by Josephine LoRe
Carla Scarano D’Antonio
Dempsey & Windle (2020)
Carla Scarano D’Antonio’s Caponata arrived late last year and I devoured it in one sitting. Enough time has passed now for the unique flavours to blend as they would in the caponata my mother prepared at the end of every season from her summer garden: the marriage of sour eggplant with sweet bell pepper and tomato, the infusion of vinegar, capers to add just the right tang.
Similarly, Scarano D’Antonio’s intriguing collection incorporates at first seemingly disparate components … part recipe book, part memoir of place, part meditation on human interactions, these poems are at turn soft with nostalgia and sharp with the honesty of relationships sometimes difficult to negotiate.
The themes and mood of this debut collection (fact-check) are alluded to in the prelude, a quotation drawn from Proust’s Swann’s Way: “after the people are dead, things broken and scattered, taste and smell alone remain poised, remembering, waiting, hoping …” (a free translation)
The collection is arranged in three movements proceeded by Pajarita, a tender and thoughtful poem that perhaps teaches us how to approach the works in the collection. How rich to learn that pajarita denotes three things: a small bird, a bow which ties things together, and a piece of origami.
My thoughts are tiny ideograms
inked on wrapping paper,
hidden in the folds of my paper bird …
How gentle the unfolding to find Scarano D’Antonio’s subtle poignancy.
In the first section Negotiating Caponata, it is revealed that this is not simply a guide to cooking; there are darker undertones:
Simmer for one hour or two. Stir.
The aloofness at times.
The body has no protection
when the light dims.
Who knows what he thought.
Who knows what you concealed under the lids.
The skin yields easily
under the penetrating bade,
the flesh is soft and juicy.
The dizziness of the beaten eggs
mixing with black pepper and parmigiano.
filling the kitchen with thick vapour
in a bellicose conversation.
Only a cake
It is in the beating of the yolks plus sugar,
The egg cream where frustration releases
Its poisoning stings
Along with this laden language, Scarano D’Antonio uses lush, evocative descriptions, a feast for the eyes and the other senses:
What I was leaving
Before the weather changes
into mist and dim light,
the trees turn gold and vermillion
purple and burnt sienna.
The full moon is ricotta cheese in a sea of blueberry juice.
Their scent warms the house in reassuring airy blankets;
we walk through it as if it’s all we have longed for.
Some of the mystery of the tension and the unknown “he” of the first section become revealed in the second section, My Father’s Death.
I’m leaving to go back home
as light as a butterfly.
was sudden and ferocious
A wounded hawk
clutching his branch.
you knew we would scatter
into the dangerous world
when you’d gone.
At the hospital
in the dim light of the hospital room
the sounds like bat wings measuring space.
This section ends with the poignancy of a difficult leave-taking, negotiating a leave-taking, uncertain if the situation will ever truly be resolved:
Dispersing your ashes
The ashes whirl in the wind, unstrained
mix in the roaring waves of the backwash
They splash on my legs
soak my skirt to the waist.
I wonder if they will leave stains
The third section In Touch releases us like the father’s ashes and we travel in time and place, before memory through an idyllic childhood tinged with the cruelty natural to children in Snake Eggs, via a poem to a daughter living in Tokyo, to a final place of tranquillity in Surrey, England, where Scarano D’Antonio now lives.
Grandad Ciccio and Grandma Orsola
Sitting serene like ancient Roman statues
He in grey uniform and high boots, she in black dress and hat
This poem’s structure unique … ten verses which then are offered backwards, giving a sense of travelling forward and backward in time.
Mum during the war
You picked up dead branches, insignificant twigs
piling them up, imagining to build a shelter
that would defy bombs
The city sinks into torrid August.
Sounds brood within,
murmurs beneath closed lips.
She is a sealed volcano.
We scooped them with care
and set them on a slab,
then crushed the soft white shell with stones
In Cyclamens for my mother, the theme of being uprooted and transplanted in a new environment are explored through verse:
Cyclamens for my mother
You were surprised they were blooming in summer
in my English house,
purpurascens from the Mediterranean
Although in this same poem as in a good caponata, there linger hints of the bittersweet:
The dead are calling you
I’ll hold your hand walking the last steps of the journey
The final poem in this section has an almost haiku quality, a capture of the moment and timelessness:
The new house
has unfilled spaces
I measure with my thoughts
Which takes us to the epilogue of this collection, a different leave-taking, from the South of Europe, the warm Mediterranean to an arrival in England and all that North contains within its letters
branches torn bare
thorn, torn, horn
As in any good amalgam, this collection of poems is stronger than the mere compilation of its distinct pieces. The poems speak to each other, to the poems which proceeded and the poems which follow, and the overall effect is richly satisfying. Arriving at the end has made me want to start again, this time savouring more intently each individual taste, ultimately learning the secret to Negotiating Caponata.