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  • Virginia Ivaldi

(SPAM Cuts) 'Outside, in fact, there wasn't any change' by Patrizia Cavalli

blurred image of a street in Montrouge, Paris

In this self-reflexive SPAM Cut, Virginia Ivaldi attempts to reconcile mortality with ongoingness in Patrizia Cavalli's poem, 'Outside, in fact, there wasn't any change'. Ivaldi considers language and loss, passivity and insignificance, seeking forms of peace within the noise.

Since moving away, I decided to forget how to read and write in Italian. A veil of sadness daunts the language that was taught to me since I was born. My recent interest in translation –– and translation as a tool of being at peace with my origins –– drew me closer to the work of Patrizia Cavalli. When I learned the news of her passing, a hint of melancholia highlighted all the things that I have lost by moving away, but no silence followed her death. Cavalli died in Rome, aged 75, after enduring a long disease. Poet and translator, she remains an icon of the Italian contemporary literary landscape. The world kept turning, cars were running as before, traffic lights still changed colours every minute or so, and birds were still singing as the summer went along. We are final –– the world is not. Almost three months before her death, on April 6th, Christian Wiman read Patrizia Cavalli for The New Yorker: the poem's title is ‘Outside, in fact, there wasn’t any change’, and is translated by Judith Baumel.

Outside, in fact, there wasn’t any change

The title –– and opening line –– of this poem echoes nihilistic awareness, impotence and sweet surrender. My words won’t change the world is the title of Cavalli’s poetry collection; ‘Outside, in fact, there wasn’t any change’ is this poem’s answer to the poet’s realisation. The verse perfectly describes Cavalli’s poetic practice. Her poetry is characterised by absence, but this absence is harmonious: it's not something she is fighting against, but a condition that just is. Her verses yearn to find order in the dissipation created by the distance that forms her absence.

The ripen disease is what removes me from the streets

In their essay ‘Sick Woman Theory’ (2020), Johanna Hedva reflects on the modes in which a sick body can participate in the public discourse, even if separated from the streets. They highlight the failure of Arendt’s definition of the political –– as being any action that is performed in public –– by remarking that, ‘if being present in public is what is required to be political, then whole swathes of the population can be deemed a-political –– simply because they are not physically able to get their bodies into the street’. The opening line charges this verse with meaning; the poet’s removal from the streets is what hinders change. It’s an introduction to an induced passivity, an admission of the distance between her and the world. Cavalli’s body can be declared political only by proclaiming it apolitical.

It has grown inside me and corrupted my eyes and all the other senses and the world arrives like a quotation

The tangible yet abstract disease mentioned by Cavalli is a personal condition that presupposes the general human condition. It is not a statement circumscribed to the political but a wider consideration of her positioning in the world. Yes, Cavalli is using the first-person narration to describe her experience, which hints at an active perception, yet the disease causes the writer to assume the passivity of the reader: ‘the world arrives / like a quotation’ –– like an experience that is not her own but is filtered through someone else’s accounts of life.

‘Everything seems to come to you in quotes as if it’s not quite real […] it adds this distance to it’: Christian Wiman’s words echo through my headphones as I listen to The New Yorker poetry podcast. Cavalli's lyrics filters reality through a bell jar, merging it with dreams: here marks the definite passivity of the poet to a narration that surrounds her but never touches her. The verse presumes a role-switch: Cavalli is not a writer but a reader, passive to what happens around her.

Everything has happened by now – but me, where was I?

A few months after her death, I could say that ‘everything has happened by now’ –– even Patrizia Cavalli. In her absence post-mortem, everything keeps happening, as it kept happening before her death. This verse holds an almost Freudian remark. ‘Everything has happened by now –– but me, where was I?’ hints to the awareness that her condition removed any possibility for the Oedipal complex to occur and form a sense of self that could mark the world. Her use of 'I', therefore, is feeble and unstable. It’s an 'I' that is unsure it exists, that doesn’t hold memory or leave traces. It’s an 'I' that deteriorates with every new verse, and that proves its presence only by being aware of its absence.

When did the great diversion come Where did the string become untied, where did the fisher open up Which is the lake that lost its waters

‘Outside, in fact, there wasn’t any change’ is an analysis of an absent 'I', a narrator that feasts upon others’ stories about reality. It is with no surprise that at one point in this poem, the 'I' breaks apart in the landscape. This questioning and forgetting interrogates the nature of witnessing itself. From an analysis of political bodies to a remark on Freudian theories, Cavalli now seems to justify her mode of experiencing in the old philosophical dogma: if a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? Ultimately, the dissolution of the 'I' into the landscape causes the landscape to disappear too. One, however, must remember the opening statement of the poem suggests that, yes, if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, it does make a sound. Whether she can remember it or not, the lake has lost its water; the string is untied, the fisher opened up and the great diversion has come. One’s presence has no importance to the world; one’s witnessing does not affect the course of outside events.

and changing the landscape scrambles my way

The 'I' re-emerges, even if passive to the changing of landscape. While outside there wasn’t any change, the interiority and exteriority of the speaker have been profoundly mutated by external influences. Cavalli doesn’t try to grapple with the reality of her verses, or with the reality of any of the verses above; she questions their absoluteness, trying to be at peace with insignificance.


Text: Virginia Ivaldi

Published: 28/09/2022


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