Things That Work Are Muffled and Mute

Reviewed By

Through rigorous consideration, with patient generosity, Valerio Magrelli’s poetry allows all his subjects—broken machines, utterances, each of us—to be our own streets, and in such a transfixing world, a circle closes around Kant: things can be both means to an end and ends in and of themselves.

Valerio Magrelli’s Vanishing Points is all analog, tape hiss and wood, pencil and glass, tree and water. Vanishing Points is also all I, all eye, all consideration and thought. Vanishing Points is also a book in which a poem’s thought is established—features a poetry of this is, of declarations—and then the thought is considered, thought about, poked at. Vanishing Points is also Italian, and is one of very few books in translation I’ve read which makes me hungry as hell to know the language in which the work was written: not since first reading Neruda have I so wanted to understand the foreign words on the pages facing those on which the poetry’s been translated.

Here’s a fair sample of some of the aspects involved. Let’s try to do this as it appears on pages 78-79 of the book—this is from the first page/poem of “Rosebud,” from Magrelli’s second book Natures and Veinings:

Just trace the movement of the poem: we’re given, at the start, a head-fake in the direction of love and longing, but this suitor’s not interested in sending his words to some object of desire. Instead his utterances create what he desires, and for a moment a reader could be forgiven for thinking the poem will end up being about the Stafford-ian aspect of the poem (recalling his I’d just as soon be pushed by events to where I belong). Magrelli, though, turns again, and finally what’s under examination comes literally full circle: at the poem’s start, the speaker’s not making claims; at the poem’s end, he’s positioned himself to have his own sights in his sights—in other words, he’s now capable and/or ready to maybe move toward making claims.

This sort of luxurious consideration of the daily minutae of being alive and aware, tiny steps attended tremendously to, makes Magrelli’s poetry almost overwhelmingly rich. Everything comes within the man’s purview to poetically consider. Magrelli offers something close to an ars poetica with “The Tic”:

Gestures that go astray
appeal to me—the one
who trips up or upturns
a glass of . . . the one who forgets,
is miles away, the sentry
with the insubordinate eyelid
—my heart goes out
to all of them, all who betray
the unmistakeable
whirr and clunk
of the busted contraption.
Things that work are muffled
and mute—their parts just move.
Here instead the gadgetry,
the mesh of cogs, has given up
the ghost—a bit sticks out,
breaks off, declares itself.
Inside something throbs.

The poem’s mundane magic in any number of ways—how it literally enacts, with words, what it’s getting at (the forgetting person coming in as something in the poem’s forgotten), how the poem can only exist/make noise because it fundamentally doesn’t work. Most remarkable, though, is the notion of here: “The Tic” situates Magrelli’s poetry only in the realm of things which don’t work, only in the places where things, through their brokenness, can make declarations.

Lest the reader get lulled into believing that there’s some heirarchy of brokeness (there’s mechanical stuff, there’s thought, there’s sensual/body stuff), or that brokenness is fundamentally spectrumizing (which’d be fair to consider, given that in “The Tic,” the I’s heart goes out to other stuff), there are poems like “Potential Energy”:

The long drive over,
I stare ahead
at the face of this person
I’m talking to.
And the features peel
apart on either side
—a tree-lined boulevard—
in one continuous
opening out of space.
You be my street!
And when you start
to talk I just
keep hurtling on
through pure
unobstructed
miles of face.

There’s a forceful cognition at work here, an inclusive, drawing-in mind which lets the drama of travel and the unfolding of scenery create a framework for how to understand another’s face. Note that this is not necessarily a beloved the speaker’s addressing here: you be my street. Through rigorous consideration, with patient generosity, Magrelli’s poetry allows all his subjects—broken machines, utterances, each of us—to be our own streets, and in such a transfixing world, a circle closes around Kant: things can be both means to an end and ends in and of themselves. Better still: the means are the ends themselves. Magrelli’s poetry is muscled thought in which nothing’s unworthy of being allowed to be bigger, greater, stranger, and more full than what it seems.


Weston Cutter is from Minnesota and is the author of All Black Everything and You'd Be a Stranger, Too. He's an assistant professor at the University of St Francis and runs the book review website Corduroy Books. More from this author →