“Contrapasso” Alexandra Fössinger (Cephalo Press) – Book Review

Alexandra Fössinger Contrapasso book cover

The poems in “Contrapasso” find succour in nature as they address themes of loss and survival, painful memories and striving to reach peace. Alexandra Fössinger is from South Tyrol, currently lives in Germany and mostly writes in English. In the opening poem, “Birds for someone who cannot hear”, “243 letters,/fragile as cut-out birds,” are sent to seek out the poem’s addressee,

……– my birds, my words,
………….cross the pitiless sea,
……seek out this obscure place,
………….creep into the dark hole
…….they’ve buried him in,

………………………..louder than anything I’ve written
……………..strong enough to be heard,

…………………though after this long journey
…………you’re injured and tired,
don’t give up
………………………………only you can save us now.”

The message is urgent and desperate, the sender needing to reach someone closed off and distant. A lot of hope and desire is packed into the message. It’s not immediately clear whether the “you” is the birds or the message’s recipient, but the speaker’s need for both not to give up is clear.

In “The painter’s wife” she has become, “Marginal, second best,/ hers is the clutter of children”. Meanwhile, he continues to paint,

“Do they remember
she used to be texture,
her brushes as tangible
as his?
Think it louder.

Like a ghost she is floating
through the canvas
that now belongs to the young girls.
Just bodies,

One breath to keep wishing,
one breath to keep fear.
Together they’re traitors to the
vow that had wed them,
to never stop seeing.”

He continues to chase his dreams and ambitions while she has been reduced to the domestic sphere of children. She enables him and he never queries why she no longer paints. The reference to “young girls” in the second quoted stanza suggests his subject matter didn’t age as the couple did. He still paints youth rather than his peers and contemporaries. In the unequal division of childcare, both have lost sight of their original aims and ambitions before the children came along.

“Mouse” explains how the collection got its title,

“When he came back
from his journey in contrapasso,
he found a dead mouse in his kitchen.”

There’s nothing to suggest the death was anything other than natural – no poisons or traps used since he wasn’t aware of the presence of the mouse until his return. It’s not known how long he was away. But now he has to deal with it

“He picked it up and threw it gently
out onto the compost heap,
not knowing how to better thank it
than by giving it back
to transmigration.

She thought of all this, of him,
still dazed from returning,
with a lifeless rodent in his smooth hand,
expurgation done by someone else,
jealous of a dead mouse
welcoming him home.”

It’s not clear who “she” is other than someone who knows him but does not live with him. It feels unresolved as if these are two people who do not communicate. She thinks of and feels for him, but he doesn’t seem to acknowledge her as if she’s the mouse living alongside but not with him.

In “Pane” a window is a transparent barrier,

“I sometimes wonder
why no friends visit me here
in this flat suspended deep
between sea and sky,

then suddenly remember
I have none

This place I made for you,
who never came,

and who but you could tell
if circumstances were conviction
or acquittal.”

It seems odd to suddenly remember you have no friends, especially when the speaker seems to have been the one who moved on, seeking to make a home for the poem’s addressee. Uncertainty permeates the poem as the speaker made a home in the absence of the one she wanted to share it with, the one “who never came”. She also doesn’t know if the one who is absent sees their absence as a positive or negative. Her uncertainty leaves her stuck, unable to connect with her neighbours and also unable to leave. She seems to be imprisoned by her own actions.

“Contrapasso” is a thoughtful collection, one to dip in and linger over at leisure. They read as a gathering of ideas and exploration of perspectives beyond the speaker’s observations. Fössinger has the confidence to give the reader space to inhabit the poems and draw their own conclusions.

“Contrapasso” is available from Cephalo Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.


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