Annelisa Alleva

about the author 

Annelisa Alleva
Annelisa Alleva

The masks have a bookish flavour, they come from literary characters, from reading experiences. At that time, my diary and my poems were following an amorous correspondence, mostly one-sided, that I defined many years later in a poem:

(...) Green letters were whirling
around you in a totemic dance,
you were the spindle (...)

                                                            from "Tu eri per me Giuseppe Gatti"

Even in the letters I would take on other names, which were invented, such as Anna Gatti, or others taken from the books: for example Tatiana from the Onegin by Pushkin, Cécile Volanges from Les Liaisons Dangereuses by de Laclos, Henry Brulard from the autobiographic novel Vie de Henry Brulard by Stendhal.

Love is seen as a deprivation, a denial of life, because of the distance from the beloved:

Sometimes you show me the morning
for reclosing it under lock
in a dusty casket.
Like a blind one, bended, I walk,
not bestowing upon myself
but an askance look.
The light, those mastiff teeth.

                                                            "Qualche volta mi mostri il mattino"

This point of view remains even in memories, later, when he dies:

But your speciality were the angels,
their hair cut as at the first meeting.
A mad-house of miles, on their eyes the veil
of exile, ankles clenched in chains.
Isolated from youth and deprived of defects
angels we were, angels, only angels. (…)

                                                            from "Ma la tua specialitа erano gli angeli"

In my total delivery to this love there was the strong application of what the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva was preaching in her poems and in her prose. Her charisma is so strong, that she can subjugate adolescents only with the power of the written page. Marina Tsvetaeva was preaching asceticism as a practice of life, and contempt for earthly pleasures. My translation of her long story "The story about Sonechka", when I was twenty-four years old, was both a source of illumination and self-destruction for me.

In my poetry, the metaphorical sense of distance, taken as an age distance, becomes a social distance, and for a moment recreates ancient Egypt

I know that different ages are closed in each other
like the castes at the time of Ancient Egypt.
"You lack the property of our more remote memory",
seems to cry a high dignitary, blocking the entrance door. (…)

                                                            from "So che le diverse etа sono chiuse fra loro"

The atmosphere of this poem: the sense of aging as a physical decay, the final exaltation of the youth, the metaphorical historicity of a negation, the library as a space out of time, a barrage, an impossibility, echoes the poems by Constantine Cavafy. The same thing you can say about the poem written on the eve of my thirtieth birthday:

(...) You are resigned to time,
like the buyer confronted by the increased price
of flour. Twenty-nine years, an
anathema. The age of Cavafy's favourite
phantoms. Twenty-nine. Under the starched sheets
the mattress counts twenty-three umbilica.

                                                            from "E' passato qualche anno da quando io"

The cursed captivity gave me the privilege to save myself, and to take out risks. The ghetto of the inferior caste in which I felt myself confined, because of being younger, transformed itself into a challenge, almost a struggle between the old and the young, between the big and the small, between David and Goliath. Youth becomes the stone that David throws against Goliath:

(...) So you're thinking, and the rain
didn't stop to sing. The bad weather
was dominating in the night,
as it's better to be. The noises
were falling onto the street, and you
were repeating, as a slap to the others:
"I am young".

                                                            from "La pioggia ieri notte scendeva giù"


(…) But here, I hear a step dragging
in the library, different from the others,
and two lips flapping unintentionally;
an old professor proceeds bent, with glasses on,
an obtuse and haughty look.
And then I don't regret anymore
not to know the war, not to be older, just
for having met you when we both
were twenty years old.

                                                            from "So che le diverse etа sono chiuse fra loro"

The posing as a bold young man comes to me indirectly from the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky. He wrote in the long poem: "The cloud in trousers", and I still can hear the voice of Angelo Maria Ripellino — a remarkable poet and Slavic scholar, and my professor at the University of Rome — reading the poem, with a rumble from the lecture hall: "I walk, beautiful, being twenty years old". I continue to reflect about youth in poems that are much more recent:

Fifteen, then ten, five, zero,
I have passed difference years
and I reached you going up (...)

"You are an absolute child",
you repeated to me.
I remember when you told me
that love is not so important.
And in absolute eyes you spied
my wounds.

