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Here’s an unusual little book from my shelf. I say unusual because it’s the winner of the Bordighera Poetry Prize for a book whose author is of Italian descent. The prize includes an honorarium, publication, and the promise that the winning manuscript will be published in a bilingual edition, face to face with its Italian translation. It certainly is an honorable gesture, this effort to preserve the legacy of the Italian language, but also to recognize that Italian American literature is part of Italy’s cultural lineage.
Written by Jane Tassi (her bio states that she was born in Detroit but has lived, studied and worked in San Diego for the past twenty-something years), this book appealed to me because of its playfulness with language (and that title). I attended the awards ceremony at Poets House back in 2004, when Bordighera Press released and presented the book. I don’t recall what took me there (though I think I knew two of the Italian American poets present that evening, Peter Covino and Gerry LaFemina), but I do remember being impressed by the challenging nature of Tassi’s poems and by the fact that the translator, Ned Condini, was there to express how difficult and rewarding it was to translate Tassi’s work. Tassi, I remember clearly, bowed in admiration to her translator’s efforts.
When Tassi read a selection of poems in Part I, she didn’t explain that the titles were embedded in the center of two movements of verse, like two distinct poems sandwiching the same line. It wasn’t until I opened the book at home that I resolved the sequence of seemingly disconnected snippets I had heard at the reading:
Hissing marsh of illness
The hospitalized child in
a train of hospital
meteor of hospital.
Lilies pillow her.
We are in poetry
we are in poetry
like a swimmer;
crocodiles hell the river.
The title “Lily” functions as a fulcrum, suggesting a name, a flower associated with death, and a color or colorlessness. There is a before-and-after here, though it’s unclear what comes first: the adult’s distress of the knowledge of the child’s sickness or the hospitalization. Or maybe I shouldn’t be forcing a linear narrative or a cause-and-effect or a direct association between the two sections. Maybe these two are impressions of independent responses to a crisis (restlessness in the kitchen, creative expression on paper).
In any case, what is a constant in this section is the spectacular inventive lines like “a moth’s wing Rembrandting”; “bright red is the heart’s noise”; “a raft of zero color”; “inalienably angelic”; and “embalm him with ineffables impalpables.”
Part II contains a series of portraits of countries, each presented with a unique artistic medium. The titles say it all: “Spain, Acrylic”; “Greece, Mosaic”; “Iran, Tapestry”; “Egypt, Graphite,” etc. And indeed the poem takes pleasure in mimicking the skill of the artistic medium in the construction of cultural landscape with language. The only country without a specific art medium is perhaps the one best known for engaging all of them—Italy. It simply stands on the page as “I Italy,” and that portrait opens with the question, “Sound, will do what, and colors who?” and ends with:
The distance trills with murmuring
like red and blue purpling,
There can be no paradise
like this boying, girl-filled, fluted voice
vespering air, sealed in its glade,
a sould climbing out of flesh clothes.
If a gerund is the verb made into a noun, what is it called when a noun becomes a verb, like “boying” and “vespering” (and in other poems, “miracling” and that stunner “Rembrandting”)? Grammarians, let me know. In any case, it must have been a feat to come up with an effective translation. Mr. Condini, mad respect.
The title of the book, by the way, is translated as E Nonuncantononuncantononuncantouncanto.