Mario Petrucci: The Necessity of Failure

In the introduction to his earlier set of poems Fearnought, the product of a residency in Southwell Workhouse during 2004-5, Mario Petrucci writes: 'We all know the best listeners make us talk. In fact, the structure [of the building] was (for me) such an ardent listener I had to maintain a careful distance'. This, he explains, was partly because of the curatorial decision to leave the place largely empty. 'It is audacious - almost outrageous - to present the visitor... with so very little.' Later he adds: 'Moving on to other species of absence, there is certainly an odd richness behind the spareness you encounter at Southwell Workhouse'. Here is an interesting series of observations about creativity; that emptiness, a space that needs filling, elicits it, and, if I can pre-empt myself, that the holiness of silence and a distance that can never be really covered hovers around poetic language allowing it to be what it is.

I feel that this becomes a central feature of Petrucci's work even if, in Fearnought
, the notion is taken little further and we have to await his later work for this insight to take a more powerful form. There is certainly a strong sense of the horrors of such places, and the sense of lack in its many guises, that is underlined by the photos, in Fearnought, of stark rooms and blank walls. 'Gruel Cauldron' hints at the void:

                              They have
      forged a bottomless mouth.
      The deepest well of nill.  [F23]

'Shanty' is a vivid plea to structure a boat out of the bits and pieces of the workhouse experience.  It ends:

         ...  - just break

     that window
     Give me

     a breeze 
          [F 24]

is vivid and empathetic.  It is clear that the poet was strongly affected by the echoes that struck his inner ear in the spaces and emptiness of the workhouse. However, it still seems (to me at least) like an almost impossible task well performed. The problem is that it was a task and, as Keats well knew, poetry as task or 'spur', as 'a trial of (the) imagination' does strange things to a poet's creativity. This is also perhaps true of Heavy Water: a poem for Chernobyl (2004) based on eyewitness accounts of the disaster.  The very strength of the external impetus - and there could hardly be a more moving one - imposes itself on the verse; emphasises a distance to be covered. Here, the poet is aiming towards the object of his writing; to sympathise with it. Empathy here speaks the object, not the distance; and the greatest poetry swells in the distancing (or the awareness in the poet of the impossibility of overcoming that distance) rather than in the object. This is clear from the many pieces in Heavy Water that are in the voices of others, which is a distancing of a different kind. 'Two Neighbours' speak in the following terms:

                 ... You play music.
     The whole world
     and you play music?

     So we will die


     I dreamed I was dead - but
     mama was crying in the dream.
     She cried so loud it woke me up.
     She woke me up so I wouldn't die.  
                [HW 40]


                                           'At last
     I look through.  Remember
     I have a daughter.' 
           [HW 55]

These are unquestionably powerful images, powerfully expressed. It is in the effort intrinsic to that power, devolved into a kind of theatricality, and in the sense of the dramatic, that the success of these pieces lies.  Later, Petrucci does better by failing. For, at the heart of his best work - in Flowers of Sulphur
(2007), i tulips (2010) and even the much earlier Shrapnel and Sheets (1996) - there is distancing and the strangeness that distancing enhances. After all, the enhancing of distance is at the core of the humanist - i.e. the non-religious or modernist - poetic life. There is an attempt (and the strain of it wrings its way out of the sounds made here) to make sense of what has been lost, of what must be lost; in a word, perhaps, mortality. To quote: this is a poetry of 'parabolas // where nothing must collide' [FS 16]. The tangent that just misses is a constant refrain here: 'the closeness of lines / That never quite touch / That spells disaster' [SS 29].  It is precisely this circumspection which is crucial to poetry.

'Bunshop', the title poem of Flowers of Sulphur - another wonderful evocation of childhood - is again about how hope can be lost after all the sensual touches of attraction:

                   Her hand in my pocket

     my Žclair in the other. I blew it.'

(Note the double meanings.) But then we have: 'Three stupid words.  I'm a Catholic.
'  [FS 18]. 'Elisabetta' [FS 20] tells the same story, while in i tulips we have this reference to love: 'half a ear & It // shifts : as any body / must - its lust a / touch looser at // the jowl...' [i t 26]

Again: '... as though / your resting had keys to // every chamber whose / open doors i // cannot step / through...'   [i t

And again: 'between   as // each lot of / room is / breathed now // between
us...' [i t 30]

Almost every poem here possesses this fascination with yearning and with the relinquishing of yearning, with the fading of things.  There's an almost painful sense of the loss of presence, the very language trying to reconvene what has gone before: 'a half hour after // you leave' [i t
39]. So many pieces in these volumes could be taken to illustrate this aspect of Petrucci's work.  In 'Meat Inspector', the description of the carcasses is vivid: 'Tight buds of heart; / Lobes and cusps of liver'; meanwhile, the poet thinks:

