Valpolicella with Chicken Rice
Italian-Singapore poetry anthology criss-crosses globe and inner worlds
By David Fedo
Double Skin: New Poetic Voices from Italy and Singapore
What is one to make of this bilingual collection of poems? Double Skin: New Poetic Voices from Italy and Singapore, is equally divided between ten young Singaporean and Italian poets. Everyone knows that Italy, contentious and chaotic as it sometimes seems, is a kind of poem in itself.
Despite its imperfections (including its current prime minister), the country can be a lyrical wonderland. Soaring operas, lush vineyards, luscious cuisine and the rapture of its past glories are rolled into one; writers and poets, from Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio to Eugenio Montale and, now, Alda Merini, have celebrated and personalized its inspiring, tumultuous history for centuries.
Singapore, in contrast, has had just 44 years of independence. It is not a poem, but instead a very well-tooled and even awesome machine; it functions at such a high level of cookie-cutter efficiency that foreigners, if not natives, stand back in wonder at its commercial and technological success.
But amazingly, the new poetic voices presented in the volume's 58 poems are not so very different after all, given the linguistic and the wide historical and cultural differences. The editors, Singapore's Alvin Pang and Italy's Tiziano Fratus, are both gifted poets (each has poems in this handsome collection, and Fratus translated many of the Singaporean selections, all written originally in English into Italian). They have chosen mostly short, personal works — poems that are more inner than outer. Their choices are, with a few exceptions, all worthy ones; the subject matter ranges as wide and deep as the human heart, and demonstrates once again that human beings are human beings wherever they are, with many of the same enduring hopes, fears and aspirations.
Most of the Italian poets included in this impressive volume are from or near Turin, an industrial northern city. Turin has often been called the 'Detroit of Italy', which, before the financial meltdown, was a badge of honour. Its busy commercial life is, in many respects, not unlike Singapore's. Turin also sponsors a widely admired international book fair, while Singapore hosts the biennial Singapore Writers' Festival. Double Skin is a collaboration between Singapore's Ethos Books and Turin's Torino Poesia Press, so poets clearly have a voice in both places.
Not surprisingly, for a collection of works by younger writers, poems about the pleasures and pain of love and the flesh, straight and gay, abound in this volume, as do others filled with longing and worry about the self and the daunting, intrusive world outside. The Singapore poets are, in order of appearance, Ng Yi-Sheng, Pang, Teng Qian Xi, Toh Hsien Min and Cyril Wong; the Italians, also in the same order, are Andrea Bonnin, Valentina Diana, Fratus, Eliana Deborah Langiu and Francesca Tini Brunozzi. According to the biographical notes, the oldest poet featured in this collection is 45 (an Italian); most are in their 30s, with one (a Singaporean) in his late 20s.
Readers of Cyril Wong's poems would be familiar with their eroticism. The first of his five poems in the collection, "I Didn't Expect to Write about Sex", is, unsurprisingly, about sex. It brazenly begins:
Then, after declaring that the poem "isn't really about sex", he continues:
The images here are mostly, but not all, of gay sex, but they are hardly pornographic — the tongue as "a key to slip/open every lock of resistance", the "muscles loosening/like a hundred doors creeping open", and the besotted Meryl Streep with her "stiff body" falling for Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County are filled with such tenderness that the sex could just as well be called love. Further on, Wong has the "tenacious/dogs of your fingertips unearthing/pleasure from every pore, jumpstarting/nipples with the flick of your nails"—again, images crafted so sensuously and unselfconsciously that their loveliness is impossible to forget.
Poems about love (and relationships in general) by Fratus seem less joyful and more complicated, uncertain, and ambiguous. In the remarkable "Persone Che Credono e Persone Che non Credono" ("Believers and Unbelievers"), there is a dialogue between a strange woman wearing an amber ring in which, she claims to a stranger (the poet) with his lover in a restaurant, the heart of her long-aborted foetus is somehow encased. The man is doubtful, but the woman persists, asserting that there are "believers and unbelievers":
Love may indeed be here today and gone tomorrow, as the woman implies, but the poem in some ways goes beyond a soliloquy on the impermanence of love into something resembling a fragment of a Pirandello play, with its tortured shifts between dreams and reality. The last line of the poem asks the disconcerting question, "could you swear you ever knew her?" We as readers might be led to ask an even larger question: Can a human being ever fully know another person, whatever the circumstance, whatever the love?
