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Photo courtesy of Antonella Anedda Angioy

Antonella Anedda, born in 1955, is one of Italy’s most lauded contemporary poets. She writes with precision and delicacy, yet her work testifies to her vast engagement with human history and geography. Her six books of poems include her Residenze invernali (Winter residences, 1992), Il catalogo della gioia (The catalogue of joy, 2003), and her most recent work, Historiae (2018). Among her many books of prose are a study of details in works of art, La vita dei dettagli (The life of details, 2009), and Isolatria (2013), a survey of the history and geography of La Maddalena, her family’s native region of Sardinia. She has received numerous prizes for her poetry, among them the Premio Montale, the Premio Letterario Viareggio-Rèpaci, and the Premio Puškin. In 2019 she received an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne.

Like many Italian poets, Anedda has worked as a journalist; she is also a scholar, teacher, and translator of classical and French literature. In the fall and spring she travels from her home in Rome to teach modern literature at the Università della Svizzera italiana in Lugano. She spends her summers in the archipelago of La Maddalena. After years of publishing with various national presses, her work now also appears in the prestigious Einaudi collana bianca series. These little paperbacks, with their plain white covers, make up the shelf of noted contemporary Italian poetry and poetry in Italian translation, from Samuel Beckett and Mario Luzi in the sixties to Jan Wagner, Patrizia Cavalli, and Mariangela Gualtieri today. Anglophone readers can survey twenty years of Anedda’s poems in Jamie McKendrick’s excellent translation Archipelago (2014).

This interview took place in November 2018 and October 2019 in Anedda’s apartment in the Monteverde neighborhood of Rome. Her narrow four-story building is halfway down a hilly street that seems to tumble toward the Porta Portese flea market and, eventually, the Tiber. Her family occupies the third floor. The state built the structure in the fifties as housing for officials of the carabinieri, and Anedda’s grandfather, a general, purchased their apartment at that time. Anedda and her husband, Flaminio Mormile, a pulmonologist at the large Gemelli Hospital, moved there in 1994 and raised their daughter, Maria Sofia, a historian of the French Revolution, amid the mementos, books, paintings, and upright piano of Anedda’s grandmother.

We sat in the living/dining room, speaking in Italian and English. Anedda was recovering from a serious illness and our thoughts turned readily to the past and poetry’s place at the center of our lives. As always, she spoke with both honesty and reticence; she avoids rhetoric in conversation just as she avoids it in her poems. The quiet and comfortable room, with its dark blue armchairs, fills with sunlight in the afternoon. A large map of Italy hangs on the wall.

I have known Anedda for more than a decade, and our paths have crossed in Oxford, Newcastle, Berlin, Naples, and Rome. We often get together in Trastevere and the city center to talk and read and visit bookstores. In the period between and after our meetings for this interview, we corresponded by email in both languages, with Anedda expanding on her answers in Italian. Any unmarked translations here are my own.

INTERVIEWER

What is your earliest memory of poetry?

ANTONELLA ANEDDA

The first poem I ever heard was by Aleksandr Blok, on the radio in a small village in Sardinia. It’s an early work that begins, “Carried on the breeze, / the Spring’s music drifted from far, far away.” The poem was about space and wind—how the wind breaks open the clouds to reveal a strip of blue sky.

INTERVIEWER

What was it that moved you?

ANEDDA

When I was seven, a member of my family, a person I loved, died in front of me. Suddenly her body was a thing without a voice. Listening to Blok’s poem—I was thirteen or fourteen—I thought that perhaps poetry could create a relationship with absence, with death, transposing the present into another space and time.

INTERVIEWER

Does this relationship with absence remain the reason why you write poems?

ANEDDA

I write to intensify reality and at the same time to undermine it, as Emily Dickinson does when she says, “Bring me the sunset in a cup / Reckon the morning’s flagons up.” The miracle of this poem is the dislocation of the relationship between the domestic and the universal. The visible is there, but reimagined by the swerve from ordinary perspectives and scales.

INTERVIEWER

Is the visible, and its image as the visual, the most important dimension of the poem for you?

ANEDDA

Poetry makes reality reality. My pleasure derives from this kind of disposition, of being attentive, of being able to catch sounds, lights. I am a poet of “I have seen it,” as Elizabeth Bishop wrote about herself, but I am also a poet of “I have listened to it.” I am a hare with a mathematical mind.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say a bit about your early work in relation to your education? Visual perception, sound and music, and even mathematics—your poetry is so enriched by your knowledge of perspectives and traditions.

ANEDDA

I studied from the ages of fourteen to eighteen in the kind of school we call in Italy a liceo classico. There, one studies Latin and Greek and also mathematics, science, history, philosophy, as well as Italian, European, and American literature. I believe that is one of the great merits of the Italian educational system, to allow teenagers to have access to the classics in the original. Even today when I see a text in Greek or Latin, I am moved. At the same time, there are no rules for an education.

INTERVIEWER

Has oral tradition, too, influenced your work? Is it something you grew up with?

ANEDDA

I have it in my ears. Improvised oral poetry is a tradition in every region of Sardinia. From my parents and from the time I spent there as a child, I became familiar with these forms. One practice is the cantu a tenore—a song where four male voices respond to one another.

