Felix Cassiel on
This Noise Is Free
‘It is all very egg,’ Ezra Pound once told a young Hart Crane, in response to the latter’s submission of unpublished works to The Little Review, ‘But you haven’t the ghost of a setting hen or an incubator about you.’
While we may be careful not to cast too critical a gaze on the output of a novice, especially that which was written without much, if any, consideration for posterity, nevertheless it is incumbent on the reader to admit to any and all impressions that overwhelm in the course of reading a work; and the impression achieved in one’s encounter with Isabella Morra, from the opening sonnet, tells us overwhelmingly that as our acquaintanceship unfolds, we will want not for egg.
It is a difficult thing to estimate the value of a work that is preceded so acutely by the biography of its author; indeed, as we wade through the sonnets and canzoni that make up the book‘s first half, we are never unaware of the situation of the poetess. And if, for a moment, there is a lapse in our sympathy, the author is quick to tell us what’s what.
What makes the Isabella question peculiar, when considering the separation of the work from the biography, is that there is not much of the former, and even less of the latter. Isabella, we are told, lived in obscurity, and her life itself commands no attention; the tragedy, and sensational ugliness, of its end, is precisely the draw for the layman, if not for the critic.
Caroline Maldonado, who has diligently compiled these poems (as well as translating them, and contributing several of her own) provides an extensive introduction, which is rich in historical context and enticing for all of us interested in the political and social situations of High Renaissance Italy.
It is sufficient to summarise here what we know about Isabella.
Around 1520, in her family’s castle in the village of Favale, Isabella was born. She was of noble stock, and boasted seven siblings. Thanks to the wealth and status of her father, Isabella benefitted from a classical education. Unfortunately, circumstances prevented her from making use of it; while other women of the nobility, we’re told, were living it up in the courts and drawing rooms of Northern Italy, Isabella, restricted to a desolate, plague-battered Southern countryside, could only pull her hair and pine for the life she thought due her, but which, it turned out, was never to be hers.
The Morras were a landowning family, and Isabella’s brothers, rough and brutish, who shared but little in her education and not at all in her refinement, went about the family business, spending much of their time, it seems, embroiled in disputes with neighbouring landowners.
In Southern Italy, decades of political unrest had preceded Isabella’s birth, and at the age of seven or eight the horrors of war and intrigue brought themselves abruptly to bear upon the child’s life; roughly three years earlier, the French King Francis I, ruler of the Kingdom of Naples, was defeated in the Battle of Pavia by the Spanish King Charles V. In the aftermath of the Spanish victory, Isabella’s father, a nobleman-poet, who had sided with the French, went into exile, taking with him only one other - a son, Scipione, who was educated alongside Isabella, and whom clearly showed prodigious capabilities (he would, in adulthood, be appointed secretary to Caterina de Medici). Ms. Maldonado speculates that had Isabella not been a woman, her father might have taken her along as well as, or instead of, Scipione. But, of course, he quite reasonably may not have.
At the time of her father’s flight, Isabella had less than 20 years to live. Those years, if her poems may be submitted as evidence, were spent in desperation, fear, and listlessness. While the patriarch, Baron of Favale, eked out a living and a reputation in the exiled, waning French court, and the favourite son the same, Isabella and her brothers endured in the soil, sweat and sanguinary of the rural south.
Approximately at the age of 26, Isabella was stabbed to death. In what appears to be a most repugnant case of misunderstanding, three of Isabella’s brothers, intercepting a letter to her from one of her few correspondents, suspected an affair between Isabella and the sender, and, in a spirit of high-bloodedness that is no doubt useful for defending one’s fiefdom, but woefully unsuited to weighing the contents of sensitive memoranda, set about the poetess in the most brutal fashion. In the same spirit, they murdered also her tutor, who brought the letter, and, much later, the supposed writer of same, the then-celebrated Count Don Diego Sandoval de Castro. Between the killing of Isabella and her tutor, and the killing of the Count, two years had elapsed, in which the brothers sought sanctuary in the French court with their father. That Don Diego was a notable Spaniard may indeed have been in their favour, but this is not explicitly hinted. In any case, for their crimes the three brothers never saw trial.
