Fitful Travel: Franca Mancinelli’s “The Little Book of Passage,” Translated from Italian by John Taylor

Franca Mancinelli Little Book of Passage

By Todd Portnowitz

At a 5” x 7” trim size and 97 pages—including the facing Italian texts and an introduction—Franca Mancinelli’s The Little Book of Passage is indeed a little book. A libretto, as the original title has it. It’s a word that, for the native English speaker, evokes firstly the opera, though in Italian libretto is simply “book,” libro, with the diminutive etto, and suggests anything from, yes, an opera libretto to a booklet, a pamphlet, an instruction manual, or just a small-sized book. Mancinelli’s translator, John Taylor—who does a great service in introducing this intrepid poet to an English speaking audience—gets it right with Little Book. But what about the rest of the Italian title, di transito?

It’s a point worth belaboring, given how suggestive of a title it is—Libretto di transito—provocative, even, in one interpretation, as it seems to be mocking itself: this little, transitory book, not just a small thing, but a small thing that won’t last. A thing that will pass (as most poetry indeed does)—and this may be my favorite interpretation, since it taunts the reader; and since, in the end, this little book proves itself one very worthy of preservation. Of course, di transito also suggests less fatal methods of transit (the train, in particular, as we discover early in the text): a book about travel, or a book of passage (Taylor’s good choice), or a book to be taken on a trip (which, thanks to Bitter Oleander’s editorial wisdom, is quite comfortably done with this pocket-sized edition.)

Fittingly, it was on the subway that I first read The Little Book of Passage, moving between places as the text itself prepared for a voyage—and prepared the reader for a voyage, only to scrap, within a few pages, all sense of the a-to-b movement that we associate with travel. If this is a book of travel, it is a book of fitful travel, the kind of oneiric travel that makes a dog twitch in its sleep. There are start points and endpoints, assuredly, but like a wormhole Mancinelli’s verse is liable to spit you out in any manner of place or time. “It’s not just packing a suitcase,” the opening poem begins:

It’s primping and preening oneself. Entering into the exact size of the punishment. All acts aimed at a single destination. Wearing shoes that have never pressed down on the earth, we will sleep at the center of the gaze, like newborn children. (23)

Like all of the poems in this collection, Mancinelli here writes in prose, but in a prose that lopes forward in poetic spurts, gestural lunges. Right away we see that this is no typical journey, and right away we encounter Mancinelli’s smart, startling use of imagery: “Entering into the exact size of the punishment.” The phrase echoes Emily Dickinson’s lines that serve as the book’s epigraph, “To fill a Gap / Insert the Thing that caused it—,” and flirts with the idiom “let the punishment fit the crime” (and, inevitably in the Italian context, Dante’s contrapasso). And so it would seem we’re in for a healing journey, a retributive, restorative suffering, especially given that the Italian word here is pena, which is just as likely to mean “(moral) suffering” as it is “punishment.” Whatever the case, the reader is driven to turn the page, to uncover the cause of this pain/punishment, to find out where the road leads. The three poems that follow, and that comprise the book’s first section, all touch vaguely on themes of travel as well—a yellow line, gazing out the window, bus seats—but thereafter the motif returns only in snippets, and we move into an even more fractured language, a landscape of fissures and fault lines, soil and roots.

Mancinelli’s method of misdirection and deviation from the course succeeds most when supported by an underlying narrative or dramatic arc, giving the dissociative imagery a through line along which to travel—and allowing her to tug the reader this way and that, to control the pacing of the lines and to build a sometimes frightening tension:

The river water is black. You can’t mirror yourself in it. You see, this is how it happened. We found ourselves targeted: small footsteps in the same small circle. The whole city was floating. If it had brushed up against us, we would bear signs on our bodies, thin red lineaments as when a jellyfish grazes you.

