Under the Skin: examining Luigi Marchini’s ‘The Anatomist’

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Christopher Hobday dissects the most recent work of this quiet and elusive poet. Drawing on Marchini’s own words, the pamphlet and the poet are fleshed out in equal measure, revealing a philosophical and imaginative writer to the world.

The front cover of Luigi Marchini’s first solo collection, The Anatomist, is an exposure of subdermal muscle. The pursed lips and modest pudenda identify that this is the male of the species, shorn of its sheen and ready to be examined. This is the most fitting of adorning images; Marchini labours privately on his poems, bringing them to light only when he has honed them beyond equivocality. There is a sense, then, of being allowed into the secret sanctum, and it is a rewarding experience.

As a writer, Marchini’s stubbornness to be open manifests itself in a tendency to pare down each text, to cut away what seems not only extraneous but also what is the product of ego rather than instinct. Yet this is sculpture not mutilation.

“I would certainly describe it as a watershed,” says Marchini, discussing the volume’s publication. “Not only for the fact that it is my first solo collection, but also because it marks, I hope, the start of a new style of poetry for me. The poems I have written recently are sparser.” Only a handful of the poems in the collection are familiar, and the difference in style is quite distinct. Of his past poetry, he has selected ‘Mask’, ‘A Renaissance Kind of Cool’, ‘We Love the Smell of Napalm in the Evening’ and the ‘David’ poems for inclusion alongside new work, and there is a verbosity in these pieces that has been eschewed in favour of a Brancusi-like seeking of the essential over the extraneous.

The delights of his other poems show us that this has been a wise move, although some of the warmth and accessibility has been lost. However, Marchini was at his most prosaic when lost in the reverie of description, unburdening or admission, and his new style frees him from this. Only “On the Cusp of a Vortex”, a comparatively recent piece compared to the aforementioned, concedes to his previous style, and would work as a paragraph of text just as well as it works divided into lines. Marchini has recognised this as a weakness to be expunged; as good a piece as ‘Vortex’ is, he is not wrong.

“The later poems are less verbose,” says Marchini. “This is the kind of writing that interests me now. When I started, the temptation was always to write as much as possible and leave the reader to do as little work as possible. Now, I feel that I am maturing as a writer. I take more time over every word and I am beginning to grasp the notion of ‘less is more’ with a firmer hand.”

This is evident from the volume’s first salvo. ‘That’s Not My Name’ introduces the concept of whittling away at an object to reduce it to its fundamental elements. A fish is skilfully sliced to pieces, fins and insides removed. Marchini reminds us that this is a suitable metaphor for the artist honing his material. When everything unnecessary has been removed, what’s left is often impersonal and vacuous. There is a fine line between stark minimalism of expression and impenetrable mystery, and this opening piece describes the panic fear most artists feel towards the end of the revision process: that feeling of, ‘have I cut too much of this?’

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I have no name.
I am carcass, shell, husk.
A hulk.

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This is not to suggest that Marchini is overly reticent; he reveals much about himself in the work. The poet’s sparse language is a manifestation of his general distaste for egocentric self-expression,hence his careful war on verbosity.

Poetry for Marchini is essential in the modern quest for selfhood. “I am happiest when I am writing,” he says. “Through writing, I have more of a sense of me. It defines me, gives me confidence. The self is an extremely complex network of relations. It is not merely a single simple essence, but exists as an incredibly rich and layered tapestry of languages that we constantly weave and re-weave. It is of course no tangible thing, but more of a process: an accumulation of experiences, and a constant re-evaluation.” Here is poetry not as an expression of self, but an identification. “It is a textual re-evaluation; I need to write, without it I am nothing.”

So what connotations does this have for that tense relationship between artist and audience? “I pay attention to the audience only by acknowledging its existence. Otherwise,” he asks, “why write at all? But this cursory acknowledgement is as far as I go. Back when I had just started out as a writer, I used to spell things out more, because that was how I thought it was done. Now I don’t think about my audience at all.” Any duty a poet might have to an audience might also compromise the difficult act of self-interrogation that, for Marchini, lies at the heart of the writing process and is all about discovering, through an analysis of authentic responses, something about the writer. “If I did think about my audience, I would end up with a piece that is not a reflection of myself or what I want to write. I would end up compromising my work as I write, subconsciously.”

