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Luigi Ballerini. Cephalonia.

Luigi Ballerini. Cephalonia. New York: The Brooklyn Rail Editions, 2016.

"There's not a shred of doubt that I am dead:" so begins Luigi Ballerini's Cephalonia, a narrative poem consisting of a dialogue or, as the poet calls it, "a two-voiced monologue" centered on the Cephalonia WWII massacre, which occurred in the days immediately following the 1943 armistice. Historically, this largest of the Ionian islands was the theater for an often forgotten tragedy that unfolded in September 1943 and saw over 5,000 Italian soldiers, mostly belonging to the 33rd Infantry Division Acqui, executed by the German forces after they refused to surrender their weapons immediately following the Allies' armistice with Italy.

In the evening of September 8, 1943, the day of the armistice, Italian soldiers situated at Cephalonia were ordered by the Italian High Command and General Badoglio to consider all German troops as hostile and that disarmament attempts by German forces should be resisted, while the incoming Germans presented an ultimatum: join the German troops and fight alongside them or surrender all weapons (with a promise of repatriation) or prepare to fight. As presented in the poem, "Colonel Hubert Lanz wrote it clearly in the leaflets: Lay down your arms, / as if it were a depositio barbae for sneaky boys in togas. We don't want / this fight. Then added coaxingly: Superior forces will destroy you all" (29). After numerous appeals to Brindisi for clear orders, which received no response, and a failed attempt at negotiation, General Antonio Gandin polled his soldiers, who decided to fight. The ensuing battles saw over 1,000 soldiers killed; following the inevitable surrender, on September 18th, Hitler issued an order stating that "because of the perfidious and treacherous behaviour on Cephalonia," no prisoners were to be taken. All surviving members of the Acqui were executed, resulting in one of the largest prisoner of war massacres of WWII: in 2001, Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi defined the choice of Gandin and his men as the first action of the Italian Resistance.

While the dramatic WWII background is clearly present in Ballerini's poem, the book, far from rehashing the historical events, addresses them through the opposing voices of an Italian soldier, Ettore B., fallen, perhaps in combat or otherwise, at Cephalonia, and a German businessman, Hans D., whose culture of contempt identifies him as indirectly responsible for the massacre. Each character, in segments of uneven length and in free verse, presents personal and social reflections on a variety of issues, from death, to love, to soccer, from historical facts contemporary to the massacre to modern-day issues. The two voices intermingle continually, creating a complex paradox in which the dramatic historical events are staged within a metaphorical soccer match, while the language variances, wholly captured by Evgenia Matt's masterful English translation, take the reader from colloquial to sublime, from technical to literary, unfolding a series of complex threads and intricate literary and historical references. Through this puzzling though enlightening "pseudo-broadcast," the poem, while inserting itself in the long tradition of European anti-militaristic literature, also carefully and relentlessly reverses some of its misleading tropes.

There is no sweetness, no comedic relapse for Ettore B., the dead soldier: he is no Captain Corelli, love is no temporary madness, and most definitely there are no mandolins. Ettore B.'s words are raw; his demise, final and hopeless. Certainly, he is very distant from Alberto Sordi in La Grande Guerra, and even more from the everlasting Good Soldier Svejk; Ettore's stance is unfiltered, at times crude, closer to the defeated Klaus Kinski in Herzog's Woyzeck than to any of the mystified soldiers of the "italiani, brava gente" mold who appear in so many WWII commentaries. In the same way, Hans D., who defines himself as "so self-absorbed and taunted, so much / like a teratologist in heat, that more I could not be even with bleach," is a character that emerges as much darker than that of the many crass businessmen who have populated Milanese literature from the late 1800s onwards. Somewhat reminiscent of Pagliarani's Pratek in The Girl Carla and Gadda's inane nouveau riche (especially those populating his Cognizione), Hans D. goes well beyond them and incorporates a "cult of contempt" that may make him close, if a comparison must be made, to the crassest, most distasteful of Fassbinder's characters. Like them, his sense of entitlement is deeply rooted in history, and because of that he becomes not only an individual voice, but a symbol of his time, one of the hollow men: "Nothing but scum are all those we met, the beaten, the half-wits killed by the disbelief that someone could have taken arms to slaughter people so" (16).

The voices of the two characters, whose thoughts are juxtaposed without any linear pattern or cause-consequence relation and become, because of this very lack of linearity, all the more tormented, are interrupted only by the appearance, twice in the poem, of a chorus of classic inspiration. In the first case, the chorus paraphrases, in hendecasyllabic metrics though not quite in sonnet form, Guido Cavalcanti's Noi sian le triste penne isbigottite, though in this case the quills themselves, and not the poet, are nearing their demise, "painfully twined and twisted" and "so close to death that nothing / is left of us" (53), and there is no redeeming hope of love to sustain the poetic argument, which remains interrupted. In the second instance, which marks the end of the poem, the ultimate loss of an impossible resolution unravels in a series of bitter couplets on the theme of retreat: "he who crafts his life, and crafts it as a game of returns, / must take part in every breakaway, and end up with a fistful /of flies [...]" (77).

The true epigram to the poem is to be found a bit earlier in the book, in the only other segment that doesn't coincide with Ettore B. or Hans D. Situated towards the end of the poem and before the second and last chorus, this segment, titled "Anonymous voices from the locker rooms" (71) consists, first, of a fragment from a letter. Just after its last line, "Darling, I want to / love you until I wear you out, if you'll forgive my boldness," unfolds what can be seen as the hidden core of the work: "There are some who crawl, who dig, who squirm, who say they're / raving mad, no longer part of this plan to adapt the world to the idea, but the smell of burning is stronger than the smell of not / knowing" (71). The inclusion, in the American edition, of the striking Black Gesture series by Robert Motherwell accentuates this very sense of sweltering that pervades the work. In the end, Cephalonia deals with traumatic content in the only way poetry can deal with it: by working materially on language and letting it unfold until it burns.

Federica Santini

Kennesaw State University
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Author:Snatini, Federica
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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