Courtesy of The Anthonym- Bridge to Global Literature where this essay first appeared on 6 November 2021.
Defining Lucia Cupertino a ‘poet of the global souths’ enables critics to immediately set the analytical departure point squarely within that globalized world of the twenty-first century. Even just looking at Italy, both in terms of poetics and themes, there has been a multitude of responses to the condition of belonging to the south, rather than a single and monolithic poetics and thinking. This multiplicity applies all the more to a poet such as Lucia Cupertino who holds a ‘poly-membership’ to the southern hemisphere. Her belonging to multiple worlds is revealed by her plurilingualism resulting in her distinct poetry production in Italian and Spanish as well as her translations from indigenous languages of Central and South America; the uniqueness often found in content and style stems from her constant focus on anthropological and ecological knowledge and practices.
Since this is not the place for an in-depth and exhaustive analysis of the complexity entailed by plurilingualism, the Global South (or as she defines them ‘the Souths’ underscoring their complex, multiple character), and indigenous and ecological epistemologies, I have selected her ‘bond to the land/earth’ (in Italian, the word ‘terra’ stands for both these terms) as a starting point, a common denominator she shares with the poetics of the south. From there, I will then direct the readers’ attention to those elements that make Lucia Cupertino’s poetry unique and particularly reader-friendly.
Answering a journalist’s query about the poetic traits that connect Polignano a Mare, her birth place located in Apulia, Southern Italy, and Colombia, her adopted land at the time, Cupertino replied starting precisely from the concept of land:
[land/earth is] the element that nurtures us throughout our life. In a natural process of restitution, with the death of our bodies it should be our turn to give it back what we have received. At least since the post- WWII period, we have experienced profound and accelerated changes; societies have been increasingly subjected to processes of industrialization and development which have not always resulted in the same degree of well-being and happiness for everyone. In fact, we are increasingly seeing environmental disasters, wars and social disintegration. I consider myself as belonging to both to Apulia and Colombia. They represent the South and the concept of land/earth, an often-underestimated dyad that is, nevertheless, our navel. The eye of poetry, on the other hand, has not forgotten this indissoluble bond, it has not fallen prey to easy spells. On the contrary, it calls on us to deepen our investigations into the mutations and the secret stories. Ultimately it is like penetrating a mystery without ever grasping it, but still respecting it because we have received it as a gift. […] Poetry is nourished by experience and in Latin America what I experience is intertwined with myth.
So stories and myths share the stage, and both are reinvented. Figures and cosmologies from Abya Yala come to the fore, representing Latin America’s rich mosaic of cultural hybridity. In addition, in Cupertino’s case, she engages in ‘underground’ conversation with the substratum of myth and literature which are part of her upbringing and training in Italy as well. Often these dialogs unfold as a poetic retelling of ‘stories’ in ways that recall the work of Eduardo Galeano:
Extraordinary stories have been brought to my heart by my footsteps and the wind. Some are sad or even cruel while others are full of hope and light. I have only collected them. Sometimes fragments of History got trapped in the web of writing, other times it was pure stardust that got caught, or impalpable visions, the glory of nature self-regenerating, despite everything. When the walls of my soul adhere to the world, there I find my home.
Cupertino does not hesitate to transgress the boundary between genres, dictating fiction to be the most suitable container for both stories and history (again, in Italian, both terms are conveyed by the single word ‘storia’). Instead, she selects both history and story, in their variegated unpredictability, as the substance of her poetry. Evoked in the introduction to her bilingual collection No tiene techo la mi casa/ Non ha tetto la mia casa, both wind and nature far from being background elements are considered an integral part of the story/ies. Perhaps drawing at an unconscious level from a jumble of imaginaries derived from her adopted South American world, both nature and the wind, possess an intelligence of their own. These elements then become permanently sedimented into her poetics and integrated with those acquired from her western heritage, especially those drawn from her native southern Italy.
Contributing to a collective essay on Utopia and present-day community practices, the title of which recalls the need to reset the compass to the south of the world, Lucia Cupertino identifies three characteristics that are desirable for contemporary literature: disruption, ‘maladaptation’ (i.e., the refusal to adapt to hegemonic currents) and emergence, (i.e., an unpredictable ‘new’ born from combinations of elements that are not known to yield such outcome). In her poetry, Lucia Cupertino incorporates these three elements and makes them her own by providing poetic translation for concepts ranging from Boaventura Sousa Santos’ southern epistemologies to the native cosmovisions she experienced directly in the course of her work as a cultural anthropologist.