One of the poet’s motifs is the inadequacy of language to accurately capture experience. Nowhere does he communicate this more succinctly or more delightfully than ‘I Cannot Describe What It Feels Like’. It is my favourite poem in the collection, because it evokes that sense of being unable to get at the object; baroque literature has been described as an attempt to describe an object via circumscription, delineating it without discussing it. Each metaphor becomes a point of reference, and only when we connect these points does the object reveal itself. In this poem, Marchini quite rightly points out that, sometimes, the object itself can disappear during the process.

In writing, we are divorced twice from reality: the first time is when we acknowledge that the moment of experience has passed, and the second is when we render the experience in the most accurate words. Without intending to, we have created another experience, having to make do with what language our lexicon contains. The initial experience, during the act of writing, is somewhere between “the taste of corn/ the side of a knife/ a walk in the fog”.

So is this Marchini hinting that poetry is doomed to imprecision, and does he embrace the freedom this provides, or strive for a more verbatim reconstruction? “The poem is exactly about the imprecision or inadequacy of words to convey an experience,” he responds. “None of the experiences I describe in The Anatomist are real to me. I have never experienced these events. Even if I always carried a notebook with me, which I never do, what good would it be? You actually have to be in the experience in order to describe it with any accuracy. By the time you have rendered it into words, the moment has gone.” He has the same attitude to his own past. “How can I record accurately how I felt when I witnessed the birth of my children?” he asks, incredulous. His conclusion leaves no room for manoeuvre. “Isn’t it best to use your imagination and invent scenarios, to ask, ‘how would I feel if this happened’? Aren’t writers supposed to have imaginations as well as control over language?”

This comment reveals much about Marchini’s attitude to language (or how it has changed; compare the older poems to the latest ones). The Anatomist is technically very adept, with the pen wielded with an almost draconian austerity. The manipulation of textography, the picture that the poem makes on the page, is often used to mask a more prosaic work as a poem by isolating certain words or phrases on the page. It doesn’t fool the audience when the piece is read aloud; they hear that they’re being sold prose in a poetry suit. Marchini uses this much too popular technique very sparingly, only for emphasis and always with an understanding that form should follow content. So, for instance, the punchline of ‘Rabbit’ is a single word suspended in the ether. In ‘Skin’, the two stanzas are divided by a poignant turn of phrase that makes the last four lines (one of which consists solely of the word “dying”) a sort of elegiac refl ection on the first stanza.

‘Skin’ triumphs as a masterful experiment in form. Marchini does not write without rhythm; his poems are certainly verse (and legion are the poets who, when writing vers libre, utterly and unforgivably neglect the vers part, so enticed are they by how easy it is to write libre). Every line in ‘Skin’, even the ones that are drastic in their brevity, has an equivalent length of utterance. Take the first stanza, for instance, which steadily walks a tightrope between lines of trimeter (“its texture as I scrape/my nails along its length”) and dimeter (“fat until/a dead end”). The structure coaxes the reader to adopt a slow, sombre pace that fi ts the poem perfectly. It is a subtle but irresistible dictation.

Elsewhere, he displays a clever use of traditional form. It does a poet credit these days to show an awareness of prosody and systems that young writers on the whole seem to behold as contemptible (and it is their loss, and I would venture, literature’s). ‘Royalty’ is a sonnet, but the stresses are loose enough to almost convince you otherwise; what’s brilliant is that the poem benefits from the dramatic force of the sonnet form, its two dances – the octave and the sestet – building to the inevitable and neatly tied last rhyme, yet does not feel contrived or restricted, as sonnets often do. It’s nice to see Marchini indulging himself in an Italian form; it reminds us that, before the French and then the English seized the throne of poetry, it was held by the Italians, thanks in the main to Dante, and Francesco Petrarca. ‘Royalty’ is a tender and accessible poem, smartly so:

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Sandwiched between the sun and your bed –
hours of yearning wasted in the streets
of my day until we hugged the oversheet,
pulled it tight over our forms, our heads.