Gli attittos—the Sardinian funeral dirges—are part of these traditions, too. Attittos has an uncertain etymology. One suggestion is that it derives from a word for breastfeeding or nursing. According to Max Leopold Wagner, a scholar of Sardinian, an attittos was “an ancient song that was intended to inflame its hearers to revenge.” But the Sardinian verb attittare is not at all related to the Italian attizzare, which means “to stoke,” as in stoking hatred. Another scholar, Francesca Pittalis, studied the attittos in Bitti and Orani, in Barbagia. She says that revenge is never part of the attittos even when the singers are grieving someone who was murdered. Pittalis wrote that the old women of the village said that attittare means to sing a lullaby for those who have died. Another etymology links attittos to grief or weeping. This tradition has influenced me the most.

INTERVIEWER

In what ways?

ANEDDA

You could say that I found this tradition on my skin, as if the experience of an unexpressed pain had retraced something that had always existed. In the attittos grief urges on the lament.

Pittalis wrote that the women who chanted the attittos, even into the seventies, were mourners and poets. Efisina de Grimenta was the last mourner of Bitti. She sang and wept with the mothers of the young men who died in war. One of her most moving songs describes those mothers holding cardboard portraits of their vanished children.

INTERVIEWER

Your poems seem to carry over so many aspects of ancient Mediterranean traditions—­the ritual uses of song and lament, the agonistic “dueling” call-and-response poetry of shepherds, the improvisational, turn-taking, ensemble traditions of North African music and ritual, and the first-person lyric descended from Greek texts. But your work is also informed by more contemporary traditions. Paolo Fresu, the trumpeter and composer, has spoken about the influence of jazz records brought over by American GIs on Italian popular music. For you and other poets of your generation, did jazz have a great effect?

ANEDDA

For me, yes, jazz with its rhythm seemed to be near, or not far from, the aching grief of the attittos. In both of them there was an element of anxiety, of interweaving ancient rhythms, of breathing. Fresu recalled how important the experience with the launeddas—the Sardinian triple pipe with single reeds—was to him from a technical point of view. It’s the oldest polyphonic instrument in the Mediterranean. Jazz and launeddas are in dialogue despite the centuries between them.

INTERVIEWER

Your family has its origins in Sardinia, but for several generations now you have been Roman and have lived in this same building and neighborhood. Do you feel a dual sense of belonging?

ANEDDA

My parents were both born in Sardinia, while I was born and raised in Rome, where I studied and received my graduate degree with an emphasis on Modernist art.

After World War I, my grandfather stayed on the mainland. He was a career officer in the carabinieri and was often transferred. My father’s degree was in law, from Cagliari, but he practiced in Genoa and then in Rome. He became a judge and eventually the president of the Roman court, a dangerous job at the time—this was the seventies, the anni di piombo or “years of lead.” We had to live under the protection of the carabinieri and we received death threats from right-wing and extreme left-wing groups.

My maternal grandmother lived in Sardinia. My mother was alone in Rome—her family remained in Cagliari. She wanted to work, to sing—she was a coloratura soprano with a wonderful voice. But she developed tuberculosis and spent a long time in a sanatorium. She never loved Rome. She felt suffocated here, as she did in the mountains that surrounded the sanatorium. My mother longed for the sea her entire life. In all of us the bond with Sardinia has remained strong, and paradoxically has become more intense over the years.

INTERVIEWER

Could you describe what the landscape and geology of La Maddalena have meant to you?

ANEDDA

I think I have this landscape in my DNA. Geology has made me aware of the insignificance of human presence, of the absence of an intelligent design. The landscape of La Maddalena and Sardinia is harsh and barren and windswept. The vegetation is sparse, but also, often enough, scarred by arson, for humans have wounded the landscape as well. Since the early eighteenth century, when Sardinia was ruled by the House of Savoy, systematic deforestation was the policy.

At the same time I fully understand what Andrea Zanzotto means when he writes, “No, you never betrayed me, [landscape]”—his work registers an invocation that becomes painful when the landscape is wounded by greed and speculation. The strikethrough suggests how landscape has been scarred . . . I’m not talking about arcadia or the world of idylls, but instead about the landscape that surrounds us and reminds us that we are not the masters of the natural world. It is an ethical condition. What is happening to the landscape in Sardinia and elsewhere is deeply worrying. Landscape has a relation, a spatial relation, to rhythm in poetry.

INTERVIEWER

How would you characterize that rhythm?

ANEDDA

Sardinia’s geography has certainly acted on the rhythms of my writing. The silence of the interior and the solitude of the coasts—two very different landscapes, one deeply contained by the mountains and forests, the other exposed to the sea. I hear that silence, stratified by time, pre-Nuragic, bound to the constellations, in the work of the conceptual artist Maria Lai, whom I greatly admire. It’s something archaic rather than mystical. The solitude has nothing to do with a hermit-like vocation, even less with the punitive and religious.

INTERVIEWER

In La Maddalena is your view of the horizon unimpeded? Can you see out to the sea? Is the sky very open?

ANEDDA

My view of the horizon is uninterrupted. On a clear day, I can see Corsica and part of Sardinia itself. From my balcony I can see the small island of Santo Stefano, part of the La Maddalena Archipelago. The weather is very changeable and high winds are frequent.

INTERVIEWER

Wind is something you’ve spoken about often within your poems and prose and in other interviews. We began this conversation discussing the wind of Aleksandr Blok. I think of your poem “Vento. Essere nel vento” (Wind, to be in the wind), from Il catalogo della gioia.


