from Issue #6: An Interview with Judith Beveridge

Image: Devadatta's Hirelings, Jamalgarhi (CC) Photo Dharma @ Flickr

Image: Devadatta’s Hirelings, Jamalgarhi – Photo (CC) Dharma @ Flickr



An interview with Judith Beveridge

Theodore Ell


JUDITH BEVERIDGE was born in London in 1956 and moved to Australia with her family as a child. She grew up and studied in Sydney, where she still lives. After having worked in diverse jobs in offices, adult education and bush conservation, since 2002 she has taught poetry in the postgraduate creative writing program at the University of Sydney. She is poetry editor of the literary journal Meanjin.

Beveridge has published five collections of poetry: The Domesticity of Giraffes (1987), Accidental Grace (1996), Wolf Notes (2003), Storm and Honey (2009) and most recently Devadatta’s Poems (2014). Her work has appeared in many anthologies and has won numerous awards, including the Dame Mary Gilmore Award, The New South Wales and Victorian Premiers’ Poetry Prizes (the latter twice) and the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal.

Devadatta’s Poems is Beveridge’s first collection focused on a single subject. It extends themes that have increasingly absorbed her attention across several collections: the life and spiritual quest of the Buddha and the wider dramas that unfolded among those around him. Beveridge’s first Buddha Cycle of narrative poems appeared in Accidental Grace and was followed by Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree in Wolf Notes. These sequences depicted the wanderings of Siddhattha Gotama across India before his attainment of enlightenment. Devadatta’s Poems takes place after he has become the Buddha and is written from the point of view of Devadatta, Siddhattha’s envious and power-hungry cousin, who joins the new monastic order so as to bring the Buddha down. Devadatta even tries to murder him several times. The new sequence strikes many contrasts with the earlier poems ‘spoken’ by Siddhattha – the calculating versus the contemplative, the sensual versus the ascetic, lust versus renunciation, violence versus tranquillity – but both cousins are bound, ironically, by their longing for Yasodhara, Siddhatha’s wife, whom both have had to leave behind in their distant home city.

This interview was conducted by email in July 2014 in the weeks after the launch of the new book and was reviewed by both interviewer and interviewee before publication.


ELL: Devadatta’s Poems is your first book written only in one voice, telling one story. In the past you have placed narrative sequences among other work on varying subjects. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree was one of those cases. What was it that led you to set Devadatta apart in this way?

BEVERIDGE: I wanted to give myself the challenge of writing a book-length sequence. I’ve always loved Dorothy Porter’s book Akhenaten and Geoffrey Lehmann’s Nero’s Poems and I felt with Devadatta that there was enough narrative material to do an extended sequence. The trick was in trying to work out how long or short the book needed to be, whether or not I would do a more extensive book. In the end I opted for a shorter book, throwing out quite a number of poems I had initially thought I might include. I opted for a tighter focus.

ELL: In the poem “Dawn” in Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, Siddhattha reflects, ‘Not yet / am I a sorrowful man. Not yet.’ Was there a sense then that there would be more to tell, that after Siddhattha’s enlightenment there would be new trials?

BEVERIDGE: When I was writing Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, which traces Siddhattha Gotama’s journey over north India before he became the Buddha, I came across Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin and thought at the time how that would be a great story to explore. Devadatta caused the Buddha a great deal of trouble and grief by trying to take over the Buddhist Order and by trying to murder him three times, so, yes, in a sense that line can be seen as alluding to future strife for the Buddha, though when I wrote that line I didn’t consciously have that specific conflict in mind.

ELL: Siddhattha’s reflections in the earlier sequence are not all contented – he is, after all, struggling to revise his whole way of living – but his motivation is essentially humane. The new sequence turns that on its head. What did it take to shape the inner life of a speaker whose motives are so much blacker, even murderous?

BEVERIDGE: At the centre of Devadatta’s Poems there’s jealousy, hatred, ambition, lust, cruelty. It’s always easier, I think, to write about flawed characters, mainly because our language for these emotions is so much richer, and because these emotions are so much more dramatic and more embedded in our literary, cultural, social and political history. Every day these emotions make the news and so inhabit our minds and imaginations very frequently, so it wasn’t that hard to depict a flawed and corrupt character. However, I didn’t want to make him so terrible that readers would be entirely repulsed by him.

ELL: Devadatta’s antagonism towards Siddhattha is quite clear (‘Some nights… all I do is scheme / to give Siddhattha schism, infighting, dissonance’) yet both cousins, in your depictions, define themselves, to themselves and to us, in quite similar ways. They are constantly searching in the details of the world about them for some kind of solace or confirmation, and both are quite lucid and self-controlled in describing what troubles them. Did you envisage a family resemblance? How did you approach contemplating that same setting from a new point of view?

BEVERIDGE: The difference lies in the fact that Siddhattha after years of struggle finds inner peace and the path to wisdom. I knew I could never write about Siddhattha after he had achieved enlightenment because it would be fraudulent of me to try and imagine what an enlightened mind might experience. Devadatta is still caught up in all the illusions, in suffering, in the mental traps, and so resembles Siddhattha in those years before he became enlightened. Devadatta too is searching for something, but does not have the discipline to let go of craving or aversion, so he seemed like a good candidate to continue on with. It would be so hard to do justice to the character of the Buddha after enlightenment.

ELL: You mentioned having to ‘throw out’ a number of poems you originally thought of including, for the sake of a tighter focus. What was in those poems that seemed to distract from that? Could you use them elsewhere?

BEVERIDGE: No, I’d never use the poems elsewhere. The poems I threw out were poems which didn’t seem to be strong enough, or that were simply going over ground I had already covered, or they were tonally similar to other poems and weren’t adding a great deal to the narrative. There are a few of those discarded poems I do like, but they will simply have to be forever part of the reject pile. I have hundreds and hundreds of poems like that from previous books.

ELL: The drama of both sequences seems to be almost all internal, with Siddhattha and Devadatta reflecting on events after the fact, in the spaces between the ‘moves’ of their lives. We’re not often inside their minds while they are in action. I’m wondering about the source of that reflective distance from events. Is it a result of how you see the personalities of these figures? Or is it more to do with finding a way into a poem?