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How much interest does Marchini have in stricter forms? “I choose not to write in them,” he says with finality. “I admire anyone who has the time and patience to do it. I find that it restricts me and tends to block what I have to say, almost like an extra editor!” While I cannot wholly agree, this freer approach to form enables him to be more authentic in his evocations, to capture a sense of what Pound referred to as echt (and, let us remember, we are discussing a writer who agonises over the inadequacy of language to do the job of accurately reporting experiences). With a hint of sarcasm, he adds, “I’m not sure whether ‘Th at’s Not My Name’ or ‘On the Cusp of a Vortex’ could have been done as villanelles, or if they would have succeeded with a rigid pattern of rhyme.” ‘Atlas’, a splendid love poem, flirts with the sonnet form but one or two of the half-rhymes are a little off . This doesn’t harm the overall effect. In fact, the piece does not require the strong pinions of the sonnet form in order to fly.

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An explorer rushing to slake
eternal thirst, infinite aches
I lifted you up, bent to kiss
your earth, then dug hard into soil

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Abi Curtis has made a very accurate appraisal of The Anatomist, and the most accurate adjective she used was “tender”. For all its intelligence, this remains a very human collection. It is not cold, as intellectual poetry can often be. Nor is it afraid of admitting the foibles of its creator. The tenderness manifests itself in the mot juste and the tone of voice, the cadence and the imagery. It is evoked rather than telegraphed. The ‘David’ poems, in which the eponymous biblical hero speaks to us before and after his encounter with the Philistine Goliath, produce this effect not through dubious neologisms like ‘viridescent’ (intended to mean a green lustre) but through the finer details, the sheer exactitude of its protagonist’s mind in which every object is a punctum, a powerful focal point. The second poem in particular threatens to collapse under the weight of its own portent, with “reek of fear”, “lingering acrid stench” and “sensuous vapours of finest incense” uncharacteristically Romantic. Yet David’s incessant introspection and re-evaluation mirror Marchini’s attitudes towards the creative process. He is constantly recollecting and revising, attempting to rebuild the past, to give memories new life, so that he might never forget. The tenderness is in the mind that falters as the body does not; this slayer of Goliath agonises over every detail. He lists his ancestors (“Abraham, Issac, Sarah,/Rebekah, Jacob, Leah”) and those incenses (“stacte, frankincense,/galbanum, onycha”). There is even room for a very Poundian stunt in the opening lines of ‘David (After Goliath)’ which uses the same technique as ‘In a Station of the Metro’:

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I lift the candle, wax descending;
stare into the empty goblet:
a tree trunk sliced through, whitened, dead.

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What’s wonderful is that this metaphor unites the sterility of an empty goblet and the sense of an end to growth as evoked by the tree trunk. Here is the great hero looking back on his life, panicking that all these details might be lost, and with it the memory of the struggle, and that he will join those ancestors lost in the “spangled blanket” of the heavens. Marchini’s David is a fleshed-out human being, one with whom we feel immediate empathy, such is his humility and Hamletesque morbid self-attention.

An ability to explore the psychological or emotional state of a largely conjured-up character requires both imagination and empathy. In ‘Mask’, a poem that has impressed Marchini’s fans, the tenderness is ramped up to produce a piece of sustained writing that is intensely sad and captivating. Concerning the death of an infant, ‘Mask’ delivers the heaviest blow to the reader of The Anatomist. Whether Marchini is comfortable or not dealing with such a tragic event is moot, as is the question of whether he is able to lay any discomfort aside in the name of the craft.

“This piece was inspired by a line in a short story I read,” says Marchini. “At the time, I had not known anyone who had gone through such an experience. I imagined myself as a person in the same house, witnessing the woman’s grief.” The evocation of a mind struggling between wild exhortations of pain and the silent mewls of a demolished psyche is vivid due to the commonplaceness of the language.