At the level of poetics, the propensity for disruption is implemented by deconstructing tradition and then recomposing it in a personal key, updated to current events. Some lines by Italian poet Vittorio Sereni introduce her poem “On the balcony of the world”: She grew up silently like grass / like the light before noon / the daughter who does not cry . In the poem “Tra le arcate” the poet places herself under a bridge to make her song grow and ends with the lines: Among these arches of shadow / stolen from so much light / silently the grass grows / and slowly breathes the earth. Thus, “the daughter who does not cry” incorporated some of Sereni’s lyrical elements pertaining to the natural world and without hesitation has proceeded to recompose them in a personal way, according to her own needs.
In her poems denouncing environmental destruction and the human victims of chemical follies introduced to control nature, or in the poems dedicated to ecologists like Silvino Talavera, or Fabian Tomasi, who were killed defending the environment, trivial objects are often present on the scene and act as foreboding signs. In an unusual declination of the objective correlative, they seem to herald the unhealthiness of the world. Thus, at times the poet introduces images like the wind shaking the palm trees and pushing a can, causing a dull whistling sound that, unlike the natural rustling of foliage, is hard to interpret; or at other times she urges the reader to consider the body of a fumigator close to death that is unnaturally dried up like a preserved sardine due to the chemicals he has dispensed in his work-life, even as his conscience is grieving for the bees he has killed. Metaphors, metonymies and paradoxes definitely belong to the universe of those who struggle in indigenous and ecological movements, they are not tiresome reprises of literary clichés.
By her own choice, the position of the poet is not above her surroundings but explicitly side by side with those who suffer. She stands next to, walks together with the people and the rest of beings, whether they be animate or inanimate. As a poet she is a hollow bamboo stick, pierced by the wind, not imposing itself on matter but embracing it. It is an empathic attitude that recognizes the lack of clear answers or univocal solutions, it shows no signs of resignation or self-pity and continues to use poetry as a cognitive tool rather than as a means for comfort or for mere expression of emotions.
The spirit of communion that gives impetus to her poetics emerges clearly in the poem “The edges of the world”, part of a series of unpublished works which , in my opinion, mark a further evolution in her poetics. It contains a conversation between the poet and a woodpecker, the latter provocatively engaged in pecking at the edges of the world and asking her whether it will all collapse. At first her answer is a reassuring No, way![ but then as they proceed together deeper in the forest, the man-made elements used to separate off sections of the woods and the human activities taking place overhead act again as a foreboding sign: […] the fence around the hunting/ reserve starts here / though the planes are flying low / as far as you and me / have pushed forward searching/for the tree that holds the cosmos /. Cupertino provides a modern-day reinterpretation of Dante’s forest, reversing the negative starting image used in the canto that serves as an introduction to The Inferno which signals the forest as an allegory for the danger of his fall from grace and the poet’s condition of having lost his way as a human being. Dante ‘finds himself’, not of his own volition, in the dark woods where he is immediately confronted by three ‘beasts’ that stand as allegories for human vices. Three saintly women come to his rescue and he can begin a journey that will eventually lead him to emerge out of the forest and into the beauty of the starry night. Reversing this progression instead, Cupertino, a woman poet, directs herself consciously towards the wilderness and enters it in the empathic company of a woodpecker, in a stance of equality between the human and the ‘beast’. Unlike the situation in the introduction to Dante’s Inferno, the animal is not an obstacle, together they continue to seek the tree that holds the cosmos / intent on climbing /to your father’s constellation. Both poet and beast, allies of sorts, are witness to the bad omens, perhaps aware that what awaits them is the impossibility of survival. But out of a kind of elegiac tenderness, the poet refuses to utter words admitting defeat and the approaching destruction; she simply hugs the woodpecker: Everything is collapsing, let’s run / but I refrain from saying it, I just hug you.