                          ... how far removed
     From the boy and his snare
     The wooded glen, the glimpse
     Of long ears in grass...

and then:

     You catch my eye...  but look awayÉ

      I follow your gaze.' 
              [SS 31]

Loss among the carcasses - of life, of youth, of expectations. The poet knows it, of course, but also knows that the inspector knows it.  Losses and distances.  In 'Bridges' [SS 28] a memory of early love ends:

     the strand of hair stuck to your cheek
     that said it all, which now I ease aside
     across these distances?

while i tulips
carries a refrain of letter and post, as if awaiting delivery (of child, of expectations?) and attempting to address (which is also, of course, a question of language):

     love sends itself flowers

     and mails its single-stemmed
     blood down the spinal telegraph all
     petal and thorn and never signs the card...
               [i t

There are things left in the air after departure: 'a half hour after // you leave some al- / most thing starts...' [i t
39]. Here, Petrucci quotes Frank O'Hara: 'the only way not to leave is to go' [i t 44]. Inevitably, we hear the loss that runs through generations: mothers, fathers, grandfathers; that attempt to catch again the tremor of the past. In 'Light Stitching' [FS 52], for example, we see this in repeated images. Here are the first two:

     Or you, father, pointing down to a Sicilian harbour -
     its dark pincers compressing an eye-glass
     of water

     Or my skin, watered down by a lifetime out of your sun
     yet thick and dark through our blood's long curing
     in white light...

In the first stanza the eye-glass changes the optics of the image, perhaps seen through some telescope placed to the eye the wrong way round.  In the second, the attempt to catch the original dark Italian blood has been distanced by 'long curing / in white light'.  'Last Words' [FS 56] plays the same game ('What did he say / exactly?
// Truth is, I couldn't hear') but settles for an earlier memory which is clearer and less painful ('Good boy / he told me') - though how well is it remembered?

All dead now, supposedly, those former generations speak in both their positive, life-affirming voices and with negative tones of deprivation.  Here we find images of funerals with their inevitable sense of loss, of distancing (lip, brink, portal), and, at his father's death-bed, a tectonic shifting between extremes:

     and me
     breathless, arriving at the bed
     too late
     last-born son     myself
     three weeks early.
            [SS 47]

Again: 'where / vintage and vinegar have each their place' [SS  50]; 'the white and black of your days' [SS 52].

There is a kind of burden (in both the sense of a weight and the old sense of chorus; something recurrent as well as heavy) implicit in the mood of these pieces. This burden reifies the poems by its sharpness and the clarity of its sensuality. Concretion, avidity, are signs of the poetic master but also of the scientist that Petrucci is; there is a seeking after the proof that the modern scientist knows is ever on the verge and yet must remain just out of view. The unknown out there is always so much more than the known, yet rests on it with the weight of its secretive gravity.  The effort to name, the specificity of the perceived, is the only thing that keeps the unknown (or seems
to keep the unknown) at bay. These crucial touches of the concrete are what Petrucci is so good at. There are simply too many instances to quote, as it is this quality that makes up the very language of his work; but to give a notion of what I mean:

     the glass
     you left behind -

     scallop-edged with

     i could see
     the cypress through

     that glass - no less
     distorted &

     your mouth
     proscenium   arch

     with darkening
     stick of light...
           [i t


     ... the squat turret of a paraffin burner.
     Utter black of carbon, bright flowers
     of sulphur.  Red lead.  
              [SS 23]

These concretions live (have their Being) precisely where they press up against the unknown, the Holy. The more accurate and well placed, the more the other (absolutely Other) veils itself and holds itself apart. Just where the tangent should touch, it passes close enough to leave a trace which the reader is aware of losing in the very process of reading. Petrucci holds, in part at least, that precision of the failure of all the greatest poetry. Here's one example (out of many) from Flowers of Sulphur [FS 39], a poem quoted in full:


     I am a suggestion

workings of brain, the solid ridge
     of spine - a curvature
to breasts, hip, loins.

     I tender
flesh, still, in old acquaintances
     who might have been
     something more.

     To a subtle
     my nap is velvet - in some strangers

     I am a lily's stem

     I glow under moons

     beneath the wedge-dark, am back door
to eyes -
     those hogs of the bone-glint,
     of the brink of sharing.

     Eased aside, locks
     reveal me: curtain raised on my milky
     opening night - or slightly bowed,
     offered to the axe.