Lurking on the edge of a roof, the sniper was waiting. He knew we would meet at this point. (43)

We’re here in the opening lines of the book’s third section (or third movement, as the sections are marked only by the pause of a blank page), and the poetry is marvelously precise and suspenseful. The opaque river water, the pacing in circles, the strange mark of a jellyfish sting—Mancinelli pulls you into this obscure world, only to reveal that, meanwhile, there’s a sniper above with his sights on you. And so, driven along by the narrative, the divergent imagery is nevertheless dynamic and propulsive. “As we were staggering, he guided us so we’d recover our balance, following the black river, so black we could have walked on it.” Bending the genre of prose poetry here toward micro-fiction, Mancinelli gives us a very Kafkaesque short, charged with a sense of incomprehensible persecution.

Because the velocity of the language, and its litheness, are so important to the original Italian, they’re of course important to the English translations. The fragmentary nature of the imagery demands that the rhythm in which they’re expressed carry its own sort of sonic significance. It’s something the reader feels by instinct, and something Taylor preserves well in the poem below:

The old woman who lives in the next building sometimes goes out onto her balcony. She sweeps, hangs out the washing on the line, brings the laundry back in, waters two flowerpots. When she passes on, she will leave a clean space shaped by her life. Such instinctive precision guides me for short sequences: I shift the dust, change the places of things. And as if reemerging from fog, another space gapes open in my mind. (67)

His English moves with the fluidity and assuredness of the Italian and, all questions of vocabulary aside, translates the gist, or thrust, of the poem. This is generally the case with Taylor’s translations, which adopt the simplicity of Mancinelli’s language while managing to evoke their cool complexity. There are a handful of poems here, however, that seem to lack this scioltezza and therefore to miss something of the gist, as in the passage below.

Ti stava facendo questo, pazientemente, la pioggia. Sciogliendo una sillaba fino all’inizio dell’articolazione di un suono. Portandoti appena dopo il silenzio. In quella durata potevano fare ritorno, trovare luogo le cose. (58)

Patiently doing this to you was the rain. Unfastening a syllable right at the beginning of the articulated sound. Bearing you along just after the silence. In that lapse of time the things could return, each find their place. (59)

Of course Italian has the advantage of its ubiquitous vowels, which allow the language to glide, but that’s not to say there’s no such thing as suavity in English, or that suavity can’t be achieved by other means, such as by mimicking the natural patterns of speech. Here, “Patiently doing this to you was the rain,” neither follows the Italian syntax nor sounds like something one would say in English, and so gives the reader pause.

Though many subjects move through these poems, and there are many dramatic scenes (a favorite of mine involves a cruel Santa Claus), we never quite learn who they are. Mothers, lovers, neighbors, families, solitary travelers—most difficult of all is to distinguish between the addresser and the addressee, the I and you. Roberto Lamantea, in his review of the Italian edition (“Franca Mancinelli, le metamorfosi del silenzio (su ‘Libretto di transito’)) marks the way in which Mancinelli “establishes a short circuit between subjects, I and you, in a single body,” even in her two previous collections to Libretto di transito (recently republished together in one volume, A un ora di sonno da qui, by Italic Pequod, though not yet translated into English). This state of fracture—of identity, of psyche—surfaces again and again in the image of the fault line, la faglia—“the fault line is inside you, it is widening” (87). And implicit in the fracture of self is the fracture of language, which resides in our minds and is therefore both cause and casualty of this splitting:

Unfinished sentences remain ruins. You’re supporting inside yourself an entire village in danger of collapsing. You know the pain of every tile, every brick. A dull thud in the clearing of your chest. Perhaps it’s someone’s constant love, a calm chore resounding in the depths of the woods. You who are unpacking your suitcase, you forget to leave. (61)

The poems of The Little Book of Passage are poems of contradiction: paralysis and travel, free association and narrative, broken earth and reparative clay—they are both the Gap and the thing to fill it: “But you bring clay. You add more clay from the beginning of the world. You go to the broken, empty places . . . A warm towel envelopes you up to your forehead, brings you back to the kitchen, into the tub on the table. Your mother’s big hands wash your face” (81). Against the threat of schism, and schizophrenia, and against the schizophrenia of language, which might at any time crack and crumble into too many meanings, and therefore into meaninglessness, are the steadying forces of love and labor, both of which author and translator have poured generously into this book.

Mancinelli, Franca. The Little Book of Passage. Translated by John Taylor, The Bitter Oleander Press, 2018.





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