This review will give attention only to Ms. Maldonado’s English translations, and not to the Italian originals.
The first sonnet provides an adequate idea of what we’re in for.
I write weeping about the fierce assaults
On me by cruel Fortuna and the lost days
Of my youth, how in this vile, odious hamlet
I spend my life without a word of praise.
In this opening stanza we are acquainted with three of Isabella’s primary concerns: Favale, which imprisons her; her family, which neglects her; and Fortuna, which despises her. These complaints never leave her, yet her hope that ‘despite the interfering, blind goddess’ she may be ‘valued in more highly in some happier place’ endures, if weakly.
Indeed, it is this thin beam of hope, the single Christian element in an otherwise pagan intellection, that seems to buoy the poems amid the ravenous undercurrents.
The second sonnet finds her endeavouring to make alliances; before the cramoisie altar of Hymen, and the ivory of Juno, she solicits support against her adversary, whom, adroitly, she refrains from naming:
Tie a fine, gold knot around my neck.
You are the only one I wish to serve,
I am your dearest and most humble subject.
Turned away from Olympos, it seems, empty-handed, in the third sonnet our beleaguered Neoplatonist redirects her attention to the terrestrial realm; Favale again is the target of her ire, ‘the one and only cause of my torment’, yet here the hamlet’s failing, and the one for which Isabella would see it damned, is that it no longer contains her father.
For when I see no oars cut through the waves
Nor a single sail billow in the wind
(the shoreline is so abandoned, so alone!)
Then must I speak out against my fate
By this point, the impression upon the reader is that it is precisely Isabella’s vertiginous, if incomplete, education, coupled with the high expectations of one of her status, that amplify, if not cause, her complaints; for aren’t we to imagine, in the reading of such a work, that many a young peasant girl, breathing in the same humid air as Isabella, air ruined by plague, flies and dust, enduring their lot in boredom, hardship and deprivation, would have similar, if not identical, grievances; yet this is indeed an act of imagination, for throughout the Renaissance and all the ages either side of it, we hear not a peep from them.
Throughout the sonnets there is a vigour of sentiment, a roughness, almost a violence, that seems to soak the text as if from a heavy cloud, or a burst riverbank; the speaker is impulsive, and meets aggression with aggression; indeed, we may conceivably wonder whether the poetess would not have been quite at her ease in spending her hours garrisoning the perimeters of the fiefdom, club in hand, with her brothers. The result is coarseness, an inelegance of diction, which lights upon the ear at times disagreeably, and at other times, disinterestedly. Isabella apparently admitted to this defect and made no excuses for it, reckoning it to lend bloom to a passion that may have wilted under more assiduous cultivation.
For what is pleasing in the work we must look elsewhere, and pay attention to the sentiments themselves, which, while admitting little shade or gradation, at times find a happy marriage with well-chosen imagery. It is here that we detect the lily amid the thorns.
For Isabella’s intellectual inheritance was rich; her education had included Petrarch, in whose mould these sonnets were made; and many of her lines betray, directly or indirectly, the fruits of the work of men like Pico Della Mirandola, who had died in Florence a few decades previously, and whose life’s project, if we are to use Pater’s paraphrasing of a line from Wordsworth, to ‘bind the ages each to each by natural piety’; and not many years prior to Isabella’s birth Michelangelo had executed the Doni Madonna, a tondo of the Holy Family replete with the voluptuousness of the rediscovered, reimagined pagan sensuality.
In lines such as these, from Sonnet IV, we telescope, for a moment, upon the cultural horde of the High Renaissance.
The perfume of the vermilion rose with its sweet
And vital aura feeds the soul no less
Than does the sacred golden lily’s scent.
By the tenth and final sonnet, the reader finds Isabella maturing. In this piece the flurry of pagan
imagery, indicative of the poetess’s arrested sensuality, is eschewed entirely; in its place we find something approaching reverence, an acceptance of the mystery and a deferment of passion, though for this the lines are no less robust, and no less affecting on the sympathy of the reader.
You know, in those days, how bitterly I wrote,
With what anger and pain I denounced Fortune.
No woman under the moon ever complained
With greater passion than me about her fate.
