Of insects and island men: Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan

Bees are disciplined and predictable, but the outcome of their labour is uncertain, the same as happens with the deeds of men…

The setting is Elba, the year, 1814. Napoleon having abdicated in Fontainbleu, has been exiled to the Italian island where Andrea Pasolini, a beekeeper with a secret passion for philosophy, awaits anxiously for an expected encounter with the Emperor. It seems that, along with an innate island sensibility, the two men share a fascination with and passion for bees. This is the simple premise of Napoleon’s Beekeeper, a fanciful novella by Spanish writer José Luis De Juan. Combining details from history with a contemporary understanding of apiculture, he constructs, through a series of short, crisscrossing chapters, a vivid portrait of two very different men whose lives seemed destined to intersect at what could be a critical moment in history.

Elba’s honey had, at the time, gained a far reaching reputation for its quality and curative powers. Passolini inherited his official vocation from his father, but his true love, nurtured under the tutelage of a free thinking priest, Father Anselmo, who had been, like Napoleon, exiled on the island for a number of years, lies elsewhere. Through him, the farmer’s son had been introduced to philosophical thinking far beyond the accepted scope of the Church. Reading became his greatest love, one he took great pains to keep hidden, first from the townsfolk and later from his own wife and family. But when he can find time he retreats to a room hidden in his cellar where he reads and fills notebooks with his thoughts and experiences. This most unusual beekeeper exercises a careful pattern of behaviour to reveal his private pursuits to no one, even more so now that Bonaparte is on Elba.

It so happens that Passolini has dedicated himself to studying the Corsican’s career for decades, inspired by an anonymous account of an odd behaviour observed during the Marengo battle which caused him to suspect that the Emperor’s adoption of the bee as a symbol and his apparent appreciation of varieties of honey signified a deeper obsession.

From that day forward, after he learned of the connection between Bonaparte and bees, Passolini’s routine as a beekeeper found a new release. He started foraging in the backrooms of booksellers located in Pisa, Luca and Florence, getting hold of the tiniest booklets with some special tidbit about the First Consul, the most intimate detail, the most secret.

Over time, the beekeeper begins to see, in the behaviour of the colony and the structure of the hive, a key to understanding, even predicting, the outcome of military actions. He comes to view Napoleon through the hexagonal lens of the honeycomb. However, this knowledge also has him caught as a pawn in a larger political scheme he no longer wants to be part of. Now that the object of his attention is close at hand and interested in meeting and touring the island’s hives with him, his anxiety and paranoia grows steadily.

Meanwhile, the Emperor spends his early months in exile keeping his leadership muscles as toned as they can be under the circumstances. Down but not defeated. However, the days begin to drag and soon Napoleon finds himself alternately frustrated by circumstances and troubled by doubts and insecurity. He passes his days with a measure of regimented boredom as he rules over his diminished domain. The glory he once tasted begins to feel more distant, less possible:

I confess I’m an impostor. I was never the youngest general of France. I never conquered the north of Italy or reached as far as Naples to cleanse the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies of its bandits. My great Alexander dream was just a boozy night in a tavern. I no longer make the foolish claim of having kept the Revolution from turning against itself, of having tackled the Terror, promoted civil justice, set the lazy clock of the centuries racing.

Of course, relieved, at least temporarily, from the full demands of his former existence, Mr. Bonaparte has time to indulge his interest in apiculture and from his arrival on his present island realm, that is one of his goals. He was already aware of Passolini, having received an unexpected missive from the modest beekeeper many years earlier and imagines the humble farmer to be a suitable guide to the island’s apiaries. Arrangements are made.

As the narrative inches toward their planned meeting, moving not chronologically but rather slipping in and out of the past to sketch out and fill in the characters of the Emperor and his would-be beekeeper, dropping into their dreams and nightmares along the way, a lyrical, slightly magical story unfolds. This is historical fiction at its most spare and whimsical, but grounded in possibility, that ultimately becomes a double stranded portrait of two sad figures longing to escape their circumstances.

Napoleon’s Beekeeper by José Luis De Juan is translated by Elizabeth Bryer and published by Giramondo.

