The Strange, Pitiful Tale of Isabella Morra (tr. Caroline Maldonado)

While travelling in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy – in effect, the arch of the ‘foot’ of that country – researching her earlier translations of the little known twentieth century male poet, Rocco Scotellaro (1923-1953), Caroline Maldonado heard of the much earlier, even less known poetry of Isabella Morra. Born around 1520, Morra was one of eight children. Her father, Giovan Michele fled into exile in France when Isabella was about eight years old. A cultured woman – knowledgeable in science, music, literature and the classics – her life prospects were utterly curtailed by her father’s absence and she was left in the care of her brothers.

Her resulting frustrations may be imagined – and astonishingly they are also vividly portrayed in her poems – but her violent death, aged 26, is not clearly understood. There were rumours of an affair between Isabella and a Spanish count and poet, Don Diego Sandoval de Castro, though he was also the husband of a friend of Isabella’s and almost certainly admired by her as much as a writer as a man. But her brothers believed the rumours and seem to have killed her – an honour killing to protect the family name. Maldonado’s book, Isabella, published by Smokestack Books, contains – in parallel text – all of Isabella’s known work, just ten sonnets and three canzoni. The book also includes Maldonado’s own introduction to Morra and 17 original poems by her, inspired by Morra’s work and her “strange, pitiful tale”.

Castello di Isabella Morra

Given the period in which she wrote, it is the raw, personal nature of many of Morra’s poems, their direct style of address, that is so surprising. Maldonado’s decision to make the work as “accessible as possible to a contemporary reader” accentuates this as does her choice not to re-create closely the rhyming of the originals. Morra creates a strong sense of an actual place. It is a place of imprisonment, one she loathes, the village of Favale: “this vile, odious hamlet”. She looks favourably on neither the place nor its people:

Here once again, O hell-like wasted valley,

O Alpine river, shattered heaps of stone,

spirits stripped bare of all goodness or pity,

you will hear the voice of my endless pain.

An unsympathetic ear might sense something brattishly self-regarding here and, given her youth and sheltered upbringing, that would not be surprising. But it is partly this sense of a little girl lost that is so moving. There are several sonnets concerned with her father’s absence. Sonnet III addresses him directly:

I, your daughter Isabella, often look out

hoping for a wooden ship to appear,

Father, that will bring me back news of you.

The first line’s poignant allusion to their relationship reminds the reader that he has been absent from her life for many years. As she gazes out hopefully, she and the dismal locale seem to merge, “so abandoned, so alone!” In sonnet VIII, ominously anticipating the end of her life, she imagines her father’s too-late return: “Tell him how, by my death, I appease / my bitter fortune and the misery of my fate”. It is the capricious – even vengeful – Goddess ‘Fortuna’ that Morra often rails against. In Sonnet I, she is assaulted by “cruel Fortune”. Sonnet VI is a tirade against her mistreatment, initially from a literary standpoint (Morra had hoped to make a name for herself “with the sweet Muses”):

You have promoted every minor talent,

Fortuna, rewarded every sordid heart,

you now compel my own, long past all tears,

to face still more hardship, feel more desolate.

Fortune is also berated for bringing down King Francis I (defeated in battle in 1544), the French monarch who she hoped might protect her father and even bring about a reconciliation between them. Fortuna’s femininity leads Isabella into the awkward position of maligning all women in saying that Fortuna is an “enemy to every noble heart”.

Given such a small body of work and uncertainties about its editing and arrangement, it’s hard to be certain of any sense of development. But over the ten sonnets Maldonado gives us, Morra’s complaints about her lot do seem to modulate into something more resigned and accepting. This is more the tone of Sonnet IX, in which “unholy Death or cruel Fortune” are again the enemies of her “rising hopes” but there are signs of greater resilience: “worn down as I am it will do me no harm”. The final Sonnet also takes up a more distanced perspective:

You know, in those days, how bitterly I wrote,

with what anger and pain I denounced Fortune.

No woman under the moon ever complained

with greater passion than me about her fate.

What has given Morra greater strength is her religious faith: “Neither time nor death, nor some violent, / rapacious hand will snatch away the eternal, / beautiful treasure before the King of Heaven.

Caroline Maldonado

A similar progression shows itself in the three canzoni too. A modern reader is likely to find her early passionate rebelliousness most engaging, the lines in which she says she will use her “rough, unpolished tongue” to rail against her dismal fate. It’s Fortuna again who is identified as the culprit, plaguing her “ever since the days of milk and the cradle”. One of her complaints is that she has never had the opportunity to hear her own beauty praised and the loneliness and frustration of this young woman is perhaps transformed into the passionate address of the second canzoni. It takes its place in that tradition of religious poems which express a spiritual fervour through language that can be hard to distinguish from the words of a more fleshly lover. Morra appeals to Christ: “I will love only you”. She will use her skill in words to “sculpt [his] heavenly body” and she proceeds to describe his forehead, eyes, hair, neck, lips, hands and feet. The canzoni’s traditional five-line envoi on this occasion is a sort of breathless admission of the impossibility of her task, though even here, the passionate feelings are unmistakable:

Canzone, how crazy you are,

to think that you could enter the sea

of God’s beauty with such burning desire!