Now my soul repents of its blind mistake,
No longer finding glory in gifts such as these
And though starved of all that is good while it lives,
It hopes to grow rich in the light of God’s grace.
Neither time nor death, nor some violent,
Rapacious hand will snatch away the eternal,
Beautiful treasure before the King of Heaven.
Nor will summer or winter ever do harm,
For there, no-one feels heat or icy cold,
You see, brother, all other hope is vain.
The canzone follow a similar trajectory, and, in the main, are no more compelling for their extra lines and feet. The rhythms are choppy and the sentiments, which in the sonnets were governed, at times successfully, by the limitations of the form, in the longer works bear the traces of incontinence.
‘I write now only to express my desires,’ says the poetess, yet by this expression, which offers neither outline nor movement of said desires, we learn nothing much of Isabella; as we would expect from one cloistered, Isabella speaks of little else but herself, and it is perhaps precisely for this reason that in reading these works we feel no closer to her. Instead we are given moods, never entirely dissimilar, akin, instead, to a single canvass, daubed with a single brush, at once overwrought with carmine, at another with chartreuse. It would not be inappropriate, in fact, for these canzone to be subtitled along the lines of ‘Isabella, looking out to sea’, or ‘Isabella with her bible, by candlelight’.*
In great effusions of lyric, Isabella probes those sentiments that may be called religious; here, she endeavours to marry them to her carnal impulses, there, she laments their irreconcilable differences. Nevertheless, the poems shed further light on the Renaissance spirit, that which was bent to the union of schools, and the harmonising of doctrines that were thitherto deemed incompatible. For this reason, they are not without interest.
When the blond Apollo raises
His bright face and with his proud look
Chases shadow from the valleys,
A brilliant thought overwhelms me.
I seem to see Jesus in the temple, surrounded
By wise men, debating in a calm voice,
And she, for whom I burn with passion,
Sheds tears of joy.
These beech trees bring me comfort
Rather than unspeakable suffering
And I shun the distant sirens’ song:
For on solitary roads
The lovely youth, so beloved by God,
With his holy, pious and chaste desires,
Saw the path of the angelic choirs.
It should not surprise us that it is in Ms. Maldonado’s own poems that we learn more of Isabella than Isabella could tell us.
A white arrow flies south along a coastline
Of beach, umbrellas scattered and sea all a-glitter;
The land broadens out, flattens, changes filter
To yellow earth, burnt crops, pumpkins pitched
Awkwardly in harvested fields. The soft wingtips
Of windfarms (here they call them Aeolian fields)
Quiver in the breeze. Grapevines clutch fingers
Side by side on the flat, instead of grappling
On hills: white egrets crowd on a branch
Arced over a river inlet. Most becomes sun.
The train’s twenty-five minutes late.
At Foggia the travellers alight. The ticket collector,
Hat askew, steps out, smokes a cigarette.
A horn announces departure. The arrow flies on
Past ruined houses in unploughed fields, fallen
Roofs on oblong brick masserie, past concrete bridges,
Warehouses, apartment blocks, polytunnels and
African men, women in long skirts and head wraps,
Bent double to pick tomatoes with trailing stems
For our pastes and purées, our passatas, our pomo d’oro.
Here Ms. Maldonado offers something more than a snapshot of the territory; in plain, picture-postcard language we are given to understand the heat, the toil, and the somnambulism of the scene, a scene that, besides the few additions from the repository of modernity - the train, the windfarms, the warehouses and polytunnels - has remained, we feel, largely unchanged from Isabella’s day, and from aeons before that. Even the ticket inspector, we imagine, could, if he wished, trace his lineage to the High Renaissance, and beyond; his ancestors, perhaps, worked the land for the Baron of Favale, or for Count Don Diego, or for some other Baron or Count long forgotten. Today, the landscape is dotted not with Italians in the fields, but with Africans, whose labour the great progress of the human mind, through the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution, seem not to have made any easier. And from this toil, this hardship, this unchanging fact of human existence, the fruit, unendingly, is reaped - and puréed.
I watch you lift your skirts,
Climb up through forest paths,
Pick your way over rocks at dawn
Towards the peak of Monte Coppolo
Before the heat descends,
And take your place on the hollowed stone
With only beetles and lizards for company,
From where you can see water
Gleaming through the hills
But no sign of your father’s ship.
