Introduction: Light of Memory


In one of his most well known poems, My Lighted Lanterns (Le Mie Lampare), Marcello Fabbri describes his poetry as light moving on the surface of a "black mirror of dead waters:"

My words are lighted lanterns
mysteriously rocking
on a black mirror of dead waters.

The "dead waters" refer to the dark world of blindness into which he was so unexpectedly propelled on Christmas Eve 1970; the mysterious light by which he has learned to navigate those "dead waters" is his poetry.

The poem's central image is drawn from Fabbri's memories of the summer seashore. The "lighted lanterns" are the bright lights shining on the water from small fishing boats at night. Seen from shore, those tiny circles of light scattered here and there across the glittering black water are a mysterious and strangely evocative sight, one which Fabbri has been able to transform from his memory into an equally evocative poem.

In the poem's concluding lines, Fabbri writes:

But still I stay,
still hold the helm
of this old fishing boat
docked at the quay,
as if navigating
the horizon of the stars
on a solitary course
that I have charted only
by the rocking
of my lanterns.

"My Lighted Lanterns" suggests to us some of the most significant aspects of Fabbri's poetry: the solitary nature of his struggle with blindness; the illuminating quality of his memories; and above all the healing power of his words. Fabbri has described the poem in this way: "It is a dream of the poet who still doesn't know that he is a poet, but inside he needs to live in a dream of his own words, and those lights fascinate him as the lights on a fishing boat fascinate the fish."

Knowing the particular facts of a poet's life is seldom essential to understanding his work, but in the case of Fabbri, the facts of his life form the very core of his poetry. In that respect, it is significant that, although Marcello Fabbri was a talented artist at the time of his accident, the gift of poetry came to him only late in life and only after that fateful Christmas Eve.

In retrospect there seems to be a certain fateful inevitability to the events which gave birth to Fabbri's poetry, for he was literally plunged into the darkness on Christmas Eve 1970 when he briefly dozed off at the wheel of his car and crashed into a wall. The glasses he was wearing shattered in his eyes, and he was left completely blind in one eye and partially blind in another.

After a period of recovery in the hospital, Fabbri traveled to France where he had every reason to expect that a renowned French surgeon would be able to permanently secure his partial sight. Because of the extreme fragility of his damaged eye, Fabbri went by train to minimize the possibility of cold drafts or unexpected movements, but his train was derailed by an avalanche. In the impact he was hurled across the train car and, like the other passengers, was forced to wait for several hours in the cold for rescue, a rescue from which he emerged permanently blind in both eyes.

At the time of his automobile accident, Fabbri was 47 years old. He had already known considerable hardship in his life: as a young man he had been forced to spend what would have otherwise been his university years in military action and in a German prison camp; after the war he had returned home to find himself surrounded by much of the same hunger and deprivation he had known during the war; and, although he eventually found employment, he was only able to obtain his university degree in law after an exhausting period of intense study when he was not at his job.

By the time of the accident, however, Fabbri's life had become both comfortable and successful; it was Christmas Eve, and he was driving home to his family in Florence. Surely he could not have imagined that one brief lapse in concentration, a few sleepy seconds at the wheel of his car, would plunge him into a darkness from which he would never again be able to return to the world as he knew it.

Some years later Fabbri was able to describe his accident in the poem, "For A Tear:" the wall coming up suddenly before him like an earthquake; his glasses shattering in his eyes; seeing at first only a world of "broken blues" and then the sun "wrapped in black."

For the first few years after his accident Fabbri was forced to concentrate primarily on the practical aspects of living. He learned to "see" his house, for example, by counting the number of steps between rooms and touching the walls for tactile clues to his location. By constantly questioning family and friends for detailed descriptions of the activity around him, he also learned how to "see" specific sounds.

During periods of solitude Fabbri relied on his memories to pass the time. One afternoon three years after the accident he began to think about the seashore where he had spent so many summers of his life. In that moment he was painfully aware that the only vision remaining to him was an auditory one; he would have to learn to transpose the sounds of the ocean into an interior vision of his own making.

Then, unexpectedly, he began to hear the sounds of the ocean: his memories became sounds, then words, and then his first lines of poetry:

The sand rises in the wind,
I hear it,
I can feel it scratching against my teeth,
the burning shore touches my feet,
too hot to bear,
in the wind
the wave shortens its beat,
I hear it
it lifts itself with a slow motion,
I hear it,
as it roars and slides

That was the beginning. Then slowly, step by step and day by day, the poems emerged, and a new world began to take shape. Many of Fabbri's poems speak of his bitter struggle to come to terms with the reality of a permanent and total blindness. His first book of poetry, Stone Bread, published in 1978, takes its title from a poem about that struggle, "The Time of Stone Bread."

In "The Time of Stone Bread," Fabbri metaphorically compares his new life of blindness to the daily taking of a bread as hard as stone. He begins the poem by describing his youthful years as those "filled with the careless gift of milk and honey." He goes on to describe his battle to come to terms with both the physical and spiritual aspects of his blindness, during a time in which he stubbornly made his bread of stone and drank his poisoned wine; at the poem's conclusion, he offers us the image of himself in a "useless corner near the fire, alone and patient." Other poems such as "A House For The Others," "A Fragile Balance," and "My Lucky Fortunello" also expand on Fabbri's experiences during this period of adjustment. "My Lucky Fortunello" describes the early days of his blindness when those around him seemed to doubt his capabilities, and he found himself suffering from an intense sense of isolation.

"Canal Lights" is another poem written out of the struggles of those early years; it is a terse poem, rich with imagery expressing a vision of cruelty in the natural world in which there is killing without pity and the apparent victory of evil over innocence.

While Fabbri's struggles with his blindness form one of the central themes of his work, the transformative power of his poetry also seems to have enabled Fabbri to overcome his blindness, freeing him in his later poems to capture the variety of experience with his art.

Thus there are poems in which Fabbri describes the Tuscan countryside as he hears it in the present, and in many of these poems Fabbri uses the colors of the painter as well as sound to recreate the landscape. In the poem, "Winter in Chianti," for example, Fabbri writes of the "pale purple wash" of the hills and the "yellowish" day visible through "the stretched rip in the constant grays of covering cloud." In still other poems Fabbri writes about experiences common to us all: young love, family, children, growing.

When Marcello Fabbri speaks of his poetry, he says, "I did not discover poetry; it discovered me." Today it is Fabbri's poetry which is being discovered by readers in Europe and the United States. Fabbri's published works of poetry and prose, already well known in Italy, include his latest book of poems, To The Unknown Enemy published in 1992. This book was honored by the city of Florence with the "Fiorino D' Oro" in 1992.

In To The Unknown Enemy, Fabbri describes the devastation of war through poems which seem to transform suffering into healing as in the title poem where Fabbri turns the horror of killing into a prayer of forgiveness from the young enemy soldier he never had a chance to know.

Fabbri is often praised for his use of strong, clear, contemporary language, but his poetry is propelled by the authenticity and power of his spiritual journey out of the darkness into the light. As he writes in the title poem of his 1985 collection, The Sun on the Stairs :

On my darkstairs
step by step
day after day.

In the night of that steep slope
how hard to grope
and harder still to stumble,
but yesterday
on my dark stairs
beneath each step
I found the sun.

Marcello Fabbri's rebirth from darkness into a new understanding and faith is the spiritual center of his poetry. But it is his poetry that illuminates the experience that he offers to us the experience of his descent into blindness and his arduous ascent into, finally, a kind of joy.

© olivepress 1998