from Issue #8: Poetry by Paolo Totaro

Photo (CC) Alex Cheek @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Alex Cheek @ Flickr


The question

There was once a monkey who asked who am I?
The answer was not one that would satisfy.
Some time later he climbed down from her tree,
looked at the sky and asked pray, who am me?

If these four words were syntactically incorrect,
they posited a question that took time to reflect.
Later still, not the monkey but her descendants
reset the question: what is our why, our essence?

It was the moment He had waited for. He struck
the Lease, called the Quick Eviction Angels Truck
and both he and she had to leave all the trees

and grassy lawns and the tepid sea-breeze.
Yet, the questions kept on rising to the sky
and I for one still ask who the fuck am I?




 The architect’s gene

…………………………………………..In memoriam Harry Seidler

The house this mouse built, for herself, mate and brood
is a tunnel, complex, to you and me a pinhole in the ground.
Over there, clay, saliva, dung, the termites’ mound scrapes
their sky. Green tree-ants sew their home in a leaf, one design.

Weaverbirds’ aerial nests, of chewed grass and palm leaves,
pulse against the sunlight. Yes, living things all have innate
sense of roof, of eaves. They don’t boast. Don’t add
to the palimpsest, humbly react to what is internally told.

Humans, however, Pheidías to Seidler, improve on ancestors:
towers, domes, each add to the great predecessors,
build nests great as theatres and theatrical places to rest,

try to move one step, two steps higher on the originality
ladder. Their works may last longer. But all living creatures’
nests do not outlast time. Or man’s other gene. For war.




PAOLO TOTARO’s poetry in English and in Italian is published in anthologies by Oxford University Press (Mark O’Connor ed. 1992), Stanford UP (USA 2014), in a 2014 special issue on Australian poetry by ARC (Canada) and Cordite (Australia); in literary reviews including Other Modernities (Milan University 2014), Le Simplegadi (Udine University 2014), CreArta (UTS 1998), Quadrant (2012, 2013), Contrappasso (2013). His Collected Poems (1950-2011) was published in 2012. He won the First Prize at the 1992 Due Giugno literary competition with Storia Patria (Naples and Sydney, 2012). He was a contributor to The Bulletin and other magazines. He has presented his work in public libraries, the Dante Alighieri Society, The Italian Institute of Culture, Manning Clark House, SBS TV and radio, the ABC, and others. His current work explores the bond between poetry, science and myth. He had a role in the foundation of multiculturalism in Australia with his Report to Parliament Participation (1978) as Foundation Chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Commission and his work thereafter. He has held many public positions and was honoured with the Order of Australia in 1988 and the Order of Italy in 2010. As a pianist, he presented the first Australian performance of the Suite op. 145 by Shostakovich (‘On Verses of Michelangelo’) for baritone and piano (Art Gallery of NSW, 1974). He lives on Pittwater, NSW, Australia, with his wife. Part of his papers are with the Mitchell Library.

New Double Issue launch on 10 April!

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015

Contrappasso Double Issue, April 2015


Roll camera…

Contrappasso starts its 4th year with a DOUBLE ISSUE.

Writers at the Movies, edited by Matthew Asprey Gear and guest Noel King, brings together many kinds of artists who have been captivated by film: its imagery, history, personalities and political edge. Across essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and photography, the contributors are James Franco, Emmanuel Mouret, Sarah Berry, Barry Gifford, Michael Atkinson, Luc Sante, R. Zamora Linmark, Richard Lowenstein, Anthony May, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Scott Simmon, Clive Sinclair and the late, great Richard Hugo.

Companion issue Contrappasso #8 takes the journal’s adventures in international writing further and wider, with its biggest selection of new fiction and poetry, from nine countries.

There’s an interview with Filipino authors F. H. Batacan and Andrea Pasion-Flores, plus stories by Pasion-Flores, US authors Rick DeMarinis and Kent Harrington and, in a Contrappasso first, a long-overdue translation of Argentine modernist author Roberto Arlt (with translator Lucas Lyndes)…

…plus the most poetry in any Contrappasso issue, with work by Nicaragua’s Blanca Castellón (translated by New Zealand’s Roger Hickin), Spain’s Alicia Aza (translated by J. Kates), China’s Lu Ye and Geng Xiang (translated by Ouyang Yu), New Zealand’s Kerrin P. Sharpe and Mary Macpherson, the UK’s Bill Adams and Richard Berengarten, the USA’s Floyd Salas and J. Kates, and Australia’s Elias Greig, Philip Hammial, Travis McKenna, Sascha Morrell, Tony Page, Sarah Rice, Frank Russo, Page Sinclair, Alex Skovron, Paolo Totaro, Lyn Vellins, Luke Whitington – and one of the last poems by the late, much-missed Morris Lurie.