Out of the steppe the wind runs over the earth without impediment
burns straight through without the barriers of mountains.
It is east of the body that crushes the thorns of shrubs.
It has Mongolian names, the sound of hooves cutting through space.
It lifts itself. It gathers itself in the highlands:
Caucasus, Anatolia, and Sardinia’s sardonic kingdom
where they say there are traces of the Ark and the Cross.
It is a vision of a city of destroyed clouds
where a single icon shines with incorruptible
beauty though fractured by the kicks of horses.

Do you want to say more about the wind’s place in your work and thought?

ANEDDA

When it is very exposed to these big winds, the human scale becomes puny, and again I think that perspective enters my poems. Wind teaches us the obvious lesson that nature is a great deal stronger than our little selves. That our illusions of dominating nature have catastrophic consequences. The wind is a metaphor, too, for the breath, but for me it is a reality. Sardinia is exposed to the winds, especially the western side, the one that looks to Spain.

INTERVIEWER

And returning to rhythm, your work contrasts the regularity of a calm, relentless sea to the wind, which is so inchoate. We don’t know what the wind will do next.

ANEDDA

Yes, the regular rhythm of the sea. The rhythm of the water, the constantly changing winds, the tides, the storms coming from the Strait of Bonifacio, the petrels’ flight. The different types of clouds. I am passionate about meteorology and observing the transformations of the weather. Roni Horn has titled a series of her photographs with a phrase I really like, “You are the weather,” and it seems to be in long-distance dialogue with Andrea Zanzotto’s book Meteo.

INTERVIEWER

Both Horn and Zanzotto speak from inside the weather, questioning the limits of what we can know.

ANEDDA

In Italian we have only one word, tempo, for both weather and time. “You are the time” sounds prophetic. Just as we say “wind-driven clouds,” and just as meteorology was the word the Greeks used to indicate the rational analysis of high celestial phenomena that in the proper sense fall from the sky—as Lucia Bellizia has noted, we have μετέωρος, metéōros, “high,” and λέγω, légō, “I speak.” So “rational discourse around high objects.” This is the rhythm, the flow, that interests me. And, yes, there are various rhythms, too, that come with weather disturbances, the snow, the rain.

INTERVIEWER

I also think of your work’s engagement with the seasons. The autumnal aura of Dal balcone del corpo comes to mind. Or the start of your poem in Historiae, “Alghe, anemone di mare” (Algae, sea anemones), in a cotranslation here with Patrizio Ceccagnoli—


We see the world in the right amount,
no more no less than we can bear,
the head we immerse beneath the water is the only promise
of an afterlife, into the gray that shades every thought.
Algae waver reddened by sea anemones.
The mind doesn’t hurt, the seabed trembles
with an autumnal light.

ANEDDA

In January, le secche, the shoals, emerge. The tide recedes and you can gather sea urchins. The days are clear. The sea is so transparent that the profile of every rock and the seabed itself is exposed.

INTERVIEWER

Thinking about the influence of place, a related concern is the presence of the dialect, Limba Sarda, in your poetry. Do you hear the dialect under your Italian? Is it always there, haunting everyday language, or does it come through at certain moments of living speech?

ANEDDA

Limba is not properly a dialect. There is a dictionary, and it is considered more as a minor language close to Latin and Catalan. It stays as a condition that resists within the unfolding of poetic discourse—just as certain poplar leaves turn in the wind. Now they show a matte side, now they show a sparkling side. I always hear and feel the influences of the Limba under my Italian, and I think haunting is the right word for it.

INTERVIEWER

Sometimes this local language, so personal to you, is replacing Latin at the origin of your Italian. It’s as if you are displacing empire in general. In a poem from Dal balcone del corpo, “Contro Scauro,” written in both Limba and Italian, you told a kind of origin story about the struggle of provincial Sardinians against the center of power. This is Jamie McKendrick’s translation.


How can I write of Rome in one or seven days
—a glut of beauty, taste and linen tunics.
Maybe those Sards, 20 centuries ago, felt this
when they came to plead for justice against Scaurus.

“A truthless people . . . land where even the honey is gall”

Cicero said in his oration. But his name, now,
tiny and rapid, flits among the stones, and just as
then, witnesses die, the bee labours on.
Honey endures—a tongue of salt, arbutus, thistle.

You add a note—

In 54 bc, Scaurus, proconsul in Sardinia, was accused of extortion and of being the cause of the suicide of a woman he had raped. The Sards came to Rome to testify, but Scaurus had as his defence lawyer Cicero, who poured scorn on these unkempt figures, covered with animal skins, bewildered among the columns of the refined Tribunal. Although apparently guilty, Scaurus was absolved.

ANEDDA

Displacing is right. It’s a form of “illocality,” in the sense in which Emily Dickinson uses the word in “A nearness to Tremendousness.” “Its Location / Is Illocality.” Perhaps it’s through Latin, the audible feeling of Latin in Logudorese, that I’ve found a way of dislocating Italian into a zone for which a different language must be found, at a “slant.” It’s a way of signaling both the roots of the Sardinian language and its distance from Italian, and so it indicates a displacement from the linguistic perspective.

The name Logudorese—logu means “place” and de oru means “of gold,” so “place of gold.” It’s close to Latin. So close, in fact, that in De vulgari eloquentia Dante says that the Sardinians speak Latin “like monkeys.” Limba and Latin share principles of syntax, construction, and concinnity. I believe this minimalist syntax is present in my own Italian.

