Nov 9 2022
Poetry review – WORKWEAR: Stephen Claughton admires the range of human experience which is touched upon in Carla Scarano D’Antonio’s new collection
Carla Scarano D’Antonio will be familiar to readers of London Grip as both a poet and a reviewer. She is also a painter and as well as reviewing poetry and art for this and other magazines, she teaches Italian, writes short stories and has gained a PhD on the work of Margaret Atwood. As might be expected from such a wide range of interests, her new collection, Workwear, deals with a variety of subjects, including art, family, travel and the Covid pandemic and comes bookended with poems about our destruction of the environment.
The first section, “Work clothes”, begins with a series of ekphrastic poems and takes its title from one about a Rembrandt self-portrait:
You aren’t wearing helmet, gorget, turned-up collar, gold chain or oriental attire. Instead work clothes: a white chemise and beret of pronounced brushstrokes, dark sketched coat. (“Rembrandt at Kenwood House”)
Rembrandt’s honesty (‘the frankness of your gaze’) and intensity (‘There you are, unrelenting, / in the intensity of your chiaroscuro’) apply to the poems themselves, whether describing the loss of another person:
How much she misses his blue eyes, the bones of his fingers, the tendons behind his knee and the tip of his penis; all miserably lost. (“Eli Pfeiffer”)
or the loss of her own youth:
My clothes adapt as a second skin to my body, receptive, ready to transform. Flexible, they ease off my shape. I gamble with the thick waistline and the varicose veins, camouflage bulges and flabby thighs in loose attires.
Workwear begins with the ‘Sprayed jasmine essence on her groin and under her armpits’ that Scarano’s very modern Judith applies, before setting out to beguile and then behead Holofernes (literally dressed to kill) and extends to helmets in the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. Francis of Assisi is described in terms of what he doesn’t wear. As well as images of clothing (including a description of the ‘Phoenix’ portrait of Elizabeth I), there is clothing with images (“Kimono”).
Then there are reminiscences of the poet’s childhood in Italy. I particularly enjoyed “To my first boyfriend”, who ‘liked my loose denim dungarees / and the XL second hand chequered man’s shirts’, which – as the young Carla explains to her headteacher – she wore, because ‘I felt fat, I needed loose clothes / I needed space to fit my body, / a better chance.’ Elsewhere Scarano is a magpie, picking up details that catch her eye. A prose poem, “The colour blue”, contains a series of short observations, beginning with memories of childhood holidays. (Another poem, “Collage of museum pieces”, is exactly that.)
The second section, “Meeting my grandmothers”, begins with another prose poem, “Who do you think you are?” that builds up a profile of the writer from random observations. It ends: ‘I am here, to tell the truth, entertaining myself as much as I can with my writing, baking, knitting and crocheting; embroidering poems, imagining realities.’ The poem “Meeting my grandmothers” is – as grandmothers are – firmly based in the physical: Conforta, from Cortona, ‘Her long strong arms are forged to beat the laundry / and carry logs for the fire’; and Orsola, from Meta di Sorrento:
… in her black eyebrows there was the sharpness of a steel determination disguised in her soft arms that kneaded the pasta dough on the Formica surface of the table, her gold bracelet clinking.
She adopts a more lyrical mode in writing about her parents. “My mother” describes a dream (‘I was melting in her tenderness / under the touch of her smooth old fingers’), while in “Hospital nights” she hallucinates (‘I cannot say you weren’t there’) the presence of her mother at the birth of her three children. There is a tender lyric about the death of her father, “The Angel of Death”, which ‘has white wings / soft like fresh snow blossoming from the ground.’ It’s a theme she explored at greater length in her pamphlet, Negotiating Caponata. Not that she idealises her relationship with her parents – “At the phone with my mother” describes what one hopes is her mother’s technophobia:
I give you a ring every two days. You never call me, not even on my birthday or for San Carlo, my name day. When you answer you say oh, yes, it’s you, as if I was the usual one, nothing special. Is it hot in Rome?
“My father, back home” describes the fear she felt when her father, a doctor working among the poor, lost his temper after a long day at work:
Now I realise that it was only a phase an interruption that did not exclude love. But back then, your shouts pierced my guts. I learned to forge an armour around my stomach and keep still while the storm raged.