This Contrappasso DOUBLE ISSUE presents the most writers so far, across the widest range of fields.

And… cut.

from Issue #6: Poetry by Penny Florence

Photo (CC) Joscelyn Upendran @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Joscelyn Upendran @ Flickr




Ant Hill presented itself, complete, when I returned to the UK following a month in Australia at the invitation of friends. The month was spent with people I have met in diverse ways and contexts, but I have spent little time with any of them, if you measure a lifetime. Yet their significance is not at all ordinary.

The relationship between Australia and Britain can, perhaps, like other post-colonial affinities, be compared to this. We have formed each other for a brief moment, but that split second has left structural traces, like a slide from geology to topography to topology.

The harbinger of the sequence of poems was “Tangent”. While staying at Pittwater, I had begun a rare conversation. I did not know if it would continue. I sat down to send an email about my projects in digital poetry, and wrote “Tangent” in 5 minutes. It remains virtually unchanged.

I take no great credit for this. I find the best things happen unaided, gifts from that miraculous and elusive space beyond self.

This collection is about these things: people who matter to you way beyond the amount of time you spend with them; places that become part of the imaginary landscape that is your unknown blueprint of home; the lightest of touches that your body knows until it dies.

A final word about ‘Pair for Paolo’. It grew out of a poem by Paolo Totaro, sent by email, which became the basis, set in standard type. My line by line response is in blue cursive. Imagine the lines playing off each other in a visual dance. Read freely, following your eye and inclination.





to a touch
of one life to an

short. scribe
in infinitesimal eternity

(strange word, of beauty and fear).

brevity and sightlessness
no match for a lifetime.

exactitude. perfect. match
a moment, fleeting and sure
like flight,

like the flash of a wing

light glints, water moves in

They flee from me.




a muse meant,
once upon a time, a lady
sat, alone, aloof, like
patience. smiling at no-one,
nothing altered, especially
not her.

a poet, she.

no taster of success, she. just, she

kept her own counsel. knowing

one day, once upon a time, later,
a poet, met by chance by the water,
would be her muse; the hope and delight
gently, lightly, show
her her way. because, being
no fools

they had no desire to talk to emptiness.



Pair for Paolo
(With Paolo Totaro)

(from P’s idiolect to P’s idiolect)

My leaf of gold, my truest, my routinely checked
gold flutters, autumnal, regular and random
mail each day each hour, like water you take the shape
as words weave magic trees out of ether
of the vessel you are poured in, like ice you are
frozen to form. Or rock between rivers, green
stone, like a meadow you link two rivers that flow

one east one west. Yet, the one source is forever
space, compass lost.
for both, lost. The mountain that is behind

Seated, soaring promontory recedes
continues to be seat, passage, road, landscape
from all to nought. O. Recall
finally to disappear. From all but the memory
draws all to the event
where all converge and somersaults in, is then
centrifugued, until the scions of years – forgotten
descending years of meanings
meanings – draw to a close. One stone after
another stone, the building that is mind
as a house of cards prettily shatters
sheds floors. In the outside memory remains
to harvest only leaves,
my sheaf of mail, my routinely deleted
mail of these last days last hours, like tombstones.




(the motion of water inscribed on veined stone veins my vision,
blurred pearl)

I see everything that was here before, but the map must have been wrong.
Following it, I bump into things.
Perhaps it is upside down?

Well, that helps,
but it’s not enough.

I shall remember that there are rivers and forests, seas and deserts,
and draw my own




Nomadic Variations

I. Kernow, An Lysardh (Cornwall, The Lizard Peninsula), Australia

Purple The Lizard, long, low
reaches to Brittany
long lost matrix, earth joined
by splitting sea

South, Europe lies, and North
ghost continent
actual and ungraspable
as myth, as Mu

Gondwana, Pangea
roots of mountains, basal layer,

Cornwall’s granite, Vesuvius spit
of land liquid like sea.

Mining the deep
belief, child-like,
to Oz & Ayer’s Rock


strata as truth, perhaps,


mineral culture
a mine is a mine is a mine …


II. (Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings 1336 BC, Cairo 1922 AD, London 1972 AD)

It must be here
It must.

searching plinth, shelf,
panic rising, absurd

I stop. It’s this size, I say
(holding a hand at hip height,
my size when first I saw)

alabaster, incandescent,
artfully lit on its full page
when book bound colour was rare.

