Online Edition: Spring 2001

The Contagion of Matter by Valerio Magrelli

The Contagion of Matter

Valerio Magrelli
translated by Anthony Molino

Homes & Meier Publishers ($14.95)

by Robert Zaller

"I've seen things by a young poet that I like very much," the late Joseph Brodsky remarked some years ago. "His name is Magrelli."

Valerio Magrelli, now in his mid-forties, is no longer a promising poet but an established one. His debut performance was the most assured and exciting one in Italian letters since Montale's Cuttlefish Bones, and expectation levels for him remain high. The present volume, splendidly translated by Anthony Molino, reproduces Magrelli's Esercizi di tipologia (1992) and two subsequent poems. It reflects Magrelli's wayward presence in the world, a man traveling with no passport but the Italian language, sifting through the debris of cultures, climes, and histories with the exquisite antennae of one who finds in the most desecrated landscape an inexhaustible abundance of image and association.

This is another way, perhaps, of saying that Magrelli is postmodern, though postmodernism itself is just another stage on Romanticism's way. In Montale, the clutter of the world is a moral event, a sign of morbidity, but also, complexly, a symbol of resistance, an unveiling of fascism's underside. Magrelli's post-Andreotti Italy offers no such scope for engagement and prophecy. It offers, rather, a perpetual exit ramp to nowhere from which escape is finally inconceivable, as in the prose poem "Black Earth":

The areas that surround the city lie in ambush, waiting. Out pop billboards, on and off-ramps, beltways, the dismal drumming of names, like Littlehell, aggrieved and sad, crooked. Meanwhile, the straightaway rushes through pine trees until, suddenly, on the far side of a slope, the sea emerges, out of nowhere, cutting in front of you like a roadblock.

Everything is contiguous in Magrelli but nothing connects, and this absence of connection becomes his theme, his condition, his heraldic device. In "To the Frost Revealed," another prose poem, he describes floating with others in a pool at night: "Then we'd stagnate in that immense puddle, and float in the dark, trying to escape and touch each other. To see if by now we were alone. Except that we wouldn't touch. We'd never touch." This condition becomes a kind of existential affirmation of "Xochimilco":

Bandages, beards of plants, flutter
tenderly downward
connecting with the marsh,
the unseeing, the shoal's essence,
connecting with me.
Rushes that are earth, rafts,
tongues trembling in the rippling water.
My founding was ritual, devoid
of sense, born of a landslide
I rose from a lack
a stilt in silt,
rooted in the void.

I think the translation can't be bettered, but to quote the last five lines in the original should suggest even to a non-reader of Italian the verbal resource of this poet:

La mia fondazione fu rituale
e insensata, e sorsi sul franare
e nacqui dal mancare
palafitta del nulla
palo nel nulla fitto.

To go poking through the detritus of the world, though, is not without risk, for "matter can provoke contagion / if touched in its inmost fibers" and generate "the same wildfire energy that spreads / when society is torn, holy veil of the temple, / and the king's head falls . . ." ("Fingerings"). Even a fallen world is sacred and when the poet fuses his images he may ignite more than he knows.

Of course, our postmodern landscape is the post-atomic one as well. If the fallen world can be conceived in Christian or Neoplatonic terms (as in another prose sequence, "White Moores," in which hidden beauty "calls out from within matter"), it is also the product of human defacement. In "Helgoland," Magrelli describes the destruction of an island used first by the Germans as a U-boat base and then by the British as a firing range. Reduced to an "open-air anatomy lesson, a body / open to the four winds," it ends as a duty-free port where tourists can contemplate the insanity of what Magrelli calls in a related poem, "Apercu," "the earth, this hapless aircraft / held hostage by an armed passenger." Such poems are sharp rebuke to any merely lyric or aestheticizing attitude. Distinction must be made between a world that is ontologically fallen and one that has simply been trashed.

Like all major poets, Magrelli has a strong kinship with his great predecessors, whom he invokes through epigraph, dedication, and translation. The latter shows both the range of his interests, from ancient Egypt to Artaud, and his ability to speak his own truth in other voices. As in other sections of the collection, his stance is that of an archaeologist whose vision is extended both across space and time. "Translating the past into a present / that stays sealed in transit" ("The Mover"), he preserves mystery even as he reveals it. In an era with few dominant poetic voices, he reminds us of the reach, the command, the surprise of the real thing.

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Spring 2001 Table of Contents