Lessons in Patrizia Cavalli’s “The Keeper”

 Written by: Mia Yanosy

This past Christmas, I received a copy of My Poems Won’t Change the World, a collection of Patrizia Cavalli’s poems in translation. I read it over winter break while sitting on the radiator in my living room, watching snow fall, and I often found myself getting up to write down my own lines. This is how I know when I vibe with a writer: by how much their language makes me hear voices in my own head.

Image of Patrizia Cavalli's poetry collection
Source: Mia Yanosy

I originally planned to review the entire collection, but one particular poem resonated with me more than others. “The Keeper,” translated by Gini Alhadeff, is one of the only titled poems in the collection. It is also the longest poem at eight pages. I didn’t understand “The Keeper” the first time around, but I found myself pulling the book from its spot in the pile on my bedside table, reaching for the poem again and again.

Cavalli/Alhadeff explore the quest for the extraordinary in free verse, oscillating between simple, image driven lines, grounding the reader “on a terrace straining towards the sea,” and rich language which probes at the speaker’s desires, asking questions like, “where was the sumptuous heat / the glowing light that blunts the gaze”?

Image of the sun setting over the ocean
Source: Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash.

Though it is a poem, “The Keeper” isn’t so different from a coming of age story. It follows a child who has a knack for unlocking tricky drawers and doors with bent wires. As the speaker grows older, they find they also have a talent for writing poetry, and through their words they try to access what is behind metaphorical doors. Much to the speaker’s disappointment, behind every door are simple things: chilly kitchens, TV sets, families. But the speaker refuses to accept this ordinariness.

In the second part of the poem, the Keeper of the Door appears to the speaker on a summer night by the sea. She seems to materialize out of the darkness but does not “say hello, or introduce herself.” The speaker is immediately seduced by the Keeper because she guards the “Door Sublime”–a door which the speaker eventually learns doesn’t exist. But perhaps the Keeper herself is the ultimate door, the thing which the speaker longs to open and see what’s inside.

Image of blue door in concrete building
Source: Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash.

This is a poem which offers deep self-examination—my favorite kind. When she needs to, Cavalli gets right to the point, abandoning the narcotic imagery of “September gulfs / almost milky, and still” so that the speaker can admit “I was guilty.”

Cavalli/Alhadeff offers a speaker who represents all of us, at some point in our lives, guilty of reaching desperately for something to make our life extraordinary, only to find ourselves clutching a pocketful of air.

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