“I am always trembling, on the verge of poetry”. Lyrical life of Katherine Mansfield

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Finally, Katherine Mansfield has the smoothness of shards of glass: glass tigers that break, carelessly, leaping from the table and one of those fragments claws your foot. Reality under glass: protected, specified, no less dangerous, no less true – different. Down to the bloodline. Mansfield is liked by those who love ladies out of time, who fall from a cliff; to whom you prefer Victorian jazz dancing; the tiger, of course, but in ceramic. The exaggerated forms – the ambiguity.

Mansfield could only end up ill. Tuberculosis diagnosed in 1917, she was 29, worsened in her twenties; marrying John Middleton Murry didn’t slow the disease or the anxiety of other bodies – men, females – but she organized, as it were, her talent. In 1920 Mansfield publishes Bliss and Other Stories; two years after The Garden Party and Other Stories. She entrusted herself to Gurdjieff, unstable, tirelessly irrational, ready for any enthusiasm: the anthroposophical treatment had no effect, and Mansfield died in Fontainbleau on 9 January 1923. The guru had entrusted her to the care of one of his most effective students, Olga Ivanovna Lazović: the woman, of rapturous beauty, would become the third – and last – wife of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Born in New Zealand, in Wellington, the homeland appears – especially in the verses – with fairy-tale tones, almost as if the Maori epic was tamed with Andersen’s provisions. The father, Harold Beauchamp, headed the New Zealand bank; her mother, Annie Burnell Dyer, was a tough woman, with her charismatic charm. They say she’s a Virginia Woolf in vitro, but Mansfield’s talent lies in the instant whim, the splash of light in the face, the sudden brilliance. For this reason, Pietro Citati liked her so much, that he devised one of her well-known style exercises around her, Short life of Katherine Mansfield.

Above all, Cristina Campo liked Mansfield. In her early twenties, in 1944, under the name of Vittoria Guerrini, she translated it for Frassinelli, in a book entitled A cup of tea and other stories. The introduction, signed by CC – now in Under a false nameAdelphi, 1998 – has effective peremptoriness:

“Beyond any conquest of style, the literary work that can be defined as such always projects, on the screen of the page, the predominant element in the personality of its author. There is a work-spirit, a work-heart, a work-brain, a work-blood, a work-nerves, a work-memory. Instead, Katherine Mansfield’s is perfectly the work-creature. Blood that circulates, nerves that capture, heart that collects, brain that filters, spirit that transforms. Every book by her, if not her entire life, is certain – completely – a whole life… Katherine Mansfield was born in Oceania to a family of French pioneers. Her Latin blood, therefore, transplanted in time to a young and rich land. These are the two elements that are at the basis of her being: one above all as a stylistic factor, as a classic sense of form and taste; the other almost physical essence: absolute need for a native spontaneity, for a pantheistic, ever new virginity of heart”.

A few months after her death, her husband published the collection of the books in London poems by Katherine Mansfield. It wasn’t a surprise. Katherine has punctuated her existence with poems – she belongs to those rare spirits who are constantly inspired, for whom there is an uneasy continuity between letters, diaries, stories, poems. The explanatory note is useful:

“In her diary dated January 22, 1916, Katherine Mansfield recounts her writing plans to her dead brother. She wanted to pay off “a sacred debt” contracted with her country, New Zealand, “because my brother and I were born there”. “For this,” she continues, “I want to write poetry. I’m always shaking, on the verge of poetry,” she whispers to her brother. “The almond tree, the birds, the wood where you live now, the flowers you don’t see, the wide open window I lean against, while I dream and feel you are on my shoulder, the times your photograph seems sad to me. Above all, I want to dedicate a long elegy to you… perhaps not in verse. No, maybe prose. A sort of special prose”.

There special prose of Mansfield comes from poetic land, fallowed. Often, in her poems, Mansfield dreams of turning into a bird, into a stream of grass, into sand – sometimes believing herself to be the daughter of the sea, fallen into an inappropriate, alien land.


Voices in the air

Finally comes, the rare moment,
when, for no reason,
the faint voices of the air
they play above the sea and the wind.

The sea and the wind obey
and they sigh, they lament in double note
of double bass, they are content to conceive
a deal for those little throats –

The little gorges sing and stand up
towards the light with disarming ease
and a kind of magical, sweet wonder
numbs them as they listen to each other –

Here they are, the little voices: the bee, the fly,
the leaf that does tap dance, the pod that yes
splits, the breeze that bends the needles of grass,
the steep, high-pitched call of the insect.


Rules for beginners

Children must not eat coal
and they must not produce grimaces,
rolling around during holidays is forbidden
and get his face black.

They must learn that pointing is crude,
they have to stay at the table,
and eat all the food
that is given to them – if they are capable of it.

If they fall, they mustn’t cry
although we know how much they suffer:
no – there won’t always be Mama
to comfort them with his kisses.



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The daughter of the sea

Into the world you sent her, mother,
modeling his body with coral and foam.
A wave combed her warm hair.
After all, you kicked her out of the house.

Among the ravines of the night, she entered the city
and on the doorstep of a house he laid it:
blue girl in a scale-fringed dress.

No sister, no brother
he heard his call, he answered his cry.
Her face shone from the cradle of hair
like a lunar texture in the sky.

He has sold the corals, he has spent the foam;
her rainbow heart, a shell that enchants,
broke into her body: she went home.

Please come back to the world, my daughter.
My child, return to the dark lands:
here there is nothing but sad sea water
and handfuls of sand to weave.


The cave of opal dreams

In the cave of opal dreams I found a fairy:
the wings more fragile than the petals of a flower
more fragile than snowflakes.
She wasn’t scared, she stood on the abyss of her fingers,
gently began to walk on my hand.
I clenched my palms
to make her my prisoner.
I took her out of the opal cave
and I opened my hands.
First she became a dandelion
then a noose in the rays of the sun,
then – nothing more.
Empty is now my cave of opal dreams.


When I was a bird

I flew up a karaka tree
in a nest made of leaves
soft as feathers.
I made up a song that I sang to myself:
he had no words – in the end, he saddened me.
There were daisies in the grass around the tree.
I tried to provoke them:
“I will bite off your heads to give them
to feed my little ones”.
They didn’t believe I was a bird
for this reason they remained quiet.
The sky was a huge blue nest with white feathers
the sun was the mother bird keeping him warm.
That’s what my song said, which had no words.
Little brother approaches, pushing his cart.
I changed my dress into a blanket of wings
I remained silent.
When he came next to me I said: “Sweet, sweet!”.
For a moment he seemed surprised
then he said, “Yuck, you’re not a bird, you’ve got legs.”
Daisies don’t matter
Little brother counts for nothing:
I feel just like a bird.


Now I’m a plant, a weed

Now I’m a plant, a weed,
weed swinging
on a rock chasm;
now I’m pale brown grass
floating like a flame;
I am a reed;
old shell singing
always the same song;
a pile of loads;
a white, white stone;
a bone;
until i come back
more sand
and I roll, I blow,
back and forth, back, forward
on the seashore
in the dying light –
until even the light dies.

If you were here you wouldn’t say:
“She doesn’t wait for me, she forgot
of me”. We are not playing
changing into weeds, stones and meadows
while those strange ships pass
gravely, kindly, letting go of foam cores
that rolls around our home island with elegance
bubbles of foam that glitter on the stones
do you like rainbows? Look, honey! No, they’ve disappeared.
And the white sails melt in the sailing sky.

Catherine Mansfield

The article is in Italian

Tags: trembling verge poetry Lyrical life Katherine Mansfield

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