Imagining the exotic: A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira

As a child of the temperate zone, there is no way that the palm tree can ever be redefined as ordinary. Raised and nurtured amid aspen, spruce and pine, the palm was that magical backdrop to postcard perfect white sands and crashing waves, the defining feature of the gawdy Hawaiian shirt, the label of Malibu Rum. When I was growing up, the closest I ever came to the real thing was the handful of leaves I brought home from church on Palm Sunday (the most crowded mass of the year my mother insisted, nothing like getting something free to put bums in the pews). I would take my leaves home and carefully tuck them behind the cross that hung above my bed. At the end of the year, as another Palm Sunday approached the old leaves were to be burned, but somehow we never were allowed to witness that ritual, if it even occurred in our house.

My first encounters with palms growing where palms can grow were in thoroughly domesticated urban settings—first in San Francisco and years later in Cape Town where many of the variants I met were shorter, bulky affairs, but they still made my heart soar. The first truly natural palms I encountered were entirely unexpected, stunted bush like desert palms tucked into sudden lush eruptions aside (typically) dry river beds along the Larapinta Trail in Australia’s Red Centre. But it was in India where I was finally able to embrace palms that matched my imagination—casually lining the roadside, reaching their tousled heads above city skylines, growing free in open spaces. And although it is the perennial green that has drawn me to the country more than once in the depth of our bleak midwinters, palms hold a special allure. They symbolize, for me, the exotic like no other tree.

No surprise then that I was immediately attracted to Jessica Sequeira’s new book, A Luminous History of the Palm, the latest miniature masterpiece from Sublunary Editions. Here the palm is the common thread that binds a collection of imagined anecdotes, microfictional histories interspersed with brief meditations on luminosity—what it is and how it makes itself manifest in the way one entertains, orders and translates meaning in the world. Quite simply, this book follows a trail of associations, luminous associations, through time, across the globe, where the palm figures in some way, whether close at hand or only, as I once knew them, imagined from afar:

A luminous history seeks to make connections beyond the surface level of great events and statistical data. To do so it takes a symbol, any symbol, as a seed to create anecdotes.

The luminous begins from the small and everyday, the particular and the peculiar.

It is a very simple and delightful notion, perfectly suited to this sort of slender, pocket-sized book. Each anecdote gives voice to a fictional character, from a healer in Yemen, to, among others, a Thai rice farmer engaged in an illicit flirtation,  an opera singer performing for a young Mozart, a plastic surgeon in Australia and ultimately a cyclist in Chile, who may or may not be the author herself. Perhaps we have gone from the distant to the immediate, but  along the way a window has been opened on a wide variety of personalities and locales. The palm is sometimes an important element, but more often it passes by, almost unnoticed in the scene. Every story is different, nothing is predictable although it would be remiss if the original procession forever reproduced on Palm Sunday was not also among the histories—and of course, it is.

If the palm is the unifying theme, however quietly it might slip into any individual narrative, the meditations on luminosity and reflections on the project unfolding hold the work together. They give it depth, make it special and are, in themselves, worth returning to repeatedly for the inspiration they offer—for their ability to illuminate creativity:

To be luminous is not the same as to be enlightened. Enlightenment comes from the outside and implies progress. To be luminous is to generate affections and affiliations from the heart, belly and bowels of a situation in time, and form part of an organic system that is possibly infinite. It is to avoid abstraction, at least at the start, to prefer the concrete and the sensual, the soft light forged by the bodies of stories as they crush together in violence or embrace.

 This is the promise and excitement on offer. As the author, our luminous historian, describes her compact treatise: “it can be read as a series of small portraits through time, all of which include a palm tree. Or it can be read as a revolutionary tract.”  I would argue it is not a question of either/or—this little book can, and should be read as both. Sequeira explains that she chose the palm for its vital presence, but she invites the reader to repeat the exercise with a plant or animal of their own choice. The soil is fertile, she assures us; all we need to do is plant a seed. This is, then, a book with no end but infinite potential beginnings.

A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira is published by Sublunary Editions, purveyor of fine short texts, and available here.

Searching for answers to unaskable questions: The Red Sofa by Michèle Lesbre

Some readers love nothing more than to lose themselves in vast, sprawling texts, happily admitting that the longer, the better. It’s a rare occasion that I share that sentiment—I’m inclined to insist that most of the time, less is more. Often much less. Like French author Michèle Lesbre’s The Red Sofa. At just over one hundred pages, this award winning novella is a small, quiet, perfect book—one that touches at the very heart of what it feels like to be adrift in life, to be searching for answers to questions one cannot articulate.