                                                            from "Quindici, poi dieci, cinque, zero"

The obsession of mixing cards through the disguise, almost a vice, uninterrupted for several years, started again with his death, which followed a period of a total silence and separation even in life. He started to appear in my dreams, or in actions that I imagined he carried out in the interval of time between our separation and his death. I imagine, as in a nightmare, that he has torn my letters, the only evidence of that love:

I interrogate your photographs
about the time when we didn't know each other anymore.
I observe the shattered mirror of your face,
looking like a letter torn.
Where did you put my love letters?
Did you give fire to that talk?
Did you destroy them, or forget them in a move?
Did you want to transform my stake?
My white doves into black butterflies?
Talk, soul, make your photographs talk.

                                                            "Interrogo le tue fotografie"

Or, in another poem:

(…) You wanted to destroy them before you
to be sure not to separate from them,
the only one pawn in your hands. (…)

                                                            from "Siete lì, strappate con rabbia, fidanzate"

But the dream transfigures him:

On awaking, a voice, mine, repeats:
"He's dead, he's dead". I come from the world
where you ignore the law of the end,
where the memory jams like in an old man.
The dream was enveloping, now the cold
is discovering me. But it was not you,
because you didn't put barriers. You resembled
the one my desire was recreating
with open eyes, in detachment, and
only nightmares returned me true.

                                                            "Al risveglio una voce, la mia, ripete:"

In the same way death transfigures him: he becomes the double of himself, his own shadow. The seal of death in the dream recreates the idyll of the amorous transfiguration, which happened before during awakening. The distance had been a long artificially recreated exercise to a posthumous living, so the feeling of losing existed already, even when he was alive:

You were among the white kitchen cupboard
of my childhood, with the shutters always half-closed,
creaking, with the greyed edges, the rolling pin inside,
and the heavy brass scale, still flesh crutch,
which allows itself to be kissed on the shoulders.
"When I shall love once more so much all",
the girl in that instant thought.

                                                            from "Eri fra le madie bianche di cucina"

His maturity doesn't pass on to her, but, on the contrary, consigns her in a sort of a frozen childhood. Gauging the loved one becomes rhetorical in poetry; the distance becomes an oxymoron: two scale arms exist in opposition:

You were my inseparable distant,
the friend I daren't call by name,
made hesitating by the suffering,
so little it was, so grateful I was to you. (…)

                                                            from "Eri il mio inseparabile lontano"

Death treats the past in a myth-like fashion; time is already a mask in itself. In a poem the myth of Theseus and Ariadne is renewed, made complete by Ariadne's kidnapping by Bacchus:

To resist the loneliness of Naxos
I repeated your promises every day to myself.
Around the island wandered my unquiet
footprints. There was no branch that
did not trace your name. There was no wave
that didn't know my breath,
a cliff from which I didn't call you,
A seaweed I didn't braid through my hair,
there was no pebble which,
with a shiver, would not roll with me.
There was no grotto which did not offer a mirror,
no grain of sand I did not plough,
no flower I did not question,
no rock in which I did not see your image.
There was no drop of salt
that wasn't mixed with my tears,
but you, Theseus, were not there. You deceived me,
taking advantage of my girlish trust.
At night the wheeze of the sea repeated that to me.
The owls laughed at me. I couldn't bear
the wind insistent caresses.
I let Bacchus kidnap me, and every voice,
every element regained its composure.

                                                            "Per resistere alla solitudine di Nasso"

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights ends with death: in the next poem the atmosphere of the novel is evoked by the words "mist", "moor", and by somebody calling the loved one in her sleep:

Why did you appear to me in my sleep?
Yet in the embrace you looked not as dust,
I did not hug a shadow. Were you cold?
Were you coming back to get something
you forgot? Or maybe I called you,
or you found an excuse to? Who let you in?
And why now? Did you miss our altercation?
Why, shadow, did I never talk to you as equals,
why did I never have the courage?
Why did everything remain a dream, a game?
Now, you being air, I'm not afraid of you anymore,
and nothing has changed between us.
When the fog dew will fill your ears
with silence, there, from the moor, call me,
and I will open the window,
sparing you every explanation.