The third canzoni – as did the final Sonnet – takes up a longer perspective in which the landscape of her actual imprisonment has become a more symbolic location: “To be in these dark / and lonely woods in days gone by / used to burden my heavy body”. It’s impossible not to think of Dante’s much earlier journey through the “dark wood” of despair. Morra also suggests she has emerged from its dangers, walking now “along solitary roads / far from human intrigue”. We sense a new humility; whether metaphorically or not, she presents herself as “dressing my frail body in rough clothes”. How distant in time we’ll never know, but Morra has evidently travelled a long way from those earlier complaints at her unjust treatment. Especially in the third canzoni, her delight in the natural world rings genuinely true and through that natural world she sees God – or rather “God’s great Mother”, Mary, the female figure who has now ousted the hated Fortuna.

Rocco Scotellaro

Morra’s own few works end on such a note of resolve and hard-won redemption. That she faced a brutal and unjust murder at the hand of her own family is brought out more clearly by Maldonado’s own poems. She is partly interested in the contrast between the more contemporary (and male) poet, Scotellaro and the fate of Morra. As she has surely done in producing this fascinating little book, Maldonado intends to give Morra a voice in many of these new poems and, in ‘Scirocco’, we hear this imprisoned young woman poignantly repeating, “Who will ever hear me?” Both translator and publisher are to be congratulated in this recovering of an almost lost female voice from Renaissance Italy.

2019 Forward First Collections Reviewed #1 – David Cain’s ‘Truth Street’

As in the previous four years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 20th October 2019. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2019 shortlist is:

Raymond Antrobus – The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins)

Jay Bernard – Surge (Chatto & Windus)

David Cain – Truth Street (Smokestack Books)

Isabel Galleymore – Significant Other (Carcanet)

Stephen Sexton – If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin Books)

Truth Street FRONT Cover 8-2019_Layout 1

David Cain’s first book confronts its readers with questions about how we might witness traumatic events, about truth (and its distortion by the authorities and the media), about the language and forms of poetry. On 15 April 1989, during the opening minutes of the FA Cup semi-final between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool, 96 men, women and children died in what remains the most serious tragedy in UK sporting history: the Hillsborough Stadium disaster. Thousands more suffered physical injury and long-term psychological harm. For almost thirty years the survivors and the families of the dead had to campaign against the police, government and media who blamed the supporters for the tragedy. Eventually, in 2016 a second inquest ruled that the supporters were unlawfully killed due to failures of the police and ambulance services.

David Cain’s Hillsborough poem is dedicated to the 96 people who died and is wholly composed from testimonies heard at the inquest. Cain has said: “My ambition throughout has been for the work to listen to the resonances held in the collective memory of that fateful day, hear the poetry found in the hearts of the people who lived through this terrible experience, and try to weave these testimonies into a singular voice. Focusing on everyday life and language, grammar uncorrected, every line of the poem is drawn from over two hundred and sixty days of formal evidence.”

51ilBx8Z4aL._SY344_BO1204203200_Cain also cites the work of Charles Reznikioff and Svetlana Alexievich as models. The former, an Objectivist poet, developed work from court records and explored the experiences of immigrants, black people and the urban and rural poor in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Testimony, 1965). He went on to use a similar technique in Holocaust (1975), based on court testimony about Nazi death camps during World War II. Similarly, Svetlana Alexievich’s books trace the emotional history of the Soviet and post-Soviet experience through carefully constructed collages of interviews. Her work owes much to the ideas of Belarusian writer, Ales Adamovich, who felt that the best way to describe the horrors of the 20th century was not by creating fiction but through recording the testimonies of witnesses.

The colloquial plainness of the language (for the most part) of the Hillsborough testimonial material is clear from the start as the scene is set:

 

There was men, women, children.

 

There was lots of families there.

 

They were very happy.

 

Lots of people eating chips, milling around.

 

Many of the pieces have this same staccato rhythm, often end-stopped and Cain always lays out the lines with double spacing between. This works well. It gives the sometimes bland and cliched language a bit of the white space of poetry, giving the reader extra time and I think what we do with that time is add in our knowledge of the testimonial nature of what we are reading. These are not ‘composed’ words in the usual sense (about which we might quibble) but witness statements. Here are other lines before the tragedy unfolds:

 

I sat there reading my programme, mooching about.

 

Watching the world go by.

 

It was all happy.

 

It was a nice sunny day.

 

It’s an established cliché of (Romantic) poetic theory that people tend to reach for/create figurative language under pressure of emotional experience and that such moments make for powerful writing. In Cain’s edited versions this is borne out on some occasions. As the swelling crowd gathers outside the stadium, people are already being crushed against walls:

 

I ended up face blank stuck against the brick wall

 

A bit like rubbing yourself against a piece of solid sandpaper.

