In Dante’s Inferno, the poet is guided by Virgil on a journey through the nine circles of Hell, witnessing the punishment of souls in ways that are appropriate to the sins they committed in life – a process described as contrapasso,’to suffer the opposite’. Souls are trapped for eternity in a state of retribution specific to their own wrongdoing.
Contrapasso is the title of Alexandra Fössinger’s debut collection, in which poems circle around themes of incarceration, punishment and survival. Her motivation for writing, Fössinger explains, was ‘an attempt at survival after an entirely unexpected bereavement – the imprisonment of someone very dear to me.’ A quote from the Inferno introduces the first part of the collection, a sequence of oneiric poems that are laden with grief and loss. The opening poem, ‘Birds for someone who cannot hear’ veers between yearning and desperation:
243 letters, fragile as cut-out birds, inflammable sky larks, resilient as we have been for all these years, must fly to you. their only life’s purpose is to find you and sing for you in the dark.
‘[S]urvive, survive’, the messenger-birds whisper, ‘or I will die with you.’
Emotional containment is sought through measurement. The dimensions of a cell (‘6 square metres’) or a time span (’24 hours/ 105 days’) are specified in an attempt to cope with grief, separation, the empty space occupied by an absence, and to find sense in things that do not make sense. Meanings shift through layers of language, as in ‘Sentence’:
Look up to where our days were numbered. When the righteous speak they proclaim each sentence twice: the culprit and the one omitted are equally to blame. How such a fraction creates the mathematics of double innocence becoming guilt.
Fössinger is originally from the South Tyrol but now lives in Germany. She writes mainly in English, her third language after German and Italian, and perhaps this multilingualism contributes to the subtle music of her poetry and its intriguing overtones. Her phraseology is often elegantly balanced, with memorable lines and images – ‘We have no life apart from life apart’; ‘Earthbound and skyborne/ he never needed absolution’ – and a delicate sensuality, as in ‘Oltrarno’ where the poet recalls a photograph of her absent lover, asleep:
And there is one thing this picture will not reveal to anyone but me because it happens outside its edges: in his sleep he has placed his hand on my leg both claiming and protecting me –
In the second part of the collection the sense of isolation becomes internalised; psychological and emotional rather than physical. Once again, opposites are at play – freedom and entrapment, the past and the present, dreams and reality. In ‘July’, ghosts and memories are given an almost physical embodiment:
Here, night is a man-shaped darkness that preserves all my dreams, and sometimes wakes me by trickling rain on my face, absence equally as strong as presence. The dead have long abandoned the house. Perhaps their time had run out, or ghosts need someone to see them more than the living. Their memory leans quietly on me, hitting me like gushes of wind.
Birds are a recurrent presence – magpies (‘backyard sorceresses’), kingfishers, herons and seabirds all carry their own symbolism as envoys, omens or harbingers of freedom. The final poem ‘The robin redbreast’, with its avian messenger and haunting magical realism, brings us full circle to the beginning.
Fössinger’s imagery can be elusive, offering space for us, as readers, to insert our own interpretations. Occasionally this elusiveness verges on being too diffuse: here and there the writing would benefit from a little more tautening or focus. Fössinger is at her best when she crafts her poems around a specific situation or object, such as the dead mouse her lover finds in the kitchen of his empty house upon returning ‘from his journey in contrapasso’.
He picked it up and threw it gently out onto the compost heap, not knowing how to better thank it than by giving it back to transmigration.
This is a fine debut, assured, lyrical and thoughtful: a collection to be read initially in one sitting and then returned to in quiet moments, to ponder layers of meaning and reflect upon our own experiences of confinement and survival.
Alexandra Fössinger (2022) Contrapasso 73 pp.
Published by Cephalo Press.
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