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Poem of the Week: ‘Untitled’ by Patrizia Cavalli

Patrizia Cavalli invites you to consume her poetry with these somewhat strange six verses:

Someone told me
of course my poems
won’t change the world.

I say yes of course
my poems
won’t change the world.

The poem with no official title—as Cavalli tends to skip the titles —is the first one in a collection playfully called “My Poems Won’t Change the World” or, originally, “Le mie poesie non cambieranno il mondo”. The volume consists of the best poems selected across Cavalli’s body of work, created between 1974 and 2006, translated from Italian by twelve different translators and edited by Gini Alhadeff (who also translated the poem above). Themes of love, loss, womanhood, the body, eating, loneliness, cats, and the city, although so diverse and distinct, flow together throughout the collection, forming intimate and yet so universal – the self.

But let’s focus on this particular poem which preludes and sets the tone to “Patrizia’s music”, as Jorie Graham, one of the translators, termed her poetry.

It begins with condescension, contempt, an attack on meaning, or perhaps a challenge to find one. The second stanza mirrors the first one but adds a layer of irony to a poet’s agreement: indeed, my poems don’t change the world. What do they change, then? Why write—or read—poetry at all? And so the meditation on the purpose of poetry begins, its source not accidentally placed in the very entrance to Cavalli’s lyrical being.

To read her poetry is not only to glimpse, to see, but to experience “her entire soul, her present state, and the world’s present” (David Shapiro, another one of Cavalli’s translators). A private relationship is created between us, the readers, and the poet, the human, the self, the contemporary world, not in terms of its matter but its transcendence—for a second, we become transcendent. (Do you know this sensation when you don’t quite understand the words but physically feel their
substance in your stomach, their connection to the universe, and simply know they must be true?) All this, I think, is true for poetry in general.

But it is not merely a positively overwhelming but slightly undefined experience one gets for reading poetry. It is, for me, the feeling of being alive and awake, being understood, participating in the reality, adapting a point of view different from my own, finding right words for right emotions, which ultimately constitutes the essence
of life itself—and which Cavalli’s poetry provides. Surely, a similar sense of connection might be possible through other means—but would it be similarly pleasurable and penetratingly intensive?

Cavalli compacts this vastness of being and feeling into her “music”, not pompously but delicately and organically. Her poetry is very feminine, very Italian with its pasta and piazzas, very familiar, no matter how far we are from being a woman or an Italian. There is something human in her texts that gives comfort through its natural affiliation to the realms of both individuality and universality. They search for everyday beauty, demanding only our attention and mindfulness in return.

Impressions evoked here in the beginning accompany us throughout the whole collection, forcing us to continuously refer following texts to that first one, provoking us to find—or not find—the personal meaning behind all this; such is the power of this short and repetitive poem.

My Italian friend who introduced me to Cavalli wrote a dedication on my copy, which perhaps sums up everything I tried to convey here: Cavalli’s poems did not change the world, but they did change mine.

Image “Patrizia Cavalli a Nembro” by PresenteProssimo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.