Words and poems, then, must not be used to mark the end of hope. Behind this entreaty, and beyond the concepts of disruption and maladaptation that she has deployed throughout her poems, , one could perhaps detect an allusion to the third element of the triad Cupertino has suggested as desirable elements for literary pursuits today: the mystery of a way out that could ’emerge’ in an emergency. There is great strength in that final ‘we’ implicit in the line Everything is collapsing, let’s run, a positioning of the human on an equal footing in our desperation and hope with the rest of creation, something difficult to achieve within a Western scientific paradigm, but that is increasingly explored in her most recent production.
Such equanimity is impossible to achieve even for the best meaning poets, such as Lorenzo Calogero (a poet of the Italian South whose insightful and beautiful work gets rediscovered and celebrated every few decades only to fall for long periods into a cycle of oblivion). Though Calogero, for example, may be detached from sentimentality, capable of losing himself in nature, feeling his commonality with it, perceiving its importance as a source of knowledge and therefore as an object of poetry, the boundary between the human and the non-human remains intact. It sets conditions for his deep loneliness as a person and a poet and opens the way to his despair and feelings of exclusion from communion with society, as attested by his suicidal loneliness and despair.
Perhaps Lucia Cupertino’s openness to not recognizing a boundary between the human being and the non-human could have been encouraged by her sense of multiple belonging to the southern hemisphere that allows her to move more seamlessly between a Mediterranean notion of the South and those pertaining to South America as part of what is understood to be the Global South. Her, complex, fluid multiplicity of identifications at the national, regional, linguistic and professional level, added to her anthropological interests, may have made her more receptive to developing her own cosmovision along non-hierarchical, non exclusionary lines, all factors that have spilled into her poetry and as such should be cherished and the subject of more extensive analysis.
One of the most beautiful poems in her series dedicated to rivers, originally written in Spanish and self-translated into Italian by the poet, is entitled “River Cauca”, and is set in a small village of Trujillo in southern Colombia, the scene of one of the worst massacres in the history of the Colombian armed conflict between the 80s and the 90s. The river sends the poet a ‘recording’ of the massacre in a dream, expecting from her a commitment to report it to others: When the truth nestles in my mouth / rafts break through and whole populations dwell there. / It is the eyes of those without justice that appear / your very own eyes, River Cauca, are still burning./
In other poems, such as “Rescue”, no alliance is possible between human beings and the rest of creation that has been subjected to the worst abuse by human greed. There is no pardon or forgiveness, even when we wear the mask of a savior or expect to continue the old rituals of ‘civilization’ in the face of disaster: The river that has flowed beside me / silently for years / today floods me / no one comes to shovel / all unfolds / rolls towards the finish line. And after recording the futility of rescuing everyday items from the flood, she argues that, There is no need to save that set of cups / souvenir of a forgotten trip / if even the blind man at the corner / has already been evacuated. The cups return as a sign of the empty rituals of civilization, but they have no calming effect on the anger of the river, which refuses to bow to human hypocrisy and is determined to punish humans, Nothing / not even a shadow/ I could offer a cup of coffee or a chair to / or for whom to invent any excuse/ to sit beside me / while I die / with the illusion of a rescue.
Thus, as shown in this series of poems, as in others, the south and “The Souths” as evoked by Cupertino’s unique interpretation can also be the terrain and frontier for epistemological research, an attempt to find possible ways of survival for all living and non-living creatures that are part of the planet.
Selected poems by Lucia Cupertino translated from Italian by Pina Piccolo
A Song of Glyphosate
For Silvino Talavera
The metallic droning of an airplane
flying low at sunset over the fields
‘til it lands on my heart,
No sleep comes tonight
I turn over and over,
without ever stopping.
Palm trees stirred by the wind
a can pushed a few meters
ahead on the way,
and a dull whistling sound
that I can’t interpret.
The wind stirs the palm trees
bringing a song of glyphosate
that settles on my chest
to erase my breath.
Four Hundred Oak Trees
for a forest keeper
I am courted by four hundred oak trees
in a dance of forest wind and vine
tonight only hummingbird wings are missing
to help me hover over the tree tops.
Four hundred echoes in the heart
four hundred or many more the dead
on these mountains sleeping,
covered by a slumber of abuse
accumulated in the form of leaves,
four hundred times did the machete rifle knives
strike, four thousand or four million,
who has ever kept score?
And they brought down the young and breathless
they knocked down the morning dew,
even the bird’s cry to the moon
still repeating the aborted cry of women.
Yet twenty years ago you sowed the seeds,
they resisted all attacks:
and four hundred oak trees court me tonight.