There, viewing the abandoned land,
You’re aware of your solitude.
But are there not days when you return,
Your arms full of broom,
Mind bursting with poems,
Heart light as the new sky?
- 'Other days'
Iron bars on your window. You can just see
The courtyard below, terracotta pots
With geraniums and basil, cactus plants
Against the brick, a strip of sunlight
Across the cobbles and the tabby kitten
Sprawled on warm stone.
There’s a clatter of pans and dishes
From the kitchen, your mother is shouting
At the servants; a tap at the door
And Delfina brings your freshly laundered
Petticoats and a word before she leaves.
Outside the wall at sunrise
You watched a line of men with their hoes
And shovels set off for the fields.
In the evening they’ll return silent,
Heads bowed, their steps slower.
You return to your desk and take up your pen.
The nib scratches the page and the plume
Lifts in the draft from your window
Carrying you to the French court,
To your brother, Scipione, and father,
To a place of pavane and volta.
- 'Outside the wall'
When they spoke to me of Honour
I cursed them and they called me mad.
The moon tonight is low and red.
Down in the piazza, sounds from lira
And zampogna tear the air like teeth.
I am poisoned by the spider
And will dance the tarantella,
I’ll don a mask, and join the gypsies
And despite my ancient bones I’ll dance.
Faster than the drums, I’ll dance.
- 'After Isabella’s death, her mother curses'
Though we are in the imagination of Ms. Maldonado, through these pieces and others like them we attain a crystalline picture of Isabella; by the metronomic simplicity of the lines, we sense the nature of Isabella’s plight, the melancholic regularity with which the household is managed; the inability to fill, enrich, or hasten the day; and finally we catch a glimpse of her mother, who remained behind with the family after the Baron’s departure, who struggled to govern the warring personalities of her brood, and who, in Isabella’s poems, remains silent.
Ms. Maldonado treats her subject with care, compassion, and a deftness of touch that rounds and furnishes our impression of Isabella; in the astute guidance of Ms. Maldonado, we are relieved and grateful to find the egg provided its incubator, or its setting-hen.
*A warm thanks to Mr. G.K. Chesterton.
Whether it be the garrulous screeching of the gull overhead, the clatter of the waste lorry at dawn, or the ringing of the church bell on a hungover Sabbath, it could be argued, and not too forcibly, that no noise is free; yet we may pay something in the enduring of it.
In this collection, Andy Green summarises his observations in a manner both brusque and generous; generous, for finding an extraneous line, or a disused sentiment, in this slim volume could well be an exercise in futility.
Mr. Green is a busker, and his subject matter is his vocation. The history of poetry does not want for troubadours: from Bernart de Ventadorn in the Middle Ages to Joachim du Bellay in the High Renaissance, and in countless practitioners since, we have seen the gradual evolution of the lyric, and the cadence of the spoken word, as they are fastened ever more imperceptibly to the knots and folds of measures perfected by men who knew, as Pound noted, that music atrophied when it departs too far from the dance, and poetry from music. Though we may do well not be overly romantic in our expectations, for with this tradition Mr. Green has no truck.
The street is a bottle of white lightning
asking me for a hug
the street is a one-toothed woman
sharing my flapjack
the street is a boy in a bright red scarf
they stole his guitar
and his best Scottish hat
but one day he will get them back
the street is an eighty year old man
singing Elvis in German
giving Nazi salutes
warning me about all his heart problems
the street gets off its bicycle to tell me
it wants to spend more time
the street is an Australian jazz musician
blowing the clarinet and roaring
now this is real music!
so sick of this town with its cold jacket potatoes
the street is a beautiful red-haired woman
who’s been out all night dancing
she winks and hands me a silver coin
the street has been sleeping on the backseat of its car
talking to god and keeping a diary
it’s a long story
the street quietly whispers in my ear
the street is dragging a heavy suitcase
battered and torn
the street comes over and hugs me like a jukebox
it just got out of prison today
- 'The Street is a Vortex'
Part of the charm of a busker taking to his pen is that finally, and unexpectedly, we get to hear from one whom we always seem to hear, expectedly. The busker is heard, overheard, ignored and adored: and in opening this volume, it becomes clear that our poet is singularly placed to catalogue the contents of a city’s stomach.
