By Rosanna Staffa (Contributor)
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite.
― Jack Gilbert
Silence is so accurate.
― Mark Rothko
Like most Italians, I am fascinated by the invisible. When I was a child, we often drove along a beautiful road lined by poplars; one in particular was alive but for years had produced absolutely no leaves. During World War II a boy, a little partisan, had been hung from it by the Fascists, and it made perfect sense to us that the tree could not be itself again after that. I played in buildings that had disappeared overnight in air raids. I always read The Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, through this lens. I grew up among ruins: antiquities or buildings ravaged by war.
Lorrie Moore, in Anagrams, states: “I would never understand photography, the sneaky, murderous taxidermy of it.” I do. As most people who left their country of origin, I have only a few photographs from my childhood with me, like black and white ghosts. One photo was taken long before my existence. My mother and father, newly engaged and looking terribly young and solemn, stroll in glitzy via Chiaia in Naples with the required escort, his sister Adelina. Traditionally, this role would be fulfilled by my mother’s brother, Gerardo, but after surviving Mauthausen he rarely went out. It is his absence that gives meaning to the photo.
I have learned early on that whatever is left out speaks loudly. Michael Ondatije says that the sort of aesthetic principle he follows is of offering the reader about two-thirds of the narrative—it’s almost mathematical. A whiff of the unknowable, as Wayne Koestenbaum says in My 1980s & Other Essays about a particular photo, “provokes in me a hunger for narrative.”
When I use Italian I feel a lingering sense of the unfinished, a melancholia. After all, I left mid-sentence. I love how the artist Jim Hodges suggests the mystery of interruption in one of his works, now on display at The Walker Art Center. A bundle of clothes is on the floor, a cobweb cast over it. It lets us imagine a suspended narrative of passion or loss. The tension of the piece kept me and other visitors captive. Did the man leave his clothes running to or from someone/something? Did I?
“Is the spring coming?” he said. “What is it like?”…
“It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine…”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
The riddle of choices is very present in my mind, as one changed my life radically. In fact, being stuck in an elevator, while unpleasant, never seemed too dramatic to me, as there are no choices to ponder. I occasionally imagine other threads in my life, or play the game of what if? the way a jazz musician tries different notes, riffing: not a narrative but an exploration. It is mostly a desire to feel unmoored, to be playful with life.
I resent gravity very much, because I really would like to fly. As we would all like to fly.
― Claes Oldenburg
I do think that we all experience a sense of separation. The Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, in her novel, Family Saying, writes of how each family unit shares a peculiar lingo and references. Family is the native country we all, either willingly or unwillingly, leave.
For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.
― Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero
According to Aneta Pavlenko, a professor of applied linguistics at Temple University, one’s native language could also affect memory. She points to novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who was fully trilingual in English, French and Russian. She says Nabokov wrote three memoirs: he published one in English, and when another publishing house asked for one in Russian, he accepted, thinking he would simply translate his first memoir. “When Nabokov started translating it into Russian,” Pavlenko explains,
…he recalled a lot of things that he did not remember when he was writing it in English, and so in essence it became a somewhat different book. It came out in Russian and he felt that in order to represent his childhood properly to his American readership, he had to produce a new version. So the version of Nabokov’s autobiography we know now is actually a third attempt, where he had to recall more things in Russian and then retranslate them from Russian back into English.
Memory for me is in the senses. When I return to Italy, a narrative of remembering is triggered by streets, smells, visual stimulation, a bit like in The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. For me, being Italian is mostly tactile—it comes back not as much through the music of language but through touch. When I go back I hold the tiny coffee cups in my palm, crush rosemary leaves for the smell, feel the wood of an old chair. Common, everyday objects are saturated with emotional potential.
Again, Jim Hodges, in his work Here’s How We Will Stay, uses textiles to evoke his childhood. “I find that memories are transmitted through materials,” he explains in a recent interview, “especially when one is engaged in slow, constant contact with them.”
When I lived in Italy, I saw America through a male perspective, as just a few books were translated into Italian and all were written by men (excellent authors: from Ernest Hemingway to Allen Ginsberg). When I write in English I still feel there is a haze of maleness over my sentences. But writing is home.
