Space Invader


The End of Limbo, Valerie Melchioretto
(68pp, 8.99, Salt)
 

Valeria Melchioretto's long poem 'Walnut', subtitled 'A Manifesto', which comes early in her debut collection The End of Limbo, is a meditation on the relationship between the nut, the tree, the forest, the wardrobe, the poet, and the reader of the poem which is also an invitation to step into a flexible and extensive inner space:
 
     The wardrobe's doors are like wings which open
     to a room beyond a room
     and the wardrobe's mirror always holds
     the image of the person opening it.
 
There is a generosity of spirit evident throughout the collection (dedicated 'to love itself') that makes this more than just a statement of intent - these are engaging poems that often address the reader in the direct manner of a storyteller. My first impression, especially reading the several  poems which come out of family history and experience, was of being told a darkly compelling fairy-tale from the inside and for the first time. Of her 'Bohemian granny:
 
     I remember disappearing into her large hand as we walked
     along the maize field to escape the rural gossip,
     only stopping to watch the lizards.  Her sandals left
     hundred-year-deep imprints, large enough for both of us. 
         (from 'Podding Peas')
 
Born into a German-speaking Italian family based in Switzerland, Melchioretto's linguistic roots are wide and deep:
 
     Shall I name the walnut and the wardrobe
     with my mother's mother tongue
     or with my first language which is the second language I learned
     or shall I call it walnut the way you call it but with my accent?
          (from 'Walnut')
 
There is a particular freshness in her use of English - a language she has chosen or been chosen by as few writers have. Playing freely with idioms one might have thought exhausted she can release their metaphorical content anew, rescuing them from cliche. See, for example, what she does with 'the last straw' in 'The Silk Road', or the phrase 'silence is a virtue' in 'The Virtue'.
 
The specific family history Melchioretto writes out of is both personal and typical of her (and my) generation - parents scarred by the experience of war, children obscurely aware of the damage. Several very moving poems record the impact on the daughter of the father's depression, intuitively understood as a survival mechanism:
 
     My father wore a thin coat of lead under his skin.
     He cried on occasions, percolated tears from behind
     the retina.  The crying gene was built in like an oil pump,
     responsible for cooling his worn system
    
     [...]
     I looked into his cloudy face, a taste of metal on my tongue.
                   (from 'The Tear Percolator')
 
Melchioretto is a maker of complex, multi-layered prints as well as a writer, and she as it were echo-sounds out her own personal space in each poem, using the resources of a highly visual imagination - in one, 'it is a long hallway'; in another 'the desperate island'. There's the inside of 'The Suitcase' and 'The Normal Head'; and things fit inside each other in surreal ways - 'The grand piano is in the pockets of my mother's apron'. Poems are entitled, for example, 'Finding Myself in a Pair of Fisheyes', 'The Mississippi Flows Through Our Living Room', 'Full Void', 'From the Intestines of a Mystical Dog' and 'In the Devil's Pockets'. The emotional dramas of the poems are inseparable from these places; everything has to happen somewhere after all, but in this collection that is as likely to be in a painting by Breughel, Picasso or Mondrian, or in a circle of Dante's Hell, or a room of ice or amber, as in a contemporary hotel room or apartment.
 
Melchioretto's title poem 'The End of Limbo', which responds to the decision of the Catholic Church to abolish this particular posthumous state in 2005, is both funny and outraged - the geography of the imagination is undeniable, she seems to insist, and such a papal decree will result in chaos. Conversely, she is fascinated by disappearances - of David Rodinsky from his room in Spitalfields, of Persephone into the underworld, of a lover who falls 'into the gap between too far and too close for comfort', and another for whom, after a bad night in a 'Twin Room', 'The morning opens like a trapdoor as the night seals shut.'
 
Unsurprisingly perhaps, as Melchioretto is a poet who can even find a strong image in which to hymn her own silence (in 'The Virtue'), a sheer delight in invention and discovery permeates this collection, and is the keynote of most of the poems, even those that deal with dark material. But there are exceptions: 'Omission' is a moving but uncharacteristically unadorned account of her father's change of name from Fortunato (fortunate) to simply Nato (born) after surviving World War 2. And 'The Girl with the Shoe Fetish', which threatens a rejecting lover with castration while the speaker seeks liberation as a cormorant, is terrifying to an extent that far exceeds any pleasure to be had from its considerable inventiveness.
 
In a late poem in the collection, 'Absence of Absence', Melchioretto writes 'There is no absence, only unclaimed space'. She is a poet with an artist's eye for space, who finds it pretty much everywhere, and knows how to lay claim to it with a passion. This is a collection that will enable you to see into places you didn't know exist.

            Meredith Andrea 2007