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Moving at the Speed of Love

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Some Lovesomelove
By Alex Caldiero
Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2015

Alex Caldiero’s new book of poetry is an edifying, eviscerating, and playful exploration of love. Some Love is a modest title, as is the dedication to Caldiero’s wife of forty years—“for Setenay, some love.” While that may raise some questions at home (why not “all my love”?), the title signals possibility and humility. And who should not be humble in the uncertain face of love?

confessing my love is not unlike asking

forgiveness for a crime I didnt commit.

Because I was so sure

of the meaning of the word,

I didnt look it up,

but maybe I should have

because the one I heard

was not the one she spoke.

The poet often confesses love while questioning his ability to do so, as in the book’s first poem:

Your hair

is a labyrinth

I can never hope

to get out of . . .
This is the beginning of a

love poem.
I’ll just leave it at that.

Love 1Fortunately, the poet doesn’t just leave it at that. Epigraphs preceding parts of the book suggest that these poems will explore a wide range of love. Love can be inhibited: “It’s because an action has not been completed that it is vile,” Jean Genet. Love can be thwarted by misunderstanding: “If you think we’re together, you’re a poor judge of distance,” Mae West in Belle of the Nineties. Love is complicated by gender differences: “Women are strangers in the country of man,” Laura Riding Jackson. Some lovers are more skillful than others: “You’re easy to dance with,” Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn.

The poet’s lover is often easy to dance with:

Her mouth on

my mouth—
in old age
I’ll smile and

not know why.

The lovers are lively dancers:

Love 2When my tongue

meets your tongue

it wants to play tag,

it wants to play hide-and-seek.
Then fatigued,

it would lie down

in its own moist bed

alone to dream in flavors.

But who is this dancing poet from the country of men who fears he might be a poor judge of distance? Caldiero addresses the question in a poem called “Islander” (from his book Sonosuono):

Born

on the island

of Sicily
Raised

on the island

of Manhattan
Growing old

on the island

of Utah
All my life

surrounded

by water

Love 3Arriving in Brooklyn when he was nine years old, Alissandru (Alex) Caldiero learned English and unlearned Sicilian in a series of Catholic schools. In high school, his girlfriend who was attending Brooklyn Polytechnic University invited him to a poetry reading at the university. There Caldiero met Bob Heman, an editor for the campus literary magazine Counterweight, and became part of the literary scene centered around the publication. Heman eventually printed Caldiero’s first published poem “Monad” as a broadside. Since then, Caldiero’s work has appeared often in Heman’s clwn wr (including three of the poems in Some Love). Caldiero’s youthful fascination with the arts led him not to college but to a multi-year apprenticeship with Michael Lekakis, the New York sculptor who was a close friend of e. e. cummings and Ezra Pound.

In 1967 Caldiero was at Rizzoli’s Italian bookstore on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Looking through books of Italian poetry, he found one with a title he could hardly read, La peddi nova. He opened the book by Ignazio Buttitta and read the strange words awkwardly, mouthing them, and at once it came to him: This is how I speak! He realized only then that he was illiterate in his native language. He read and reread Buttitta’s poetry and tried writing in Sicilian himself. In 1972 Caldiero returned to Sicily for the first time as an adult and looked up Buttitta’s address. He wrote the poet from his grandmother’s house on the island and told him about his encounter with La peddi nova. Buttitta wrote back with one word: veni, come. Caldiero went to the fishing village where Buttitta lived and over the course of many visits Buttitta taught him Sicilian language and history through poetry. “He was one of the last bards of the Mediterranean,” Caldiero says. “He died at 98 the same day and year as Allen Ginsberg.”

Caldiero’s book Sonosuono (Salt Lake City: Elik Press, 2013) is a multi-language book about Sicily and about his life as an emigrant and immigrant. The book is rich with anecdotes like the one that begins “Because I grew up in America, I can only ever be part islander. As proof of this, let me recount the incident of my swollen testicle.” Caldiero’s self-produced collection of BAWDY RIDDLES AND TONGUE TWISTERS OF THE SICILIAN FOLK, his own translations following the Sicilian originals, is further evidence of his fascination with his first home: “The riddles and tongue twisters here collected . . . were all uttered by beautiful, old women who got a kick out of seeing the expression on my face as I sought to unravel their riddles. For the most part, I could not solve a riddle, because my mind was so prejudiced by the content that only obscene replies suggested themselves. This, of course, was the intent of telling these earthy riddles.” A couple of examples give the flavor of the book:

Men with men can do it; / Men with women also; / But women with women, no.

– Holy Communion –
Five little pricks / And one big cock; / Bumpitibump, / Into the twat.