This is such a simple story. The narrator, Anne, is travelling by train to Siberia in search of Gyl, a man she once loved many years earlier who had suddenly given up everything to move to Russia, take up residence on the shores of Lake Baikal to paint and put on plays. The revolutionary aspirations of their youth never quite left his system. Their friendship had endured long after their relationship ended but about six months after his arrival in Irkutsk, he suddenly stopped writing. Naturally she is worried, but whereas his political passions had not dimmed, she has grown more cynical and critical over the years and finds herself without solid beliefs to cling to. It is but part of the unease that she carries with her on this journey to find—what?—she is not quite sure.

As the miles pass beyond the window of the train, Anne’s thoughts often go back to Clémence, her elderly neighbour at home in Paris—the owner of the red sofa of the title— whose memory is fading fast. Anne had regularly visited the old woman to read to her of strong eccentric women, often following up with a trip to a local café to enjoy a glass of wine. A close, if unlikely, friendship had formed between them. A former milliner with closets filled with her marvelous creations, Clémence had had a full and vibrant life, but her heart had always belonged to her first love, Paul, who was tragically killed young.

Anne is uncertain where her own heart belongs, perhaps she is looking for it. The dreamy shifting landscape of Russia, and the drift of an unanchored life give the narrative an uneasy, contemplative quality.

Most of the time I would wake up very early, at the break of dawn. Pines and birches were hardly emerging from an ocean of fog in which the train ran blindly and a few swarms of grey isbas floated—their wood, worn by the frost and the brutal summer sun, looked like papier mâché. The dull light became progressively brighter, revealing a dizzying sky. I would follow it with my eyes until it took refuge in the horizon. What horizon? Everything seemed far away, inaccessible, too vast.

As an obvious outsider on a regular commuter run, Anne enjoys her solitude among her assorted compartment-mates. The absence of reference points, her limited knowledge of Russian, and the monotony of the days allow her space to think, relax and read—that is, until Igor boards the train. She becomes obsessed with this stern, silent figure who puts her in mind of the central character of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Her attractions are not reciprocated, but she imagines him as a critical guide into her own personal Zone, her own search for meaning. The landscape reinforces the allusion:

The forests became the image of a possible paradise which men did not deserve and that only the trees knew how to incarnate. This grandiose, devastated landscape, heavy with melancholy, spoke to me of everything I already knew but with a force, a cruelty I had not expected. It would remain with me for several months after my return and settle into my life as other journeys had done, thus constructing a singular, imperfect, emotional and sometimes imaginary world—mine.

Memories, distant and more recent alike, haunt the narrative, woven effortlessly into a powerful evocation of the strange dislocation that being in a foreign country allows—and the gift that it offers. Anne arrives in Irkutsk ostensibly looking for Gyl, worried about his well-being. But what she discovers is complicated, at once inviting and alienating. The few days she spends alone in the city before she can fly back to Moscow help her begin to move toward freeing herself from the kind of intangible, limiting snares in which we sometimes find ourselves in life. My own rather directionless travels in recent years, walking through the streets of cities in India and Nepal, were reflected in her own urban wandering:

I was finally finding myself in that pleasant sense of abandonment, that way of breathing and thinking differently in a foreign city, in a state of weightlessness, with the feeling of belonging to the world, to that ideal humanity I was seeking in the faces, the music of the language, the gestures, and the smallest details that link us all together in spite of everything. I was letting myself be swallowed up by the sounds, the rhythm, and the invisible current that ran through the city.

Anne returns to Paris almost, but not quite, prepared to move on with her life. What awaits her will offer the final release.

This thoughtful, meditative novella is quite wonderful. The story that unfolds is filled with poetic beauty and bold personalities, but much is left untold or unknown. However, it does not feel incomplete or lacking. That is the beauty of a spare, dream-like tale such as this—a story of loss, disillusion, desire, and learning to live again.

Originally published in 2007 as La canape rouge, it seems to be the only one of her novels to be available in English to date.  The Red Sofa is translated by Nicole and David Ball, and published by Seagull Books. Curiously this is one of the books I brought home after my first trip to Calcutta several years ago—an impulse purchase from the publisher’s storefront that sat neglected on my shelf of French translations. It somehow feels right to read it now with its evocative tribute to the space—mental and emotional—afforded by travel, at a time when travel is on hold for the foreseeable future.