When I write stories I am like someone who is in her own country, walking along streets that she has known since she was a child, between walls and trees that are hers.
― Natalia Ginzburg
When I arrived in New York and my English slowly improved, I read Grace Paley and Susan Sontag. Both writers addressed me directly, speaking with a confidence and nakedness I had not known (I remember lying awake, speechless). They talked of class, age, sex.
Who was the esteemed Sir William Hamilton but an upper-class dilettante enjoying the many opportunities afforded in a poor and corrupt and interesting country to pilfer the art and make a living out of it and to get himself known as a connoisseur. Did he ever have an original thought, or subject himself to the discipline of writing a poem, or discover or invent something useful to humanity, or burn with zeal for anything except his own pleasures, and the privileges annexed to his station.
― Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover
I know that I fell hard for English through songs first. I still look at rhythm as the main entry to a novel or short story. I remember understanding the meaning of lyrics without knowing a word. I knew what Janis Joplin and Chet Baker sang. It came through, like abstract painting.
All the musicians who create from the gut as well as their intellect can change things. People will never understand what we are doing if they can’t feel. All art is abstract. All music is abstract. But it’s all real … we were all trying to bring that spirit, that spontaneous energy, into our work.
―Joan Mitchell, reacting to jazz player David Anram in the jazz club the “Five Spot,” 1957. (She was visiting with artist-painter Franz Kline.)
In New York, I fell hard for words that I didn’t know like I might for a stranger. I overlooked all warnings from well-meaning friends, who told me that the object of my passion was actually pedestrian, sometimes vulgar. I was madly in love.
I still see attention to rhythm as central to writing. There is a complexity and power to rhythm that fascinates me. Marit MacArthur, referring to the poems of James Schuyler, writes:
Short lines and frequent line breaks slow us down enough to appreciate the process of shifting feelings, the observation of small and poignant details — and they also serve to isolate and emphasize striking perceptions and multiply possible meanings and senses across one line and into the next.
I like the music of English. It’s very free. I never know where I’ll end up. I’m in love with gerunds, I must watch out or I’ll put them everywhere for the pure pleasure of the jazzy sax I hear in the –ing -ing -ing – and the sense of continuity. I love the nervy intensity of English. Words don’t fade, they go out like fireworks. I am fluent now but people still stay with me like music first, in the rhythm of their speech. A man cornered me with a story at a party. The story was just okay, but his telling was a shamanic chant, riveting.
When I think of my goals as a writer, words are not what come to mind. It’s not a matter of choosing Italian or English. One morning in California I observed the way a surfer met the energy of each wave and knew exactly when to let go. That’s how I want to write.
If our life lacks a constant magic it is because we choose to observe our acts and lose ourselves in consideration of their imagined form and meaning, instead of being impelled by their force.
― Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double
Words are such a modest medium for the richness of experience. I find myself coming up short in any language, just as it should be. That’s the magic: the mysterious destination we pursue so fiercely will not be reached.
I gave orders for my horse to be brought round from the stables. The servant did not understand me. I myself went to the stable, saddled my horse and mounted. In the distance I heard a bugle call, I asked him what this meant. He knew nothing and had heard nothing. At the gate he stopped me, asking: “Where are you riding to, master?” “I don’t know,” I said, “only away from here, away from here. Always away from here, only by doing so can I reach my destination.” “And so you know your destination?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered, “didn’t I say so? Away-From-Here, that is my destination.” “You have no provisions with you,” he said. “I need none,” I said, “the journey is so long that I must die of hunger if I don’t get anything on the way. No provisions can save me. For it is, fortunately, a truly immense journey.”
― Franz Kafka, “My Destination”
Rosanna Staffa is an Italian writer living in Minneapolis. She received her MFA in Fiction from Spalding University. Her short story, “The Ghost of Chendu,” is published in the Fall 2013 issue of The Baltimore Review, and a flash fiction piece, “The Call” appeared in issue 3 of Spry Literary Journal. Her plays have been seen on stage in Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Minneapolis. She is the recipient of a McKnight Advancement Grant, a Jerome Fellowship, an AT/T On-Stage Grant, and is an Affiliated Writer at The Playwrights’ Center.