– Toes and foot going into the sock –

Love 4At a reading/performance of his own work in Brooklyn, the still-young Caldiero met polyartist Richard Kostelanetz. Kostelanetz was impressed and printed Caldiero’s work “foam and sand” in his Text—Sound Text, (along with work by Emmett Williams, Jerome Rothenberg, Allen Ginsberg, and others). He also included Caldiero in his Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, writing that “Sicilian-born, New York-reared Caldiero has created distinguished sound poetry and performance, as well as visual art. . . . Or, Book o’ Lights ranks among the most imaginative and ambitious visual-verbal books of the 1990s.”

Although Caldiero had a lengthy correspondence with poet Cid Corman, although Bob Arnold published an exquisite handcrafted edition of ten of Caldiero’s poems at Corman’s suggestion (Islander, Green River, Vermont: Longhouse, 2007), although Caldiero was corresponding with John Cage when Cage died, when Caldiero and his wife moved to Utah they slipped into a kind of regional exile. Caldiero lays out the dialectic of this self-imposed condition in his At Home with the Cannibals (2007/2015): “Too famous for some, too local for others, too this too that, & the work goes on & on for the most part unnoticed. . . . and the work, what about the work? The day to day work? Nothing. A book of poems is a thing in itself—what’s the German for it? Ding AS SUCH!!”

There have been published books—Various Atmospheres: Poems and Drawings (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), Poetry Is Wanted Here! (Salt Lake City: Dream Garden Press, 2010), and the aforementioned Sonosuono, but the bulk of Caldiero’s work has been in performance (like his 50th-aniversary performance of Ginsberg’s Howl for a Salt Lake audience of nearly a thousand and like his conversation with radio journalist Scott Carrier about the censorious painting over of Banksy’s “Osama bin Laden” ), in installations like “The Food That Fits the Hunger” that opened a large new gallery at the Salt Lake Art Center in 1995, in CD’s with the improvisational music group “Theta Naught,” as soundtracks for dance performances by Washington D. C. dancer Maida Withers, in the brilliant film about Caldiero and his work called The Sonosopher, and in dozens of hand-crafted chapbooks. The chapbooks have intriguing titles that themselves could make a book of one-line poems: Biotexts; Toy Blood; In Tongues; Lucretius and the Wind; anthem to no flag; Selected Episodes from the Life of the Green Lantern; Corrigenda; Not Dreaming Not Dreamed; Impossible Instrument; Illegible Tattoos; Way after Basho; Body/Dreams/Organs; Anxieties & Chemistries; Philosophers Stoned; The Food that Fits the Hunger; Sphota Probe; and Arse/Poet/Icus.

In his exhibition “Performing the Book,” Caldiero displayed a pine bookshelf with his black-bound notebooks crowding the two shelves. My essay for the exhibit catalogue noted the name of the piece, “Source Book,” and argued that “the books on the shelf are performed as unperformed. They are ordered there in a library’s obedient temporal line, the material history of the poet’s makings. . . . Source Book is the quiet, dusty study before the explosion.” Two decades later the explosion is well underway. It is a welcome flood of ideas and images from the notebooks into the public eye, culminating, for the moment, with the wisdom, wit, and pain of Some Love.

The poems often leave me smiling and scratching my head at the same time.

Between wishful thinking and clear perception

there is a gulf

that resembles the mouth of all the women

you will never kiss.

Does that simile really work? Yes, my smile is proof. Entangled in the poetic complexities of love this book offers me, I reach for Shakespeare’s sonnets, sensing a kinship. I read about a lover’s lies in sonnet #138:

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her though I know she lies

and then about what must be a lie in Some Love

If
what lips say
contradicts
what lips do,
which are you
going to believe?

Love 6Back and forth I turn, from Caldiero’s priapic poem “An erection complicates the embrace” to Shakespeare’s: “. . . I call / Her ‘love’ for whose dear love I rise and fall” (sonnet #151). Because love is their topic and because they explore love’s myriad forms in dozens of poems, the rewards from alternate readings of the English poet and the Sicilian-American poet shouldn’t be surprising.

Shakespeare’s sonnets represent a now classic form. Caldiero’s poems exhibit looser forms ranging from extended prose poems to one-line epigraphs. There are rhymes, slant rhymes, puns, repetitions, phrases that call for performance. Some of the poems approach concrete poetry or resemble an edited poem with spaces remaining where words were excised (Caldiero has produced works of art on plexiglass composed only of the marks made as he edited a poem under the glass). This poem, for instance, works spatially on page as well as semantically:

Where nothing

can

take hold

words too

fall

nowhere near

you

The poem occupies its place on the page with a vertical centerline and words falling to either side. The lines “fall / nowhere near” question the power of words as they display their distance from the rest of the poem and then the “you” moves back to center of the poem and with the rhyme you/too reestablishes the profession of love.