Off the beaten path: The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane and The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

About a month ago, as the response to the COVID-19 pandemic began to have a greater impact on daily life in my community, I became more determined than ever to take full advantage of the pathways behind my home aware that, for a variety of reasons, my freedom of movement could be curtailed at some point. It seemed a good time to invite a companion on these walks, one who would not violate any rules of social distancing. I chose Robert Macfarlane, or rather his text The Old Ways as narrated by Roy McMillan which proved to be an ideal introduction to audiobooks for me and the perfect narrative to walk with. Coincidentally, my engagement with this wonderful evocation of the lure of long travelled trails and passageways overlapped a group reading of Nan Shepherd’s classic The Living Mountain, guided, on Twitter, by Macfarlane himself. But more about that book later.

One of the finest nature writers of our time, Macfarlane is able to bring the world, to use a cliché, alive on the page or, as in this recent circumstance, in the listening. He is able to pull one into the landscape, its history and its place in the human imagination. His books are the product of a deep engagement with the subject at hand, a commitment that often takes years before the final text is complete. The Old Ways, subtitled A Journey on Foot is perfect walking companion because it is, more than anything, about walking—tracing paths and passageways—a book that is not about the destination but act of following the trail. A trail peopled with a collection of intriguing characters, living and long gone, for a path exists as evidence of the creatures who have passed on it before, even if lies hidden for many years or longer, waiting to be uncovered and tracked once again.

As ever, his eye is keen, his writing lyrical, and his affection for those he meets or travels with undeniable. The book opens with the detailed account of a December walk close to home, and as I made my way along the well-loved, oft-travelled trails behind my own home, still snow covered and wintery in denial of the season, I was secretly glad that I had an e-book copy buried unread in my electronic library. As much as I was certain I would cherish the audio experience, I knew I’d want to revisit the words. The setting he described was different, but the sentiment familiar:

This is the path I’ve probably walked more often than any other in my life. It’s a young way; maybe fifty years old, no more. Its easterly hedge is mostly hawthorn and around eight feet high; its westerly hedge a younger mix of blackthorn, hazel and dogwood. It is not normally a beautiful place, but there’s a feeling of secrecy to it that I appreciate, hedged in as it is on both sides, and running discreetly as it does between field and road.

Divided into four sections, The Old Ways, begins in England, traversing different types of landscapes—paths, chalk, and silt— and then moves to Scotland where he travels traditional waterways, explores the Hebridean moors and then revisits his first mountains, the Cairngorms. This is where his grandfather had settled after a life of adventure, and where young Robert fell in love with “high country and wild places.” It is also where his path crosses the ghost of Nan Shepherd whose intimate relationship with the same terrain is recorded in her masterpiece, The Living Mountain, a manuscript completed near the end of the Second World War, but unpublished until 1977. Macfarlane would not encounter her work until much later, long after the author’s death. But her poetic, deeply sensitive nature writing has no doubt informed his own. From Scotland, his journey moves abroad, to Palestine, Spain and Tibet, before coming home again to travel ancient paths and pay homage to poet and writer Edward Thomas whose footsteps guide him throughout this tribute to the powerful pull of the path.

Nan Shepherd, who was born in 1893, was well educated and travelled widely across Europe and to South Africa, but she spent most of her life in her childhood home near Aberdeen where she taught English. Known during her lifetime for a number of novels it is The Living Mountain, published only four years before she died, that places her in the company of the great nature and travel writers of the twentieth century. It is a quiet masterpiece. She writes about her beloved Cairngorm mountains with a mix of poetic passion and clear-eyed respect, chronicling her own maturing relationship with a landscape as alluring as it can be hostile and deadly. The early chapters explore, in turn, the features of the geological and meteorological environment, exhibiting a finely tuned attention to detail. She knows these mountains intimately, experiences a full-bodied engagement with the landscape. However, it is in the later chapters of this slender volume, those that deal with the living elements—flora, fauna, and human—and the more existential aspects—sleep, senses, and being—that this work really sings:

To bend the ear to silence is to discover how seldom it is there. Always something moves. When the air is quite still, there is always running water; and up here that is a sound one can hardly lose, though on many stony parts of the plateau one is above the watercourses. But now and then comes an hour when the silence is all but absolute, and listening to it one slips out of time. Such a silence is not a mere negation of sound. It is like a new element, and if water is still sounding with a low far-off murmur, it is no more than the last edge of an element we are leaving, as the last edge of land hangs on the mariner’s horizon. Such moments come in mist, or snow, or a summer’s night (when it is too cool for the clouds of insects to be abroad), or a September dawn. In September dawns I hardly breathe—I am an image in a ball of glass. The world is suspended there, and I in it.

Over the past month as I travelled with Robert Macfarlane and Nan Shepherd, I could not help but reflect on the pathways I’ve travelled in my life. As child I spent each summer weekend camping and hiking with my family in the Rocky Mountains, my head filled with adventures out of King Arthur and Lord of the Rings. As a teenager I found refuge on the horse trails winding through the aspen woods near my childhood home. In my twenties I moved across country, exploring the bird sanctuaries and natural areas of the Ontario cities we lived in. And returning to western Canada, I have cherished the large natural parklands in this city where I’ve lived for last three decades, especially the Douglas Fir Trail that extends behind my home. But my mind also wandered along trails that my travels over recent years have opened—the rugged shoreline of the Eastern Cape of South Africa, sections of the even more rugged Larapinta running along the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, Australia, or the rutted red roads and granite sheets of rural Andhra Pradesh, India.These are two books that allow you to experience the world through the words of dedicated guides, but like all journeys, the path ultimately leads you back home. Inspired by my engagement with these two gifted nature writers I recently wrote a piece for our “3:AM in Lockdown” series in which I attempted to follow the trail I know best and reflect on the uncertain state of our world at this moment. That short essay can be found here.

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is published by Penguin Books and The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd is published by Canongate.

Letters to a distant shore: A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett

I have spent most of my life landbound, far from open water. As a result, oceans and seas have always held a special fascination for me—those distant horizons, blue fading into blue, and endless watery expanses. Similarly, poetry inspired by ocean imagery has invariably captured my imagination and that’s what I suspected Australian poet Felicity Plunkett’s new collection, A Kinder Sea, with its stylized black and white wave-decorated cover might offer. And it does, but of course it is so much more. It is a rich and generous exploration of an ocean of skeletal fragments, human longings, and loved and forgotten souls.

Written over a period of seven years, the poems in this book seem to come together around their uniting element in an organic, interactive manner, forging connections and participating in debate with one another along the way. There is a clear sense, then, of a creative ebb and flow that runs through the collection. Referring to Paul Celan’s depiction of poems as “making their ways to readers like letters in bottles,” Plunkett describes her new work as “a book of unspoken hopes, un-mourned losses, of mute and unprayable prayers and letters never sent.”

If the poems that comprise A Kinder Sea arose, as their author indicates, over time, in conversation with one another, as missives in search of readers, they also exist in dialogue with artists and poets from whom Plunkett draws inspiration. Early on, Celan’s quote referring to poems as bottled messages, serves as the epigraph for the multi-part piece, “Glass Letters”. Twelve aching, embodied and intimate poetic communiqués follow:

This morning want-of-you has left me.
I test for its absence, press bruises, look clear

in the sea’s flat glass. No sign of storm’s spines:
sharp possibilities. Disturbance has bled

itself out. Shaken wordless, I wash syllables
in salt, trace remembered promises to

the place where they rolled in foam. You
erase waves from our correspondence:

excise agitation.

The palette she paints from is one of varied, often melancholy colours. Poets, most notably Emily Dickinson and Celan, but also Rilke, William Carl Williams, Sylvia Plath and others offer epigraphs, allusions and inspiration, alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Neil Young.