As for that poem’s genesis, I had a commission to write something about Rome. I finished the poem the day after the due date. But I was thinking of Cicero’s oration “Pro Scauro,” for Scaurus. According to Cicero, Sardinians were not credible as witnesses and were not to be trusted.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

ANEDDA

Because they were considered savages. Cicero added that they came from an island where even the honey was bitter.

INTERVIEWER

Yes, he said their “honey is gall.”

ANEDDA

But it’s not true. It’s not oversweet, but perfectly balanced between the bitter and the sweet. As poetry should be.

INTERVIEWER

Who were the Sardinians at that time? Were they native shepherds or were they settlers?

ANEDDA

Native shepherds in Barbagia. The traditional gender roles are clear—the men are shepherds and women hold the keys to the house. The women learned the art of weaving from the janas, the good fairies of Sardinian folklore. These beings live in caves in the rocks and weave with golden threads. The janas are an important motif in the textile work of Maria Lai, for example. Furthermore, the condition of women in Sardinia was quite different from that in the Italian peninsula. As opposed to the honor codes of Sicily, for example, Sardinian law seems to have been shaped by the more egalitarian fourteenth-century legal code of the woman judge and ruler Eleanora d’Arborea.

INTERVIEWER

What is known about Sardinia before then? What are the origins of the people and their culture?

ANEDDA

Sardinia is mentioned by Homer, who indicated that the idea of the sardonic—­mocking, laughing, ironic—comes from the place. There was a very ancient culture in the area even before the Bronze Age. The origin of the Sards is an enigma. Of course Cagliari, Caralis, was a Phoenician harbor, but the interior, the part of Barbagia, so called by Romans to indicate “barbarians,” has never been really conquered by the mainland. The plain of Campidano was very fertile. The Romans used Sardinia as a kind of dump, but also as a granary.

INTERVIEWER

Was this kind of colonization true of La Maddalena also?

ANEDDA

No, I believe La Maddalena was deserted at that time. Until the seventeenth century it was just a place where Corsican shepherds grazed their animals and took them by boats to the neighboring island of Caprera, whose name came from capre, “goats.”

INTERVIEWER

In many of your poems Limba appears beside the standard Italian. In Historiae, you juxtapose the two, writing the start of the poem “Limbas” in two ways. First in Limba—

Onzi tandu naro una limba mia
da inbentu in impastu a su passado
da dongu solamenti in traduzione.

And then it appears in standard Italian.

Ogni tanto uso una lingua mia
la invento impastandola al passato
non la consegno se non in traduzione.

In other words,

Once in a while I use a language of mine
I invent it, kneading it into the past
I don’t hand it over except in translation.

What has this duality meant to you? Which language, Limba or Italian, is the “translation”?

ANEDDA

Some of my poems have been written, indeed they have been “born,” in dialect and then translated. Others, in an experiment, have been translated back and forth between Limba and Italian. Trying this, the transition from Italian to dialect pushed me to create a synthesis. I was forced to remove myself from the process and revisit my work objectively. I also experimented with a kind of third way through the two languages, exploring the effect of first one word, then another, in Italian then dialect and vice versa.

INTERVIEWER

The dialect seems to be the centrifugal force of your work, but you also are so involved in the centripetal power of translation, beyond the exchange between Sardinia and Italy. What does translation mean to you?

ANEDDA

Translation is for me the deepest form of reading and at the same time the riskiest, implying the greatest responsibility. Translating a text is not just moving the words into another language. Paul Celan said the translation had to capture the “timbre” of the voice speaking in the poem. It should render its quidditas, its world. Perhaps it is the work of a lifetime—and perhaps a lifetime is not enough. But at the same time, it is right and courageous to translate and to reveal one’s reading. And it is interesting to reread a text, even if one knows the original in one’s own language. Each generation has the vital task of translating the classics again. In this way, the texts are reborn and rediscovered. To translate for me is to ri-petere, from Latin petere, “to ask.” It is the need to question the text again. It is the work of the Midrash in Judaism. The Midrash eviscerates the texts, rendering them contemporary, close, alive.

INTERVIEWER

And to transpose the question, what are your thoughts on being translated?

ANEDDA

Being translated is an experience that is even more important than trans­lating. You are naked, in a form of nudity, in front of your language. You see if you have taken shortcuts. It is a test of your honesty. You cannot take anything for granted. You have to cope with a form of failure, but it is okay, you learn to dispose of your vanity, to let go of your ego.

I must say that I have been lucky with all my translators into different languages. They all are poets whom I deeply respect, including Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, who recently translated my poems from Italian into Irish.

INTERVIEWER

For English speakers, the clarity and fixedness of vowel sounds in standard Italian, so different from English, seems, as the cliché goes, so musical. Your poems have a music that comes from echoing consonants and from the surprising changes in tone. How important is sound to you when you are composing poems?

ANEDDA

I am always looking for a music inside the poem but not a musicality that is conventionally “poetic.” Music to me is also the noise a car makes on the asphalt at night, or the sound sheet metal makes when it’s disturbed.

INTERVIEWER

Dissonance and even noise, then. Is this tied to the process of writing against a song tradition in Italian verse?

ANEDDA

I also look for the architecture of a poem, where the words are like building blocks, so it’s not only music but also structure.

INTERVIEWER

Our generation inherited traditional forms mostly through the twentieth century’s rejection of them. Yet they remain a resource. How important are these forms to you? Many of your poems, although written in free verse, have the dimensions and closing turns of thought of sonnets, for example.