Jason Francis designed the beautiful book, small enough to fit its embossed cover snugly in a reader’s hand and fat enough to include a generous selection of poetry. Red and blue are the dominant colors of print (oxygenated and non-oxygenated blood, Goethe’s prized rhythm of systole and diastole) and creamy white paper alternates with the red pages that precede each new part and with blue pages at inscrutable intervals. Those intervals feel like chance decisions, (no surprise in a book by a lover of the work of John Cage), as do the groupings of poems in the book’s seven parts. In place of some thematic coherence, all the poems in Part Seven have six lines. The parts differ widely in length and in numbers of poems. Most of the poems are dated and are ordered in that non-thematic chronological sequence from 1993 to 2003. The six-line poems in the final part, written in 2000 and 2001, break that sequence. The thematically random structure does not, however, eliminate the fact that each poem butts up against two others, which creates interesting and often amorous contexts.

Love, Caldiero tells us, can be fleshy and uncomplicated:

for the nipple told me everything

I ever wanted to know.

Dreamt I kissed you

near your lip.
Woke up wanting

to eat ripe quince.

Love can thicken a labyrinthine plot:

Communication is complex

multi-layered and at times

labyrinthine and it’s not

unusual to lose your way

when she thickens the plot

with a quick wet kiss.

And while love requires communication, the vehicles of communication can make the poet jealous:

Words know they can enter thru the eyes or ears

and be near you in ways I can never hope to be.

They can stand naked in front of you as natural

as flowers. Words can touch you with hands

you’d never turn away, and kiss your mouth as

you read them aloud to yourself. The freedom

they enjoy with you I cant imagine. Words want

nothing to do with me when it comes to you.

They know I can’t bear to think them so close to

your most intimate thoughts. They insisted that I

send you this, and I have.

I’m tempted to write that what really interests Caldiero is language, not love. But that would be like claiming that he prefers one side of the mind-body split. The only mind-body problem Caldiero is drawn to is the “bawdy mind.”

The question of intimacy threads its way through the poems of Some Love. We want “true love,” we dream of our “one-and-only,” but must, Caldiero demands,

Admit

That we are together by chance

That another combination is as possible

That there is no one-and-only

That we will be caught with our hearts laid bare

We long for total intimacy with a lover, but what if we achieved that? Caldiero approaches the problem in several poems.

For instance ,

I’m afraid to be so

intimate with you that I

would discover you were afraid

of intimacy . So , keeping a

distance brings us closer , in the

long run , than if we were to be-

come mystically one . . .

Even the punctuation in this poem is afraid of being too close. Another poem questions intimacy the way a theologian might reflect on eternity:

Love 7you find a companion for a part of you
what will the rest of you do? what if the

other also finds in you only a part and

has no use for the rest?
if you were to find someone in their

totality, how would you explain the

antipathy that might arise by chance

or just as part of the picture?

Love can be dangerous, Caldiero’s book suggests, and liberating:

How careful

should I be

with emotions that would unscramble

every letter in my alphabet?

Perhaps then I could learn another language.

This book unscrambles every letter in my alphabet. It teaches me new languages, reminds me that love moves at the speed of love in Sicilian and in Italian as well as in English and that like lovers, the languages can make intimate and awkward and progressively playful sense in tandem:

Lovers keep telling and retelling their stories. It’s

an automatic spectacle that continues to bring

up flotsam till swimming is no longer an option. A

thousand words a minute twenty hours a day for

for the rest of our lives would not be enuf. — stop

punto. Punto e contrapunto. Senza virgola. Punto

e fine e via di seguito. senza dubbio without a

doubt. ecco la causa della luce della voce della

veloce della velocità of love.

Love is painful, and while I’m grateful for love, Caldiero points out that it won’t leave me unmarked:

When Cupid lashes out —

Dont try to protect yourself —

Bear the whipping —

No way you can come out unscathed —

Bite down hard—

When Cupid lashes out —

Some Love rewards its readers, even and especially when it makes us wince. It is an honest book. It is a profound gift of the heart from the country of love known by no man and no woman and by every man and every woman.

(Works on paper by Alex Caldiero. Thanks to Tim Abbott for the title “Moving at the Speed of Love.”)

____
Scott Abbott’s books include Repetitions and Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, both with Žarko Radaković (Punctum Books, 2013, 2014) and Wild Rides & Wildflowers: Philosophy and Botany with Bikes, with Sam Rushforth (Torrey House Press, 2014). Translations include Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers or Justice for Serbia and Handke’s play Voyage by Dugout, the Play of the Film of the War. Abbott’s meditations on the death of his brother John of AIDS, Immortal For Quite Some Time, will be published by the University of Utah Press in Fall 2016.