Poem is memorial to 'bright destiny'
The Italian poet Milo de Angelis lost his wife, Giovanna Sicari, to cancer at age 49 in 2003, and he did what poets have always done: He wrote an elegy that's very much of our time but echoes great works of the past.
The result is "Tema dell'Addio (Theme of Farewell)," a long, difficult poem that expresses the chaos and confusion of losing the person you love most in the world. Much of it is addressed directly to his wife, who was herself a notable poet, and is a memoir of their life and happiness together. From the opening stanza, though, he acknowledges that "nothing more can be done" and all that's left is "only one time, only one death, a few obsessions, a few nights of love, a few kisses, a few streets that lead outside ourselves, a few poems."
De Angelis is one of Italy's leading poets and lives and works in Milan. "Theme of Farewell" and the followup poems, called "After-Poems," are rooted in that city, with references to places, people and events that cry out for footnotes. But even without knowing all the details, the reader can trace the poet's path as he tries to understand what has happened, to grasp the reality of it and to put his memories and thoughts in order.
Early in the poem, he writes that "everything was already on its way" — they were fated from the beginning to travel this path.
…From then to here. All
of time, luminous, skimmed across the lips. All
the sighs strung on the necklace. Lambrate's
shadows shut the door. The whole room,
taken in, became the first heartbeat. The black
of your hair against the yellow of the last sunbeams.
From then to here. It was the first day of summer.
Silence filled our thoughts. Everything was
already on its way, from then on, everything was here, unique
and lost, ours and far from us, burning. Everything asked
us to wait for it, to return to its true name.
The poem is arranged in six sections and comes to a kind of resting place, where the poet can at least acknowledge that his loved one is "simply there," missing from the roll call and yet remaining a part of their "Sunday's bright destiny."
There's a tradition for this, of course, in Italian poetry. Both Dante and Petrarch wrote thousands of verses to lost loves, meditating on what it was all about and how they would one day be joined again in paradise. No such consolation is expressed in "Theme of Farewell," only an implicit promise to never lose touch with her.
As the excellent introduction by Susan Stewart says, de Angelis "never moves his voice and eyes from the figure of the beloved. His Eurydice is before him and actively leads him forward." That, in fact, may be the consolation that keeps the poet moving forward — not the hope of meeting in the afterlife but simply attention to her figure before him as he lives out his days.
"After-Poems" is less compelling, at least to the English-language reader who's not familiar with de Angelis' work, though some lines burst out with particular beauty, such as "we are the blood of a moment, we are the shadow's first laps, we will remain." The translation is presented with the Italian original on the facing page, which allows those of us who only aspire to Italian fluency a better sense of what the poet has in mind.
Graywolf Press, 96 pages, $15
Along the same lines, Russell writes of dealing with the desperate illness of a loved one. While the outcome is happier — both people emerge from the ordeal more or less intact — there's a high cost. The best poems in this debut book by the Chicago-based poet are the ones where anger and frustration break through. This isn't a romance, it's a punishing, wicked passage through fear and uncertainty.
Though there's inconsistent work in this collection, it's a far more real glimpse into the lives of two people going through hell than you typically get in poetry.
Graywolf Press, 104 pages, $15
This is Gibson's third collection, and his work has a quirkiness and self-assurance that shows his experience. There are some hits in here — unconventional and ingenious poems such as "40 Fortunes," which is a list of gnomic lines one might find in more literary fortune cookies. But many of the poems seem more for Gibson's own amusement than for expressing something.
"Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems"
Copper Canyon Press, 157 pages, $18
I've read a few of Hennen's poems over the years and, as a native of the flatlands he writes about and a reader who admires many of the poets he's associated with, I was looking forward to this beautifully titled book. Unfortunately, if you've read one Hennen poem, you've read them all. They're short, aphoristic, and mostly observations on nature or daily life. The best are Zen-like poems such as "Knowing Nothing," which begins,
"The hole in the landscape is real.
I can walk through it and back again."
It ends, "I only know that the snow/Has reached my knees."
But the more recent poems, including the so-called prose poems, lack the inspiration of his earliest work.
"Theme of Farewell and After-Poems"
Milo de Angelis
Edited and translated by Susan Stewart and Patrizio Ceccagnoli
University of Chicago Press, 133 pages, $22.50