A Review of They Talk About Death by Alessandra Bava (Blood Pudding Press, 2014)
Alessandra Bava's They Talk About Death, the Italian poet and translator's American publishing debut, is a visually stunning piece of art. The book is handmade, ribbon-bound, and is crafted with brightly colored and textured paper. Erin Wells' cover art, "Yellow Carousel Horse," marches lockstep with the content of the collection, resembling, in skull form, a mash-up of Sylvia Plath's portrait and the horse her greatest work is named for, Ariel. The book is tiny, with no page numbers or section breaks, which is apropos as this format hastens the onslaught of death, even the beauty of it, for which there is no stay against. The collection guides the reader, noting in the titles or footnotes of each poem the particular life and death to be explored. Bava picks subjects readers might expect to find in a collection on (mostly) literary death: Plath, Rimbaud, and Sexton, but also the unexpected, like John the Baptist and Modigliani. The book sustains itself on these figures' biographies, and in some cases, their poetic lines—in essence, it takes the lives, once again, of the subjects it explores.
One example of this occurs in "St. Baudelaire," written after Rimbaud. Bava states, "I dream of you at night / entangled in the spires of evil." The audience hears Baudelaire's famous title translated, "The Flowers of Evil," running through this first line, taking the words and making of them a new life Bava uses. They Talk About Death serves at once as a historical map to famous lives and deaths (Bava recalls the birth of Breton's Exquisite Corpse game and Sylvia Plath's last actions for her children) and as an extrapolation that dreams up a new backstory to each of these deaths.
This chapbook is risky in that cataloging the deaths of literary greats, especially the suicidal, may seem like hackneyed subject matter to some. The narratives are made new, however, in that they don't focus on the act of death, but rather the build toward it and denouement. Some of the poems could be read as suicide notes, or as instructions for those left behind. "Milk and Bread" is an example of this: "I left you in the arms / of February winds— / a window flung open…"
They Talk About Death also takes risks in that it may seem to glorify suicide in lines like, "Suicidal Light demands worship" from "Our Lady of Napalm," a violent re-imagining of Anne Sexton. This worship, which gestures back to the old trope of a woman's beauty being perfected in death, dates to Hamlet's Ophelia and even further. The book borrows from history in this way, and is merciless at times in its treatment of subjects; while in mourning, the author simultaneously praises and curses figures for dying at their own hands. Salome is cited as an example of a woman who is a murderer rather than a victim and Bava praises her for it: "One day, when [John's] head will turn to skull, she'll make a lamp of it for her own enlightenment and write chiaroscuro poems."
In this way, the book is a paradox, simultaneously firing accusations at and listing defenses for these creative figures. "Rimbaud's Spoon and Fork" explores the conundrum at the center of the chapbook: "The poet's table is coarse, set with / bowls of steaming ink, with forked tongues…" This is the dark side to the empathy and creativity that makes a writer great. Rimbaud confronts this darkness in the poem, which for many of the characters is the drive toward death itself. Bava confronts the underbelly as well, though instead of succumbing to it, she investigates.
The author even cloaks herself in the creative style of each muse. In this way, the book shows itself as entirely empathetic. "The Murder of Stars," a discourse on Federico García Lorca, even contains the great author's lines in collage. Bava adds this line his: "…My blood is a constellation / of red roses singing from a mass grave…" This striking image is beautifully tinged with Lorca's duende. The collection is at turns narrative, including prose pieces such as, "Never Thirty-Seven," a deft and painterly look at Modigliani, and fragmented lyrics, perhaps evidenced best by "Taxidermy," which regards Francesca Woodman:
of skin stuffed
with your personality…
The last poem, "Vision," appropriately a final ode to Plath, opens with the lines, "Your voice breathes / into my open page. / A cry echoes in this wood of viscera…" This collaborative action is the author's greatest accomplishment in They Talk About Death: she has allowed the authors of the past to animate the collection through Bava's own voice, a voice that illuminates life and death—this terrifying and mythical place of awe, enlightenment, worship, and waste—the wood of viscera, indeed.