Love Lessons –
Selected Poems of Alda Merini
Translated by Susan Stewart
Princeton University Press – £11.95
Every now and then, poetry is capable of hitting the mark – more simply, accurately and succinctly – than anything else in the world. It can touch, heel, inspire, enquire, and what’s more, understand, during periods of extreme pain, peril and anguish; which, if we really, really think about it, is what accounts for poetry’s inexorable validity. So when something great comes along, it certainly lightens the load and brightens the day. It’s simply wonderful, and as such, ought to be embraced with both open arms and an open heart.
Such is the case with Love Lessons, the selected poems of one of Italy’s most beloved and important poets, Alda Merini. When I initially read the final four lines of ’Will I Be Alone,’ my heart nigh skipped a beat:
But until I shiver from the touch
Of your hand, since yesterday my initiation,
Every sign of life that presses me
Lies unshaped within your fixed measures.
The immense beauty and honesty of these four lines (along with many others throughout the book) triggered a thought process that ensured I had to stop. And take stock of the wealth/depth of thought, I had just read. It’s not everyday such enquiry makes one sit up and listen, and dig deep within themselves in search of an explanation. If indeed, there is one.
The same applies to ‘(As For Me, I Used To Be A Bird)’ in its entirety:
As for me, I used to be a bird
With a gentle white womb,
Someone cut my throat
Just for laughs,
I don’t know.
As for me, I used to be a great albatross
And whirled over the seas.
Someone put an end to my journey,
without any charity in the tone of it.
But even stretched out on the ground
I sing for you now
my songs of love.
I often wonder where we’d be without poetry. The mere fact that the above can even be written, bequeaths the repetition and mendacity of everyday life, with a glimmer of hope. A sort of sparkle.
Merini’s poetry takes the reader on a journey from the ancient sylvan landscapes of Greek myth, to the perplexity/urbanity of Milan’s Naviglio district. Along the way, a tragic understanding of prodigious suffering is unveiled, along with a more than vibrant appreciation of life itself. Whether they relay the haunting tales of Orpheus and Othello, or the personal histories of Sylvia Plath (among other contemporaries), Merini’s work reveals a complex and philosophical intuition of love and life – and all that one invariably discovers in between:
I’ll be an unfolding flower of consent
And then, finding a point of contact,
I’ll let in a timid conscience […]
(‘The Presence of Orpheus’).
Love Lessons: Stunning. Beautiful. Imperative.