Franca Mancinelli


Franca Mancinelli was born in Fano, Italy, in 1981. Her first two books of poetry, Mala kruna(Manni, 2007) and Pasta madre(Nino Aragno, 2013), were awarded several prizes in Italy. In 2018 they were reprinted as A un’ora di sonno da qui, by Italic Pequod. Her work was featured in various anthologies, including Nuovi poeti italiani 6(Einaudi, 2012), and Tredicesimoquaderno italiano di poesia contemporanea(Marcos y Marcos, 2017), curated by Franco Buffoni. A collection of her prose poems, Libretto di transito,was published by Amos Edizioni in 2018, and translated in English in the same year by John Taylor, as The Little Book of Passage (The Bitter Oleander Press, Fayetteville, New York 2018). Her writing has been translated also into Spanish, Arabic, French, and Slovenian. As a critic, she contributes to Poesia(Crocetti), Nuovi argomenti online,and to other literary journals. She is an editor for the literary review SmerillianaArgo-annuario di poesia, and the blog Interno poesia

Filling the Gaps: Franca Mancinelli’s Little Book of Passage


Franca Mancinelli’s Libretto di transito appeared in 2018, after her first two books of poetry, Mala kruna (2007) and Pasta madre (2013), won several prizes and established her as a compelling new voice in contemporary Italian writing. In Mala kruna, she explores an individual’s relationship to the Other and to otherness (the title means “little crown” in Serbo-Croatian), often in the context of love and the quest for selfhood; and then, in Pasta madre (literally “mother dough”), she focuses on the “original dough” with its “living yeast” of nature and poetic language, that is, the primordial elements to which she must time and again appeal to seek out genuine wholesome resources. Vivid, unusual, often intense imagery emphasizes her remove from this vital nourishment as well as its curative potential whenever she encounters it. The poems evoke privileged moments, often taking place between sleeping and waking, when brief communions with this primal, hope-fostering “dough” become possible, or, on the contrary, when she senses her separation from it even more acutely. Composed of thirty-three prose poems and brief narratives, this new book turns to short poetic prose after the equally short and subtle verse poetry of her two earlier books. What does this formal change imply? A slight increase in storytelling, though in the most fragmentary sense of the term. Mancinelli might well designate a setting (a train car), suggest that she is traveling alone (“without knowing what brings me to you”), mention a gaze which she directs out the window and which, by means of a reflection on the pane, offers an imaginary glimpse, even a prolonged view of that missing “you” who now seems superposed on the pane as well as on the landscape rushing by (almost as if he were actually sitting across from her), but the haunting quality of such texts lies less in their succinct “plots” per se than in what is suggested by them: in this case, the unstated emotion that makes the other’s absence so present and enables the narrator to “read,” as the same piece concludes, “into your face until light came.” Not to mention the feelings that evolve from this rich mental and emotional experience and surely remain alive beyond, as it were, the time and setting of the text. Other events perhaps subsequently take place—or not. This we do not know. “The story continues in silence,” as the poet phrases it elsewhere. As in her verse poetry, which similarly points to silence as it sketches moods, daydreams, and fantasies set amid carefully observed daily scenes, Mancinelli’s short prose revolves around unvoiced centers and disturbing causes which cannot be wholly defined yet which have come to the surface, as it were. As the reader meditates on them, they reveal their intricacy and mystery. That is, wordless centers full of emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and even imaginable acts—those pertaining, for instance, to the loss or lack of something or someone essential. Or perhaps I should say, more cautiously, that the contents of these centers, the “hearts of the matter” (as I am tempted to call them), cannot yet, or readily, be designated and named. This is why the epigraph—“To fill a Gap / Insert the Thing that caused it”—by Emily Dickinson is so apt. Many of these prose poems derive from or indicate gaps: the distance between two places or two human beings; a breach in a continuity that must be healed or sealed, perhaps by the “clay” that another human being applies to the “broken, empty places”; an abyss, modest or more dramatic, that suddenly gapes open, like that “widening crack” associated with a train rushing by and that announces “something enormous for which we still have to wait.” Like Dickinson’s “Thing,” this “something” is substantial yet not completely clear-cut: we sense it deeply, it definitely exists, yet it is not entirely definite. But we must try to fill the gap as best we can. In all events, an unsettling emotion, a “motion” that we sense in our minds and bodies in certain circumstances, especially when we are faced with what Mancinelli calls a “faglia”—a “fault” (as in geology), a “fault line,” a “flaw,” or a “rift” that must be repaired, healed, sealed. Water is an equally important, usually positive recurrent element. “In the morning something inside your body was moving,” she writes in one text, “a water crossed by its current.” Significantly, movement is depicted often here, including several other train trips, with suitcases to pack or unpack, and “things you have forgotten to take with you.” Some prose poems, moreover, hint at potentially life-changing (inner or outer) movements that are taking place, have taken place, or might take place in the near future. In one text, which opens with a stationary image, a nearly full “glass of water on the table,” the poet moves from looking at that water to recalling the shifting colors of the seawater where she and other children used to play; but as she recollects, the colors form a net and a “dark lure” becomes visible in the watery depths. Now an adult, she is remembering the end of childhood (a salient theme here):


A glass of water on the table, by chance almost full after dinner. We were alone and transparent, with something burning inside. One color after another, and then different colors, together, as in a bright moving net. The blue rose from the ankles all the way up to where we could still talk. Then something touched us. Its dark lure was submerged in the water.