Felicity Plunkett writes with a formal sensibility and delicate precision, her language seems to register, not simply in the ear or the imagination of the reader, but on the very surface of the skin. One senses that each word, each line has been carefully honed to cast a reflection at once sharp and shifting—much like the surface of the sea. As in her award winning debut, Vanishing Point where flakes appear as a recurring image, in A Kinder Sea, there is, apart from the obvious connecting feature, a bone-level awareness and an existential grammar awash in the waves—the abstracted self as body and language. Consider the hospitalized speaker’s lament in “Songs in a Red Key”:

Conduct a river in plastic over
my shoulder through an elbow’s fold
My shroud stretches to fray
translucent at its seams, rolled
soft by the smooth stones
of a queue of injured
bones: white-gowned, awkward

-ly sheeted  nativity
angel, nameless, I shepherd
drip chamber and tremble-wheel
trolley across night’s locked ward
jitter this tangle through
silence: my hubris muted
below drug’s sea levels

Or the epistle to a secret, perhaps doomed, addressee in “Strand”:

Nothing to say when words lose their letters
in winter. Letter’s spines dismantle
in my silent hand.

I hear your name in a dream of sea. Dream
my secrets fall from my mouth, braced
neat as pearls

Broken mirror, split salt, opened
umbrella. Salt rain broke and I thought no
harm could come to you.

But, of course, the sea is the primary note sounding through this collection, sometimes as a passing metaphor, sometimes as a broader backdrop, and in one set of poems, as a vast, inviting, yet often unforgiving space that has drawn daring souls to adventure, even death. The sequence “In Search of the Miraculous” contains some of my favourite pieces: “Equal Footing Mermaids” honouring Donald Crowhurst, the British businessman who died competing in a single-handed round-the-world yacht race in 1969, and “Disappearing Act” in memory of Dutch-born film maker and performance artist, Bas Jan Ader, who was lost at sea in what would be his final performance, an intended solo voyage across the Atlantic. These poems speak to the romance of the sea that has always held a particular allure, in art and literature, for a landbound soul like myself.

A Kinder Sea has rightly been referred to as a masterpiece. It is certainly a testament to Plunkett’s ability to evoke recurring themes in a constellation of image and form that remains fresh, never predictable. And, like the ocean itself, there is an unmeasurable depth to this collection, one that invites slow, thoughtful engagement.

A Kinder Sea by Felicity Plunkett is published by University of Queensland Press.

Rules of radiance: Calling Over Water by Priya Sarukkai Chabria

implacably the seasons turn, in me no movement.
dust on pen and inkpot, dust on scissors, knife, rocks.
dust pales lampblack, dust in my mouth, am i made
of dust alone? Lord blow on me, scatter grace
that falls as words on these empty pages.

– from “On Writing Poetry – 2”

Armed with all the classic tools of an age-old trade at her disposal, the speaker above, weighed down by days, weeks, months of silence, is left beseeching the gods of inspiration to set her words free. There are perhaps few writers who would not appreciate her anxiety, but a special force charges this passage which comes toward the end of the central movement of Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s new release, Calling Across Water. This collection of poetry is the fruit of more than a decade and spans themes that move from the intimate and vulnerable, through questions of the nature of creative expression, into a thoughtful wandering  poetic travelogue. For the acclaimed Indian poet, novelist and translator it is a deeply personal journey.

The first section, “Unravelling” traces her mother’s illness and death. It begins, simply with a phone call—one line alone—“The floor churns into a vortex” and ends in the darkened waters and distorted landscape of a world without a person whose absence consumes so much space and defies words. My own mother’s death is but three and a half years fresh right now and I understand this series of poems so completely that it is both painful and beautiful to read them, and it has taken me almost three months since my first encounter to be able to gather a few thoughts of my own. To this point I have only been able to share online the pieces that have shaken me to the core. Like this passage:

She holds me for the first time
my skin puckered by her fluids, her face
a chandrama of love, lantern to my life

I hold her for the last time:
Moon rubbed up from last night’s ink
before she blows past the horizon.

— from “Archiving Mother”

As we gathered around my mother’s bedside in her final hours, I was acutely aware of the sharp reversal of roles, as I caressed and kissed her pale forehead and told her again and again how much I loved her—as I once had to my own children, and as she had to me and to her grandchildren. The circle of life.