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Now she finds a moment each day
to stagger to that place
between cries and whispers.

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“Writing the poem certainly wasn’t comfortable. How could it be?” Marchini asks. “Isn’t it strange how being a writer is often like being a fraud? People tell me that the poem makes them cry, and that I was brave to write it. What must people who have gone through this very experience think of me? Wouldn’t they hate me if they knew?” This heave-ho between invention and reportage, between the truth and the invention, is felt keenly by Marchini. Having successfully reproduced a genuine and authentic emotional response in the reader, he remains guilt-stricken while others, having achieved the same thing, might have marvelled at the extent of their powers.

Harrowing events inspire the mind to produce art. This is why we can study Goya’s pictures and Wilfred Owen’s exemplary half-rhymes. What price success for the artist? For Marchini, it is a louche enterprise, repaying the effort with something analogous with common-or-garden shame. This tension is not as evident though in his more overtly political poems, ‘Docility’ and the old poem ‘We Love the Smell of Napalm in the Evening’.

Dedicated to the Catonsville Nine, a group of Catholic activists who burned nearly 400 draft files with ersatz napalm in protest against the war in Vietnam, ‘We Love the Smell of Napalm in the Evening’ reveals another thing about the poet: Marchini has no stomach for satire. He has the sense of injustice, but not the bilious indignation required of a successful satirist. Blessed with too gentle and unassuming a character, he is unable to assemble to arrogant swagger necessary, so instead ‘…Naplam in the Evening’ has at its centre an engine of sadness, rather than zealous fury. This is evident in the short, almost stuttered lines. In the end, with its paraphrase of activist Father Daniel Berrigan’s statement, it is a call to reason, not a call to arms.

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Pacifists=criminals.
Conscripts=dead bodies.
Bring out the napalm
it must be better to burn
paper
than children.

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Interestingly, it succeeds as a piece of writing and I freely admit to preferring this approach to the vitriol of satire (which tends to bring out the worst characteristics in even the most humane practitioners), but does not succeed as a poem. The lines are too short, and the sense of desperation almost banal (“they won’t listen, their ears/ deaf to reason”… “how black must the bodies char/ before they say no/ to war?”) but the fundamental human decency that drives the poem is quite beautiful. So, does Marchini feel that poets have a duty to deal with the devils of the past, in order to arm society against the devils of the future?

“I don’t think poets have any duties other than to themselves,” is Marchini’s answer. If every poet must by definition be a humanist, must every poet be political too? Again, there is certainty in his response. “I don’t see myself as a political or humanist poet – I am just a poet. The past always forms a part of the poet’s work, but I prefer to see history as universal as opposed to personal. It seems much more daunting to write about the devils of your own past, than those of the world’s history.”

As celebrations go, ‘Docility’, is rather underwhelming. A warrior, an Everyman-analogue, discovers that writing about his experiences gives him power over them. “No more mephitic carcasses”, he decrees, and that’s a tremendous word: mephitic, meaning foul-smelling, noxious, poisonous. It’s excruciatingly precise; the bodies of Iraq and Cambodia, the corpses produced by the Nazi pogrom, are not just offensive to the nose. They have also poisoned the world, a product of the highend human capacity for evil. They have poisoned the nations that produced them, poisoned the civilisations that produced Fascism and National Socialism. Even today, Marxists struggle to free Communism from its connections with violent Stalinist lunacy and the orgiastic barbarism of the Khmer Rouge. Mephitic covers this too. It’s an adjective of genius, like Joseph Conrad’s use of the word jocose.

The poem is a vote for docility over aggression. Though the ending is trite, the sentiment beneath the poem is very fine. Like ‘…Napalm in the Evening’ its strength is not in the language, but in the chamber behind the text’s iron grille. Marchini’s protagonist turns from the rifle to the pen not out of pacifism, but out of a desire to seize back the language, to use words not for propaganda, but for beauty and innocence and kindness. Funnily enough, the poem is upside-down. Its first stanza is the best, and says almost everything the poem has in its locker:

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I want to speak another language other
than that uttered in Fallujah and Phnom Penh.
I want to form different words than
those heard in Belsen or Vorkuta.