BEVERIDGE: It’s probably a reflection of the kind of poet I am. I write reflectively and meditatively and I’m mainly concerned with human emotions. There’s certainly very little action in Devadatta’s poems. It’s mostly thought processes and Devadatta’s plotting and planning how to kill Siddhattha. This was one of the problems I had when writing the sequence: I didn’t want it to become an endless treadmill of thoughts and I was constantly worrying about how to progress the narrative, because in a way the story doesn’t go anywhere much in terms of plot. It’s more a psychological investigation. One of the most challenging elements in writing the sequence was to try to give a sense of movement in a story that essentially has little action. I’m not sure how well I’ve succeeded in creating this movement, however.

ELL: The main exceptions to that sense of distance are the poems in which both cousins long for Yasodhara – Siddhattha’s wife, whom he leaves behind, and who is the object of Devadatta’s lust. What did it take to depict this side of both their natures, this thought that overrides everything else?

BEVERIDGE: Human longing and desire are emotions that most of us feel most of the time, whether it’s longing for a person, a place, a lost time, a lost opportunity or whatever, so all I had to do was tap into that feeling. The hardest part was finding the right language and images. You might have noticed I have used Yasodhara’s hair as an element that represents her beauty, especially in Devadatta’s poems. This was one way I was able to evoke the emotions and give focus to the mood.

ELL: Is Yasodhara a character whose story you’d consider telling, from her point of view?

BEVERIDGE: It has crossed my mind to do so. I’ve not really tried a woman’s voice before, but if I do write it, it probably won’t be for a while. I’ve also thought of writing the story from Rahula’s point of view. He was Siddhattha’s and Yasodhara’s son, so there are still some options and possibilities.

ELL: What is it that draws you back to this drama, to elaborate the various sides of the story? You published the first Buddha Cycle in the mid-90s and the world that it opened up seems to have occupied you a great deal ever since.

BEVERIDGE: It’s true I’ve always been captivated by the Buddha’s story, ever since I was a child. It certainly has a much better ending than the story of Jesus. Eastern religions seem very sensible and attractive to me. I could never accept the Christian idea of original sin, but I’ve always thought that the idea of things being related on a deep level to ring true. I dislike the hierarchical structure of Christianity and find in Buddhism a more harmonious and integrated view that includes a non-exploitative attitude towards nature and animals.

ELL: Can you describe the effect that visiting India has had on you and your work? Have you written much while there, or do you tend to reflect on details after the fact?

BEVERIDGE: I visited India on two occasions, though not for any research or religious purposes. I was married to an Indian and we took our young son to meet his family. I didn’t write a word while I was there, but I tried to absorb as much as I could. I was lucky in as much as I got to experience an Indian family first hand, so I wasn’t a tourist as such, but was able to observe things on a more domestic and intimate day-to-day level.

ELL: How far has your reading taken you? The Siddhattha-Devadatta sequences look to very ancient texts. Are there any Indian writers in particular, ancient or modern, whose work has offered inspiration?

BEVERIDGE: I have read many books on Buddhism and on the Buddha and on life in ancient India, but I don’t like to know too much about a subject because I find it shuts down my imagination. I like to have imaginative room to move, so in the Devadatta sequence, there are quite a few things which are not historically accurate, and most of the scenarios I have simply invented in order to dramatise something about Devadatta’s character. I usually find that something very small, some almost trivial detail might start a poem, such as the existence of ox-toads. I have read some Indian poetry. I am especially fond of the work of AK Ramanujan.

ELL: What is it about his work that appeals to you?

BEVERIDGE: It’s a while since I’ve read him, but I’ve always enjoyed his insights and his precise use of language. He was born in South India, but wrote mainly in English and probed his culture mainly for an English-speaking audience. He died in Chicago in 1993 and there’s part of one obituary I think rings true: ‘In the quiet yet affable wit known best to his extended family of students, colleagues and friends, Ramanujan would observe that he was the hyphen in the phrase “Indo-American”. But to everyone who knew him and the passionate brilliance of his language, he and his poetry were rather a richly evocative metaphor for the human experience wherever it might be found. He was as much at home with Yeats and Tagore as he was with the classical literatures of India.’

ELL: It’s interesting that you should say you prefer not to know too much about a subject, as your range of subjects is so broad. As well as the Buddha sequences there is Driftgrounds: Three Fishermen in Storm and Honey. And in that sequence the poem “The Book” reams off the most bizarre species of fish – hardyhead, toothy flathead, rhinoceros file fish, robust pygmy star-gazer – before the speaker admits he hasn’t found ‘the right one’ to throw back at his fishing-mate when he calls him sweetlips. Is there a sense that your character’s casting about, his gathering-in of names and effects, reflects your own?

BEVERIDGE: Yes, absolutely. I love names for things and part of my interest and love of writing poetry is that you do get to name things. The thesaurus is great for this: it has long-lists of names in all sorts of categories. I am always casting around in my poems for the right word.

ELL: What is it that draws you to such varied subjects? What gave rise to Driftgrounds, for instance?

BEVERIDGE: I am always searching around for subjects, and as I don’t like to write about myself, I cast around constantly for possible characters and scenarios to write about. I think most writers are very curious people and they often have broad interests and obsessions. One of my obsessions is water, so I wrote Driftgrounds partly to indulge my love of seascapes and riverscapes and also to try to explore the brutal subject of fishing and how character and place affect each other. I like using characters in poems as they give you a way into material not your own.

ELL: Your previous collections have usually included both longer sequences, like Driftgrounds or the Buddha poems, and sets of diverse ‘single’ poems, but it seems to me that with each collection the sequences have been growing longer. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree made up a large portion of Wolf Notes and Devadatta’s Poems is, of course, a single book. Has ‘narrative’ been occupying you more than the writing of ‘single’ poems recently?

BEVERIDGE: Certainly for the last couple of books it has. I find that having a larger project to work on helps me generate poems more easily because I can slot into the character or ready-made narrative, not every single poem has to be begun from scratch because of the established setting or mood. However, for my next book, I am deliberately going back to single, unrelated poems as I want to have the challenge again of a broader range of subjects and forcing myself to start from the blank page with each new poem. It’s uncomfortable, but I don’t want to fall into easy habits.

ELL: What is it about a narrative sequence of poems that attracts you, as opposed to rendering the same story as a novel?

BEVERIDGE: I just love writing poetry. Writing prose doesn’t especially interest me because I like the fine detail and focus that a poem demands and I enjoy working with sound and rhythm and metaphor and texture of language. This is not to say that novelists don’t also work with these things, but they don’t work with the line or the line break and I love working with lines, finding out what they can achieve. I also love the intensity that a single poem can have and a poem can often say in a few words what it might take several sentences to say in prose.