Wonders of the Past
entombed millennia
the country of my birth
where I do not belong. But.

A perfume vase, I say, handles, carved, round,
waisted. It must be here. It is, he says, with an odd smile.

And I see. Two inches, three,
Where feet once were.
We laugh. I turn away,
hiding my grief.

My father, born there, too, and his
in Scotland, generations gone.
A common sort of story,

Aunt Cissy died stateless,
relict of colonial adventure.
Love of Cairo holding
when Suez bade her leave.

Not for her the straitness of a canal.


III: Alexandria, Gwithian (Kernow), and beyond

………………His legs bestrid the ocean
…………………………………………………………………………his delights
……………..Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
……………..The element they lived in.
…………………………………………..(Cleopatra, Shakespeare, Antony & Cleopatra V ii)


High tide and the dolphins

a crab shell at my feet,
horned carapace starred like the prehistoric moon,
scarred with extinct light.

…….Shift sideways, sidereal
…………weed wedge to belly, tail, flicker
………………clear of the horizon


childhood windblown voices down the dunes
hollowed in recessive horn,

……..What do you see at the end of the sea,
……..When the sun shines through, and the sand
……..Stripes rippling stipple the yellow scree
……..Is it light, is it sea, is it


is elsewhere, though beneath
to touch, just touch

…… the sea the sea-sunk wave-hill

then, like dolphins, in air
…… dance



What’s What

Mud and stones polished by bright water,
The air bruised with the scent of wild garlic
Pelted with hail. That lies white, speckling the green and brown.

Small opportunist birds flit excitedly in the intermittent sun,
Knowing it seems what
Mud and stones polished by bright water,
air bruised with the scent of wild garlic,
pelted with hail, are.

White, speckling the green and brown,
small opportunist birds flit excitedly in the intermittent sun,
knowing, it seems, what




Penny Florence currently works primarily with digital poetry, exploring translation and visual art. She has published on a range of academic interests, most of which concern poetry or painting, or how they relate (she is Professor Emerita at The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London). Ant Hill, from which this selection is taken, is her first collection of poems. Although she has always jotted poetic notes, she has rarely properly written poetry. These 5 poems are the first she has published. She lives in Cornwall, on the Penwith Peninsula, in the far South West of Britain.

from issue #2: Poetry by Paolo Totaro

Photo (CC) Phillie Casablanca @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Phillie Casablanca @ Flickr

Tide of tides

It will be June, month of high tides
in this god-forsaking corner of the Pacific Ocean.

Well past our estuary, past the marshes
and the worms drilling into pylons,
past the blue soldier-crabs
immersed in their writing on the sands,
she will be force-feeding these broken bays.

Self-important, that queen of tides
will be higher than ever seen at the anxious gauge
and we shall watch but won’t rush to any other corner,
watch as she pauses at the fireplaces
to try perhaps one last smoke,
while mounting floor windows and the horizon line.
Listen: the silence will be unbroken.

She will pleasingly rest over the wrinkled roof
of the beach-house.

Inhale: has the smell of the sea changed?
Listen more: has the sound changed of the new winter?
Is the sun rotating with piercing sight of flames?
No and it’s no use distracting your attention
or keeping it fixed onto the idea of your own doom.

Will these paintings float?
Will these chairs, already safely anchored
to the convivial table?
And this ream of paper, will it be toy to waves
and feed to plankton?

Will I still be here or, from some place above,
evergreen see the sea again slowly withdraw
under the shadows of the leafy pediment,
each day faintly more generous to the shore?
For a long second there had been this dying expectation
based on reading news from other islands
at other corners of this alien Ocean
fallen to the long hand of man’s outgrowth .

But when it comes you find it is flush with all imagination
and less scary. It’s a fact
natural as this seepage from broken vessels,
brown blood on the hands,
the failing equilibrium
or the pose each day more bent.

Earth is ageing. These bays age.
This old beach who saw the ritual feasting.
These verses rhyme-less and scanty of clear sense.
But the oscillations of the moon, like of taste,
sweep away bad and good
but hand back any overdue
in the fullness
of astronomical time.