Intrinsic to Chabria’s cycle of mourning is a strong recurrence of natural images, calling to mind womb-like rhythms, echoing the symbolic cords that continue to bind us to the woman who brought us into the world, who nurtured us with stories and songs. The questions then, become, how do we witness a loved one’s passing? What are we to give back to the universe in return for a mother’s love? And how do we honour maternal energy, whether we ourselves have children or not? In this respect, “This Is Us”, my favourite piece in this entire collection, is for me, simple and perfect:

the sky of our body flutters
over the ailing
while their unheard
words open like jasmine
through our inkiness

this is us:
sieves through which they pass
as the lips of the horizon part

this is us:
singing remembrance
with mouths of myrrh
each of us alone – though
love’s phosphorescence
rims earth’s darkness

this is us
doing our best

The second movement of Calling Over Water, “Are There Answers Without Questions?” presents a play of queries and proverbs that explore what we can know and how or if we can find expressions for the myriad of emotions and experiences that trouble us. Despite the title, there seem to be more questions than answers, along with compilations of linguistic weapons and tools, and quotations for guidance. Of course, woven into this series of unconventional poems is a sense of the inadequacy of language to open the wounds with which life marks us.

The third and longest section of this collection—“Travelling”—is comprised of a sequence of poems inspired by travel across Central, South and South-East Asia. Here the canvas expands as the poet turns her attention to the patterns of nature, the humanity of distant cityscapes, and the monuments of history, drawing astute and careful reflections. A sensitivity for the spirit of others, in the present moment or captured in the facades of weathered antiquity, surfaces repeatedly as one follows this eclectic tour:

The curator points his singing mobile to rectangles of salmon
pink stone slotted in a bare garden. ‘This was her stage, and that

her makeup room, she strolled here composing
poetry.’ In a corner the crumble of the gardener’s hut where

children’ laughter ran barefoot. We climb though pensive
rooms with shifting amplitudes of shadow but no trace

of indolence’s velvet smear. On the terrace a grey cat slips
down the stairs like water in a drain. Below,

leafless trees cordoned by crowns stand in mist.
Relentlessly the present pulses into the past.

– from “Rai Parveen Mahal”

Chabria, who has translated ninth-century Tamil poet, Andal, and reimagined classical Indian mythology into speculative future worlds, has an especially acute ability to engage with the past and allow it to reverberate with our present times. Her poems—not only in this final movement but throughout this finely crafted symphony—function as memorials on multiple levels that invite the reader to penetrate, with their own experiences and memories, spaces they may know well as readily as those they have never seen. That is to answer the poet’s call:

Memories, like photographs, live
in the continuous present though
their grains alter each time you enter.

Make yourself into a memory.

– from “Dunhuang”

“what I am is a window”: At An Hour’s Sleep From Here by Franca Mancinelli

as the world was collapsing
at night I would walk among the clods of dirt
over a hill on which you cannot tell
if it is slowly swelling into a mountain
or swallowing you up in its hollow

now a light lifts the soil
or is it the whirl once the foot touches
the rolling grains of earth within the darkness.

from On the Train of My Blood

I first came to know of Italian poet Franca Mancinelli in late 2018, when a collection of short, delicate prose poems called A Little Book of Passage arrived at my home, an unanticipated yet welcome surprise courtesy of translator John Taylor and Bitter Oleander Press. The shifting, transitory quality of these fragmentary pieces spoke to me immediately and I knew I had encountered a very special poetic voice. Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that our paths would cross last February in Kolkata where she was set to spend a month or so as Poet in Residence. Missing India and the City of Joy most acutely at the moment, it has been no small comfort to spend the past few weeks immersed in her most recent release in English translation. At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007–2019) comprises Mancinelli’s first two collections, Mala Kruna and Mother Dough, and is based on the revised versions included in a similarly named Italian volume, along with Out of Focus, Out of the Fire, a sequence previously published in a different version at the online site On the Seawall. As with A Little Book of Passage, this is a dual language Italian/English edition, again translated by John Taylor.

An extended conversation between poet and translator, together with translations of the longer prose poems included in the Italian edition of At An Hour’s Sleep and several other unpublished pieces, can be found in a special focus on Franca Mancinelli in the Autumn 2019 edition of the journal, The Bitter Oleander. This interview offers a window into her perceptive and intuitive approach to the creative process, an articulation the grounding of the writer’s place in the world. She speaks of an early awareness of an otherness, a feeling of somehow being set apart from her peers, that drew her to sketch out her thoughts in words as a way of trying to connect:

I believe that writing is a form of re-union: a way home, a possibility of returning to the original unity. The “fracture,” “fissure,” or “crack” that marks our identity as something separate and distinct belongs to us as a distant inheritance, received when we come into existence. It seems so essential to stay in the world that we are led to experience this fracture, while forgetting it. One who writes is, instead, called to perceive it clearly, with all the pain that it brings, along with grace. I think I started to experience it in childhood. It was like an extended solitude. A sort of condemnation and at the same time a salvation from whatever happens in daily life. The fracture can be opened as a refuge that preserves us, from which we can look out at everything flowing by in the splendor that belongs to life, in whatever form and state it presents itself, even in its most destructive and distressing appearances.