ELL: Another trait one can sense in your work is that often once you’ve settled on a subject, you draw image after image out of it, elaborating the possibilities into long chains. “How to love bats” is one example: you tell the reader to ‘Begin in a cave’ and ‘listen to the floor boil with rodents, insects,’ but before long the poem has brought those sensations into the human world: ‘Visit op shops. Hide in their closets. / Breathe in the scales and dust / of clothes left hanging.’ You use the same technique of elaboration in Devadatta’s Poems as well, especially in conveying Devadatta’s dreams of Yasodhara. I’m wondering to what extent this ‘cataloguing’ and elaborating reflects the way you shape a poem. Do you list different attributes or qualities first and then build them into a shape, or do they trigger and grow from one another, while you are writing verse?

BEVERIDGE: Definitely the latter. For me writing is always a process of discovery inasmuch as I don’t really know what it is I am going to say before I write. I discover as I go along. One thing I do consciously is to try to push my material as far as I can imaginatively. I like poems that have imaginative reach. This means my poems go through many, many drafts before they are finished, as I often take wrong turns or produce material that I end up scrapping before I can discover the true or meaningful poem. But I like this. It makes for hard work, but it gives me a strong sense of vocation when I’m writing, a sense that the poems are quite often hard won, as I believe they should be.

ELL: Is there a sense in which you are also attempting to win over yourself in writing poems? The discomfort you mention in relation to writing about your own life calls to mind another much earlier poem of yours, “Fox in a Tree Stump,” in which the speaker of the poem recounts being forced into flushing out and killing a fox, and recalls, ‘I was nine years old. All my life / I’d stuck close to my yelled name.’ Your work has travelled away from the brutality described in that poem, but it seems to me that ideas of threats to oneself, and of oneself as a threat, have persisted, especially in the case of Devadatta. I’m wondering how you negotiate your degree of involvement with characters. How complete do you think they can be as masks?

BEVERIDGE: There is a paradoxical relationship between myself and the characters I use because they are both masks and not masks. They are masks in the sense that the emotions I give my characters are all emotions I have experienced, and I imagine most human beings have experienced, as they are the usual ones. What I change are the settings and the circumstances and this allows me a distance and perspective I wouldn’t get if I were writing directly from my own life. But I love the idea that I can move away from my own particular experiences and enter them in a more universal way. So, yes, I am attempting to ‘win myself over’ in my poems by trying to understand my own emotions through a more general lens. And what I get from this process is a sense of shared humanity.

ELL: With all your varying characters and subjects, is there a centre to your poetry, something that will set you writing where something else may not?

BEVERIDGE: Always the motivating and centralising factor for me is language. My poems always start with a desire to play with language. It’s the hardest thing in writing, to get the language right. It’s easy to have ideas for poems, but getting, as Adrienne Rich said, ‘the language that’s adequate to experience’ right in a poem is always a challenge. I don’t mean that I play with language in a postmodern sense, such as in L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, where the intention is to leave the meaning up to the reader, or that I break down syntax, because I do essentially want to communicate and I want to communicate emotion. I still believe the lyric has a lot to offer and still has relevance for the reader and writer, and that inflecting emotion into a poem is a serious task.

ELL: Has your recent turn back to single, unrelated poems altered your working habits?

BEVERIDGE: My working habits have always been pretty much the same, no matter what I’m working on. I need long stretches of time before me. Six or seven hours is a typical stretch for me to get anything done. I’m painfully slow and plodding. I’ve never been able to work at white-hot speed, like some poets. And I do enjoy those long stretches. They give me a strong sense of vocation, that I’ve worked hard.

ELL: How far off may your next collection be?

BEVERIDGE: Hard to say. I think my next book will be a New and Selected Poems, so my intention is to write the ‘new’ section, which is why I’ve chosen to work on miscellaneous poems, rather than a coherent project. But I’ll take my time. Patience is a key ingredient, I think. I’d rather produce a work I’m happy with than rush into publication.


from Issue #4: Poetry by Paolo Fabrizio Iacuzzi

Photo (CC) Paul Albertella @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Paul Albertella @ Flickr


Read Paolo Fabrizio Iacuzzi’s original Italian, followed by Theodore Ell’s English translations in blue.



Da Il Parlamento d’amore

La camera bassa lancia il grido. Un razzo
si accende nel cortile del nuovo millennio.
Una cometa chiama a raccolta. Decisa a riaprire
il parlamento d’amore chiuso da tanto tempo.

Da quando il Novecento è finito e i bambini
chiamano da ogni finestra cieca. Da ogni lager
di Germania Italia e Albania. Da quanti
anni non parlano. Mentre tornano in mente

i volti scarni di Giorgio e di Giovanna. Tornano
per affacciarsi alle pareti gialle che il male
ha scalcinato. Se aprono le finestre e la bambina
accenna un bacio. Le imposte crollano sotto

il fuoco delle domande. E le artiglierie in tivu
una ad una apparecchiate. Tornano a sparare.

From The Parliament of love

The lower house starts shouting. A rocket
ignites in the courtyard of the new millennium.
A comet calls a gathering. Intent on reopening
the parliament of love, closed for so long.

Ever since the Twentieth Century ended. Ever since
the children call from every blind window. Since
every lager of Germany Italy and Albania. For as long
as they have not spoken. While the fleshless

faces of Giorgio and Giovanna return to mind.
They return to face the yellow walls that evil
kicked down. If the windows open and the girl
beckons for a kiss. The shutters collapse beneath

the fire of questions. And the artillery pieces on T.V.
are set one by one. They begin shooting again.

La camera alta quasi tocca il cielo. Dalla plastica
verde piove l’eternità. Come l’amianto ingessato
piove la democrazia del male. Piove sempre perché
lassù gli yankee d’America muovono pietre di luna.

Ma torna persino il tempo in cui ci amammo
per opposte tifoserie. Se il Novecento è il grande
vecchio ora sciancato. Buono a essere cucinato.
Volerete in noi se vi spoglierete del vostro orgoglio.

Fummo soldati bambini in terre di Albania. E voi
le bambine impietrite in fronte alla tivu. In pace sì
perché finissero le guerre nel sussidiario. Faceste
pire di libri e fuoco. E obiettori finimmo il testo

a scuola sempre paludato. Ora votiamo una
mozione d’ascolto. In sella a questo millennio.