A different kind of vulnerability is described even more graphically in “I was pregnant, I was full”, which sets out in uncompromisingly intimate detail a physical examination she underwent in the presence of medical students. ‘Because of the examination, I was allowed a free scan.’ It says a lot that Scarano is able to end such an embarrassing experience on a positive note: ‘Even then I could tell she was floating happily inside my belly, rapturous.’
In contrast to the gritty reality of this, there is the lyricism of “Summer night”, describing both the companionship and loneliness of being on a beach with friends, looking at the night sky. There is a pull in her poetry between the comfort of the past and the appetite for new experience, a duality which is addressed directly in “My way of cooking pasta”:
I often think of rules as a constraint of the soul chaining up my freedom, but keeping me safe, like a warm plate of pasta cooked and eaten at home.
It’s a poem about leaving home. Other poems deal with the departure of her own children, including a touchingly clear-sighted poem in four sections (“Valentina”) about an adopted daughter with learning difficulties, who moves into sheltered accommodation. The section comes full circle with a poem about her granddaughter, Violetta, to whom the collection is dedicated (‘Your chubby cheeks / and turned up nose / thin mouth / make me melt in tenderness.’)
The poems in the third section, “Stars and flags”, are more elusive – oblique or impressionistic. As the poet herself says:
The echo of the inexpressible appears among the lines carving what I don’t know yet configuration of signs. (“Words are good”)
The flags in the poem that gives the section its name ‘mark identity and division, their clear-cut shapes don’t know / the blurring of indecision and contradiction’ and ends with ‘predictions of unredeemed world / the inevitable falling, falling of humans’, suggesting not just human failing, but people falling from the Twin Towers. Elsewhere the poet continues political themes of colonisation, border walls, the refugee crisis (‘gusts of wind rattle behind the lanes, / echoes of machine guns from faraway lands / washing shadows of corpses on our tranquil shores’). Other poems, such as “Impressions of Calgary” or “Winter’s Ending”, are built from descriptive vignettes:
The night is falling, snow like dust, fading shadows. In the black sheet of the night sky titanium white moon glares. (“Winter’s ending”)
The specificity of ‘titanium white’ reminds you that Scarano is also an artist and there are poems about art in this section too (“Ways of looking at walls” and “Daffodils and Hyacinths” both inspired by women artists, Varda Carmeli and Winifred Nicholson).
“Masking faces”, the fourth and final section, deals with the Covid pandemic. Scarano makes a characteristic link to her family history by beginning with a poem about her great-grandmother going to the Naples docks at the end of the First World War to get news of her two sons, both naval engineers, and being told that their boat is being quarantined because of Spanish flu. (‘It attacks the lungs, your face becomes blue, / hair and teeth fall out and nose and ears bleed,’ says a somewhat tactless Marine Officer, as he shares slices of his citron.) Scarano’s own experience of the Covid pandemic moves from initial anxiety to an acceptance, even welcoming, of the extra space it provides. I liked her description of using a facemask to carry home blackberries she’s picked at the roadside, as an image of how Covid precautions became normalised. It was new ground for us all and she brings some strikingly novel phrases to her treatment of the pandemic (‘resist the nutrient fascination of touching’, ‘divorce the habit of recognition’, ‘Resist the enthrallment of normality’, ‘a contagious bombing’) and a beautifully surreal image of ‘an umbrella-shaped fountain’ (a landmark that also appears in an earlier section). For a poet so alive to detail, the strangeness of it all was a gift for her magpie sensibility. Typically, what she looks forward to when it’s all over is:
You can start again for good after the lockdown, plan to go shopping in charity shops, hunting for lucky picks a pair of red shoes for £5 embroidery threads for 50p a china bowl for £2. (“You can begin the journey of life anew”)
This is both an intelligent and an emotionally intelligent collection. The poems have a variety of themes and approaches, but what unites them is the poet’s clear focus and sympathetic engagement with her subjects. Most of all, Carla Scarano D’Antonio is herself, or as she says in “A new me” (about dressing with ‘some eccentricities’ in later life):
There’s nothing to lose or to gain, just have fun, being who I always wanted to be.