                                                            "Perché mi sei apparso in sonno?"

In the great novel Cathy dies first, so she calls Heathcliff. In this poem you can find mixed echoes of classicism and romanticism, which to me are the two most attractive styles in literature. The addressing of the shadow with pressing questions, as well as the rhetorical figure of hugging a shadow are both inspired by Latin poetry.

In the last section "Nido di altri pianti" (The nest of other' tears) I confront myself with a supposed maturity. In this section the domestic, familiar element is dominating. Similes derive mostly from the repeated, visual experiences of domestic objects immersed in the everyday life. Prior to that, material, living things were the amorous epithets in my poems, the pet names, which were sometimes becoming impediment to farewells. For example:

(...) And now I just want your arrival
to be in time to tell you: "It's late",
convinced that the farewell hammer
and chisel are the only things that can
give me back my existence, and that
on you must not rest the crumbs
of my pet names, must not fall asleep
in your lap the cats, in mine the pussycats.

                                                            from "Eri il mio inseparabile lontano,"

In my last poems, on the contrary, the terms of comparison are both concrete and close to me:

(...) Thursday dawn. The vase has my daughter cheekbones. (…)

                                                            from "Chissà se ho assecondato il destino,"

I am not the arm of a scale anymore, in an oxymoronic opposition with the man, but rather a generational fulcrum, in the middle between my children's childhood and my parents' old age:

(...) To your mother you point the cobwebs
between the jambs, you critic her hair
fallen on the shoulders, you reproach
her boasted absence of coquetry.
With twinkling of an eye, you, daughter,
pull down the sky to your feet.

                                                            from "E' venuto il momento del rossetto"


Now you say that you feel
your eyes pricked as if by pins,
and that you can't sew anymore for me,
to make hems, to put ribbons
to the trousers bottom, to unthread
the right thread from the wool
and cotton plait, juxtaposing
your sweater's sleeve. You're searching
with your fore-finger into the bottom box
and the mother-of-pearl was tinkling
against the sides. You were trying
to thread the moistened and stretched
thread into the needle's eye,
pointing it against the silver of the sky
in the window opening.
After the darning you're beating
with the thimble the sock's heel
against the wood egg, as if invoking
an answer from inside. I'll start to sew
before my sight will fail. I shall take
the empty dresses in my hand,
I'll repeat your gestures, your ransacking,
your basting, the order of your basket.
I shall rewind my threads, I shall gather
my reels, trying to extricate myself
from that fix, without the glove
which was for me your hand.

                                                            "Ora dici che ti senti pungere gli occhi come da spilli"

On the same topic, Gustav Klimt's "The three woman ages" comes to my mind, representing the woman in her three ages. To be a fulcrum means facing and supporting the present, which has a past and a future, at its right and its left. In these last poems the word "now" recurs regularly:

Now I iron,
the iron doesn't burn.
Now I cook,
the saucepan doesn't grumble.
Now I cut my hair,
the scissors don't prick.
Now I wear straw hats,
the cold is mild.
Now I wear low-necked dresses,
no gaze trespasses them.
Now my hips
are the nest of others' tears.

                                                            "Ora stiro"

My obsession with time continues even in this phase of partial adulthood:

I swim, I swim in the pool every day,
every day one hour, checking the time.
I alternate my styles avoiding the crowd:
my stomach to the sky only when it's empty.
I touch the border to sign the end,
and to give me a push for another length.
Then I take my cap off, as if it was a helmet,
and I take a cold shower. I dry my body
in the sun, keeping my head in the shade.
Returning home, my wheel burns.
I look at myself in the mirrors.
One, the lowest, is deforming. The other is true.
On the bedside table rises my city of creams,
with which I massage my body, and I grease it.
I fight against the time. I slap it,
like palms row on the water.
Also tomorrow I shall swim in the pool.
I shall stretch as much as possible my arms,
as if I wanted to clamber up a rise.
Like a salamander I shall avoid who stops,
sliding next to him. I will evade
the splash of whom is diving.
I shall swim like a warrior one hour more.