The Edges of the World
A woodpecker pecks at the edges of the world,
will it collapse? troubled you ask me.
Just erased by the fog
that infects these woods,
I confidently answer: No way!
But the question echoes inside:
will it collapse? Will it collapse?
It all seems quiet, though
the fence around the hunting
reserve starts here
though the planes are flying low
as far as you and me
have pushed forward searching
for the tree that holds the cosmos
intent on climbing
to your father’s constellation.
Not collapsing yet,
the rustle of dry leaves
accompanies us along the path.
Look: a snake has come out of the ditch!
And a rush of greens and reds
is uncovering the wineskin of the world,
it is from there that the grieving souls
come out with their lullabies sealed for centuries
it is from there that they come to make us pay the price.
A woodpecker pecks at the edges of the world
spilling the beats of a drum
Everything is collapsing, let’s run.
But I refrain from saying it, I just hug it.
I saw you from the top of a bridge
river Cauca that furrows this golden land,
but it was in a bird’s dream that I saw
the swollen bodies on the surface of the water
the vultures unravel their entrails
the skirts worn down by so much oblivion.
When the truth nestles in my mouth,
rafts break through and whole populations dwell there.
It is the eyes of those without justice that appear
your very own eyes, river Cauca, still burning.
The river that flowed beside me
silently for years
today floods me;
no one comes to shovel
rolls to the finish line.
What we hear is only a constant sound
from the bowels of the world
with all its vehemence.
There is no need to pull back the curtains
disaster took it all away,
even grandmother’s sadness
as she rocked her boring days
in her chair.
Cloudy, freezing waters
have just drenched my heart,
and even my neighbor’s too,
I had left it out there
exposed like a mailbox
but it could not withstand the flood of days.
There is no need to save that set of cups
souvenir of a forgotten journey
if even the blind man at the corner
has already been evacuated.
The sound of a drill
leads me to believe there is something
beyond this muddy struggle and life.
But nothing and no one to lend me a hand
to collect memories scattered in the backpack
and stem the blood from the chapped lips of the earth.
Nothing, not even a shadow
I could offer a cup of coffee or a chair to
or for whom I could invent any excuse
to sit beside me
while I die
with the illusion of a rescue.
LUCIA CUPERTINO (1986, Polignano a Mare). Writer, cultural anthropologist and translator. After her degree in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology (University of Bologna), she earned a Masters in Anthropology of the Americas (Complutense University of Madrid) with a thesis on the translation of Nahuatl literary sources. She has been living for many years between Latin America and Italy, with shorter stays in Australia, Germany and Spain, linked to research, educational and agroecology projects. She writes in Italian and Spanish and has published: Mar di Tasman (Isola, Bologna, 2014); the bilingual collection Non ha tetto la mia casa – No tiene techo mi casa (Casa de poesía, San José, 2016, Versante Steep Communalism Award); the origami book Cinco poemas de Lucia Cupertino (Los ablucionistas, Mexico City, 2017). Her poetry and works of fiction have appeared in Italian and international magazines and anthologies. Some of her literary production has been translated into English, Chinese, Spanish, Bengali and Albanian. She is the editor of the poetry anthology 43 poeti per Ayotzinapa. Voci per il Messico e i suoi desaparecidos (Arcoiris, Salerno, 2016, critical mention in the Lilec Literary Translation Award – University of Bologna); MuoviMenti. Segnali da un mondo viandante (Terre d’Ulivi, Lecce, 2016) and Canodromo di Bárbara Belloc (Fili d’Aquilone, Rome, 2018). Jury member for the Trilce Prize 2018, Sydney, in collaboration with the Instituto Cervantes. One of the founding members of the digital literary journal www.lamacchinasognante.com, she uses that space to promote literary and cultural initiatives in Italy and abroad.
Pina Piccolo (Ph.D., Italian Literature, U.C. Berkeley) is a writer, blogger and cultural promoter, whose work appears both in Italian and English in digital and print literary magazines, anthologies and collective volumes. Her Italian language poetry collection I canti dell’Interregno was published by Lebeg Edizioni in 2018. She is the editor and one of the founding members of La Macchina Sognante and editor-in-chief of The Dreaming Machine. She blogs at http://www.pinapiccolosblog.com/