The upper house almost touches the sky. From green
plastic rains eternity. Like plastered asbestos rains
down the democracy of evil. It always rains because
up there the Yanks of America move moon stones.

But even the time when we loved each other through
opposing fans returns. If the Twentieth Century
is the great old man, now lame. Good to cook.
You will fly within us if you cast off your pride.

We were kid soldiers in the lands of Albania. And you
the girls turned to stone in front of the T.V. Yes in peace
so that the wars could end in the textbooks. You built
pyres of books and fire. And as objectors we finished the text

that at school was always so wordy. Now we propose
a motion to listen. In the seat of a new millennium.



Meditazioni per Edipo Re a Fiesole

…………………………………………………..per Antonio Crivelli


Che cosa cerchi nel Tempio etrusco?
Prima di ogni scena. Prima di ogni
complesso. Madre e padre presidiano
insieme a te. Edipi travestiti già nel seme.

Nascono. Inesorabile sorge la comunità
fantasma. Le stele con cuori di pietra
serena. Segnano il Tempo della Legge.
Chiamano dalle rovine le figure di pietra.

Distrutto il Tempio. Tornano ancora
gli Dei di pietra? Essere in volti emersi
dal nulla. Immobili urlare il nostro dolore.
Non poter levare due braccia al cielo.



Che cosa cerchi nel Teatro greco?
Di fronte alla Porta di Tebe attendere
di vedere. Lo scheletro spalancato. La sorte
inesorabile. Edipi nelle terracotte corrose.

Le ante. I due battenti gettano la tragedia
nel labirinto iniquo degli affetti. Esiste
il Presente? Vi piove il Passato. Vi piove
il Futuro. Nel fango i volti parlano. Il Coro.

La Sfinge Bianca. Non esiste alcuno scampo.
Aperta la Porta attendere tutti. Il Presente
diventa la pietra rossa. Nel sasso pietrificati
noi che il sangue ci macchia per sempre.



Che cosa cerchi nelle Terme romane?
Accade nelle vasche ai nostri corpi. Eppure
evaporare. Edipi disfarsi via dalla pietra.
Farsi marmo bianco e rosso. Lavarsi da colpa?

Levigati attendere di esalarsi tutti nel Futuro.
L’esilio. La comunità d’inermi. Mentre stanno
padre madre nel cuore della Legge. Finalmente
riunita la famiglia. Cipressi e pendici sassose.

È il luogo dove vagasti? Di fronte al desco
mangiare. Tre archi in piedi. Tre orbite vuote.
Esiste la speranza? Edipi in cecità vagando.
Mentre il Tempo non assolve. Getta il muro.



Che cosa cerchi del mondo in Piazza Mino?
Figure crivellate dagli spari. Il destino è ancora
immobile. Mentre non sparano più sulle colline
dove il fronte passava. Ma sparano dalle ombre.

Edipi non potersi sottrarci. Tutti li abbiamo
nel cuore. Tutti Edipi dentro la folla assiepata
negli affetti. Ora corpo a corpo un’altra peste
intraprende il destino. Più dura. Ci fa di bronzo.

Uccidiamo padre e madre. Salvarli da inutile dolore.
Per essere noi soltanto i condannati a cadere.
Il Tempo non mitiga la colpa. Si ripete di collina
in collina. Neppure ci illude fuggire dal Mondo.

Meditations on Oedipus Rex at Fiesole

………………………………………………………..for Antonio Crivelli

What do you seek in the Etruscan Temple?
Before any scene. Before any complex.
Mother and father preside together with you.
As Oedipi camouflaged already in the seed.

They are born. Inexorably arises the phantom
community. The stelae with hearts of serene
stone. Now they mark the Time of the Law.
The figures of stone call out from the ruins.

The Temple is destroyed. Will the Gods
of stone return yet? To be in faces come from
nothing. Motionless screaming our pain.
Unable to lift two arms to the sky.



What do you seek in the Greek Theatre?
Before the Gate of Thebes waiting to see.
The skeleton spreadeagled. Inexorable
fate. Oedipi in their corroded terracotta.

The shutters. Two panels fling tragedy into
a vicious labyrinth of affections. Does the Present
exist? There Past rains down. There Future rains
down. In the mud the faces speak. Chorus.

Bianca the white Sphinx. From here no escape
exists. When the Gate is open all must wait.
The Present becomes the red stone. Petrified
into rock, we whom the blood stains forever.



What do you seek in the Roman Baths?
It happens to your bodies in the pools. Yet it
evaporates. As Oedipi loosening from the stone.
Becoming red-white marble. Washing guilt away?

Smoothed all waiting to exhale in the Future. Exile.
The community of the helpless. While mother
and father stand in the heart of the Law. Finally
the family reunited. Cypresses and rocky slopes.

Is it the place where you wandered? At the lunch table
eating. Three arches standing. Three orbits empty.
Does hope exist? Oedipi in blindness wandering.
While Time does not absolve. It throws down the wall.



What do you seek of the World in Piazza Mino?
Figures riddled with bullet-holes. Destiny is still
motionless. While they fire no more from the hills
where the front went through. But from the shadows.

Oedipi we cannot escape. We all have them
within the heart. All Oedipi in the crowd thirsting
in affections. Now destiny embarks body by body
on another plague. Harder. It bronzes us.

We kill father and mother. Saving them from useless pain.
To be ourselves the only ones condemned to the fall.
Time does not mitigate guilt. It repeats from hill
to hill. We can pretend to flee the world no longer.



Paolo Fabrizio Iacuzzi was born in Pistoia, in western Tuscany, in 1961 and has lived in Florence since 1992. He has published four collections of poetry – Magnificat (1996), Jacquerie (2000), Patricidio [Parricide] (2005) and Rosso degli affetti [Red of affections] (2008) – which have increasingly focused on the frailty of the individual within violent cycles of history. His fifth collection, Il bene cucito al bene [Good stitched to good] is forthcoming. The Oedipus sequence published in this issue was written to complement sculptures by Antonio Crivelli, commissioned for a staging of Oedipus Rex in the Roman theatre at Fiesole in 2011. Paolo has translated Frank O’Hara and Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) into Italian and has rediscovered and re-published numerous works of the poet Piero Bigongiari (1914-1997), whose archive he oversees. Paolo is Artistic Director of the Accademia Pistoiese del Ceppo, a literary academy in Pistoia, and chairs the Premio Letterario Internazionale Ceppo Pistoia, awarded since 1956. For information:

Theodore Ell is co-editor of Contrappasso Magazine and an Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney.