ANEDDA

Traditional forms are very important. It’s essential to know them, if only to break with them. I have written some sonnets, but usually I avoid rhyme and I’m more interested in the metrical effects of Latin poets. There are poets, like Patrizia Valduga and Emilio Rentocchini, who use traditional forms and whose work interests me, but the problem seems to me equivalent to art restoration. How should we intervene? What’s to be preserved? Each of us decides the answers to that in our own way. Still, yes, of all the forms, the sonnet is one of my favorites.

INTERVIEWER

What has drawn you to it?

ANEDDA

I love its structure. I know and love the sonnets of Cavalcanti and I admire Anne Carson’s reticent sonnets as well. Of all Cavalcanti’s sonnets, one I particularly appreciate is his “Chi è questa che vèn ch’ogn’om la mira” (Who is this who comes, upon whom every man gazes). Cavalcanti and other early poets were disobedient to the form as they followed the form. I’ve just finished a new poem titled “Sonetto disobbediente” (Disobedient sonnet)—a rewriting of a Petrarchan device that hinges on call and response.

INTERVIEWER

As you are reaching to the distant past, you also are teaching at the Università della Svizzera italiana, an institution often singled out for its focus on cutting-­edge technology. And in your recent books you’ve made several, often humorous, allusions to using computers: salva con nome corresponds to “save as” as a computer direction—which you turn into an enormous metaphysical allusion—and “the cloud” becomes an actual cloud again. What impact have changes in the technology of writing had on your material work as a poet?

ANEDDA

I was one of the first poets I knew here to use a computer. Even now I fondly remember my old Commodore 64, which was big, green and gray, and slow. I was happy to ditch the Olivetti typewriter. In those days I worked for the Roman newspaper Il manifesto. It was and is a leftist newspaper, although the founders were expelled from or forced out of the communist party after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I worked extensively in their culture section, along with Domenico Starnone, Rossana Rossanda, and Gianni Riotta. I remember often enough spending the whole night writing an article, cutting and gluing, arduously correcting.

Technology is important. The copy and paste function of the computer is a paradise. The silence is a relief and the keyboard convenient. Now I have a lightweight, brightly colored laptop. I like these words, screen, cloud, and the openness of save as. What do we save? Probably the unsalvageable.

INTERVIEWER

Could you describe where and when you write your poems? Do you have habitual practices of working?

ANEDDA

Where do I write? Anywhere’s possible, but often in my kitchen. It’s small, with good light, but it’s far from being an image of domestic peace, more likely the site of a hunting. I used to write in the evening. Now I write in the morning.

INTERVIEWER

And how do you go ahead to compose your poems?

ANEDDA

I can follow a sound or an image and then I jot down the words in a notebook or in the back of a book. I can and must write everywhere. I have a husband, a very old father, a very old aunt, a daughter. What I’m trying to say is that I cannot have “rituals” as I write. I work hard, as anyone must, but I take advantage of every time and place. I am at home in every moment of calm. I write, I read, I rewrite, I read again, I correct, I put up with my desperation, get through my desperation, get over my desperation. This all takes some time before moving on to the computer. I build up my courage, reread, make corrections. When I am exhausted, I deliver the poem.

INTERVIEWER

So poetry is not at the center or your days, but something you pursue whenever you can?

ANEDDA

Words give me a sort of authentication of what I live, of my experiences. We can say a lot of things about poetry, we can say we are artisans—of course poetry comes from the Greek verb ποιεῖν, poieîn, “to make”—but the only truth is, Does it work? The text captures different sounds, vibrations, views, but it is also a loom with different colors and densities.

INTERVIEWER

Your new poems have a forensic aspect that is almost posthumanist. Historiae is concerned with atoms, radiation, dust, debris, microbes, ashes, sand, and myriad processes that are below and beyond human perception. Can the poet find an alliance with the scientist in this moment of not only ever-growing inequality but also possible extinction?

ANEDDA

I don’t see poetry as opposed to science. On the contrary, poetry and science should stay close and form an alliance to fight against ever-increasing inequality. There is a spontaneous alliance between astronomy and poetry, between geometry and poetry, between poetry and physics. We mustn’t fight against science but instead against the collusion between some kinds of science and the profit-driven economy. It is obviously a very broad issue and full of contradictions. But it is the scientists who have sounded the alarm about the dire problems with the environment.

INTERVIEWER

What is it like to be writing as an Italian poet today? Is the experience of your generation a departure from the expectations that were brought to the work of Amelia Rosselli, Alda Merini, or others of the earlier postwar era?

ANEDDA

Honestly, I don’t feel any strong sense of an Italian literary community, but I have felt a close connection with Amelia Rosselli’s work. Rosselli introduced me to Emanuela Tandello, who has become one of my best friends, and to my British friends Jamie McKendrick, Bernard O’Donoghue, and Peter Hainsworth. I have many Italian friends who teach abroad, like Manuele Gragnolati, who works in Paris—he wrote several beautiful books on Dante, such as Amor che move (Love that moves)—and Nicola Gardini, a distinguished writer and Renaissance expert who teaches at Oxford.

Rosselli was, and remains, to some extent, a “stranger” in Italian literature. I admire her mind, her freedom, her genius in understanding and telling the truth about Sylvia Plath. In an important essay she had the courage to write against the univocal interpretation of Plath as being only a confessional poet. Rosselli made wonderful translations of Plath, and of several poems by Emily Dickinson, into Italian. Rosselli herself encouraged me and was incredibly generous to write about my first book, Residenze invernali. Perhaps my first true mentor was Augusto Gentili, with whom I studied the iconology of Venetian art at university.

