our capacity of seeing through reality, of looking for the extraordinary that surrounds us constantly and is mostly unseen, unperceived, but the source of deep emotional nourishment.

The eye that looks deeply and goes beyond the surface of things — often towards the horizon, as in “The Poet’s Gaze” — is a solid characteristic of Mussapi’s poems, which dig into the psyche and the chaos of conflicting desires that move the characters, and often isolate details of the quotidian landscape or particular events, giving them new weight in the search for the ultimate meaning of existence and using them as the key to higher consciousness or profound insight (see the eloquent and moving “Pliny’s Words from the Flaming Volcano”).

There is a religious dimension in this poet’s verses, expressing itself in the sense of salvation that is at the core of poems such as “Star Magic” or “Christmas. Paris, Texas”, which

 

impress us for the strong emotion of prayer they contain. It is a metaphysical tension born of the constant effort of the speaking voice to re-ascend from an obscure, psychic depth ( “As Tears Go By, Ophelia”), from that existential anguish or quiet desperation Montale famously called il male di vivere (the pain of living).

It is from death that these Mussapian voices struggle to escape, or from the annihilation of the self in modern times, which amounts to the same thing, the same nothing, infinitely worse than mere suffering. But poetry, this key to discovery and the human quest for recognition, is at the same time the instrument of and the impulse to the unveiling of the sacred. Poetry is a search for the ‘beyond’ that is always there, the most ancient layer, a sign of the presence of God, eternity (seen as a new form of knowledge beyond the senses, as the poem “Words of the Diver from Paestum” clarifies), the existence of which is felt and strongly believed in or, in other words, willed into being by the precious gift of vision and poetry. Each poem then, carefully wrought out of the love for words and symbols and the incantation of sounds, becomes a chapter in this infinite story of quest and salvation.

And it is not by chance that water — the primary means of baptism, the primeval element with its obscure abysses and the blue reflection of light in the sun — is an essential substance of the Mussapian poetics of the contrast between light and darkness, revelation and suffering, ordinary life and death. And it takes the form of the Mediterranean sea, liquid womb and connection of the classical myths, legends and civilizations born on its shores that form the substratum of our culture and represent the

 

nurturing substance of such a large portion of European literature, the foundations of a tradition which Modernism and Post- Modernism have first disrupted and then rebuilt, without eradicating the vital roots of the common past of humanity.

Mussapi’s inexhaustible fascination with the sea goes back to his own past, to the summers spent on the Ligurian coast since he was a child, to the joining of real and imaginary experiences while reading Melville, Kipling, Stevenson, and later Homer and Dante. To leave the shore and sail towards the horizon and the openness of the sea is the real adventure, the journey to the discovery of the self (“History and the Sea”), which sometimes leaves the option of return to narrate a story of suffering and choices between living and dying, like the mariner of Coleridge’s ballad and Melville’s Ishmael. Or, like Ulysses, to find the love and memory of one’s own story — after years of travelling by land and sea — incarnated in the long wait of a faithful woman. Both these influences are present in Mussapi’s poetry, where life and death, memory and love are strongly linked with his passion for the sea and history, and the interest for the cultural tradition of Mediterranean Oriental civilizations as his longer narrative poems indicate (“Christmas. Paris, Texas” and “The Poet’s Reply to Harun Al Rashid”).

This poetry then can be perceived as the primary impulse toward survival and immortality that shakes and pushes every human being in every culture — but especially poets — to the stubborn, miraculous attempt to defeat time and the anxiety of absence through narration and evocation, to give the epiphany of the recognized instant, the happy coincidence that allows us to grab

 

both our soul and the universe for a crucial, intense instant of complete, absolute significance.

And this epiphanic quality is linked to another fundamental component of Mussapi’s vision: that of the poet as ‘memory of the world’, keeper of humanity in its double sense of human principle and human life. The poet’s instruments to carry out this difficult task are an encompassing sense of history as something alive, compassion for the lost souls he meets, and examples of a strong love which, often embodied by the figure of a woman (a catalyst for the carnality of passion and nostalgic reveries), also resound in the ardent voices of ancient characters like Pliny, Aeneas, and Socrates and even go back to the prehistoric origin of civilization itself recording the first urge towards writing (“Letter from the Stone Age”).

The past is thus resurrected before our eyes and linked to the present by means of the narration of events in which lost, obscure lives are made to act on the stage of the poem, sharing with the reader symbols and emotions which in their common humanity can erase the distance in space and time. The poet’s task is to weave and give new strength to the thread connecting epochs and cultures, re-lived by the present reader through emotional and intellectual participation. It is the ageless motif of the voyage to the unknown, the journey through life toward the inner self where the traveller, in the circular motion of subjective time, of experience and the individual quest, is finally going to find his or her identity. In this work in progress and lifelong search is the poem, the poetry of Roberto Mussapi:

I did it for you, so you could live on

 

when I will be nothing more than a shadow (...) you and I enclosed in the planet’s circle that time divides and love confounds.

Patrizia Villani

Star Magic

The man described in the poem is a traditional figure from the Presepio, the nativity scene representing the crib with the newborn Christ surrounded by animals, and visited by the three Kings and the adoring people bringing gifts. The title in the original specifically refers to this humble figure – usually a shepherd or farmer represented with his tools and carrying poultry or vegetables as an offer to the Infant Jesus – who is staring at the sky with a rapt gaze, utterly fascinated by the star.

Christmas. Paris Texas

The poem took its inspiration from Christ’s nativity as seen through the eyes of one of the three Kings, and from the woman protagonist of Wim Wender’s movie (starring actress Nastassia Kinsky).