PAOLO TOTARO, born in Naples, Italy, lives in Sydney and has been writing since the ’60s poetry in both English and Italian. He was Foundation Chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW, a Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, a contributor to The Bulletin, Visiting Professor at the University of Western Sydney and Pro-Chancellor and Member of Council of the University of Technology, Sydney, among other positions. His main interest has been human rights. A practising chamber musician, of late he has concentrated on poetry. He has published a novella in Italian, Storia Patria (1992) for which he won the Due Giugno Literary Prize; Collected Poems 1950-2011 (2012). He has also been published in anthologies of Italian Australian Poetry; in Two Centuries of Australian Poetry, Oxford University Press (1994), Crearta(1998), Quadrant (2013, 14), Contrappasso (2012, 2013); Le Simplegadi (2012): Water Access Only (2012),ARC/Cordite Special Book on Australian Poetry (2014) and several other. A collection of bilingual poetry about children and war is nearing completion.

See Paolo Totaro’s poems from issue #1 of Contrappasso.

from issue #1: Poetry by Paolo Totaro


Translated by Theodore Ell


Tu sai che c’è, perchè il tuo cane corre
a cercare morselli che lui lascia
affidati al grande Moreton Bay Fig.
Lo sai, perchè se ascolti a notte piena

dalla verandah alla strada svuotata,
senti il coperchio del tuo garbage bin
che si apre e chiude col leggero fruscìo
del già rifiuto risignificato.

Una grotta nell’asciutto limestone
sulle rive del fiume Parramatta
ben ornata da edere gli è casa,
ma sopra quella roccia, comperate

all’asta, compatte altre case. Gente
altrimenti sicura che nei sogni
si sente minacciata dalle volpi
volanti e grida muta “Come back!”

Peter lascia un pochino delle cose
per i pets delle case arroccate.
Lo dice russo o forse ungherese
chi l’ha sentito e di voce sottile

e di pochissime parole accentate.
Lento di piede, solennemente
si muove come un vescovo ortodosso
odora d’incenso e forse lo è stato.

[You know he’s there, because your dog dashes
to look for titbits he leaves out
at the big Moreton Bay Fig.
You know, because if you listen deep in the night

from the verandah into the empty street,
you hear the lid of your garbage bin
opening and closing with the slight rustling
of something thrown away reacquiring meaning.

A cave in the scorched limestone
on the banks of the Parramatta river
garlanded with ivy is home to him,
but above that rock, purchased

at auction, compacted other houses. People
otherwise secure who in their dreams
feel menaced by the flying
foxes and cry out silently “Come back!”

Peter leaves a little of anything
for the pets of the unwelcoming houses.
They say he is Russian or perhaps Hungarian
the ones who have heard his soft accented voice

and not many words spoken.
Slow of step, solemnly
he moves like an orthodox bishop
redolent of incense and perhaps he was.]


Che lotta mantenersi rilevante!
Fu stato giornalista e vive ora vestito
di fuliggine nell’angolo più oscuro
del Riverview Pub. Raro sorriso

non traguarda, non ti dà a vedere
altro che due lenti tonde nere
ed un vago senso di minaccia
oltrepassata. Che lotta mantenersi

ancora vivi! E quanto più feroce
l’immagine di un se che ormai trascorre
indefinito. Infagottato, rubizzo
forse si vede chiaro acciaio

d’ironia che non perdona
e non dà trregua mentre gli altri
non vedono che un gozzo.

[What a struggle to stay relevant!
He had been a journalist and now lives coated
in grime in the darkest corner
of the Riverview Pub. He aims no

rare smiles, gives nothing away
but two black round lenses
and a vague sense of menace
overcome. What a struggle to stay

a little bit alive! And even more savage
the image of an if which now runs on
undefined. Muffled up, hearty
perhaps it is possible to see a clear steel

of irony which does not forgive
and gives no quarter while others
see nothing but a goitre.]


Curva sul trabiccolo
di legno consumato
camminava lenta
verso il rendevù

quotidiano col sole,
quando calmo sottinde
gli orizzonti spianati
di questa città pigra

senza salite o discese
e senza male né bene.
Vergine d’ogni peccato
trascinava scarpe slabbrate

già della sanvincenzo:
scialli gonne scialletti
mollemente gonfiati
dal pochissimo vento.

E non mancava eleganza
come in tutta l’antica
povera gente, di qui
o immigrata. È lo stesso,

non t’offrono pupille
ma radi sordi ‘gooday’
a te che il suo quartiere
glielo hai gentrificato.

Erano il suo comitato
due gatti, quello roscio
e quello variegato.
Li sgridava gentile

se aveva energia:
“Piccirì… ehi Pussypussypù.”
Tre passi e poi fermata
serpeggiando i codoni

l’aspettavano galanti,
occhi onesti fissati
su lei preziosa providora.
Vent’anni in Sicilia.