There is some menace, too, in Fratus, as seen in "Moderazione" ("Moderation"), where the poet/lover rests "my lips on your skin and start[s] to tighten my jaw/while my fingers penetrate deeply and rake like the/claws of a wild beast" and the woman lover in "Una Sera d'estate Pensando alla Corsica" ("A Summer Evening Thinking about Corsica"), who is discovered licking the blade of a knife, and then:
And then there is the indeterminacy of love lost, or at least of uncertain love, as in Bonnin's "Il Sole Che Cade Su Di Te" ("The Sun Falling on You"):
Of course, love comes in other forms, too, such as the love sons have for their fathers. Poetry is rich with this subject, but Singapore's Pang gives it new life in the beautiful piece, "So Many Ways Our Fathers Mark Us", with its evocative and haunting images:
This poem, with its contradictions and restraint, refuses to be sentimental, but that does not mean Pang banks down the feeling that quietly explodes from the lines, or, as he puts it, from "the heft and weight of language". Fathers are not easy to figure out, the poet seems to say; his might at times be harsh, delivering "carefully counted cane strokes" when warranted. But Pang's father also taught lessons and left memories that the poet now cherishes.
Poems about poems and language abound in Double Skin ¾ perhaps to be expected in this post-deconstruction or post-modernist era, where so much is meta-this and meta-that. The best title, although regrettably not of a very successful poem, is Fratus' "Ambientalisti Inspirati da un Verso di Robert Lowell in Europa Occidentale" ("Environmentalists Inspired by a Verse by Robert Lowell in Western Europe"), which seems to be about an "Eurasian eagle-owl." Likewise, Bonnin's "La Letteratura ci Uccidera" ("Literature Will Kill Us") and "Il Club dei Poeti" ("The Poets' Club") failed to move me, despite the fact that the idea of "The Poets' Club" seemed so promising.
But I found Singaporean Teng's "Poem for Mr Bernard", a tribute to a tutor at Hwa Chong Junior College, touching, and then there was Toh Hsien Min's marvellous lyric, "The Wrong Poem," one of the best selections in the entire collection. Toh, well-known in Singapore for his meticulously crafted body of work, begins by asking an interesting question, an extension of a quotation by R.S. Thomas:
Is it "the tyranny of common sense,/that tells you not to believe/in what you desperately want/to believe, because the chances/of your faith coming into its own/ecstatic, self-fulfilling lack of oxygen/are not great. . . .[?]" Toh goes further:
Thus the heart must be "wrestled to the ground by intellect", and more:
Beautifully said, but, of course, not necessarily easy to do; if most people's hearts, not to mention those of poets, obeyed their heads, or were modulated by their intellects, it would be a vastly different world, but we might also have lost some rich and rambunctious poems, too. (I think of America's Walt Whitman as one great example.) Still, Toh's poem does tease us into thinking more about balance, about impulse and rectitude, and not just in verse, but perhaps in our lives.
There are other exquisite poems worthy of mention. The melancholy of the Langiu's "Vicina" ("Next-Door Neighbour") was oddly gripping, despite the flatness of tone. I admired Teng's homage to the near-mythic Sylvia Plath in "Pilgrimage", with its "speckled headstone" and a sky whitening "like a scar's new skin". Pang's "When the Barbarians Arrive" and Toh's extraordinary "Resurfacing", about a letter unaccountably delivered from Japan twelve years after the death of the correspondent, are both moving in very different ways. And Wong's "Landing," a short work whose subject is death, which I take to be on the opposite end of the continuum from sex, is a more than modest achievement. The metaphor for his treatment of death is a plane landing, with "a slow, close-to-weightless/tilt," followed by this mesmerizing stanza:
Fratus provides a deft translation of this poem ("Atterraggio"), as he does with most of the other English-language works. Although, as an English-speaking American, my Italian is far from perfect, I found that the translations back and forth that accompany the poems in English and Italian seem to me to be broadly serviceable, and mostly do not try to take too many liberties with the original texts.
Of course, there is an argument that translations can never capture the essence of the original, and that, whether in prose or verse, they are instead something new in and of themselves, but I disagree. Translations done well can give faithful renderings of the original, with both the meaning and the art sustaining it intact, and I think that this has been accomplished by the various translators in Double Skin. (As a side observation, it is interesting that there are notes in Italian accompanying some of the English-to-Italian translations, presumably provided by Fratus, that are not reproduced in English.)
The brief biographies of the poets are helpful, but I also would have appreciated an introductory essay by the editors, perhaps with an overview of what readers could expect, and what the poetry scene is currently like in both countries.
For Singaporeans, plunging into the work of contemporary Italian poets who are likely to be mostly unknown to them will surely be an adventure, and probably vice versa for Italian readers as well. Some sure-handed fieldwork to set the stage might be considered for inclusion if this important and engaging book merits a reprint. That said, all else in Double Skin is a fine contribution to global cultural collaboration ¾ proof that a glass of Valpolicella with chicken rice may be a very good idea after all.QLRS Vol. 8 No. 4 Oct 2009