Sometimes the encounter with literature is magical. One book, randomly opened, resonates with another being read. This has occurred in my reading of the recently translated poems in The Plant of Dreaming by Italian poet Elisa Biagini. While studying these spare and powerful poems, I happened also to be reading W.G. Sebald’s critical essays in On the Natural History of Destruction. As I read Sebald’s evaluations of German prose writers’ attempts to express the trauma of the Nazi era in the decades since WWII—tracing the registers of silence, of forgetting what can’t be forgotten, and of graphic representation—Biagini’s project struck me as a unique response to the problem at the heart of Sebald’s inquiry.
Biagini’s poems enter into conversation with the works of two seemingly far removed poets, Paul Celan and Emily Dickinson. Both were masters of poetry who wrenched profoundly new structures of feeling from the coercive pull of language into the commonplace. From his critical perspective, Sebald recounts a similar literary struggle in the post-war writings he examines. Most capitulate under the normative weight of entrenched language and literary form, but a few manage to wrest an authenticity worthy of their unbearable content. Though different in tone and context, Biagini’s project in The Plant of Dreaming is also an effort to crack open the complacency of language to reach the reader in revitalized ways.
Disarticulation is the word and energy that comes to my mind as I read Biagini’s pages. The poems both speak of disarticulated bodies (body parts) and the language itself is pruned in surprising ways. No traumatic narrative or biographical referent lurks behind her words as it does in Celan’s work; nor is representation her goal. Perhaps this is why Biagini engages two poets from apparently unrelated zones of experience, the European survivor of unspeakable industrialised horrors and the American woman who lived a comparatively secure and politically undisturbed life.
There is no hierarchy of pain in Biagini’s work. Instead, The Plant of Dreaming suggests that language, the poet’s material, is equally reluctant and deforming to all experience. As a result, the search for vitality of form and effect is the poet’s unavoidable project. It is vertical, archaeological work: ‘This, the labor / of cutting and filling, / what matter whether with stone / or word’ (115).
Biagini’s central mode is dialogic, not only because she includes short lines and epigraphs from the works of others. She also speaks directly of and to the reader, often in the imperative. As she explains in the preface, ‘The writer’s responsibility… is to connect the dots that form a common body, to give voice to a thought that bears the imprint of that body, of a word that covers the absence between self and other’ (11). Poetry is a ‘leaning toward, a dialogue’, an ‘insistent search for an intimate you … that can give fullness to our being’.
A recognized Italian poet and visual artist, Biagini teaches at NYU-Florence and has translated an anthology of American women’s writing into Italian. I sense the themes and poetics of American feminists in her work—the connection between the personal and the collective body, the idea that poetry is not a luxury (Lorde), and the intention to use it to conceive, or ‘dream’, more truthful ways of relating to others (Rich). At its deepest, poetry is an ethical act.
The translation itself is central to my visual and verbal experience of this book. The poems appear in Italian and English, verso and recto, and lines from the other poets she engages are included in their original languages. As a reader I am constantly wondering what absences and distortions are involved in my English-only experience. Yet these very gaps allow and invite the dialogic leaps between poet/poem and reader: ‘Not horizontal words that submerge, / but the white of margins, the pause that / covers the absence between you and me’ (19).
The title image, ‘The Plant of Dreaming’, speaks to the equal powers of language to blossom into futurity and to be used in the industrial manufacture of existential and emotional clichés. If daily language more readily dulls than enlivens us, the poet, Biagini suggests, must take apart its machinery to revive its creative possibility:
if the world where you leave no shadow
presses you into the speechless corner
let it not be story that noisily rhymes
but word that brings shade to your hands. (117)
Under the ‘horizontal’ glare of narrative excess, poetry’s ‘vertical’ paring and slicing of language offers refuge: ‘In its shadow / questions grow, space is given / to thoughts breathing’ (19).
In terms of imagery, the disarticulation of language is enacted on the human body. Fingers speak, eyes enter ears, ears and mouths merge. The body is at once a vital organ of synesthesia and the remains of a corpse/corpus, cut into parts, scattered about. This dismantled physical and linguistic body is the source of ‘dreaming’ that can ‘design new meeting places, evoke the elsewhere that is the other’. As Biagini writes, ‘the poet must constantly invent a new language …; she must “recompose the shattered”, not represent but recreate it’ (11). At once organic and productive, embodied language is the ‘plant of dreaming’ where a fulfilling ‘you’ might be reached amid the many prefabricated and unsatisfying encounters we endure.
Biagini’s work responds to a crisis that is especially apparent to writers, past or present, who deeply work with the arts of language. Perhaps more than ever, in this age of technological speed, we suffer from ready-made ruts of feeling and the lack of relief from articulation: a world of ‘no shadow’. Clearly, Sebald’s and Biagini’s projects are very different—one a critical analysis of writers’ abilities to retrospectively narrate human trauma in extremis, the other a poetic experiment to remake the relationship with a reader—yet they share a deep interrogation of language that feels like the only worthwhile effort in writing today. How do we find renewal in language that, on a daily basis, seems as violated as the bodies and as barren as the bombed cities Sebald describes? What are the costs and risks of that search? And what are the costs and risks of not taking it up? Through her dialogues with poetic predecessors and with us, her readers, Biagini has cultivated language’s futurity, positioning us to be that deeply encountered other she imagines:
Put this word on his eyelid
the letters will slip in
the wrinkle of light, they will water
the plant of dreaming. (77)