On Love-In-Idleness: The Poetry of Roberto Zingarello by John Bradley
Separating the poetic sheep from the poetic goats is not only easy as pie, in most cases it can be done by reading the first two or three lines of a poem. For if a writer can’t chart a bright course in that much space, can’t convince us that, “Hey, look, I’m going to make your socks roll up and down by sailing off to a new continent,” then I say chances are that what follows belongs on the trash heap.
Yes, I know, there’s the bummer, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It’s hardly a happy beginning, but by the third doesn’t love a wall. It’s hardly a happy beginning, but by the third line the poet has us by the short hairs with boulders spilling in the sun. So that’s an anomaly. But think of the real ripsnorters, whether
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the air-ports almost deserted…
With such openers, one would have to be an outright cretin not to read on.
Now I’m not saying that John Bradley belongs in the pantheon along with Chaucer, Frost, Dickinson, Stevens, and their other beneficently grinning neighbors. I’m old-fashioned. Only time can tell us that. But I am saying that judging from Love-In-Idleness, Bradley’s poems show promise from their very beginnings. Straight off, Bradley shows us that this isn’t going to be yet another anemic performance — encountered so often in the fey years of the twentieth century that we begin wondering if anemia hasn’t become a trend — but convinces us that right from the blocks we’re going somewhere:
Behind the quiet cage of the sickly peacock,
the shallow light of the ferris wheel
So there I was, Zingarello, the human
time bomb, crouched over inside her
coat closet, nuzzling the soft skin
of her silk kimono.
Again, that doesn’t mean by the end of every piece we feel as if we brushed our teeth with gunpowder this morning. But it does mean that Bradley is yeasty with propitious starts, that in cavorting over the first hurdle he signals a lively trip to come.
Where he’s going comes clear early on, or, well, fairly clear, but more on that later. We soon realize the poet is leading us into a conspiracy, creating a central figure, Roberto Zingarello, the fount of the collection. In other words, a book of poetry as imagined biography. That’s another good sign, one not found in timid poets, a flag of risk-taking. And that leads us to my Second Rule of Numinous Writing: Don’t write about what you know. Write about what you don’t know.
So we launch off, through the pathetic tatters and glittering shards of Zingarello’s life. The first piece introduces Zingarello as an amusement park closes down for the night. He’s lurking in the shadows, about to ambush one of the workers on her way home. Elsewhere, we find Zingarello sobbing in his cups about the fright and worthlessness of his days, wandering about the world, but mostly spending his nervous energy longing for women. And we learn a few other facts of his life, that he was born in Italy in 1910, the product of a sordid union, that apparently he spent some time in the hoosegow, and that he has an Oedipus complex. What emerges is a fairly standard outcast figure, an intelligent, supersensitive, and bedraggled Ancient Mariner worth listening to as he describes how Life has sawed across his raw nerves. It’s been done before, but it’s still not a bad setup.
Though this might not bother others, my complaint here is that the poet hasn’t decided which he’s going to emphasize, the biographical aspects or the poetry spun from it. Yes, maybe it’s essential for the writer to have a sharp picture of his antihero, but that’s just a device, a tool for creating the poems; what I ultimately care about are not the details of Zingarello’s life but their poetic renderings. Yet on this the poet goes by halves, giving us not enough material in the poems to piece together Zingarello’s career, yet adding a page of clarifying notes at the end of the collection. No, no, no, no, I want to cry out. For I don’t give a toot about what Z. was doing or not doing in 1928 or 1936. Keep me in the dark if need be. All I care about is the loveliness of the poems themselves. There rest you can put in a novel.
And while I’m in the ventilating mode, I should add that at times the poet seems to know what’s going on, but I can’t always connect the images, either rationally or intuitively. In “Alone with My Intestines” Zingarello remembers that “Last night, I found a saxophone / stuffed with dirt.” Now, I’ve waited for decades to see a saxophone stuffed with dirt appear in a poem, but — at their best — the things of surrealism have an uncanny mathematics. They calculate out with an inexplicable rightness. Yet in some of the pieces here, the images are interestingly bizarre, but they don’t add up to a sum of convincing esthetic wholeness.
I make bold to say such things only because when Bradley is good, he’s very good. On this score I go back to our amusement-park poem, “In the Eyes of a Peacock,” the crème de la crème of the collection. No easy flirtation with surrealism here. The situation is specific, its details playing over our senses with such sweetness that we fear our sensory gaskets might blow. And brilliantly, in the mugging or rape or whatever twisted Zingarello is waiting in the shadows for, Bradley leads us up to the event, then chops off the poem, leaving us panting for more, in a state of poetic interrupius. —Peter Wild