Stet! Theodore Ell speaks at Gleebooks


On Tuesday 27 May, Contrappasso’s poetry editor Theodore Ell took part in a panel discussion on new Australian literary journals, at independent bookseller Gleebooks in Sydney. Also on the panel were editors from new Australian writers’ launchpad Seizure, formal poetry journal New Trad and journal of sexual diversity Archer. As well as comparing notes on the labour (and love!) involved in starting and sustaining a journal, the panellists took questions from the audience and played ‘Would you rather…’ – which revealed that most editors would prefer one outrageous error on the cover of their journal to one on every page inside. An important question that each of the panellists addressed was how their journals defined their roles in the Australian publishing industry, which has been changing rapidly, unpredictably and not always for the better. How do you know who and where your audience is? How do you do the same job as publishers who have more resources than you, but aren’t concerned with the material you want to expose? Here is how Theo approached these and similar questions.


‘The industry.’ I’ve always been unsure about that word. It adds too many illusions of glamour and careful planning to work that is usually messy. It also creates the idea of a club that you need permission to join. Two guys preparing a journal issue in an Ashfield living-room, with Bob Dylan on the turntable, last week’s coffee cups stacked dangerously in the kitchen, and utility bills buried deep under sheets and sheets of proofs – does that count for the industry?

It depends what kind of industry you mean. Industry can mean work, effort, dedication, passion, or it can mean business, money, trade, profit. The trouble with publishing is that these meanings get confused, and the business meaning of ‘industry’ starts to eat away at the other meaning. The industry-as-business is so huge and so involved with itself that to a new writer it can seem overwhelmingly daunting. Incredibly hard work goes into writing, but then the writer is faced with the even harder job of selling the book’s way into print. In the culture of spin and hype, there is often little evidence that the material itself will matter. With journals it’s different. Journals are closer to the realities that writers face: they deal with more writers more often, and offer more space for more kinds of writing. As the first testing-grounds for new writers and editors, journals also offer essential experience in learning how to get on with each other, how to listen, how to be patient, how to negotiate artistic habits and effects.

I think what we are talking about here tonight, and what we’re calling by the name ‘industry’, is really a third thing: community. All of the journals we represent, and many others you will find on the shelves, were created in recent years because there was a feeling that the business-meaning of industry was eclipsing its other meaning, the effort-meaning. There was a sad run of journals closing: Australian Literary Review, HEAT, Wet Ink. Australia seems to be a remarkably hard place for writers to have their work published and introduced to a readership, but with the loss of these outlets, it was getting even harder. There was a real sense of dismay, but the reactions that followed revealed a great deal else about ‘the industry’ that I think should give us cause for optimism. That dismay, that outcry, was so widely shared, in such similar ways by all kinds of people, that it proved something very important, and very inspiring. It proved how big the audience is for new writing and how prepared that audience is to seek out its forums. The situation now is, I think, far more positive and encouraging than anything we could have imagined only a few years ago. We lost three publications, but on the strength of people’s objections and new efforts, we have gained dozens. Aside from the four here tonight – Seizure, New Trad, Archer and Contrappasso – there are The Lifted Brow, Ampersand, Cuttings, The Saturday Paper and Verity La, to name only a few. In every city in every state, whatever you are looking for, you will find it.

When we founded Contrappasso, it was out of just this mixed feeling of objection and hopefulness. The name is weird, I know, but that is half the point with a title. You hope that it will sound different and make a reader curious, and over time it grows to mean something. But Contrappasso does have a specific meaning: it means counter-punch or counter-step in Italian, and it is the word for the ironic punishments in Dante’s hell and purgatory, the equal and opposite punishments that fit the crime. In 2011 when we decided to do it, the ‘equal and opposite’ reversal in the trend of journals closing was well underway. A number of the other journals I just mentioned already existed. But we wanted to challenge rhetoric as well as trends.

Opening a journal seemed like the exact opposite of what a sane, business-minded person would do – which was fine, because we weren’t. Questions of money and profit were exactly what were causing stress for journals and writing at the time, and the idea of publishing and promoting good writing for its own sake, thanks to the good will of the writers involved, seemed a fitting slap back to an assumption that people only properly value what they pay for. (Now, the journal has grown to the point that we do offer payment, a little, for all that we print; one day we hope finally to pay those writers who donated their work to the first couple of issues.) We wanted to test another ‘industry’ assumption as well, which is what exactly constitutes ‘new writing.’ ‘Previously unpublished,’ yes; the only things we publish that have appeared before are the works in translation, but while they have appeared in their original language, they have not in English. Most writers we have published so far would be called ‘emerging writers’. But ‘new writing’ isn’t restricted to ‘emerging writers’ – established writers are constantly producing new work too, and many go through the same struggle to find outlets for it. Our approach was to open the journal to writers at any stage of their careers and to place their works on an even footing. This creates dialogue and exchanges, on and off the page. But what loomed largest in our minds was the fact that our industry – the community of writers and readers in Australia – felt rather isolated from its counterparts elsewhere in the world, and that it tended to filter out the sound and experience of languages other than English. Writers from elsewhere appear in many Australian journals from time to time, of course, but there did not seem to be one with a consistently international outlook, or an interest in projecting itself overseas. With all the opportunities that the internet offers for this kind of contact, it seemed right at least to try and create a magazine that, while based here and ready to consider Australian work of any kind, was nominally borderless and open to considering new writing by anyone, from anywhere. Wherever possible, English translations would appear opposite the original language. In our five issues to date, we have published writers from twelve countries in five languages (English, Chinese, Spanish, Italian and Russian, with French to come in our next issue). We did not know if the experiment would work and nobody could be more surprised than us by the way in which it has. The unlikely turned out to be quite possible.

