by James Sale Alessio Zanelli is a fascinating poet, and probably a fascinating man as well. This is his sixth collection of poems and part of his well-publicised and unique charm is that he is an Italian who writes creatively in the English language. This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, and I cannot, off-hand, think of one major poet who has done this in English. Joseph Conrad is, perhaps, the nearest in his Heart of Darkness, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and virtually a prose poem, so rhythmical and beautiful are its cadences—yet still, not poetry. So Zanelli is not lacking in ambition. His collection, The Secrets of Archery, contains some 50 poems, half perhaps of Dante’s 100 Cantos, and a clue to what this is about is contained in the epigraph: "Fundamentally the marksman aims at himself," from Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki. Suzuki, of course, was the author of many books, but perhaps most famously, his Manual of Zen Buddhism is a classic of its type. And so we come across two related points here: first, that the secret of the archery is directed at oneself; second, that not only has Zanelli abandoned the Italian language for his creative work, but it would appear—from reading the book—that he has abandoned his native religion too. For his poetry is suffused with a sort of Zen Buddhist style—like extended haikus—of writing; there is a gnomic, understated quality about much of it that seems very Eastern in its tone and feel. That is not to say, of course, that Zanelli eschews meter and rhyme and the technical stuff so beloved of SCP readers. Indeed, Zanelli is a highly technical writer; perhaps a grammatical and linguistic perfectionist. I was extremely impressed by his use of the subjunctive, which I thought beyond many English writers, and this technical ability comes most to the fore when he writes in a formal way. Here, for example, is a rather brilliant example of his deploying active and passive verb forms: Culloden Moor At last they met. No sound. Arrays deployed. It was the perfect day—no haze, no shine. Long minutes lapsed before the bagpipes trilled. By noon it all ran smooth. Forlorn and void. No banner waved. No circle stood. No line. With peace and level smoke the field was filled. Culloden Moor was where in 1745 the English army destroyed the Scottish army and the hopes of the House of Stewart—the Pretenders, Bonnie Prince Charlie—from ever gaining access to the British throne. But notice the metrical weaving and the way the rhymes cut across the stanzas; this is very skillful. But more than that: note how the first stanza ends on an active verb, "trilled," but the second, when all the devastation has been done and peace only remains, changes to a passive verb, "was filled." It’s a small point, but it’s a form of mimesis; this is really high level writing. But that said, and there are other finely written formal poems, but for my tastes there are too many of the formless, rhyme-less sort of modern poems where we get the "Buddhist" observation leading to some apercu which poses as closure. The poetry is full of ‘minor events and little things’ but this is not a virtue. Take, "Nightcap at Bolsterstone." Bolsterstone is a village in South Yorkshire. The poem starts: Between the pitch-black outline of the hills and the slate-indigo bank of stratocumuli there is room for a band of clear sky, ranging from citron yellow to cherry red through hues of golden and orange. The question I ask myself—after we have done with all the fanfare of precise and accurate and so on—is: is this poetry? And my answer is that it is not: it is description. Not only is it just description, but I find myself bored by it: do I care if it’s pitch-black or salt white, slate-indigo or peacock purple, and other alternatives for all the colours? And here we come to the crunch point about what poetry is. If we take Zanelli’s word "golden" (and for our purpose here I regard gold and golden as interchangeable) and ask, what does "golden" mean? The answer is it means "golden," and that’s all it means. But let’s consider one line of real poetry to feel and see a difference: Robert Frost’s, "Nature’s first green is gold." What does "gold" mean here? Wow—so much more than a mere colour: it’s symbolic and it’s metaphorical, and so it’s charged with poetry. Large swathes of Zanelli’s work are not so charged, for all their technical excellence; observations are going on, but really there is no reason to care about them particularly. Indeed, the last eight lines of this poem show signs of strain in terms of making the narrative interesting: there are "blankly cheery faces … politely saying goodbye … and gone completely dark." For the poet in English overuse of the –ly adverbs is a sure fire sign that the language isn’t working as poetry, and so needs beefing up with these signifiers; the power of language is in verbs, not in adverbs. I feel, therefore, that much of the poetry is a kind of solipsism, and that the image of the archery is somewhat pretentious; furthermore, the Buddhist style of writing creates a kind of detachment in which one asks, does one care? One poem is called "What’s Become of the Peanut-Eyed Snowman?" Exactly—do I care? However, one place where I do care is in his poem to his wife, "Jane, If One Day." This is metrically irregular, but the conceit—of wind and doe—is so powerful and beautiful that suddenly we do. Almost unguardedly Zanelli reveals himself because of his love for his wife and this is definitely a real poem and the best in the collection. Would they all had this passion! I reach an awkward conclusion, then, in reviewing this collection. Keats observed in his revised Hyperion that: Since every man whose soul is not a clod Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved And been well nurtured in his mother tongue. The poet is somebody "well nurtured in his mother tongue," in his lingua madre. There is something very technically correct about Zanelli’s work, but I am not convinced it creates much poetry. It’s like knowing the words intellectually, but one doesn’t feel them because they don’t come from one’s mother or mother tongue. If he were to say, "I love you" to Jane in English, then that is one thing; but to say "ti amo" in Italian will have a thousand resonances which I, as an English speaker, really won’t get. Dante knew this which is why he declined to write his masterpiece in Latin, and chose his mother language. Imagine, would we still be reading his Divine Comedy now if it had been done in Latin? Could even he had got that "feeling" into the verse in Latin? I doubt it. So the awkward advice—sure to be rejected—is: write Italian poetry! Zanelli is extremely skilled, but it’s not enough in English. However, in Italian it might be just the ticket and release a vein of feeling and power that really might achieve a fresh greatness. I hope so. As I said, Zanelli is a very interesting man.