reviewed by Simon Turner
Ambition is something of a double-edged sword when it comes to creative endeavour. With its intimations of grandiosity and monumentality, ambition is certainly preferable to its lack – a cathedral’s always going to attract the tourist crowds more readily than a dilapidated shed – but it carries with it the burden of its troublesome correlatives: the noble failure, and the qualified success. Over-reach is often implied by ambition, and the ambitious work in whatever field quite often promises astonishment in theory, but disappointment when put into practice. In poetry, we might look to Pound’s Cantos as exemplary of this tendency: a work of towering ambition, which even the author felt to be a failure when considered in the final tally. (As a reader, I should add, I’m rather partial to noble failures, but I am aware that not everyone shares my tastes.)
There is simply nothing quite like anima around at the moment
It is with a degree of trepidation, then, that one sees the word ‘ambitious’ used as a primary descriptor in a poetry collection’s back-cover pull-quotes, as is the case with Mario Petrucci’s newest publication, anima. The adjective is certainly justified: anima is part of a long sequence of poems entitled i tulips (an earlier portion was published by Enitharmon in 2010 under that title, whilst smaller slices have appeared as pamphlets and chapbooks), which, in its entirety, will stretch to 1111 poems. Petrucci has proven that he is adept with long-form work – his most noted previous collection, Heavy Water, was an examination of the Chernobyl disaster and its after-effects – but the i tulips sequence is almost beyond comprehension in its architecture. Petrucci’s sense of scale is without doubt heroic, but also strangely anachronistic. We need to look back to the sequential masterworks of modernism and its descendents – Olson’s Maximus poems, or Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger – for a workable point of comparison. Of more recent poetry, only Anne Waldman’s Iovis trilogy feels comparatively grand in its architecture, and Waldman is, notably, a survivor of the fertile American poetry scene of the 60s and 70s when such grand designs had their heyday.
In short, there is simply nothing quite like anima around at the moment, and if I have to look to previous exemplars to get a handle on Petrucci’s project, this should in no way suggest that anima is a pastiche or pale shadow of its mid-century forebears. Rather, Petrucci is engaging with and extending an existing tradition of modernist lyricism – which we might call broadly Objectivist, running from Oppen and Niedecker, through to contemporary practitioners like Aaron Tieger and Joseph Massey – which remains largely subterranean in contemporary British poetry. These are, before we even begin to contemplate the colossal reach of the project’s totality, incredibly dense poems: sonically, syntactically, philosophically. That there is a philosophy – a rigorous and thorough-going one based in equal parts upon Jungian psychology and a Zen-tinted strain of Eastern thought – underpinning anima is another facet of the collection that sets it apart: this is not just a collection of loosely affiliated pieces, but is instead designed to articulate a belief system, to delineate the processes of a mind at work.
Petrucci perhaps most clearly articulates his aesthetic in the opening of ‘intervals’:
not what is or isn’t but every absence separately made itself in what fits round or nudges to it [...]
The echo of Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snowman’ – whose ‘listener’ ‘beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’ – is, I suspect, deliberate. Like Stevens, Petrucci is interested in states of being, treating philosophical propositions as palpable actualities, and the articulation of those states of being are a vital component of anima’s grand scheme. Tellingly, cloud-shadow recurs as a substantive image in two of my favourite poems in the collection, ‘as clouds at’ and ‘cloud again’, and the experience of standing under a passing cloud can be read as a physical manifestation of the concept of the absent-present moment that Petrucci articulates more analytically in ‘intervals’:
won’t leave blue alone : loud undersides bright -hueing east – that dullness west so what if this mind is sky to cloudthought not at all its kind but beyond what thought moves in & behind that in which each moves (‘cloud again’)
What I like about this poem is its nimbleness, the way in which Petrucci allows the poem to subtly shift from the physical presence of the cloud towards an abstracted, metaphorical consideration of the processes of thought. Petrucci’s technique is very much to the fore here. He keeps the reader’s eye moving down the page through a judicious use of line-breaks (Petrucci’s something of a master with them), individual words or whole lines becoming altered by what comes after. The reader in effect is held continuously in a state of semantic and syntactic suspension, which is not resolved until the poem – often unwinding as a single, baroque sentence – is completed. In many ways these poems are perfectly tooled machines, in which form and content are inseparable. It is in their precision – their careful modulation of sensual and analytical detail, their tightrope walker’s approach to line and syntax – that their beauty resides.
Whilst Petrucci’s linguistic density and dexterity are the major strength of the collection, there were one or two moments when I felt a creeping sense of claustrophobia asserting itself at the edges of my appreciation. Brilliant though these poems are, I longed on occasion for a little bit of breathing room, some let up in the lithe and knotty flow of Petrucci’s syntax. Although the collection is broken up by a number of poems after Neruda and for Hafez – another example of the author’s outward-looking, internationalist sensibility coming into play – these versions and tributes still display Petrucci’s distinctive syntax and forward momentum. A little too much of a good thing, perhaps? A minor quibble, nonetheless. This remains ambitious and, it seems to me, important work. It is also an achievement, not the least of which is Petrucci’s serious and considered engagement with facets of the American modernist lyric tradition that are largely alien on this side of the pond. Of course, the full scale of Petrucci’s project won’t become apparent until the thousand-plus poems in the i tulips sequence are available to the public, but considered on its own terms, anima is a success, and not a qualified one either.Simon Turner was born in Birmingham in 1980, and has published two collections of poetry to date; his most recent, Difficult Second Album, appeared with Nine Arches in 2010. His poems have also featured (or are forthcoming) in a variety of publications, including Tears in the Fence, The Wolf and PN Review; and the anthologies Lung Jazz and Dear World and Everyone In It. With George Ttoouli, he co-edits the poetry blogzine Gists and Piths. He lives and works in Warwickshire.