In part this has had to do with new publishing methods. The saddest phrase in the book trade is “Out of print.” An author’s effort, a publisher’s faith, a reader’s interest, a bookshop’s sale, who knows what potential social results – all these are defeated when the book itself is made unavailable. Out of print, out of mind. Sometimes a writer or their estate revokes publishing rights, but the saddest thing is that the permission for a book to go out of print is an integral part of the publisher’s own production line. To print and store books in warehouses costs money, and where a book is judged not to be selling enough, not to be earning its keep, it is cut from the list, not printed any more, and often the remaining copies are pulped – to make room for another book, which will run the same risk. For decades the production line has had this in-built loop for disposing of its own products. Careful management of waste and risk, you might think, but the decisions of what to allow to go out of print have often been dismaying. To name only two examples, Patrick White was out of print for most of the 1990s and early 2000s, while Patrick Leigh Fermor’s European journey trilogy has only just come back in. Poetry collections, if they are lucky, often go through only a couple of print-runs before being left aside. So often it is the writing that offers unusual and perspective-altering rewards that suffers most. It does not sustain enough sales to survive macro-economic rationalism. Except that for some years now there has been an alternative, which more and more publishers are taking up: print-on-demand. Books are stored as digital files – cover, text and all – and printed in response to specific orders. The costs of storage and large print-runs are greatly reduced and most importantly the work is available for interested readers. As a production model, it is ideally suited to new, small, start-up publishers who want to make work available but who only have a low budget. It becomes possible to order a first ‘bulk’ print run of a title – say, fifty copies – to sell and spread the word, then to keep that title on a permanent digital back-burner, ready for anyone coming later who would like to read it. It is a way of “hastening slowly” in growing a small publishing business. Your product can always be produced, you avoid the risk of getting too big too quickly, of having too much stock and overreaching yourself financially. You can get into this for the long haul. And that is what at Contrappasso we hope to do.

from Issue #2: Paolo Fabrizio Iacuzzi (III)

Photo (CC) Kitty Terwolbeck @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Kitty Terwolbeck @ Flickr


Paolo Fabrizio Iacuzzi’s poetry was translated from Italian into English by Theodore Ell. Scroll down to read “Il soldato Beslan” (“Beslan the soldier”) in both languages.


Il soldato Beslan

L­a strada a piedi da scuola fino a casa. Nel primo
giorno del liceo. La bicicletta la portiamo a mano.
La canna da donna e la rete arcobaleno sopra i raggi
d’acciaio. Siamo già amici ma in due ora siamo

compagni di banco. Tu giochi al pallone dopo la scuola
fino a tenere la “Commedia” testo e note in evidenza.
Rivedere la bicicletta che porta dal Corso alberato
alla Fortezza delle Armi. Ci confondono i morti.

Tutto ci confonde la memoria. Siamo nell’Aldilà 
della stessa età. Figli dei padri. Padri dei nonni. Tutti
nonni dei figli. Siamo uno soltanto. Un solo grande
casco dagli occhi azzurri. Il nostro trofeo di guerra.

Stare sul giradischi Scusi lei mi ama o no? Riempire
la stanza di “In un grande magazzino una volta al mese”.
Poter essere ancora questa canzone degli anni settanta.
Anche se ora avanzi lento vestito da soldato Beslan

che tiene un bambino fra le braccia. Ha la testa rasata
ma ti somiglia. Abbi pietà della nostra vita diversa.
Mentre guardi e porgi il bambino verso noi. Potrebbe
essere noi. Essere qualunque bene entrato dentro

la vita condivisa. Soldato Beslan che presìdi la vita
per tenere l’adolescenza al di qua dal precipizio.
Per trovare insieme il grande salvataggio estremo.
Mentre tieni la bicicletta che se ne va da sola e pare una

bianca sposa. Se e quando si accompagna l’amicizia
all’altare. Capire perché si abbandonano gli amici
inattesi dentro l’orizzonte bucato. Se desideriamo
essere madri per gestire figli. La trincea del banco.

Dopo essere interrogati. Pile di libri e appunti sparsi.
Nell’angolo estremo della classe. Il solo superstite.
Lo stesso cuore due labbra un fegato due braccia
tengono il bambino implacato. Ora che sei diventato

il maestro impiegato. Insegni in una classe vuota.
La mente vuole ricreare la bici. Ma è diversa la vita.
I quadri chiedono pelle trasparente. La luce bianca
da filtrare. Un disco di Battisti per nostro Maggio cantare.

Nei pomeriggi di pioggia e di compiti dopo il primo
giorno. Per quale desiderio sei dentro quella foto
sui giornali del mondo? Sei ancora dentro il maestro
che volevi diventare? Senza frontiere. Senza famiglia

frugare dentro la Storia. Per credere inermi che sia
possibile ricordare. Per il male rosso e involontario
che abbiamo senza pensare. Se mettiamo il silenzio
ai sentimenti. Spalancati davanti all’eterno pensare

al tempo infinito. E ci troviamo a un passo dalla morte
impreparati. Eroi senza avere il tempo di scegliere
che cos’era necessario. Gregari nel gioco del pallone.
Scartare l’amore per scartare davanti all’avversario.


Beslan the soldier

On foot from school the road home. On the first day
of high school. We take his bike by hand. The old lady
crossbar and the rainbow chain over the steel spokes.
Already we are friends but now we are truly

desk mates. You play football after school until
underlining Dante’s “Commedia” text and notes.
Seeing again the bike that carries you from the tree-
lined corso to the Army Fortress. The dead confuse us.

Memory confuses everything within us. We are in the
Hereafter of the same age. Children of fathers. Fathers
of grandfathers. All grandfathers of sons. We are one
alone. A single great helmet with blue eyes. A war trophy.

Putting on the record player “Madam do you love me or not?”.
Filling the room with “In a big store once a month”.
It could be once again this same song from the seventies.
Even if you come forward dressed as Beslan the soldier

holding a child in his arms. He has a shaved head
but he looks like you. Have pity on our different life.
As you gaze and set the child down near to us.
He could be us. Whatever good entered into a shared

life. Beslan the soldier who watches over our life 
holding back adolescence on this side of the abyss.
Finding together the great extreme salvation. While you
hold on to the bike moving off by itself. A white bride. 

When and if friendship is accompanied to the altar.
Knowing why unexpected friends abandon each other
within the horizon full of holes. If we desire to become
mothers to bring up sons. The battle trench of that desk.

After the teacher’s questions. Piles of books and scattered
notes. In the far corner of the classroom. The lone
survivor. The same heart two lips a liver two arms hold
the anguished child. Now you have been employed

as a teacher. You teach in an empty classroom. The mind
hopes to remake that bike. But life is totally different.
The pictures ask for a transparent skin. A white light
to filter in. A disco of Battisti for our May singing.

In the afternoons of rain and homework after living
the first day. Through what desire are you in that photo
in the world’s newspapers? Inside are you still the teacher
you wanted to become? Without borders. Without family

exploring through History. Believing defenceless
it’s possible to remember. For the red involuntary
evil we have without thinking. If we silence
our feelings. Spread out eternity thinking of infinite

time. Unready we find ourselves one step away
from death. Heroes without having time to choose
what was necessary. Playing ball supporting each other.
Dribbling around love as you dribble around another.