INTERVIEWER

You were quite far down the course of becoming an art historian.

ANEDDA

I had an advanced degree in the history of Venetian art of the seventeenth century. I was awarded honors and a publication. In Venice I had won a scholarship from the Cini Foundation—I passed the specialized exams. In short, I had a “brilliant career” when, after a period of depression and eating disorders, I abandoned everything. I came back to Rome. These were my “dull” years. Then I slowly recovered. I worked in a museum and I started writing for newspapers. But I think that this kind of education was very important. It taught me not to take details for granted, to be aware of what is behind an image, the historical, religious, and economic context, the importance of the patron.

INTERVIEWER

As you look back on that difficult time, does it seem to have sent you to your life as a poet?

ANEDDA

I spent years struggling with a deep sense of inadequacy—not that it is going much better now, but I live with it—and with self-esteem problems, with an inaccurate perception of my body, with a profound discomfort in social relationships. I don’t know if I am healed now, but by putting aside my “I,” observing not myself but the world around me, I have learned to believe precisely in living. And to acknowledge the fact that I do not understand well when I have an appetite or not. My daughter, Maria Sofia, who has a very healthy relationship with food and loves to cook, played a fundamental role in my recovery.

INTERVIEWER

I wonder if you feel, as I do, that thinking and writing can unlock the door, make a rough path, in moments of despair and anxiety?

ANEDDA

I think that the point, as Jenny Holzer suggests, is to become increasingly interested in the lives of others. Work empowers and strengthens. I slowly came to understand that writing also involves a body and therefore a mind capable of working. I tempered myself. I stopped thinking about an ideal image. I reckoned with my fears. My “career” as an art historian has not gone on, but, who knows, maybe my career not having gone on was for the best.

INTERVIEWER

But you continue to write with an art historian’s eye. Readers have noted the Vermeer-like interiors of the spaces described in your poems. And you brought out a beautiful small book about details in works of art, La vita dei dettagli. The reader is provided small details from works by Giotto, Bosch, Cornell, and dozens of others, with facing-page prose texts, and invited to puzzle over the images one at a time before using the key to identify the artwork.

ANEDDA

Yes, as Elizabeth Bishop says, “No detail too small.” I am quite obsessed by details. This derives from my education in art history. I tend to recognize a picture from its small details, as I did in my book. The detail beckons us, calls each of us differently, from a picture or from that big picture that is existence.

INTERVIEWER

Visual art clearly has an influence on your poems beyond technique. Could you say more about its philosophical impact?

ANEDDA

There is a picture that I have always admired, and feared, by Magritte, The Human Condition. There’s always a frame and this frame is our tragedy. It’s the central issue of Dal balcone del corpo—we imagine that we see what is behind us. But in fact we see only frontally and peripherally. Cubism was the movement that dreamed of giving space to different points of view, but Surrealism is the reality of the nightmare and tells the truth about perception. The detail reminds us, then, that we are spectators who constantly excise ourselves. In Notti di pace occidentale, the poem itself arises from a detail that I saw on television, an image of a woman seeking shelter during the war in Bosnia. Obviously, I was not the reporter. I was not there. But language was my only tool.

INTERVIEWER

I gather that in contemporary Italian poetry, a kind of critique of the “I” has arisen. I am thinking of your poem “Nuvole, io” (Cloud, I), from Historiae, here cotranslated with Patrizio Ceccagnoli.

I would like to get rid of the I, just as the critics prescribe,
but I’m so poor a pronoun’s my only possession.
The most I can do is decline it in the plural. I say we
and feel falsely bighearted.

ANEDDA

It verges on obsession in the experimental sector. But there is a valid concern there. So without being rigidly theoretical about it, a suspicion about the use of the first person can be salutary. I simply wonder, given that the “I” is a convention and I am not at all sure that it exists, if this is not, in the end, the best state of affairs. The sense is that we have this tool and all in all it is less hypocritical just to use it. “I” has already shattered, always. The text you quoted takes up the debates, the disputes, the quarrels, about this famous “I.” In my text, there is no ideological polemic, but rather a desire to question the pronouns, to ask them, Hey, you, how do you function?

INTERVIEWER

The poem is a kind of declaration of independence.

ANEDDA

“Nuvole, io” is an interlocutory text punctuated by hypotheticals. I see it as an ironic poem about the obsession with the ego, the demonization of the ego, by certain critics. It makes me laugh, for they are taking a stance against something that doesn’t exist. I don’t exist, just as consciousness does not exist. These are constructions, evolutionary maps. It is strange how some “advanced” positions can actually be regressive and in truth far from science—in this case far from neurobiology. I am also thinking of popular books on the subject—for example, Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio. When I write, “I with I hide myself,” I am thinking precisely of pronouns as a game. This is an underground citation that runs from Dante to Zanzotto. When we write we put into practice what Dante says in the Purgatorio—a music that “fece me a me uscir di mente”—made me leave, lose, or go out of my own mind, in other words. The poem entertains this possibility, of letting me go out of, or let go of, my mind. There is a mysterious alchemy between detachment and investment. You can avoid the ego and yet still be rhetorical in the negative sense. Alternatively you can say “I” without excluding others.

INTERVIEWER

Especially since Notti di pace occidentale, you have written against the backdrop of endless wars in the Middle East. Do you see a decisive turn in your work with that book?