And even as the passage from childhood to adulthood often implies essential and sometimes painful separations—those “gaps,” “breaches” and “fault lines,” once again—one notices often, in Mancinelli’s writing, an effort to confront other kinds of disunities as well: mankind and nature, the inner world of sensibility and the outer world of brute facts. The interplay between “I” and “you” is particularly intriguing as the poet sometimes employs “you” to designate herself. Above all, she movingly uses autobiographical details to raise more general psychological and philosophical issues. Elsewhere, the delicate, fragmentary, narrative architectures that she so deftly builds rely less on elements from the real world than on metaphors or even dreamlike imagery. In one prose poem, the narrator “was a house inhabited by plants sticking out into the empty air”; in another text, an initial realistic image— bending over a mud puddle—evolves into an oneiric scene involving an archetypal “ritual,” a rite of passage:


You bend over a mud puddle. Cover your face with your hands and make it dark. The eye sockets remain. From your fingertips to your shoulders, the earth caresses you. The bright white teeth call out to the submerged bones. A big sea animal sleeps beneath the sand. The ritual is almost concluded.


The book concludes with a beneficial metaphorical tree whose leaves are “thinking up a sentence for you.” In fact, all the pieces in this book, taken one after another, seemingly sketch out a single overarching story—a movement towards healing or renewal. This brings me to the second epigraph, by Simone Weil. “L ’arbre est en vérité enraciné dans le ciel” can be paraphrased as “To tell the truth, trees are rooted in the sky.” Of course, Weil’s “en vérité,” which is sometimes translated as “verily,” can also be rendered by “in fact” or “actually”; but I would like to emphasize the seriousness with which Mancinelli seeks kinds of truth through her sober, circumspect practice of writing, which eschews all rhetorical flourishes that might blur her focus and scrutiny. As in Weil’s maxim, the real world in its multifarious forms possesses, for Mancinelli, a less immediately accessible or perceptible origin than the mere ground on which we walk (though note her contrasting images, here and there, about shoes or feet pressing down or weighing down on the earth, all reminders not only to peer into existence as profoundly as possible, but also not to lose touch with it in the process). Similarly, maybe the roots of a life take their nourishment (or their poison) from secret “fault lines”; maybe they also culminate in some kind of “sky” or “heaven” (the French “ciel” means both). There is always more to what one sees or senses; in all events, the genuine sources of what we feel, think, dream, and do remain at a remove, and it is the task of poetry to try to bridge those gaps or at least to show where the bridges might be built. Arguably, Weil’s “sky” or “heaven” should be equated, for these poetic prose texts, less with a transcendental horizon than with sensibility in the fullest sense, encompassing the unconscious, memories, dreams, daydreams, and a very heightened awareness— the intricate mixture of thinking and feeling in a human being facing that tree, that other person, or herself. 

Mancinelli writes clear, concise, artfully allusive Italian. The ambiguities and enigmas that fascinate in her work stem from the type of events and feelings that she explores, not from any stylistic haziness. With the poet’s generous and meticulous help, I have nearly everywhere been able to keep the English close to the Italian. Yet let me add a word about the title. Literally “Libretto of Transit,” the polysemous Italian title called, from the onset, for a less immediately literal interpretation. First of all, our English word “libretto” is associated with opera, whereas the Italian word possesses this meaning but also others that are active in everyday parlance. For example, a “libretto” can also be a booklet, a pamphlet, or even a small manual such as a “libretto d’istruzioni” (“instruction manual or booklet”). Secondly, the musical sense of “libretto” is not put forward by Mancinelli, but rather that of a relatively short book—very thoughtfully put together, by the way, through key words, images, emotions, or scenes that provide transitions from one text to the next. Similarly, although “transito” means “transit,” and “passeggeri in transito” means “passengers in transit,” semantic differences between the two cognates occur in such an expression as “uccelli di transito” (“birds of passage”) and when “transito” signifies “passing away,” “death.” In the texts themselves, death is conjured up a few times, whence the motivation to seek out an English word that would be, in addition, less technical and juridical in tone than “transit” and could also bring out some of these other Italian meanings. Needless to say, the subject matter and the very writing of this book trace out a transition, a passage. Almost like a notebook, these captivating texts have accompanied the poet on her way. Hence,The Little Book of Passage. 



From John Taylor’s "Translator’s Introduction" to The Little Book of Passage (Bitter Oleander Press, 2018)