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It is well known that the human race experienced a sense of profound disenfranchisement when works of great poetry and classical music were discovered in the private rooms of Nazi officials. Here is a poem attempting to wrestle the treasures of civilisation back out of the clutching paws of tyranny – and what are written words, if not the most valuable of treasures?

Moving from the vulgar horrors of war to the lure of innocence that has bewitched writers since the advent of written language requires no segue. In ‘Rabbit’, Marchini loses himself in the form and movement of an animal. This poem is about longing to escape the human world, with its demands and responsibilities, finding a primal peace in the rigorous and violent system of nature. Once again, the tenderness: a gentle eye takes in the creature –

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flesh fuses with muscle.
Your motion never linear,
random but always kinetic
as you chase the air.

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– and the human mind, split between cold science and tactile curiosity, attempts an almost invasive categorisation:

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your body a mass of molecules,
your fur like soft chalk

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Marchini’s theme of being unable to capture an object with the words at hand is articulated wonderfully here, as the poet tries in vain to describe the signified without using its signifier. It is believed that one of the major obstacles preventing the construction of Artificial Intelligence is that while humans and animals understand concepts like ‘wet’, enabling a computer to understand these concepts is a remarkably difficult undertaking. How do you describe the wetness of water? Similarly, how do you evoke the concept of a rabbit without using the R-word? Perhaps a poem is an attempt made by one individual to convey a fleeting momentary sense to another individual, with art as a by-product; whatever the difficulties of this process, a rare moment of humour from Marchini gives this age-old problem fresh force:

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On hind legs you resemble a bear,
lying down a purring cat.
Other times I imagine, for some reason,
You are a snake or a humpback whale.

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We are back with that description of the baroque. The poet attempts to recreate the rabbit by providing a list of several objects. By these points of reference we discover the true essence, the Brancusi shape, of the rabbit. In the quite brilliant short poem ‘Th ey Are Felt’, the disconnect between the inspiration for a piece and the words required to express it returns with delightful playfulness. “I imagined pigeons in the cellar and took it from there,” is Marchini’s invisible shrug. Yet it is in the finely-wrought images that are conjured by the poet’s imagination of these distant creatures, separated from sight by the floorboards, that the poem’s pleasures lie. “A jerk of napes, a confusion of quills” occur in his mind’s eye. “This poem was meant to be a mystery,” says Marchini. The sensation of mystery is precisely what this excellent piece of writing, with its great final rhyme, evokes.

Ultimately, it is enough to say that this is a fine collection. Marchini is right to prize the newer poems over the old. Their sentiments are not always as potent or as neatly realised, but in technical terms they are simply better written. But for all its linguistic dexterity, astonishing metaphors and sincere humanism, what we get a sense of most is the personality of the poet himself. “Poetry will always be an expression of the individual artist more than any other art-form,” Marchini argues. “In the 21st century, with the diversions and technology, poetry is less popular that it might have been for previous generations. It is easy to be engulfed by everything around us, to be soaked up by the internet to the point when our voices can no longer be heard. Poetry is a way of making ourselves heard, of making us matter.”

In this sense, Marchini’s poetry is a revelation of the self to the surrounding world, making it a statement against various weapons of totalitarian ugliness (and I include our mass media’s regular and automatic employment of despicable phrases such as ‘the common man’ and ‘ordinary people’ in this). Here, art is wielded with skill and sensitivity to enable an individual to set himself apart. Only when all men and women strive to do this will the stifling doctrines that lump people together be nullified. Am I getting carried away when I say that The Anatomist is a tool for utopianism? Of course I’m not; it’s a good book of poems, which makes it a bona-fide weapon against human weakness, abominable vice and crass apathy. The only unfortunate thing is that Marchini is too humble to accept his considerable achievement.

Luigi Marchini’s ‘The Anatomist’ is available now from The Conversation Paperpress.

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