Poetry Review: “All the Eyes That I Have Opened” — Beautifully Clear Sighted

By Norman Weinstein

Franca Mancinelli’s poetry refreshingly interweaves personal, historical, cultural, and ecological themes.

All the Eyes That I Have Opened by Franca Mancinelli. Translated by John Taylor. Black Square Editions, 246 pages. $25.

Take a long look at the front cover design. A large hand (its possessor out of view) holds a flower stem. Where flowers would be expected blooming at the stem ends there are eyeballs. Below the graphic is the book title, which could be interpreted to mean that the poetry in this collection is by a surrealist poet who, with braggadocio, is suggesting that her poetry will open the eyes of previously blind readers.

These are understandable assumptions about the book – and completely incorrect.

The hand holding this eyeful of a bouquet is a section of an early Renaissance painting of Saint Lucy, a martyred Catholic saint, by Francesco del Cossa. It is a portrait of an attractive, saintly young woman who is turning her all-knowing gaze to the eye-flowers she holds. The picture, completed in 1473, is readily found online. It is occasionally on exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. And the book’s title? It does not signify the claim of a boastful poet who is want to open the eyes of blind readers. It refers to a voice from an oracular tree heard by Mancinelli, words that she has drawn on for the title of this extraordinary book of lyric poems.

Mancinelli has organized her poems into seven sections: “Jungle,” “Master Trees,” “Gleams,” “Curved Mirror,” “Three Syllables of Silence,” “Fragments for a Dedication,” and “Diary of a Passage.” Poems that focus on her key subjects appear in more than one section. For example, one of the volume’s major concerns – the fate of migrants crossing the treacherous border between modern day Croatia and Serbia – can be found in the poems in the book’s opening and closing sections. Other areas of interest involve the “eyes of trees” (where bark displays eye-like features formed as small branches fell from the trunk), the tale of Saint Lucy, the patron saint who offers spiritual light to those suffering from eye disease or blindness, and Mancinelli’s personal memories of her romances. Finally, and one of her most emotionally compelling, is how she taps into a child’s vision of transformative moments of beauty and meaning in nature.

What Mancinelli does magnificently in these poems is to interweave her conflicting interests: her personal life, the life of migrants, the life of a spiritually martyred young saint gifted with redemptive agency, a child’s wonder about nature’s flux, and apprehension for our natural world, currently undergoing a devastating ecological crisis. Her strategy is to treat the poems as palimpsests. That may suggest they are difficult but, complex as this book’s architecture can be, most of the verse here is terse, simply worded, imagistically lucid, and rhythmically powerful, in both the original Italian (presented in this dual-language edition) and in John Taylor’s luminous English translation.

Here are examples culled from various poems in different sections:


all the eyes that I have opened

are the branches that I have lost


I’ve seen the eyes of the trees



within the thicket a jolt

of glimmer left – to watch over us

like heavy rain waiting



how I arrived here, I don’t know. Someone asks me for a ticket.

I close my eyes. The train keeps gliding, very slowly, through the

darkness – I repeat a single sentence – become sound, breath,

the breathing that moves through me asks to have body. It asks

to have a place. Or to go through the space between the eyes, wel-

comed by the smallest and meekest animals.


Most of the poems in All the Eyes That I Have Opened resemble the first and second poems above. They are short lyrical meditative poems. There’s a sense they have been chiseled out of marble. Mancinelli’s vocabulary is deceptively elemental – but note how many of these simple words resonate with multiple meanings.

It should be noted that the poems expressing the experiences of migrants in crisis use the kind of long lines associated with prose poetry.These pieces resemble the twisting geographic by ways of the immigrant experience —  or mirror discursive talk about unanchored travels.

Below is Mancinelli’s poetic meeting with St. Lucy. Here she refers to another painting of Saint Lucy, not the one on the book’s cover. It is a likely a portrait painted by Domenico Beccafumi from 1521, with the saint’s eyes displayed like delicacies on a dinner plate:


I look at your eyes on the plate

grains of a vibrating face

open like the blue

over the harvested field


Essential to Mancinelli’s poetic gift is her ability to transform static pictures into rhythmically charged images that convey the transition from loss to renewal.  A St. Lucy legend about how her eyes were gouged out drifts into a motif that pays homage to the saint’s healing power today. Migrant tales evoke a life on the road that is tantalized by faint promises of stable homes. Mancinelli’s childhood perceptions of the life-enhancing transformations of plants and animals morph into her adult, very ecological consciousness of the current global crisis as opportunity.

Is Mancinelli “one of the most compelling new poetic voices in Italian poetry?” as the book jacket proclaims? The poetry of Italian women has known two outstanding eras. One is an ongoing achievement that began in the mid-twentieth century. The other golden era will be much less familiar to American poetry lovers: the Renaissance. Perhaps the greatest poet of that period was Gaspara Stampa, whose romantic lyricism Mancinelli — in her own modernist way — reconfigures and echoes.

Stampa left hundreds of poems unpublished at the time of her tragic death at the age thirty-one. We only know of her poetry because of her sister’s arduous efforts at publishing her verse. Mancinelli owes recognition among English-only readers to Taylor, a poet-translator who displays an extraordinary sensitivity to the nuances in Mancinelli’s Italian. Also worthy of high praise: his introductory essay in All the Eyes That I Have Opened is a model of how a translator can illuminate, with considerable panache, cross-cultural and cross-lingual issues.

Editor’s Note: Here you can see Mancinelli read some of the volume’s poems in Italian with Taylor concurrently reading his English translations.

Norman Weinstein is a poet, translator, and critic. His books include A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz and No Wrong Notes, a book of prose poetry. He can be reached at nweinstein25@gmail.com.

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