At an Hours Sleep from Here Franca Mancinelli translated John Taylor – Reviewed

Reviewed ByEmma Lee

‘An Hour’s Sleep from Here’ Franca Mancinelli translated by John Taylor

Bitter Oleander Press

ISBN 978-0-9993279-6-8

This bilingual collection includes Franca Mancinelli’s ‘Mala Kruna’ (2007) and ‘Pasta Madre’ (2013) along with new poems. The Italian critic Carmen Gallo describes France Mancinelli as someone who “combines an extraordinary stylistic lucidity with a visionary gaze that dialectically questions reality without transfiguring or over turning it, and meditates on its constantly moving forms, on its hidden tensions.” ‘Mala Kruna’ translates from Croation as little crown and in Spanish mala translates as bad. ‘Kruna’ is the crown of rosaries, alluding to Jesus’ crown of thorns. Cruna in Italian is the eye of a needle. These plays on the meanings of words presents a tough challenge for a translator. Here the original Italian is presented on the facing page to the English translation. This is appreciated, although not always practical. Even when readers don’t know the original language, it’s still possible to get a sense of shape, rhythm and even rhyme and sound patterns intended by the author.

Franca Mancinelli favours long sequences of short stanzas spread with one or two stanzas per page, giving the readers space to interpret and think over what they’ve read. Family and legacy seem to be key topics. In ‘Beyond the Merry-Go-Round’, a series of childhood memories, the grandchild observes grandparents,

‘lui ancora veglia ogni vena sul viso

cauto che il pianto di smorfia o febbre

tacesse custodito

nell’abbraccio che è il vestito

macchiato di ogni giorno.’

‘he still watches over her face’s every vein,

careful that her weeping from grimaces or fever

grows silent, shielded

in the embrace that is the daily

stained dress.’

The extract talks of grandparents’ love, the dedication from years of intimacy. A dedication that wants to see a loved one free of pain but isn’t yet ready to let go.

‘A house in ruins’ sees the grandchild reaching adulthood,

‘Ora ogni cosa prima

di sciogliersi o partire

ha preso posto nella mia iride

vogone di seconda in quate città

sovraffollato, la gente in piedi scossa

dalla stanchezza lungo i corridoi

fino a che il buio e la povincia

disseminano ognuno in un suo luogo.

come l’interruttore nella notte

che trovo accarezzando la parete

di questa vita so dov’è l’amore

a tentoni ritorno a sedici anni.

Accadde allora che un lenzuolo tenero

mi avvolse dalla nuca

imprimendo i contorni che ora vedi,

l’immagine che sono.’

‘Now everything before 

dissolving or departing

has positioned itself in my iris,

in so many cities a second-class train car,

overcrowded, people standing shaken

by exhaustion along the corridors

until the darkeness and the provinces

scatter everyone to his place.

like the light switch at night

I find while stroking the wall

of this life I know where love is

as I grope back to the age of sixteen.

That was when a tender bed sheet

enveloped me from my neck down,

imprinting the contours you now see,

the image that I am.’

The narrator sees a sameness in routines, a security in familiarity and a hint that things haven’t changed much. The narrator still has to develop and grow. Although the bedsheet is ‘tender’ it still wraps her, the person who put it there shaping her but the sheet is left blank so the narrator can still create her own design on it. There’s a gentleness in passing inherited traits from one generation to another that still allows the new generation space to be themselves.

‘padre e madre caduti

frutti che non potenano

marcirmi attaccati

mentre nudo imparavo

a reggere il cielo

come un uccello sul dorso, lasciando

campi e case affondare.

L’azzurro torna

a coprire la terra. Trattengo

nel becco il ricordo,

il serne che sono stati.’

‘mother and father fallen

fruits that couldn’t rot

attached to me

while naked I learned

to hold up the sky

like a bird with its back, letting

fields and houses go under.

The blue returns 

to cover the earth. I keep

the memory in my beak,

the seed they have been.’

An adult child keeps her genetic inheritance and comes to understand how her parents have formed her view of the world, passing on their own inherited knowledge. 

Franca Mancinelli’s second collection translates as ‘Mother Dough’ and looks at aspects of motherhood, 

‘darò semplici baci di sutura

verserò saliva a ogni giuntura

sarò sbucciata e dolce ai denti.

Ogni mattino ti coglierò un pugno

di fiori dal selciato.

Per te avrò aghi sempreverdi

e sboccerò ogni inverno per bruciarmi.’

‘I’ll stitch up with simple kisses,

pour saliva into every joint,

be peeled and sweet to teeth.

Every morning I’ll pick you a fistful

of flowers from the cobblestones.

For you I’ll have evergreen needles

and bloom every winter to burn myself up.’

The extract reveals a mix of tenderness and menace where acts of love seem tempered by resentment or a sense of duty that uses up the narrator. Yet she doesn’t seem to want to be alone. It’s an exploration of the negotiation and compromise that go with making a life with someone else.

The final sequence ‘Out of Focus, Out of the Fire’ looks beyond itimate relationships to a wider world,

‘tutto pulito

di voci nella stanza, carte cadute

occhi in cammino verso la finestra.

Cancellandosi all’istante

quello che vedi si descrive,

lentamente si ritira

fuori dal fuoco.

con passi che vorrebbero piantare

sassi e semi in cadenza

vado a rendere alle foglie

l’albero che hanno perso,

alle piume cadute l’animale.

Poi incrocio la braccia

e il cuore torna in gabbia.’

‘everything cleansed

of voices in the room, fallen papers

eyes walking towards the window.

Erasing itself at the very moment

what you see is described,

slowly withdraws 

out of the fire.

with footsteps that would like to plant

stones and seeds in cadence

I’m going to give back to the leaves

the tree they have lost,

to the fallen feathers they bird.

Then I cross my arms

and my heart returns to its cage.’

There’s a desire to put things right, restore what’s been separated such as the feathers from the bird. However, the shedding of leaves is part of the tree’s natural life cycle, there has to be loss so there can be regrowth. The speaker realises her folly and gets back in her lane.

‘At an Hour’s Sleep from Here’ is a merging of two collections and new poems that explore themes of family, inheritances passed from parents to children, observations of grandparents and the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood and a bewildering sense of responsibility that comes with it. The poems are cerebral in nature. They observe and consider what’s taking place but don’t offer many clues to the speaker’s internal emotions; readers are left to figure out how the narrator feels from what she observes and how she reacts. Franca Mancinelli’s poems are best dipped into, read, pondered over and re-read, like a viewer wandering through a gallery of sketches and then returning to fill in the details with their mind’s eye. The world within is malleable and dependent on the eye of the viewer. Italian lends itself to sound patterns and echoes not available in English and John Taylor uses alliteration and assonance to suggest these in translation, a job the originals’ open-endedness makes harder. There’s a sense the translator has immersed himself in the poems as well as in literary criticism and reviews of the poet’s work in order to gain a fuller understanding and to capture not only the meaning of the words but also the intent and spirit of the originals.