Mourning in Italian Poetry from the Medieval to the Modern Christ Church, Oxford, 4 March 2017

By Rebecca Bowen and Nicolò Crisafi

The conference Mourning in Italian Poetry from the Medieval to the Modern was organised and led by Adele Bardazzi, Jennifer Rushworth, and Emanuela Tandello with the support of Christ Church and St John’s College, the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford, the Society of Italian Studies, and in association with Oxford Medieval Studies sponsored by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.

The conference happened to coincide with the recent publication of Rushworth’s Discourses of Mourning in Dante, Petrarch and Proust which truly rests on the Medieval and the Modern. In practice, the conference pivoted on the two centuries from Giacomo Leopardi to the living poets Antonella Anedda and Jamie McKendrick, who crowned the event with a bilingual reading of each other’s work and its translation. The Middle Ages were nonetheless an intertextual presence, brought out in the Q&A sessions when not in the papers.

The event was designed to encourage this: speakers and participants sat together around the table in the Kidd Room at Christ Church; a selection of secondary literature was circulated in advance, and a small booklet of poems referenced was handed out on the day to ensure that everyone could be on the same page. These careful details were successful in making the conference also a conversation.

Seven convenors and one respondent took turns over three sessions and one roundtable. The Oxford-based majority was made up of Adele Bardazzi, Marzia D’Amico, Vilma De Gasperin, Eleanor Parker, Francesca Southerden, and Emanuela Tandello; Fabio Camilletti joined them from Warwick, Francesco Giusti from ICI Berlin and Manuele Gragnolati from Paris Sorbonne.

The picture of the experience and theme of mourning that these papers painted was complex and paradoxical. Loss, grief and mourning exceed expression. When they are expressed they face the struggle to ring true. When they manage to ring true, they struggle to be conclusive. And indeed definitive conclusions were not sought on a subject where conclusion is rather the question.

Fittingly, then, the papers moved between two poles: presence and absence, sound and silence, public and private. Papers navigated these tensions by showing how literature bears witness to the universal experience of loss and the fact that such experience is only given to us in a personal form (De Gasperin). For poets, ‘time’ is truly, as Ezra Pound wrote, ‘the evil, beloved’, and memory is alternatingly the enemy and the solution (Gragnolati). In their writing, poets look to the literary past for help, seeking it in the topos of the prematurely dead (Camilletti), in the tradition of elegy (Bardazzi), in the figures of myth (Parker); or they try to find respite from those very myths and conventions (D’Amico). The mourner, like the writer, is caught between the compulsion to look back and the necessity (narrative, existential, aesthetic?) to move forward; it is small wonder that mourning tests linear development with intermittences, closure with open-endedness, and time-specificity with timelessness (Giusti).

Francesca Southerden did justice to these paradoxes with the difficult task of responding to the papers and leading the roundtable. There is indeed, as she claims, a metapoetic thread which makes writing of mourning also writing of writing, involving as it does, the building-blocks of literature: time, words, memory, ends. The papers and discussions surely reflected this.

The day closed with a reading by Antonella Anedda and Jamie McKendrick from their haunting poetry collection ‘Archipelago’. Like a scattering of islands, each poem stood alone and together reflected on, enacted, the poetics of mourning analysed by the day’s papers.

‘noi non siamo salvi | noi non salviamo’

[we are not saved, | we do not save]

Anedda’s verses and McKendrick’s translations sketched a tension observed throughout the day, eloquently summarised by Francesca Southerden as the making and remaking of poetic subjectivity through encounter with the other. An absent-present other who the verse recalls but whose death is irrevocable:

‘se non con un coraggio obliquo | con un gesto | di minima luce.’

[unless with oblique courage, | with a gesture | of minimal light]

A day of gestures then, towards illuminating the processes through which poetry communicates – expiates – loss through language, always under threat from the silence waiting at the end of the final line.

The full programme of the day can be found through here.

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