ANEDDA

Geography and history have long been concerns in my writing. Notti di pace occidentale was written in the shadow of the first Gulf War. The book is concerned with the situation of the West surrounded by apparently concluded wars and Europe living not in peace but under an anxious truce. So the title is ironic.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s return to the speaker who stands on the balcony. To be on a balcony impedes action among others, and yet gives us a more expansive viewpoint than if we are on the ground in the midst of life. I am wondering if you believe that is the position of the poet.

ANEDDA

The title Dal balcone del corpo was suggested by Husserl’s phenomenology. I was drawn to the idea that we are only able to see straight ahead of us. Not being owls, we cannot see behind us by turning our heads. We are obliged to have a frontal perspective. So the analogy was with the balcony . . . because from the balcony you can listen to people’s voices. You are linked to an interior, but also suspended in the void. It’s an exposed situation. This leads me to the vulnerability of poetry that, as Paul Celan wrote, “ne s’impose pas, elle s’expose.” I was interested in this “exposure” and in the relationship between the body and space. We’re not exactly prisoners of our bodies, but our perspectives are governed by our being confined within a body. So yes, the first idea was philosophical. But the image of the balcony is also linked to an everyday phenomenon as well. In fact in Italy there always are people—­often old people—on their balconies watching, listening. And finally, I had in mind at least two poetic references—Baudelaire’s “Le balcon” and Montale’s opening poem, “Il balcone,” from his book The Occasions.

INTERVIEWER

Baudelaire’s poem is an effusive, yet questioning, recollection of consummated love. Montale’s initiating “Il balcone” is a poem of regret and strained hopefulness. There, from the balcony, the speaker compares the viewpoint of an “I” and a “you”: the “I” stands questioning, uncertain, anguished with waiting, while the “you,” charged with an inner fire, seems alight with an incommensurable perspective.

ANEDDA

There is a relationship between the domestic and public spaces, one that is difficult to fill, for anyone—not only for poets.

INTERVIEWER

You have had a public voice through your work in journalism—not only in your writing for Il manifesto but also in your work for Noidonne, an important early feminist journal. And as a well-known poet, also, you have a public voice. Do these voices have different consequences?

ANEDDA

We all are living through a difficult time. I don’t think poetry has a necessary obligation to be directly committed to the public sphere. The poet has a different point of view. She speaks, but in an oblique way. I believe in personal political commitments, but I am not drawn to poetry that is propagandist. Here we find ourselves standing before the enormous topic of the relationship between words and power. As Osip Mandelstam said, “I was only bound childishly to the world of power.” In his “Conversation on Dante,” Mandelstam described Dante as a raznochinets, one of the poor, who traverses the space of the Commedia with the soles of his shoes worn away.

INTERVIEWER

You often have written about the pain of others by carefully tracing your own relation to such pain. I’ll mention two examples from Historiae. One is your elegy for your mother, which seems to me so central to the book. Another is the moving poem about your grandfather and his suffering from 1915 to 1918. Would you like to describe the process of writing those poems?

ANEDDA

The elegies for my mother and my grandfather are only relatively autobiographical. I don’t know if there is a privileged relationship with the mother tongue on my part. As I said, both my parents are Sardinians, and I was raised in an atmosphere of Sardinian cultural memories. As for the poem for my grandfather recounting 1915 to 1918, by going through him, I wanted to speak of those of that generation who, as Montale says, were overwhelmed by war. My grandfather was a young officer during the First World War, much loved by his soldiers but very strict with himself. He asked for no permission for leave even though he knew his child was dying. The story ends there, but out of his silence, even out of his detachment, there was a mute pain that reached me, too. When another daughter died at the age of twenty-seven, it was too much for him to bear. I was seven and he didn’t love me. He couldn’t. I have many photographs of him in the war—he was seventeen when he enlisted. There are notebooks with love poems in Logudorese, but it was as if he had never managed to turn those words into something living.

I wonder how many people like him there have been, how many private tragedies against the background of a greater tragedy. During the Second World War my grandfather was “lucky,” because instead of being taken prisoner by the Germans, he was taken by the English. So in writing about my grandfather I reflected on the fact that he had survived two wars to see two daughters die.

As for my mother, I feel very reticent talking about her. She was an extremely intelligent person, fragile in an era when mental illness was not adequately treated. As I mentioned, she lived a long time in a sanatorium because tuberculosis was considered to be a shameful disease. The two conditions, one physical and one social, were intertwined. When she died, I tried, in my elegy, to give a form to her pain and to her revolt. She was a fallen aristocrat—certainly not a bourgeois. In Rome we were misfits.

This has always interested me, the relationship between our lives, others’ lives, and History with a capital H. I tried to say this in the title section of Notti di pace occidentale. What are the stories within history? What role does poetry have, if it even has one? Does it console us? I don’t believe that. Certainly poetry does not console the writer, but perhaps she can try not to look elsewhere. To look destiny in the face and not escape—even by writing a sonnet, to do the best you can.

INTERVIEWER

As a poet you also have looked to historical coincidence, as in your use of Tacitus’s own Historiae. There you point to the tragic contemporary aptness of his record in Book I.2. “Plenum exiliis mare, infecti caedibus scopuli.” “The sea was full of exiles, the cliffs polluted with the corpses of the dead.”

ANEDDA

I’m very interested in history, but I think, in accord with Tacitus, that it is a slaughterhouse. As he writes in Book I, “Everywhere were rapine and slaughter.”