 

horrible sharp

 

nothing nice or rounded or polished

 

In another piece, the crowds now funnelling into the ground through the opened exit gates are described as “like sand into an egg timer”. Moments later, another witness struggled to describe fans now pouring onto the already crowded terrace:

 

The scene reminded me of pictures on television in the nature programmes.

 

Molten lava

 

Molten lava flowing down a hillside from an active volcano.

 

like a wave.

 

In this latter case, what is moving is less the image itself but the evident struggle to find a fitting comparison. The testimonies here tend to reach for cliché rather than startling figurative language but it is in the nature of the witnessing act that these are still deeply moving accounts in our awareness of their truth. (How often have we been told as writers that our self-conscious wish for novelty or reaching after effect is damaging to our work).

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As the men, women and children are suddenly crushed into the barriers by the press of fans behind, any thoughts we might be having about modes of expression evaporate. Unnamed voices bear witness to events. A son tries to protect his father being crushed against the railings, cradling him against the pressure. But a surge means his arms buckle, he’s twisted to one side, no longer able to shield his father: “That is the last time I had my father alive”. Another voice ends up in the small gym beneath the stadium which is being used as a make-shift sanctuary for the dead and injured. Also there is a young St John’s Ambulance volunteer, “A young lass, 14 or 15, longish blonde hair”. The poor girl, while in shock herself, is trying to help those around her and the narrative voice is equally full of compassion for the girl: “I just put my arm round her and said, // ‘You’re a kid. // You should not be seeing this.’”

As much as the horror of broken bones, suffocation and trampled bodies, it’s these powerful acts of compassion – the wish to protect, to help, to shelter others and, when people are found to be already dead, to show them some respect –which are built through the sequence. They are contrasted with witness accounts of the slow, insensitive, sometimes appalling responses of the authorities. Though there are a few reports of “Police and fans alike” trying to help, these are outweighed by incompetence, lack of training and worse. The fans being crushed in the caged areas ought to have been released, the gates onto the pitch opened, but:

 

We hadn’t any instructions.

 

We turned and we tried to find out who’s got a key.

 

We were saying to the sergeant,

 

‘Who’s got a key?

 

Who’s got a key?’

 

For critical minutes, police regarded the event as a pitch invasion. Fans kicking down pitch-side billboards to use as improvised stretchers were threatened with arrest for vandalism. Later, as families were being asked to identify the dead, they were pulled back from any physical contact with the bodies: “’Sorry, he’s the property of the coroner now. // You can’t touch him’”.

cain
David Cain

While we probably feel for almost all those thrown into an utterly unprecedented situation – the poorly trained individual’s recourse to rigid protocols – Truth Street squarely blames the media and the higher ranks of police. The role of The Sun newspaper’s subsequent reporting is well known. One witness is haunted by the thought that his actions on the day – taking out a dead man’s wallet to lay it on him so that he can be identified – might have been misconstrued, or photographed, as him “looting the dead”. Later, the press pack burst into a room where relatives “are trying to find out what’s happening to [their] loved ones”. They want their scoop.

Equally shocking are the testimonies which show the police inquiry trying to establish a narrative of drunkenness and disorder amongst the fans. Even as a dead relative is identifying a body, “The very first question asked was what had I had to drink today”. Another statement-taking pursues the same line: “did I have owt to drink? // did I see any fighting? // did I see anybody drunk?” And as we now know, this line of inquiry, this cover-up, was sanctioned from the top. The section ‘Norman Bettison’ is an account given to the inquiry in which the then Chief Inspector admitted to being asked “to pull together the South Yorkshire Police evidence for the inquiry // and we’re going to try and concoct a story that all of the Liverpool fans were drunk”. This internal review group tried to control media coverage, producing a 30 minute film narrated by Bettison himself that was shown to MP’s, which reiterated the claims of drunk, violent and ticketless fans breaking down the turnstiles, causing the disaster.

hillsborough-sheffieldstarIn fact – as Cain’s sequence shows – what was being covered up was the original decision of Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield to open the exit gates at 2.47pm. One of his officers spoke to the inquiry: “I was quite shocked // It was totally unprecedented. // It was something you just didn’t do”. This was what caused the inflow of fans – “like sand into an egg timer”. Only at the second inquiry, did Duckenfield revise his earlier false statements: “I didn’t say, // ‘I have authorised the opening of the gates’”.

Cain’s book ends with a roll call of the dead, giving their names and ages. He titles it, ‘Hold your head up high’ and is a good a way of concluding as any. But, immensely moving though the sequence is, I’m left with the desire for more. Such is the nature of this form of testimonial or witness account – there can be no natural ending point to such traumatic events. This is also why the opening of Truth Street feels very awkward – a scene is being set in the way (fiction) writer’s do. Reznikoff’s Testimony eventually grew to 500 pages over two volumes. Cain’s powerful work has been cut to the standard size of a volume of poetry. But its power is undeniable; in reviving, memorialising and bearing witness to individual Hillsborough voices, this book is a unique contribution to contemporary British poetry.