I choose this partly because of the insignificance of its subject, because it treats of what Blake calls 'minute particulars' ('to Particularise is the Alone Distinction of Merit') rather than something big and startling. But even here Petrucci manages (this must be intentional) to hold back. The very specificity is tangential. The italics are mine, to show how the language avoids exact contact. The last stanza, I feel, being the most surprising, is a falling away of this retreat from the Holy.

It is a question of the impossibility of finding the mot juste,
which always remains just out of reach (the mot juste is the expression of this distance); it is a question, above all, of the exactitude of the tangential, of the precise way that the tangent misses the circle; it is about the way in which words that mean something other (as words must) will come together and lie beside each other ('lie' in both senses) in such a manner as to show us that sense is always lost - or rather, that things make sense only insofar as that loss can be put into language.

Words must fail, yet nonetheless they sing together in a certain way, at least for the moment (or more than the moment, for the poem remains). Words locked thus, together, always remain also apart, tangential - just as a vessel must tack towards its target at an angle. The very matter of Petrucci's poetry marks its failure to state. Words do what perceptions do: miss their targets; cannot mean the same to writer and reader, speaker and listener. The poet's world is at the same time both my world and, intriguingly, not my world - and yet, poetry stakes its reputation on the possibility that the two are not blind to each other.

This is of course a Heideggerian notion: the poem as that which disrupts or dislocates in its articulations. The poet lives within the silence between word and word; the chasm, the distance. This is what Heidegger calls, following Holderlin, the Holy - it is the tangent missing its circle again.

One form of this is metaphor, a carrying over of one thing into another and vice versa, and stronger than a simile's 'like' because it pretends with its 'is' identity. The very fact that one thing passes over into another denies this, keeps separate:

     each tree is
     a sound soft-spoke

     to unwheeled sky

     or passing

            [i t

Note the strong 'is' at the breathing point at the end of the line, and the 'perhaps': words that play against each other. The 'unwheeled' also denies itself later in the piece as being 'once hubbed / & radial', though this refers to another metaphor, not tree to sky but tree to mind: 'i would set // mind as / these trees...' (with 'as' making this a simile, rather), where 'set' is understood as something that cannot be seen, itself momentary. The metaphor is, in fact, with the body - tree to body:

       ... taken root & grown past

     its paring
     having absorbed what heat

     comes in to build a year-by-

     year body...

Now we begin to be aware of the multiplied distancing that is going on here. The tree is the body, the year-by-year body, the rings of the tree unlike the unwheeled sky or, indeed, the mind. Yet how the mind here transmogrified itself into the body is not clear, is kept apart by the critical colon carefully placed with a space to either side. Here is the whole section:

      ... i would set

     mind as
     these trees: closeset &

     like something once hubbed

     & radial staked
     out : taken root & grown past

     its paring
     having absorbed what heat

     comes in to build a year-by-
     year body...

Until the final reprise, this is the tangent of death passing the circle of life; the circles of the mind, the circles in the tree trunk, the 'unwheeled sky'. The poem closes with:

                        ... mind so
     still in its s-

     hell as to

     barely         till my

     tomb stone
     deep in upward shadow

    leaps upon
     me like a child around my neck

Notice the (at least) double call of 'still' and the singing of 'still in... hell', in its shell. Mortality cries out for metaphor, since it cannot be known - at least on the humanist agenda - in any other guise. And here, Petrucci does something wonderful by linking it with birth; that is, by calling on the double meanings of generation (the shell, if you please, containing hell within it - after death, or promised by life?).  The shadow is 'upward' yet deep; it 'leaps upon / me like a child around my neck' - a child as a stone, a weight (of mortality again?). To 'be // detectable / barely' hints again at the veil covering the unknowable - need I say more?

This is an extremely subtle and, I think, great poem. There are many like it in  i tulips
and (if to a slightly lesser degree) in Flowers of  Sulphur. Examples include 'what stirs this is-' [i t 48] and  'i have heard in' [i t 95] with its wonderful final flourish of separation:

          ... go
     on waving your
     stick & i shall shake


or 'Late September, 2001':

     How a twist of cells can work such wonder
     where a poet's words don't reach.
            [FS 81]

with its threat of 'freak / impending thunder' and a spider 'hung in her patch of unsafe sky'. There are so many multiple inferences in these cited pieces, and in many more.

Petrucci's most recent collection, i tulips
, is evidently a small selection from a much longer series. This volume is the first of a planned trilogy with Enitharmon (the next volume entitled crib). There is also a Perdika pamphlet which I have not yet seen ('somewhere is january') and further extracts planned with Flarestack (Nights * Sifnos * Hands) and Waterloo Press (the waltz in my blood).  I look forward to seeing these.  Certainly, with the i tulips project, Petrucci has arrived at a very high (or perhaps profound?) voice. These poems ring in the mind long after reading

          © David Pollard 2010