Paolo Fabrizio Iacuzzi was born in Pistoia, in western Tuscany, in 1961 and has lived in Florence since 1992. He has published four collections of poetry – Magnificat (1996), Jacquerie (2000), Patricidio [Parricide] (2005) and Rosso degli affetti [Red of affections] (2008) – which have increasingly focused on the frailty of the individual within violent cycles of history. Paolo has translated Frank O’Hara and Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) into Italian and has rediscovered and re-published numerous works of the poet Piero Bigongiari (1914-1997), whose archive he oversees. Paolo is Artistic Director of the Accademia Pistoiese del Ceppo, a literary academy in Pistoia, and chairs the Premio Letterario Internazionale Ceppo Pistoia, awarded since 1956. For information:

from Issue #2: Poetry by Paolo Fabrizio Iacuzzi (II)

Photo (CC) Chris_Parfitt @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Chris_Parfitt @ Flickr


Paolo Fabrizio Iacuzzi’s poetry was translated from Italian into English by Theodore Ell. Scroll down to read selections from Atlante senza nome del giardino (Atlas of the Nameless Garden) in both languages.


Da Atlante senza nome del giardino

Io non posso dire quale giardino sia mio
o tuo. E in questo atlante senza nome
del giardino siamo forse già stati affidati
alle cure dei posteri. Ma io conosco il giardino

che mio padre teneva intatto con gli iris
ciascuno separato in gruppi blu e bianche
schiere. Quando levandosi uno a primavera
più giallo del sole. Nel bianco si sentiva

il fremito dell’età giovane. Ed io sire nell’oro
sfilavo fra i bianchi alfieri con gli elmetti.
Padre non estirpare da quella schiera l’iris
giallo. Non far sì che ciascuno sia tra sé

e sé intollerante. Lascia che io adorando
lo veda in uno stuolo beato fatto di brina.
Il giardino se fiorisce non ha male. Il tuo
bene fa sbocciare ora lo stelo dell’iris.


Iris come se piovesse. Una boscaglia di spade
di Toledo luccicanti. Iris che si stringono fra
l’erba che li infesta. Iris allineati uno accanto
all’altro come in un campo dove ci furono

i soldati a riposare nella morte. Corpi trafitti
da iris d’acqua di cenere di piombo. Come
tante lance mi persi un giorno in un ossario
azzurro chiaro. Come tante tibie fiorite erano

i compagni che stavano in campo di prigionia.
Allora mi appartavo dietro la casa nel garage
mentre ibridando per steli e steli e per semi
e semi. Volevo ottenere l’iris che fosse rosso

come la stella. E mescolando i geni e i gameti
e i pistilli. Io non ricordo più che cosa feci
per ridarvi un cuore rosso e palpitante. Io sì
ti ridetti vita campo dei miei compagni morti.


Gli iris per passare in pace. Saranno stati
diecimila con le bandiere color degli iris.
Come tanti guerrieri che in spalla non tenevano
fucili ma iris di sette colori. Così trapassando

nell’Aldilà vedremo le stesse scene di ora.
Solo che i fiori si sprecheranno. Ma io non so
se coltivando iris dovunque. In conche
bidoni vasche tu volessi rendere omaggio

alla madre che in cielo ti vedeva. Quando
in una cosmogonia precoce rendevi grazie
ad Iside. Era il nome di tua madre. Ma piantando
gli iris forse tu volevi ritrovare il suo corpo

disperso. Iris gialli il fegato. Iris d’arancio
il pancreas. Iris blu i polmoni. Iris verdi le vene.
Iris viola le labbra. Iris d’indaco i suoi occhi.
Padre padre padre nel giardino innamorato.


From Atlas of the nameless garden

I cannot tell any more which garden is mine
or yours. And in this atlas of the nameless
garden maybe we have already been entrusted
to the care of our descendents. But I know

the garden that my father held together
with irises each one separated into blue groups
and white ranks. When in spring one rose which
was more yellow than sunlight. In the whiteness

you felt the quiver of youth. I was sire in the gold
marching between the white helmeted ensigns.
Father do not uproot the golden iris from
that rank. Do not make each one intolerant

among its own kind. Let it be so that adoring
I see it in a blessed crowd. Made of frost.
If it flowers the garden holds no evil. Now
your good makes the stem of the iris blossom.


Irises as though it rained them. A wood of Toledo
swords glittering. Irises that crowd together
against the infesting grass. Irises lined up one
beside the other as in a field where soldiers

have rested in death. Bodies run through
by irises of water of ashes of lead. One day
as among so many lances I got lost in a clear
blue ossuary. As so many flowering shinbones

were the dear friends in the prison camp. So I
withdrew behind my house into the garage while
crossbreeding stem by stem and seed by seed.
I wanted to make the iris that was as deeply red

as the star. And mixing the genes and the gametes
and the pistils. I no longer remember what I did
to give you back a red and beating heart. I really did
restore you to life. Field of my dead dear friends.


Irises to pass in peace. They would have been
ten thousand with the flag the colour of irises.
Like so many warriors who shouldered not rifles
but irises in seven colours. As we pass into

the Hereafter we shall see the very same scenes.
Only the flowers will be wasted. But I don’t
know if planting irises everywhere. In pots tubs
tanks you wanted to pay tribute to your mother

who watched you from heaven. When in an early
cosmogony you paid homage to the goddess Isis.
It was your mother’s name. But in planting irises
maybe you hoped to rediscover her body lost

among them. Yellow irises liver. Orange irises
pancreas. Blue irises lungs. Green irises veins.
Violet irises lips. Indigo irises her eyes.
Father father father in the garden in love.



Paolo Fabrizio Iacuzzi was born in Pistoia, in western Tuscany, in 1961 and has lived in Florence since 1992. He has published four collections of poetry – Magnificat (1996), Jacquerie (2000), Patricidio [Parricide] (2005) and Rosso degli affetti [Red of affections] (2008) – which have increasingly focused on the frailty of the individual within violent cycles of history. Paolo has translated Frank O’Hara and Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) into Italian and has rediscovered and re-published numerous works of the poet Piero Bigongiari (1914-1997), whose archive he oversees. Paolo is Artistic Director of the Accademia Pistoiese del Ceppo, a literary academy in Pistoia, and chairs the Premio Letterario Internazionale Ceppo Pistoia, awarded since 1956. For information:

from Issue #2: Poetry by Paolo Fabrizio Iacuzzi (I)

Photo (CC) Anthony Quintano @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Anthony Quintano @ Flickr


“Patricidio a New York” (“Parricide in New York”) was translated from Italian into English by Theodore Ell. Scroll down to read the poem in both languages.


