Sunday, November 04, 2007

R.G. Evans, review: "Sweet Masses / Anxious Heart"

R.G. Evans
Cumberland County College

Sweet Masses on an Anxious Heart: Luigi Anderlini’s A Lake for the Heart

Luigi Anderlini, A Lake for the Heart. Trans. Serena Anderlini d’Onofrio. Albany: Gradiva, 2005.

American poet Stephen Dunn has remarked that no one would hand a violin to one untrained in that instrument expecting that person to play a sonata, but that the same is not true when it comes to poetry. Common wisdom indicates that anyone can write a poem. Consider politicians who have taken up the poet’s pen—one might imagine former U.S. President Jimmy Carter snatching the bow from a fiddler’s hand and attacking Prokofiev with the same misguided verve with which he penned the lamentable Always a Reckoning and Other Poems.

One approaches such politician/poets cautiously (if at all). How refreshing, then to find in the late Italian congressman and senator Luigi Anderlini’s posthumous collection of poems A Lake for the Heart / Il lago del cuori that the man behind the poems was first a poet and second a politician.

The only overt reference to politics comes in a comic moment in “Dreams” / I Sogni where the poet presents this scene in the scattershot imagery of dreams: “I climb on clouds and aerial cliffs, / to land at the Senate’s podium / where I speak with wild passion” only to find later in the poem that “My microphone / is not working: how hopeless!” (131).

Occasionally Anderlini’s poems sag under the burdens of solipsism and sentimentality, as in “My Mother / Mia madre”: “Full of sweets the long stockings at Christmas, / the subtle smells of apples around the house” (33). Other weak moments occur when Anderlini grapples with broad abstractions, as in the poems “Time and Life / Il tempo e la vita” and “Questions / Interrogativi,” which announces its rather tedious form in its title (“Is energy matter? . . . Does the universe ramble?”). And what to make of such a puzzling line as “You spoke Danish like Hamlet” (83)?

Anderlini’s real strength in these poems—his frank use of an aging man’s memory and the lovely phrasings that arise from that memory—permit much forgiveness for some of the book’s more indulgent shortcomings. Consider, for example, these four passages:

“The thread of my life thins away.” (“Smile” / “Sorriso,” p. 53)

“. . . it swells my arteries
and floods, powerful,

my body’s rubble” (“The Heart” / “Il Coure,” p. 55)

“You are paving my difficult path
to the nameless nothing.” (“Women” / “Donne,” p. 91)

“At times a cataract is but a sign
of laziness or disquiet,
the sad and barren veil of tedium
the fog that clouds every thought.
This is the cataract to be removed
and no doctor can do it
but the light one bears inside,
the flash that glimmers and doesn’t die
and still explodes within at seventy,
young and aggressive.” (“Cataract” / “La Cateratta,” p. 143)

Regret and mourning creep through these poems, but always these darker effects of age are tempered by an abiding sense of beauty, a sense that the world, whether or not the poet still inhabits it, will remain beautiful. One may see this place where light and darkness meet most clearly in this poem presented here in its entirety:

“On the Nineteenth Birthday of My Granddaughter Paola”
(“Nel Diciannovesimo Compleanno Di Mia Nipote Paola”)

“Ancient error, celestial gift.”
--Leopardi, “On the Wedding of his Sister Paolina”

"Behind me the long slime
of a snail. Very soon I will
be rolling toward the lake of oblivion.
Farewell to the light that inundates my days
to my works, to all things a sweet goodbye.
A quiet separation, only a gesture.
Still, the slime will stay, I hope.
In its humble silver
I see my children’s faces.
In the tangled stories of our kin
I see signs of my works,
of past and future years.
Then it will happen:
Paola’s tummy and breasts
will swell effortlessly
and my leaving will be more peaceful." (109)

Notice the epigraph that accompanies the poem above. Each of the poems in this volume has its own epigraph, a strategy which the poet himself explains in a note at the beginning of the text:

"The lines readers will find in each poem’s epigraph do not always refer to the poem’s content. Yet those quotations provide a fairly specific structure for my texts, which repeat the metrical structure of the quoted poem, including stanzas, lines and the position of rhymes."

It appears that Anderlini’s structural vision for his poems has been lost to some extent through the process of translation (the translator is Anderlini’s daughter, Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio). Rhyme schemes and other formal patterns evident in the Italian originals are not presented in the English translations, a translation decision which seems peculiar for such form-bound poems as “A Sonnet’s Rhymes” / “Le Rime Del Sonetto” and “Petrarchan Rhymes” / “Sestina.” Anderlini-D’Onofrio overcomes this shortcoming by presenting both Italian and English versions of each poem on facing pages. In this way the power of the poems remains intact and the original rhymes are presented for any readers who care to compare the two versions.

A Lake for the Heart ends on a note typical of the collection as a whole. In “She”/ “Lei” (written in the last year of Anderlini’s life), death is personified as a woman, a lover who comes to claim the speaker who responds to her by saying:

“'I didn’t know it would be so sweet.'
'Close your eyes and everything will be over.'
Just one little flame going out, while
six billion candles are still burning." (157)

Clearly, this poet was a lover of Life with a capital “L,” aware of its power even as his own “little flame” was extinguishing.

Luigi Anderlini presents great elegiac sadness in these poems, but Anderlini’s is a sadness tempered by the sweetness of a great love of life with its burden of memory that is also a source of delight. This sense of sweet elegy is conveyed most clearly in the collection’s long central poem titled “Women” (“Donne”) which serves as both anchor and touchstone for the book’s tone:

"You smile, hold me and breathless
you almost cry from joy. Then you
happily smack a kiss on my forehead.
I’m still looking for it among my wrinkles
for that hot kiss must still be there,
the last gift of my adolescence." (75)

Later in this same poem, Anderlini writes of another of his many lovers “Since then, your name, Albertine, has been / a sweet mass on my anxious heart” (79). A Lake for the Heart is filled with such sweet masses conveyed to us with both delight and loss from the weight of the poet’s rich and fertile heart.

R.G. Evans’s poems, fiction, and reviews have appeared in journals such as Paterson Literary Review, MARGIE, Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Literary Review, The Best of Pif Magazine Off-line, and Weird Tales. Evans holds an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He teaches English at Cumberland Regional High School and Cumberland County College in southern New Jersey.

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