Review of Contrapasso by Alexandra Fössinger


‘Every night I said to myself the word paralysis […] It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work’. Joyce’s Dubliners has a lot in common with the recently published poetry collection, Contrapasso, by Alexandra Fössinger. The collection concerns itself with language’s ability to shape both lives and perceptions, through both overt and hidden meanings. Moving focus between the past, the present, and the future, the collection zeroes in on what it might mean to experience a life, yet not feel as if one is doing so. This central concern is elucidated by the collection’s title, ‘Contrapasso’. Whilst showing its indebtedness to its literary forerunners, the title’s reference to Dante signals the feeling of awaiting judgement, simultaneously rooting itself in the past and looking towards a future experience of brutal suffering. Coming from the Latin ‘contra’ and ‘patior’, meaning to ‘suffer the opposite’, the collection problematizes the ability to accurately pass judgement and discusses the feeling of being judged unfairly.  

Many of the poems in the collection focus on hearing, and, at times, the inability to do so. The first poem of the collection, ‘Birds for someone who cannot hear’, meditates on the grief of experiencing the desire to communicate when this is impossible. The poem’s message of survival is lost on the implied subject, leaving the speaker only with the birds that she uses as a medium to supplement her irrevocable loss. ‘Intermezzo’ also concerns itself entirely with hearing. The musicality of the title signals the importance of sound to its lyrics, yet the subtitles’ Italian instruction (translated as ‘barely audible’) signals the paradoxical nature of the speaker’s mission. This is a poem which takes delight in sound yet is mysteriously restricted in its capacity for expression. 

The art of seeing is also integral to many of these poems, for example ‘Eye-contact in four acts’. The poem’s very title signals its performative nature and the creation of spectacle in its lines. The poem is filled by watching and the overwhelming feeling of being watched. Much like the common cinematographic device of zooming in one subjectivity only to widen the lens to the surrounding scene, this poem charts a course from private watching to public spectacle. The poem comments on the feeling of being watched for writing poetry. This metafictional device creates an image of the poet as spectacle. The poem’s watchers are an example of Fössinger’s excellent blending of the mundane with the metaphysical. This is a collection in which ‘Gods’ and the builders on ‘the yellow scaffold’ are treated with an even hand, becoming undistinguishable from each other. 

I would go so far as to implore all readers of this review to immediately stop what they are doing and look up this collection. Throughout, Fössinger expertly blends the metaphysical and the mundane, abilities and limitations, judgement, and celebration. Amongst other central concerns, many of these poems speak intimately about the process of writing poetry, making the collection essential reading for any poet. At The Gentian, we are incredibly proud to have been even a footnote to the story of Fössinger’s truly inspiring poetic journey.

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