It’s worth recalling that a poet’s biography is mostly irrelevant to his or her poetry. The success of Life Studies, for example, does not hinge on the auto-biographical bric-a-brac of Lowell’s personal experience, nor how accurately (or not) the poet manages to describe, say, the psychology of a mentally ill patient; the poems, when successful, are so because they’re good poems. The reader who searches otherwise shows a higher interest in gossip than in art. But in a narcissistic age, when even the poets are eager for interviews in which to declare themselves spokespersons for their subject matter, this is a hard truth. Hence what seems like the inevitability of reading Marc Di Saverio’s brilliant debut, Sanatorium Songs, as a book about mental illness. Consider that title, after all, and the fact that hospitals and the mentally ill appear frequently in Di Saverio’s work. Some reviewers have thought it useful to let us know that Di Saverio himself has struggled with mental illness (and criticize him for not fully exploring his experience!) as if that revelation might offer insight into his achievement as an artist. This is critical ignorance and it belies an inability to see that these poems, like all realized poems, are ultimately about poetry.
Di Saverio is a poet whose imagination belongs in the company of Blake, Pound, Layton, Rimbaud, Nelligan, among others. Here, for instance, is the first stanza of the collection’s first poem, a villanelle: “My shard-studded clubfeet blaze me astray. / Hallucinated staffs wind their tracks across the stars. / I sing my songs of stars along my way.” Or from one of the most haunting poems in the book, another villanelle: “Marc, I want to ride one of the mares that beats at the clouds. / Amanda hangs onto her mare, without a saddle. / On hinds they beat and scream at the riderless clouds.” The vitality of Di Saverio’s work is a result of the Symbolist and Romantic literary traditions within which he finds his art. And it’s within that tradition that his work is best appreciated, not least because almost no one else in this country since Layton is similarly disposed. Perhaps the close alignment of the university to poetry accounts for the diminishment of this tradition—I don’t know; but Di Saverio’s work requires no extra-poetic material to support it. Its energy, Blake would note, is pure delight. This is most brilliantly realized in Di Saverio’s translations, which seem to me inspired. Compare, for instance, your nearest translation of Rimbaud’s “Sleeper in the Valley” with Di Saverio’s. Where most alternative translations I’ve consulted abandon Rimbaud’s strict rhyme scheme and meter if they cannot mirror it, Di Saverio solves the problem by creating his own prosodic constraints, no less strict. These constraints in turn provoke stunning lexical choices. Consider, especially, Di Saverio’s final two stanzas of Rimbaud’s poem:
With his feet in the gladioli, he sleeps. Smiling how
a sick kid smiles, he’s catching z’s.
Nature, cradle him closely, he’s
cold. Smells won’t make his nostrils quiver now.
One hand on breast, asleep in the sun, he’s pacified;
two red holes in his right side.
Alternative translations use “child” and “nap” where Di Saverio has ‘kid’ and ‘z’s” (it’s tough for me not to imagine Rimbaud preferring the latter); or Di Saverio’s “Smells won’t make his nostrils quiver now” to Wyatt Mason’s lauded contemporary translation, “Sweet scents don’t tickle his nose”—which calls to mind Georgian pastorals rather than Rimbaud’s cocky swagger. As with his translations, Di Saverio also inhabits and revitalizes an array of traditional forms—most weirdly, haikus. Di Saverio’s haiku recall the original impulse of imagism—sharp, unaccompanied perception, with minimal comment, rather than the cheesy portentousness of typical English haiku: “the night nurse / pretends to check if we’re breathing— / the dawn of spring”; “twilight— / as I strike my match the fireflies / scatter.” Di Saverio warrants more lengthy consideration than I’ve given here. But I suspect that his poetry will permit us time for that yet.
Darren Bifford is the author of Wedding in Fire Country (Nightwood Editions 2012), and Hermit Crab, forthcoming from Baseline Press 2014. He lives in Montreal.
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