IL PUNTO 68 [page 13]
Interview with Mario Petrucci
- Jo Murray and Marco Zigiotti
Borders, threads and lines run through Mario Petrucci’s poetry, an exploration of patterns and repetitions in History informed by a scientist’s training. Moving between London and Monte Cassino - itself, as he points out, site of a historic border during the second World War - he reflects on the frontier mentality amongst Italians after the war, empathising with their hopes and frustrations. And motivations, for emigration is a complex business; “the experience of a country that is invaded very often” he observes, “is that people leave, because they no longer feel a sense of belonging. If you like, the house has been occupied by somebody else.” But despite dealing with large themes, he prefers to work from the particular to the general. For “in a sense, relating my own experience and thoughts is universal, this is what poetry achieves”. Poetry, in other words, is successful when it sparks recognition, makes connections with other people. In this volume, " ‘Sheets’ is my mother’s story and ‘Shrapnel’ is my father’s story…of making things work once you come to England. I think I’ve discovered in the last ten years since my father died that part of that struggle is my own. It’s a struggle for identity and where is it I belong, do I belong anywhere?” His poetry comes from this meeting point; although written in English, he considers ‘Shrapnel’ and ‘Sheets’ to be “Italian phrases in English”, with Italian rhythms. He is, he says, a lone Italian in a contemporary poetry scene characterised by interchange; “this new culture of interfaces.” The oats and dufflecoats of a cold English childhood jostle with zucchini and peppers and “shiny black beetles of olives”. Not that one is exclusively positive and the other negative; Petrucci avoids sentimentalising a lost paradise; pointing out “some comforts in coming to [post-war] England; there was more food, and a place to live…they were rebuilding in Italy at that time.”
Petrucci’s interest in dichotomies - masculine, feminine; domestic, active; land, city; intellect, body - is reflected in his life. Persuaded to choose Sciences rather than Arts in the best British manner at school - “I remember a very powerful feeling. It was somatic. ... a tension in my stomach, that I’d done something wrong, that I’d left behind something that was very important “- he came to poetry as a way of expressing “nascent feelings, insights into who I was”. After a first degree in Physics at Cambridge, he took a Doctorate in Electronic Materials in London. As part of the inevitable progression of a promising scientific career, he was offered a post in America just as his father fell ill, and chose not to go. “I decided I needed to stay much nearer the hub of my origins”. This decision led to a complete change of career; Petrucci now teaches Literature and edits ‘The Bound Spiral’, a poetry magazine. Spending time with his mother, he was able to retrace a rich vein of oralism, adding her stories to his dim memories of childhood on the family’s Lazio farm with Nonna and Nonno.
The war was a large part of this memory, a time of crisis. “People who have lived through the war are always going back to it, nagging at it.” A time of sharpened dichotomies; during the war, his mother tended the farm in the particularly feminine ritual described in ‘Sheets’, waiting for his father - a prisoner in Stuttgart - to return. And everything, according to Petrucci, and especially History, affects everything else. What is more, “the past that bursts out of your mind and your heart when you’re thinking of who you are . . can be comforting as the sheets or painful as the... sense that something has been broken.” Memory is political, too; ‘Shrapnel and Sheets’ opens with Kundera’s assertion that “The struggle of people is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
“I have an idea” says Petrucci, “that History is like the flow of a river, and every stone affects it and creates an eddy, but the eddy can be detected downstream.” Physics, apparently, has posited the notion that water has a memory, and whether or not it is true of a river, Petrucci feels it to be a valid metaphor for History. His latest research has been into the history of the Abbey a mile from his parents’ home, which has produced a series of - often contradictory - voices which, speaking about the Abbey’s bombing in the Second World War, span generations. Looking forwards and backwards, he feels that he is part of a bridge generation; between his parents -“entirely and puristically Italian” - and teenagers who have little or no sense of Italy. “I understand in a sense... what they went through, but at the same time, I understand what it is to be apart from the land”. There is a sense in which Petrucci has an actor’s relationship with his voices; “They speak in their own voice, I have to understand the character…I’ve had to create a personality and become that personality”. Some of the voices catch long gone experiences and registers -‘Heretic’, burned at the stake in 1538. Some describe scientific processes rarely heard in poetry - ‘Autopsy’, ‘Face-Maker’. And some of the voices are harrowing; ‘The Confession of Borislav Herak’, which opens ‘Shrapnel and Sheets’ , is a war criminal’s description of multiple murder ending in his trial. “If there were a God,” he says, “I would not have been / caught. I am sorry. I did what I did” Pause, and then the measured accusation, “You would have done the same.”
Perhaps it is oralism that makes Petrucci stress the importance of performance - a book is personal, “just you and the words” but a reading offers both energy and intimacy -“almost like a party, where someone gets up and makes you think... .a celebration which leads you into a search.” Indeed, he has given poetry readings at the South Bank among others. Recognising that even his poetry about “the Italian experience” speaks beyond its context, he bemoans the lack of an Italian voice in England. He found only Dante and Eco in the South Bank bookshop, and notes that very few Italian writers have been sent on British Council exchanges. English writing about Italy in English often seems to be a sort of travelogue, “This was my time in Italy, this is what I saw” as Petrucci characterises it. There seems to be little enthusiasm for translation too; one of his ambitions is to refine his Italian -“there are some good translations and some terrible translations” - in order to translate Dante, Montale. Leopardi and others, he acknowledges, are quite unknown in Britain. He isn’t sure whether it is a case of English unwillingness to listen or Italians not pushing their experience enough, but he wants to hear voices across the artificial boundaries of national culture; after all, he says, “We’ve had a very important role in the formation of Europe”. Yet it is not one-way. “There’s an old Italian proverb,” he says, “‘Un inglese italianato e un diavolo incarnato’. I don’t want that to be true, and I don’t want the reverse to be true.”