Jun 26 2023
Poetry review – AGAIN BEHOLD THE STARS: Emma Storr admires a prize-winning historical sequence by Alex Josephy
It is not surprising that Again Behold the Stars won the Cinnamon Press pamphlet award in 2022. These are beautifully crafted poems embracing loss and hope, endurance and survival in a sequence of poems about the siege of a walled Italian hill town during the winter of 1553. Despite the gap of centuries, we recognise immediately the emotional turmoil of war, the privations of compulsory confinement and the impressive resistance of the townspeople, particularly the women. Josephy tells us that her poems are ‘scorci’ – little glimpses of life during the siege and not necessarily connected, although there does appear to be a chronology to the 25 poems presented. She experiments with sonnet and madrigal forms, which add to the lyrical quality of her work.
In the first poem in the book, we meet the young girl whose voice and experiences demonstrate the relentless tedium and deprivation of the people trapped inside the fortress:
A girl is always under siege, always under guard, her own or others.
It’s clear that the female body is under constant threat from invaders as well as the hill town. Vigilance and anticipation of the enemy’s moves are necessary skills. Does this presage the end of the sequence when we learn the girl has become pregnant?
The besieged townspeople are always hungry. In “Water Soup”, the girl fantasises about the vegetables that might have been added to the thin broth.
The girl thickens this soup with yellow wishes: carrot ribbons, onion labyrinths, sweet clouds of chestnuts.
We can almost taste these delicious ingredients because of the sensual nature of the imagery. Chestnuts are also mentioned in the poem “The One Tree” in which
chestnut broth soothes her throat in dreams chestnut bread haunts her tongue
Spaces within the lines of the poem provide ‘scorci’ into the girl’s thoughts. The tree endures despite fungus and beetles, providing a symbol of resistance and hope during the siege. Another poem, “Redoubt”, takes up the theme of female fortitude. The fortress stands strong, defended by three women’s battalions uniformed in red and violet taffeta:
Against her stubborn wall the cannonballs shatter like fishermen’s glass floats,
The position of the fortress high up gives La Fortezza a good view across the plain all the way to the sea:
where boats cast off as easily as taffeta slips from the loom.
Freedom and escape are not far away. The gorgeously-clothed women and the sturdy building are both impressive. We know that this particular town has never been taken in war.
The girl remains nameless but is surrounded by older women who give advice or add humour to the dire situation with their crude jokes. Silvana, Guilia and Graziella are mentioned as well as aunt Carlina. The girl’s father has died fighting and ‘her most annoying brother’ has been sent out at night to shore up defences.
Age can also besiege people, as demonstrated in the poem “Great Grandmother”. Her body has been ‘weathered’ by eighty winters and under her skin she has a ‘cramp of iron muscles’.
…. Aches bombard her, cares dig trenches, starve and ravine her cheeks.
This is a vivid and imaginative way of describing the physical changes wrought by ageing.
Despite the lack of food, the young girl grows so that when she stands in an archway ‘for the first time, her fingers / brush the keystone.’ As she matures, the risk of sexual predation increases. In “Mud. Dust, Ice and Stars”, the girl and her sisters are making ‘clay cuckolds’ from mud, little dolls which they paint and give moustaches. The second stanza of this poem suggests that the girl has already lost some of her childish innocence as she is ‘carrying too many’ sins:
….what with the slapped baby, the stolen sip of best grappa.
The theme of predation continues in the next poem “Rosso” in which the girl is:
Carried to the ramparts, dark red wine unlocks everything: hearts, frosted fingers, history.
Nothing is explicit but the poem creates a sense of unease and of abuse by men within the fortress rather than by the enemy without, linking back to the first poem in the sequence. In “Straws”, we learn that aunt Carlina has chosen names ‘for when the baby comes’. And the girl:
…counts vacant swift nests anchored to the tower, crescent husks that wait like fishing skiffs on vertical stone sea.
The renewal of life provides an optimistic ending in this evocative imagery and echoes earlier poems that mention nests as symbols of safety and the arrival of Spring. Boats are also free to sail away.
Again Behold the Stars benefits from reading many times to savour Alex Josephy’s skill. She conjures up filmic scenes of this besieged town and its brave inhabitants using different poetic forms and original imagery. I can highly recommend it.