“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.

“Self-Portrait” Elisabeth Horan (Cephalo Press) – book review

Cover image for Self-Portrait by Elisabeth HoranThe book starts with a quote from Frida Kahlo, ‘I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.’ Elisabeth Horan’s introduction explains, ‘Frida kept making her art, right up till the end, even from her bed when she was in too much pain to rise. With her speaking to me, I created these poems during a long and tumultuous recovery in a bed of my own…I have lived and studied and worked in Mexico and at various points in my life have considered it my home. I do realize the sensitivity of that side of this work.’ The poems are in English with occasional lines in Spanish which have the English translation presented alongside so the poems can be read directly from the page with those unfamiliar with Spanish not having to search for the translation. There is a listing at the end of which paintings were used for the poems. Frida Kahlo’s biography is fairly well-known: a trolley bus accident left her impaled on a pole with a broken back, she didn’t marry the young man she’d loved but painter Diego Rivera and lived with a tumultuous marriage, her painting always secondary to his, in chronic life-long pain. Early poems start with that crash, from “Crash Sonnet 1925”,

“imagine me like I was
Before, Alejandro, when I was whole,
And you kissed me on the bus or trolley;
Your hand on my knee or shoulder;
My future as your wife, erased in a second -”

This Frida Kahlo moves from ruminating on what might have been to considering her life as it is and querying her faith, in “Fey 1929”,

“I never knew that I would change – so

From a small young flower
To a scarred and half-broken tree

God, if you knew –
what was to become of me –

would you have turned the bus?
Stopped the wheels of the trolley?

Not sent me out that day
A reunirme con Alejandro                                                  [to meet up with my boyfriend]”

It ends, after acknowledging Alejandro as the love of her life,

“Diego Rivera:
Mi otro accidente                                                                  [my other accident]”

Her parents disapproved of Alejandro so her lengthy convalescence after the accident would have been an ideal excuse for the relationship to be broken up. Frida had already met Diego Rivera and he became a mentor supporting her painting. Unable to move, she could only practise self-portraits, using a mirror above her bed. Her injuries were the likely cause of her infertility, considered in “Maternity Coffin 1932”,

“This juxtaposition of
a life saved / a life ruined

Soy media – mujer                                                                [I am half of a woman]
llena / vacia                                                                            [full/empty]”

Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits frequently returned to her chronic pain, in “I’m All That’s Left 1940”,

“They tried many times to roll my head down the stairs
To see how many times I would get up and survive.

I’ve outlived them all. Enslavers, cannibals, rapists.
I’m all that’s left of the carnage.

No tengo pals                                                                         [I have no country]
No tengo raza                                                                         [I have no race]

Soy Calderón de la Tierra: [I am of the Earth]


Despite his womanising, her marriage to Diego had its moments of tenderness and love too. In “Pensando en Diego [Thinking about Diego] 1940-43”,

“Later at El Museo de Arquelógico                                          [the archaeology museum]
Me dices:                                                                                       [you say to me]
quiero subirte en la cripta y                                                     [I want to hide you in the crypt]
Hacerte el amor                                                                           [and make love to you]

It’s the best thing I ever heard
Make love as only
A Mexican can

With lips
To die for.”

It ends, “And you and I smile at each other/And kiss./We kiss till it feels like a strangle.” He excites her but also dominates her. She also had a life-long struggle for recognition against an already established man. She has accepted fleeting moments of love in a damaged life. Later, she muses, in “Columna [Spinal Column] 1944)

“De morir is to love is to                                                       [to die]
Live through death
To sustain is to paint
Is to use one’s art like a crutch
When I am alone I count
Stitches, bones, surgeries, hours
Colours, butterflies, peacocks, dogs
I count the years I would have been
Dead. Since riding the bus.
Deformed. Since consummating our marriage.”

It’s an audit that sees a balancing between negatives and positives. She was deformed, but she could have died. Coming that close to death, prompts her to appreciate life. Art was a way of communicating and understanding her life.

The implication here is that the poet also uses art, in this case poetry, to make sense of and understand what happened to her. However, the poems are solely about Frida Kahlo’s life, a biography through her paintings. “Self-Portrait” shows skill and detailed research into another’s life and brings a new dimension to Frida Kahlo’s paintings. The mix of Spanish and English flows and is a reminder not only of Frida Kahlo’s being Mexican but also the differing media of poetry and painting, how there are limitations in expressing paint in words. Underneath each poem is the question of how readers understand their own lives, how each of us dig into our own self-portrait, how others might see us or whether we restrict what can be seen to how we wish to be portrayed. In can be read as a straightforward biographical response to the paintings or as a multi-layered sequence exploring self-identity and portrayal.

“Self-portrait” is available from www.cephalopress.com

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.

book table at 14 March launch