                                                            "Nuoto, nuoto ogni giorno in piscina"


The time of the lipstick came,
in the eyes what can you make up.
To paint the pallor red. (...)

                                                            from "E' venuto il momento del rossetto,"

The past is not amorphous, anymore, but, I dare say, a real, historical past. The schoolchild, so absolute to be asexual, is overcome by feelings, taken as a symbol of impetuosity in another poem:

(...) Months, days, hours, more and more
yellow, slippery, febrile. I broke
into your rooms like a schoolboy.

                                                            from "Tu del tuo tempo volevi disporre da padrone"

becomes a real schoolgirl, who evokes in this way her girlfriend:

(…) I go back to think about my school fellow:
that one prematurely myopic and without the bow,
with her Christian male name
transformed into a female one, fashionable then,
coming into the schoolroom shaken by the news
of Luigi Tenco suicide, the abundant salivation,
her breast shaking under the uniform (...)

                                                            from "Chissà se ho assecondato il destino," 1

In the two poems I just quoted, I describe a double breaking into a place. I finish the second one with these words:

(...) Today I see into a glass
the mole reversed of those who see me.

I get close to the objectivity, without being frightened, without being terrified by it; I see myself bare, without a mask, but like others really see me, when I look at myself in the mirror for an instance, on the street, in a glass door or in a window.

In this phase it is possible even to see and to recognize the Other as somebody different from you, accepting him as he is.

The spiritual wealth of the Other is his or her past, different from mine. In a certain sense his peculiarity is what makes him lovable, because it re-establishes a certain distance between us, which is not absolute and infinite, much as partial. Ordinary but lonely gestures, which make you think, like the act of ironing, reveal fragments of the past of the loved one, who in this way becomes a stranger again. In the poem, a label of a shirt is an excuse to re-imagine the past of my loved one:

Only when I iron your shirts
I am aware of your past life.
I read unknown labels,
stores addresses, foreign towns.
Each one accepts or rejects the steam,
revealing a character and a mood:
obstinate the silk shirt,
easy that one with a polyester percent.
The striped one seems to be tearful,
active and sensual the checked one,
coquette — the pink.
Some does not correspond
anymore to you, to the point
that they remain in the drawer.
Forgotten days spoils.
Collars without any knot around,
twisted with a mastery of an enchanter.
I iron, I flatten and I fold up
old reiterated and intemperate gestures:
the glass of wine to your mouth,
the lighter click, the hugs.
And in the meantime I imagine your lean
boyish bust, left out in the weather.
Your thorax not turned white yet,
which drips a bright and black rain.

                                                            "Solo quando ti stiro le camicie"

The shirt evokes the body that wore it, recalls ancient abandoned gestures, like drinking wine, smoking, and the embrace of another woman.

The foreign past of our loved one makes even those who live next to us unreachable, inaccessible.

In the other poem dedicated to my husband Ruggero, the colour red plays a strong role, just as it did in my early poems, symbol of a renewed passion, as well as of fire:

(…) We were walking fast,
as if we were escaping from a fire
set by ourselves

                                                            "Le scarpe mi facevano male al mattino"

In the fire from which we escape — our past is piled up, as a resource which at times can be painful. Passion can rise only from the symbolic bonfire of our memories. You can love the other only when you are ready to sacrifice yourself. The sacrifice connects two destinies, and combines them.


Luigi Tenco — an Italian singer, songwriter, and writer. Commited suicide during the 1967 "Sanremo" Festival after learning that his sond had been eliminated from the competition.

This text was read in English at Vermont Studio Center, in Johnson, Vermont, where Annelisa Alleva was invited as a visiting writer in June 2002. The author would like to express her gratitude to Alexander Veytsman, Jody Joseph, and Serena De Paoli for their editorial work on the English version of this essay.

The Italian version, with the title Qualcosa su di me (Something about myself), was published online in "Ulisse", n.2, 2004, with the title Autoritratto (Autoritratto); printed version: "L'Ulisse di LietoColle", n.1, 2006, pp. 45-63.

All poems are from the collection L'oro ereditato, Il Labirinto, Roma, 2002

© Copyright  Annelisa Alleva
  Яндекс цитирования Rambler's Top100