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Almost Like Home

Almost Like Home

Author: Rita Tognini

Publisher: WA Poets Publishing

Published: June 2024

‘So, yes, I agree, without the stars
there’s no Dante…’
John Kinsella, Canto: polystyrene soliloquy

Rita Tognini’s poems punch holes in the night sky. Truth shines through. Almost Like Home is a knockout, and Dennis Haskell is right to write, on the back cover, that it’s ‘a poised collection of intelligence, sensory vivacity and ongoing curiosity.’

In her own introduction to Almost Like Home, the Italian-born Tognini reveals that she started writing poetry in her late teens (although she arrived in Australia with her family at the age of six, she moved to Perth in her late teens, too – a coincidence?), and that she wanted to begin her collection with poems about language learning because, ‘As a migrant who learned English as a third language, I felt compelled to explore that experience, especially from a child’s perspective.’

(Tognini’s interest in languages is also technical: she has a PhD in applied linguistics.)

What unites these poems, previously published over a number of years in isolation and now cleverly curated into five sections, is this fascination, almost obsession, with language; but also with concepts of place, home, family, history, memory and identity.

Sometimes it’s as though Tognini, knowing more than one home and more than one language, is seeking an ‘authentic’ home via language, destined to be forever belonging-adjacent. In the title poem, about poet Salvatore Quasimodo’s daily train journey from Milan to Sondrio in the Italian Alps, she writes:
“He alights, his mind
in a place of ‘magpies,
salt and eucalyptus’,
walks out to the mountain town
that some days
feels almost like home.’

What a strange accidental evocation, in Quasimodo’s quoted words, of Western Australia! And how like a mirror of Tognini’s putative meditations.

These poems are about a different kind of loss, too, one inevitable for those of us who have lived long enough in the world. But again, language still shares the stage.

For example, take the last stanza of Learning the Language, which like the later sequence, Elegies, is particularly poignant:

‘”Thank you for everything,” were her last words
to me. I wish I had been there an hour later
to cradle her last breath
with a plangent ninnananna.
And to whisper—Amen and così sia.’

Also: the tension, here and throughout the entire poem, between love and a kind of emotional exile, which recalls these lines from Pasolini’s Prayer to My Mother:
‘You’re irreplaceable. And because you are,
the life you gave me is condemned to loneliness.’ (trans. Norman MacAffee)

Elsewhere, there’s more of a lightness, a playfulness (especially with language). In Season of Silence birds ‘dressed like trapeze artists’ links up, many lines further down, with two girls who ‘came with a rope of words.’ And in Hansel and Gretel in Australia, where she writes ‘Hungry for meaning/we gorged that lexicon/ grew fat on her vernacular,’ the assonance between ‘fat’ and ‘vernacular’ unites two seemingly disparate words in a more local and musical way.

One more: in A Lover’s Guide to Musical Terms, Tognini riffs off Italian musical terms such as pianissimo, andante, pizzicato, attacca, andante, cantabile, and, my favourite, codetta:
‘Ah, the sting! The unexpected turn,
the ritornello that impertinently comes
again, provokes, allows us to discern
once more and return our delights.’

There are also the semi-ekphrastic poems in Family Album (the gorgeous photographs are included), and Script, a villanelle on an ancient artefact, a lice comb fashioned from an ivory tusk which bears the inscription, in ‘an ancient Judaic tongue’: ‘May this tusk root out lice in light and in gloam.’

And so much more to enjoy here, to savour (devour!). But to fast-forward to the penultimate poem in the book, Dante and the Blue Whale Skeleton, we find Tognini at her most metaphysical, in the poetic as well as in the philosophical sense, the arching skeleton of a blue whale suspended like a huge memento mori above a lecture audience rhyming with ‘the spheres of paradise/that curve over Dante/in the fresco, on screen.’

Formally, thematically, sensuously and lyrically impressive, Almost Like Home (re)presents a poet at the height of her powers, the disarming ease and fluency of the writing freighting home complex, shimmering webs of thought and feeling.

Reviewed by Will Yeoman

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