The striking (& I mean that in its violent resonances – the design is after all of a spoon serving up a mouthful of barbed wire Shreddies that prong darkly from a thin veil of milk) cover and the promise of a poetry that fused a classical comprehension of form with gritty experiential insights into mental illness were behind my desire to review di Saverio’s Sanatorium Songs (Palimpsest Press, 2013). What I was seeking (perhaps an unfair expectation but I exist always on the edge of poetic hope) were poems in an updated Confessional tradition of Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Berryman and Roethke, poets deftly able to evoke states of psychological disruption though the unique musics inherent in their particular idioms. Sanatorium Songs, gauged against this yearning, remains a ghost haunted by its sources, a primer on one person’s obsessive reading and translating of writers such as Rimbaud and Nelligan rather than a necessary excavation of mania and depression. But there is promise of this here. There is promise.
I admire many of the translations di Saverio undertakes. Able for the most part to understand the original French of the works by Nelligan, Rimbaud, Larbaud and others, I can hear with what sensitivity he has entered these texts, translating them with an ear for their singing, in some cases, as with Rimbaud’s moving Le Dormeur du Val, returning a rhyme scheme that later translators like Oliver Bernard had removed in the flawed quest for modern accessibility. His ear for these poets has worked towards enabling him to tap into a manic rhythm that can co-exist within a traditional form. In a sonnet-style piece like Code White, the alteration between a short line “to habitual baby-faint” and a long line “breaths; the uprise uninspiring cradle-bars cannot taint” combined with the hyphenated words and the swerving neologism of “uprise” conjoin with the regularized rhyme scheme to produce an essential feeling of disorientation within structure as is found on a psych ward. Other poems that convey this rupturing energy are: Code Yellow (a villanelle that the editor unfortunately failed to lay out perfectly – one of the stanzas is 4 rather than 3 lines), Psych Ward Queen, Weekend Pass, On the Suicide of F.T.J and Orphaestus (which suffers somewhat from sounding too excessively Ginsburgian). I also enjoyed some of his haiku renditions from Hosai and Shiki and the quirky Terrace Sonnet which is entirely composed of the cries of a dove, cardinal and hawk in lines like “cheer, cheer-cheer. Coo-ah/cooo, coo-coooo; coo-ah,” a poem that addresses the repetition-extremes inherent in the compulsions of the manic better than many pieces written in human language.
I had alternate expectations of this book and so much left me longing. I didn’t just want mostly pretty songs that hint at the darknesses of being mentally ill. Unlike Matt Radar’s blurb on the back, I didn’t think that di Saverio was speaking “as few of us dare.” I think he has had experiences that few of us have had and that he is developing the abilities to enter them but this book doesn’t quite get beyond its source materials, influences and intellect to delve into where it must aim if it wants to be Kafka’s axe at all. The subject of mental illness is close to me as many of my loved ones have been thusly affected, even to the point of suicide, a narrative I wrote about in my 2006 book Cusp/Detritus. So I am demanding when I read a book like di Saverio’s, hungry as I am for those who are directly connected to this difficult world to speak intimately and through crafted art of their experiences.
With this context in mind, I wanted at least two things to be different in Sanatorium Songs: the structure and the archaisms. Regarding structure, I would have been better able to enter the poet’s original works if they weren’t so constantly interspersed with translations. This constant shift does emphasize the author’s influences and predecessors but it also detracts from the reader being able to sink into the poet’s own style. The proliferation of translations ends up seeming like a way to hide, a series of masks. Perhaps if they had been placed in their own section this sensation would have lessened. Secondly, the poems are rife with archaisms, entirely unnecessary when drawing upon traditional form and an awful distraction, impeding the reader’s ability to trust the author’s experience, “voicing” and thus to feel this content is valid, both as art and truth. Words like alas, ’tis, ‘mid and lines such as “Souls should be forgiven, tears in the sun,” “soars my spirit on wings of wounds,” or the worst “see their rosy breasts at dawn” recall for me Pound’s utter dictum against using abstractions in poetry. It simply kills connection. And di Saverio wants and needs connection! Perhaps by his next book, his influences will have been absorbed at a deeper level and his clicheed uses of the image will have been edited out so the reader can more accurately appreciate his sweet ear along with his importantly grim insights.
What it Echoes: (beyond all obvious sources)
The Charge of the Light Brigade, a clam stew, Henri Cole, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, The Devil & Daniel Johnson (2005), Van Gogh’s Starry Night, The Sorrows of Young Werther.