INTERVIEWER

In your poem “Lesbos, 2015,” despite the date in the title, the scene described could be from any time in human history:

They could be gone hunting—but they don’t carry rifles
they cautiously advance into the olive grove
if tired they sleep
leaning their backs against the walls.
The city collapsed, from here you cannot see the glare
between the houses—no longer stubble now fuses,
with red-hot clots, and tires on fire.

Here you were observing firsthand—not watching television.

ANEDDA

I went to Lesbos because I wanted to see the world of Sappho and also the museum of the painter Theophilos at Mytilene. And as well the flamingos and the lagoon where Aristotle fled in exile from Athens and where he studied the remains of fish, inspiring his Historia animalium. I also wanted to see Eresos, where Theophrastus, the friend and disciple of Aristotle, was born. His treatise on compassion toward animals was known by Leopardi.

In short, I was in Lesbos for tourism and pleasure when suddenly a crowd of people appeared walking together there on a road. They were Syrians who’d arrived in Lesbos from the Turkish coast. They were walking because, as they explained to us, the police would not allow them to take taxis or buses. They were almost all young, walking at night, in the heat, behind someone carrying a flashlight. During the day mothers spread their babies’ clothes on the bushes. It was a spectacle that, at least to me, coming from Western Europe, resembled all too clearly a page from Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir, If This Is a Man. However, these young mothers responded to our smiles and seemed relieved to have arrived at a place that was, perhaps at least at the beginning, not exactly welcoming but safe. Who would not feel that way, after fleeing war, and hunger, and what is called “collateral damage”? It is rarely spoken of, but many civilians are killed “by mistake.” The poem is an attempt to reflect on what I had seen.

INTERVIEWER

The refugee crisis of the Middle East and Mediterranean has gone on to affect so many Italian cities, where Romani families and West African migrants, too, continue to seek shelter and a means of making a living. In a long poem, “Occidente” (The West), you address the intense moral crisis of homelessness in your own neighborhood, describing the poor who go through the garbage. One stanza explains,

This is why our aliens come at this strange hour
sometimes, they are women, often old.
They push a stroller with no baby,
as well as a shopping cart,
and in fact they are doing this, “at our expense”
adds the tenant.

ANEDDA

“Occidente” is a text that tries to decipher everyday history, here in Rome. From my window I see the garbage cans. And for some time now I’ve been observing people who search through the garbage. Often they are elderly Roma women, looking for scrap metal to sell. Sometimes when I go down to throw out my garbage, we meet. There is a mutual shame. By this I mean above all I feel a sense of helplessness and I don’t know how to help. We can offer charity, but charity is not enough.

On the one hand, we are there, with a job, a house, clothing that falls within the norm, et cetera—our apparently solid Western world. On the other, there are people without work, who live in fields and caravans. Who are we and who are they? I can’t answer. I have no answers.

This is just the tip of the iceberg—the ever-deeper gap between wealth and poverty, between those who have and those who have nothing. At one time I had faith in a political response. I wrote for a long time for left-wing newspapers. I believed in militancy. Now I still think it is important to resist, to be on the side of the oppressed, of the forgotten, but I confess I’m often discouraged. For example, I was astonished—dumbfounded and also angry—­when Sardinia voted for the Lega, the northern Italian anti-­immigrant secessionist party. It was crazy to vote for something, someone, that despises the south and Sards. I follow with sympathy the young people’s movement called Le Sardine—a movement begun in 2019, organizing a lot of peaceful demonstrations against right-wing hate and racist language.

INTERVIEWER

Now on the other side of a “generation gap,” we look for common ground. And you recently returned to the world of university students to earn a doctorate in Italian literature at Oxford. Your dissertation work on Darwin and Leopardi seems to have had a direct impact on the themes of human and natural history in Historiae. I wonder if the dislocation of anthropocentrism in that research also has changed your work in poetry.

ANEDDA

The title of my thesis was “The mouse, the plants, the worms: Giacomo Leopardi and Erasmus and Charles Darwin.” Most likely this research confirmed my anti-anthropocentric vision and my interest in natural history. It also confirmed for me that Leopardi is far greater than the stereotype of the suffering poet, the Leopardi we learn about in school. He is a poet of thought, not a “spiritualist.”

INTERVIEWER

And what drew you to Darwin?

ANEDDA

I originally was taken with Mandelstam’s admiration for Darwin and found that Darwin opened a clearing for me, too. I love Darwin’s “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration,” as Elizabeth Bishop described it in a 1964 letter. He offers an ethical and poetic lesson. I share his anti-anthropocentrism, his annoyance with dogmas, and I admire his fight against slavery. Studying the relation between Leopardi, Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, and Darwin himself made it clear to me that their thought has nothing to do with social Darwinism.

And reading the work of both Erasmus and Charles, and wonderful books about them by Patricia Fara and Gillian Beer, has affected my poetry. Studying them has only increased my passion for details, my observation of nature, my sense of doubt, my belief that science and poetry are in dialogue.

INTERVIEWER

How have your goals for your work changed over time? What did you hope for with your first book and at midlife, and what are your hopes for your next volume?

ANEDDA

I can’t say, for I’m afraid I don’t have goals and I can’t think of writing as a “career.” Instead, it is a responsibility, in the sense of a pondus, a weight. I don’t have a plan, a program. My strongest commitment is, read a text together and understand it together. Perhaps in this there is a coherence uniting my first work with my most recent. There is a motto of the Gonzagas that I like, Nec spe, nec metu. “Without hope and without fear.”