He looks rough this morning
I hang around and ask
we sit opposite the Mecca bingo hall
scoffing down Lion Bars
4 for a pound
just came from nowhere
gave me a good kicking last night
after a while it’s time to move on
Danny champion of the world
that’s what I call him
oh yeah he laughs
getting back up on his feet
well in that case where’s my fookin’ prize?
‘The greatest of poems is an inventory,’ said G.K. Chesterton, in discussing Robinson Crusoe. Mr. Green perhaps encountered this line and took it literally. This Noise Is Free reads as less of a collection of poetry, than it does notes for a collection of poetry. Indeed, we feel something may have been gained for subtitling the book as such.
Aaron’s jeans splattered in rainbows of paint
the pet snake wrapped around Steve’s shoulder
it’s Betty’s last fag before not returning to the hospital
the pint of ale waiting on the bar for Joan to settle
piles of baked beans from the sign language cafe
plastic bags collected and recycled by Kevin
birds nibbling the crumbs of Sandra’s wages
Karen’s pram wobbling up and down the alley
a new moon tattoo covering Emma’s old wounds
out of date crisps from Mike’s market stall
the tambourine man coming around the corner
the closed day-care centre that once took care of Joan
- 'Snippets for Town Mural'
For one for whom music is considerably more than a hobby, we are surprised to find in the text little trace of musicality. We are quick, however, to admit of an argument in favour of a staccato rendering: given the nature of the subject at hand, any obvious or semi-obvious attempt to fashion the words into a form accommodating the principles of melody, may be to gild a lily best left ungilded, or to shoe a songstrel better left unshod.
For in the scenes and characters that capture the poet’s attention, we see something of the observations of a young Tom Waits, and to a lesser extent, Charles Bukowski. Whereas there was romance in the former, veneration in the latter, and robust good humour in both, in Mr. Green we get something closer to an itemisation of a consciousness, and the items contained therein are all too frequently analogues for wretchedness: the ruined face, the irreparable dream, the divorcee from everything but desperation.
The diamond child watching me
through the eyes of 17 gold canaries
the clothes shoppers swooping in tight formations
the egg cress sandwich I shouldn’t have stolen
the evaporating lottery ticket woman
eating the cloud’s silver lining
the street cleaner whistling at imaginary pin-ups
the man being paid nothing to hold up
an advertising board that doesn’t even exist
the apocalyptic newspaper seller
shouting at dogs from his plastic Tardis
the lips scoffing fresh cream buns of gossip
the rushers by rushing into meetings
which they somehow don’t yet know are cancelled
The style to the content is adequately married, and in their union we see mirrored the itinerant nature of the poet’s life; though in this as in all things moderation is the key - and there are times, indeed, when a seedling idea seems about to germinate, yet the poet’s attention too rapidly moves on.
No man controls what he sees, but he can control what he writes about. It is this, we feel, that separates the poet from the subject - though he may pick up his guitar and leave a place, he never quite shakes the sense of imprisonment. The busker busks and moves on, but what allows him the two inches of separation is not the utility of travel, which in this case seems less a border-crossing and more a prisoner being moved from cell to cell, but the sentiment of genuine tenderness, which in these works is all too often buried in the pomp of the parade, yet on occasion does present itself as the governing principle, and the nucleus of Mr. Green’s literary efforts.
Wanderer in a torn tracksuit
he sits by Tesco Extra
spiky orange hair
he keeps nodding off to sleep then
waking up again
by his feet
sits a large brass bowl
round and ancient
I keep an eye on him
then go over check he’s ok
it all depends
what path you’re taking
is all he will say
to my questions about existence
words floating upwards
smoke rising from the mountain
As the reader reads, he may be troubled with the question of whether this is a collection of prosaic images rendered poetically, or poetic images rendered prosaically. By the end of the book, this question is unresolved, and for the brevity of the work, and the pace at which it unfolds, we may find ourselves quite as nourished as the poet himself, sharing a four-pack of Lion Bars with Danny the champion.
Felix Cassiel © 2021