Reading the poetry of Franca Mancinelli one cannot help but recognize a kind of quiet urgency motivating her perpetual need to re-connect—this is writing as a vital act, as necessary as breathing. We all breathe as long as we are living; she seems determined to slip into the spaces between breaths and take us with her:

like stubborn insects
we keep flying against this
light that will not open, that smashes us

how much longer will we beat
on the windowpane separating
oxygen from the heart?

from Mother Dough

*

Mancinelli’s debut collection, Mala Kruna, opens At An Hour’s Sleep from Here. Originally published in 2007 when the poet was but in her mid-twenties, (the title means “Little Crown” in Croatian) this work contains four sequences that call into a shimmering, striking relief images from childhood and early adulthood, first encounters with love and passion, and, in the final sequence, The House in Ruins, intimations of a darker, wiser maturity. The central sequences The Sea in My Temples and On the Train of My Blood are especially powerful—the first conjures a dreamlike landscape within which the boundaries between the self and the lover and the natural environment blur:

at night an estuary your arms
are oak branches
a bottomless sieve
bright plummeting pebble
clump of dissolving dirt

I’ve always been here
at life’s onset
looking at these things
moving in your eyes.

The second sequence sounds the alarm, crossing into that space in which the relationship, now wound too tight, distorts, pains and eventually becomes undone. The separation is slow, the hold that the “he” has on the speaker is insidious, threatening her ability to maintain a separate agency:

one can breathe from his mouth
like someone drowning and walk
stepping on his feet
yet the legs would like to float
like seaweed to the sound of his voice

and he keeps pushing the cradle,
his body like a thumb.

Passage by passage, she traces the conflicted emotions that accompany her effort to “undo the dress that the lips / have sown stich by stitch.” It is an agonizing letting go—recognizable, raw and real.

Mother Dough, Mancinelli’s second collection builds on the same imagery and themes—especially intimacy and self-identity—but with a new confidence. Still searching, still questioning, still exploring voids and spaces that overlap, the poet’s voice has a stronger presence, one that is evident from the opening poem:

a spoon in sleep, the body
gathers the night. Swarms buried
in our chest arise, spread
their wings. How many animals
migrate within us,
passing through our heart, halting
on the curve of a hip, among the branches
of the ribs, how many
would rather not be us,
not be ensnared
between our human contours.

The poems that follow are tightly honed with an often disquieting beauty. Unexpected images are merged with an assured hand, lines trespassed with such ease that one is frequently called to read and reread each piece to soak in its delicate incongruities. The flow of images draw on nature—animate and inanimate—and experience—physical and spiritual—but her observations are fleeting, ephemeral, tenuous marked by a continual opening up, a breaking apart, an aching thirst. A restlessness. A transition from one state to another. Throughout her work, the notion of metamorphosis plays an important, if sometimes unsettling, role. This transformation is often expressed in a fracturing of the body, natural features and objects as part of a constant process of reconfiguring and reimaging, and reflects the poet’s search to understand in her own place in her body and in the world. Intrinsic to her poetry, then, is an abiding existential uncertainty, a continual reframing of Being—a gathering together of explorations into the ongoing process of coming into being, ever sensitive to the elemental, fractured and fragmentary quality of the self.

At An Hour’s Sleep From Here is a beautifully presented volume with an illuminating introduction by the translator. Mancinelli’s verse is spare and fragmentary, and as such, whiteness—a representative silence—becomes an essential element. Few of the texts extend for more than ten lines; blank pages set each sequence or section apart. This minimalism is more than a form of poetic expression—it is a searching for meaning, for an understanding of how it is that we create a space in an unstable order of things. A searching we are invited to join.

At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007–2019) by Franca Mancinelli is translated by John Taylor and published by Bitter Oleander Press.