Venne sposa. Fu morto.
Poi anni nella fattoria
della cioccolatte Nestlé
costruita su una insenatura

del Parramatta River;
certo a volte smellava
ma dava da che vivere
a un intero quartiere.

Ai gatti parlava sempre
meno e sempre più alla mente
voci antiche, e le nuove
che non sa più decifrare.

Se ne è andata silenziosa
come è vissuta e dicono
era la casa senza bagno.
I gatti sopravvivono.

Alla morte si arriva sempre tardi.

[Bent over the cart
of eaten wood
she would walk slowly
towards the daily

rendezvous with the sun,
when it calmly underlines
the flattened horizons
of this lazy city

without rises or descents
and without evil or good.
A virgin to any wrongdoing
she shuffled in shoes

already tatty from Vinnies:
shawls skirts scarves
billowing minutely
in the very little breeze.

And she didn’t lack elegance
as with all old
poor people, from here
or immigrants. It’s the same,

they don’t offer pleading
but the odd muted ‘gooday’
to you who gentrified
their suburb on them.

Her committee was
two cats, the bastard one
and the mottled one.
She kindly scolded them

if she had the energy:
“Piccirì… ehi Pussypussypù.”
Three steps and then still
their tails snaking around

they waited for her gallantly,
honest eyes fixed
on her the precious provider.
Twenty years in Sicily.

She married. He died.
Then years in the factory
of Nestlé drinking chocolate
built on an inlet

of the Parramatta River;
sure it smelled at times
but it gave that bit of a living
to an entire suburb.

To the cats she spoke less
and less, with more ancient voices
to her mind, and new ones
she forgets how to decipher.

She went away in silence
as she lived and they say
the house had no bathroom.
The cats survive.

At death you always arrive late.]


Technique in poetry
is like undergarments.
They show
if only as an elastic band
and they spoil the mystery.
What’s seen
is evidence
for the more that’s not.
The unseen should induce
an inner grin of complicity
and maybe an upbeat downbeat
miracle of sense awakened, of a plea
that more is less in flesh and words.
More is the giving
that’s covert
but with reason:
not too much cloth not too much meter
but precise
to transport only the weight
of real flesh
not tattooed.


At the age of seventy-nine, I decided to be old. Again.
Closing the flood-gates of imagination was as easy
as gathering the next harvest of easy dreams,
or for the wet nurse licking my eyelids to make me well again.

It’s a question, she foretold, of suspending belief and interest,
of closing books, of not caring about broken light bulbs,
of twisting the memory of career into caring.
True, opening the gates to old age wants no will-power

but only a shifting of attention. Maybe from the grass
and the honey-bees and the games of children
to the slaughter of inner cells, to the stifling of easy breathing.
At the age of seventy-nine it is fitting to play one’s age,

to run less miles, to chide the wandering eye
and accept that there is no more a case for far-out
alternative destinies. It is like a broken vinyl disc
the dent, its ‘click’ commanding the same note

to repeat, the same bar, the same image to awake,
colour, taste, gesture, kinship, tree-bending.
The tiring shift of attention from Abraham to Jeremiah
and back again, with maybe even a slow-darting

across to Marx, replaces the quick grasp in a second fleeting
of the conundrum. Luckily, the explosion of flashing Lordly
words across the quiet sipping of breakfast juice
—prayers now come cheap—means that all won’t end in doubt.

 © Paolo Totaro

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012

* * * * *


PAOLO TOTARO, born in Naples, Italy, lives in Sydney and has been writing since the ’60s poetry in both English and Italian. He was Foundation Chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Commission of NSW, a Commissioner of the Australian Law Reform Commission, a contributor to The Bulletin, Visiting Professor at the University of Western Sydney and Pro-Chancellor and Member of Council of the University of Technology, Sydney, among other positions. His main interest has been human rights. A practising chamber musician, of late he has concentrated on poetry. He has published a novella in Italian, Storia Patria (1992) for which he won the Due Giugno Literary Prize; Collected Poems 1950-2011 (2012). He has also been published in anthologies of Italian Australian Poetry; in Two Centuries of Australian Poetry, Oxford University Press (1994), Crearta(1998), Quadrant (2013, 14), Contrappasso (2012, 2013); Le Simplegadi (2012): Water Access Only (2012),ARC/Cordite Special Book on Australian Poetry (2014) and several other. A collection of bilingual poetry about children and war is nearing completion.