Patricidio a New York

Io non so cosa cadde quel giorno dalle Torri Gemelle
dentro me. Avevo appena ricevuto i risultati e quando
caddero le Torri ero già caduto nelle cartelle delle analisi.
Così seppi che c’era oltre di me un altro che cadeva
cadeva come i coriandoli a Carnevale. Da un carro
altissimo. Quando avrò il funerale voglio salire
su un carro. Sbriciolarmi sui passanti. Sentire
le urla di chi vuol restare intangibile. Io non so
se quel giorno davanti alla tivu ho pianto più
per me o per i mille coriandoli che vedevo cadere
giù. Cadevano i progetti e i sogni. Da allora
vivo murato nel mio silenzio. Il canto è finito
per sempre. Con quale parola può rimare il dolore.
Con quale speranza si aprono gli occhi. Io non so
cosa cadde quel giorno né chi. Di sicuro dovetti
sbiancare di fronte al dottore. Un giovane mite
nel camice bianco. Si-può-curare. Ma come si può
curare l’adolescenza mai cresciuta ed il desiderio
di gettarsi nelle braccia di tutto il mondo. Non ricordo
altro dell’11 settembre tranne il rumore lontano
delle edizioni speciali del tg. E un senso di pace
come quando la nave affonda col carico di umanità
che possedeva. Il canto non ci salverà. Ma finirà
un giorno la strage che è diventato il mio cuore.


Parricide in New York

I don’t know what fell from the Twin Towers on that day
inside me. I had just received the results and when the Towers fell
I had already fallen into the sheets of analysis. Thus I knew
that beyond me there was another who fell down
like confetti at Carnevale. From a big high
wagon. When my funeral comes I want to rise
on to a wagon. Scatter myself on those passing. Hear
the screams of those who wish to stay untouchable. On that day
I don’t know if in front of the TV I cried more for myself
or for the thousands of confetti I saw falling
down. Plans and dreams fell. Since then
I have lived walled up in my silence. The poem
has finished forever. What word can rhyme with pain.
What hope can still open eyes. I don’t know on that day
what fell nor who. Certainly I must have turned pale
in front of the doctor. A kind young man in a white coat.
It-can-be-treated. But how does one cure an adolescence
that never grew up and the desire to throw oneself
into the arms of the world. I remember nothing else
of the 11th of September except the distant sound
of the special editions of the news. And a sense of peace
as when a boat goes down with the big cargo of humanity
it carried. The poem will not save us. But that day
will end the carnage that has become my heart.



Paolo Fabrizio Iacuzzi was born in Pistoia, in western Tuscany, in 1961 and has lived in Florence since 1992. He has published four collections of poetry – Magnificat (1996), Jacquerie (2000), Patricidio [Parricide] (2005) and Rosso degli affetti [Red of affections] (2008) – which have increasingly focused on the frailty of the individual within violent cycles of history. Paolo has translated Frank O’Hara and Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) into Italian and has rediscovered and re-published numerous works of the poet Piero Bigongiari (1914-1997), whose archive he oversees. Paolo is Artistic Director of the Accademia Pistoiese del Ceppo, a literary academy in Pistoia, and chairs the Premio Letterario Internazionale Ceppo Pistoia, awarded since 1956. For information:

Sydney launch

Image Daniel Boud, Tourism NSW

Image Daniel Boud, Tourism NSW

Thanks to everybody who came along to the Sydney launch of our second issue on December 12 and to the contributors who read at the event: Mark Tredinnick, Tessa Lunney, Erin Martine Sessions, Daniel East, Chris Oakey, Elias Greig, and Luke Whitington. Poetry editor Theodore Ell read Antigone Kefala‘s ‘The Fatal Queen’. Editor Matthew Asprey read extracts from Mimi Lipson‘s ‘Safe, Courteous, Reliable’ and Floyd Salas‘s ‘Steve Nash, Homosexual Transient’.

Photo: Canberra Launch @ Manning Clark House


Photograph by Clare Anderson

At the Canberra launch of Contrappasso #2. Left to right: editor Matthew Asprey, poets Mark O’Connor, Erin Martine Sessions, Chris Oakey, and Luke Whitington, and poetry editor Theodore Ell.

For our Sydney readers, don’t forget: we launch issue #2 at Sappho Books in Glebe on Wednesday 12 December (6pm start).


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.

Contrappasso Magazine: Instead of a Manifesto


Contrappasso, n. (Italian). Lit. counter-step, counter-blow. The law of an equal, opposite and meaningful atonement for sin. The punishment that fits the crime. See: Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI; Matthew 5:38; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q XXI, Art. 1, Reply Objection 3; Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy—by which point the idea finally acquires some irony.

Why the name?

In Australia, starting a literary magazine is in itself a counter-step or counter-blow. We appear on the margins of a troubled industry. Publishers cling to their traditional methods. Our few major newspapers give less and less space to the world of books. Serious reading, we’re told, is in serious decline.

Fortunately, recent advances in print-on-demand and ebook technology offer alternative publishing possibilities on the margins. While this magazine isn’t trying to single-handedly fix Australian literary culture, it does open a channel to creative voices. What’s really needed is a flurry of contrappassi—independent publications to counter a moribund industry.

Since our home is Australia, we’re likely to find many of our writers and readers here for the time being. That said, we’re hardly waving the flag. This first issue presents work by writers from the United States and Italy as well as Australia. The subjects extend from the north coast of New South Wales to the Kansas prairies, from Melbourne to haunted Italian palaces, from the big bad American city to Vietnam, Bosnia and Herzegovina, ancient Greece, and even to Balmain on Sydney Harbour. Australia is simply where the journal lives and where it was born.

Above all, Contrappasso is an attempt to present good writing for its own sake. The fear of the decline of intelligent reading is so widespread that it proves what a huge audience is really there, primed and waiting for something new—publications with no particular agenda beyond helping writers and readers find each other. Therefore we avoid themed issues. We publish long-form pieces and don’t swear off any genre or technique, traditional or experimental. The only criterion is that the writing fulfils the deep need to make sense of the world. For that, there is always an audience.

Matthew Asprey
Theodore Ell