translated by Michael Gizzi and Giuliana Chamedes
Burning Deck Press ($5)
by Chris Glomski
Embargoed Voice, a sampling of poems by Milanese poet Milli Graffi, constitutes a one-off departure from Burning Deck's regular offerings of recent German and French poetry, though not from its commitment to bringing out works that are engaged in rigorous experimentation. In the 1970s Milli Graffi was part of the Italian avant-garde "poesia totale" movement, and the selections offered here certainly evince a poet of an experimental, out-on-a-limb sensibility.
The opener, "Take One: Jazz Backdrop," launches itself sequentially across roughly half the booklet. As the title leads one to expect, there is a certain jazziness to Graffi's lines-the poems sprawl as if scored on the pages, with fluxing signatures, syncopations, and motifs-but the most palpable scrim in this sequence appears to come out of Graffi's background as a translator of Darwin. "Take One" is set on a sort of Galápagos which, in turn, situates "the landscape of meaning" encircled by the "bitter landowning sea" (i.e. the pages, spaces within which meaning is demarcated and defined). Words are likened to "toads offer[ing] themselves at the junction," yet despite this gesture the poet recognizes something predatory in their nature: they "gargle, grab you." As if leapfrogging upon their backs, an "I" enters the poem and seeks to locate in humankind's capacity for language, and specifically poetic language, something akin to a Heideggerean rift-design, although here it takes on a decidedly less mystical aura, cast as a mere vagary of evolution: "art is memory burned // sediment / of the whim / that descends the branches / and divides us together." These last lines figure as the poem's chorus, and the paradox they express is at the core of its investigations.
Graffi's speaker in this poem wears many hats, sometimes all at once: naturalist, phenomenologist, feminist, linguist, and archeologist. "Take One" finds her out doing fieldwork, sifting through the aforementioned "sediment"-it's as if the words of the poem are shards that have turned up in her sieve. "I search for the GORILLA-WORD" she writes, and her search puts her poem through the motions of confession ("I hear it understand / but not always"); pleading ("lay an embargo on my voice it's costing me"), and humorous reflection ("who knows if by grunting the pig interrogates himself / upon his true nature // certainly I / ask my overladen / grunt / to proffer some surprises"). But even her humor is pressed into the service of a serious business, one which needs to go deep into the objects under the poet's lens, whether they be "mountain pink," an "unthinkable absolute," the "first vowel" or the "I" itself: "Darwin knew it," Graffi writes, "poetry opens only when pressure is applied."
"Take One: Jazz Backdrop" is a polyvalent piece of writing that asks for, and rewards, successive readings. Reading Gaffi one is reminded of the dialogue the Italians have been carrying on with German and French theorists; her concern with gender and the figure of the "arch that enfolds and sustains" in "Take One" appears to engage some of Cixous's writings, and the poem's use of "sediment" puts one in mind of Derrida's "cinders." But as the "whim / that descends the branches / and divides us together" suggests, the work in Embargoed Voice is mainly preoccupied with what Gaston Bachelard has called "definitive intuitions," those distinctions drawn from gender, race, or any other dialectics of inside/outside, you and I, as is apparent in Gaffi's poem "Seven Rooms": "correspondence / between what you / HAVE / within and what there / IS / without." Gaffi writes a poetry that wants to pry open these divisional spaces and to ferret out "hidden misogynies / …hidden racism / … hidden ballots."
In rare moments the poet's obvious intelligence lapses into something like cleverness, as in the poem "Larval Shots," whose elbow-nudging refrain wants to make sure we understand that "when it comes to larvae / you don't want to fool around." At her best, however, Gaffi goes about her experiments with a sense of awe that can get Whitmanic in scale: "here's the job / a word we can name // grass burning in the electric inferno of midday […] // oh the / lyrical nameable watermelon word."
Embargoed Voice is, unfortunately, a monolingual edition. But the original Italian texts I managed to track down indicate that translators Michael Gizzi and Giuliana Chamedes have made every effort to render high-fidelity translations; they've taken pains to mirror Gaffi's line-breaks and to replicate the spatial appearance of the originals. If some sense of the interplay between "The String and the Beads" is lost in the English gerund's inability to designate number, it is more than made up for in the many shimmering passages within the longer poems. The challenges these must have posed are evident; the agility of their English speaks for itself-and is a credit to the translators. For those with an interest in Italian poetry, the European avant-garde, or experimental poetry in general, Embargoed Voice is well worth its five-spot cover price.