The irony of a feminist reading of ‘Shadow Whispers’ is that it was written by a man. But this may be one of the beauties of this poem, all, I believe, brought about by its ability to transcend sensibilities and achieve a ‘universal’ and timeless aura.
The poem is a veiled expression of the horrors of family violence: Adriano Bulla reinvents the curtain imagery of ‘Heav’n from Hell’, recently republished in the collection ‘Ybo’ and Other Lies’, originally a symbol of the paralysis of a mind contemplating suicide but incapable of coming to terms with it, and closely linked to the persona of ‘Ophelia’ seen as a heroine who has the courage to end her own life to allow Hamlet to carry out the impositions of fate, it now becomes the ‘bleeding veils of coarse / Corrosive cords’ that open the poem, and can be read as the indifference and silence faced by some women who are victims of violence.
The poem’s imagery is powerful, daunting and intense. There is a tragic conflict in the images and sounds presented to the reader’s mind, a conflict deriving from a struggle between the claustrophobic enclosure of what can hardly be described as a persona, rather the victim of the emotions, and the magnitude of her pain. So, the imagery connected, sometimes obliquely, with imprisonment resulting from the ‘Corrosive cords of linen stiffened / I the breath’, ‘charcoaled canvas cut / And torn by Time’, a reference to visual art as well as the suggestion of a boundary between expression and the world, which is revived a few lines later in a different situation, only to be suffocated in ’embers stifled under scars’, is linked to cosmic elements and phenomena. In fact, the ‘scars’ that stifle and half-rhyme with ‘sparks’ still alive in the dying embers offer a rare rhyme with the ‘stars’ frozen by the ‘stiffened breath’ mentioned above, which with a synonym of ‘stifled’, ‘chokes the Moon’. The earthly, very tangible pain of the victim is projected into the vastness of the universe with synaesthetic ‘blighted cries of voices / Moist with poisoned spells’.
The lesson learnt from Bulla’s previous series, known as ‘flicker poems’, where the metaphysical conceit was stripped to the bone to lend itself to minimalist poemettes to dwell on almost empty pages that act like sounding chambers for similar yet clashing sounds has been fully digested by the author and reinvented in this new series of poems, enhanced, thickened and expanded.
Bulla has been likened to a modern metaphysical poet in the past and I believe this new series which has started to sprout like mushrooms on the Facebook page of ‘Ybo’ and Other Lies’, a rather rare event from a hardly prolific poet, confirms it.
The structure of ‘Shadow Whispers’, which is reflected in the other poems therewith pays tribute to T. S. Eliot’s ‘Prelude’, confirming the huge influence of the Old Possum on Bulla’s poetics, already clear in ‘Heav’n from Hell’. These poems disturb the reader by presenting a disjointed structure: most lines are iambic tetrameters, but this rhythm is forcefully broken on several occasions. In ‘Shadow Whisper’, the line starting with the cosmic spondaic ‘Black holes’ and continuing with the alliterative description of these stellar ogres as ‘devouring dry, deserted / Worlds’ has an extra syllable at the end, however, the reader is tricked into not noticing this by the trochaic start of the next line, which, continuing with this haunting meter in a painful moan that floats on the alliteration and assonance of dark sounds, misses out the final unstressed syllable as if to balance the previous line and stress the feeling of loss left by ‘woes’:
‘Black holes devouring dry, deserted
Worlds with wanton words in woes’
The reader is forced to pause in preparation for the forthcoming cry of desperation by a rare caesura after ‘dry’.
Just like ‘Preludes’, ‘Shadow Whisper’ is striving to find a rhyme pattern, but while Eliot plays heavily with this experiment in his poem by rhyming lines whose meter is different, Bulla sparsely hints at rhymes, whilst in other recent poems he hides them with internal rhymes matching end rhymes: ‘stars’ and ‘scars’ are too far within the poem to be clearly matching, but a lame rhyme, ‘sparks’, precedes the latter to create a wave of assonance to bind the images. ‘Spells’ at the end of a tetrameter half rhymes with the following monometric ‘Of Hell’ in symmetry with the concluding couplet, where the pattern is reversed and the rhyme is, finally, full:
Beyond the curtain no one cares.’
Unlike many of his poems, ‘Shadow Whisper’ does find a resolution, but it is a dire one: the victim comes to terms with the prospect that her excruciating pain, no matter how powerful and how far-reaching, will go unheard. The final line is chilling.
Bulla has been experimenting with language from the beginning of his career as a poet with the series ‘Ybo’, which plays with the sounds of words and their appearance on the page. In ‘Shadow Whisper’, as well as in his other recent poems, he plays with grammar: these poems tend to be mainly made up of one single, long, super-subordinated sentence which spans the whole poem or most of it, enhanced by sustained enjambement (there is only one comma in the whole of ‘Shadow Whisper’) which grinds the reader down in an extensive grammatical exercise in the attempt to go past the effect of the poem and make sense of it. It certainly is not a normal feature of English, rather, the grammar is Latin, not a surprise considering the deep influence of Milton on this living poet and the fact that both seem to have a passion for the language of the Roman Empire. This development of his poetics is a natural one, and it allows to ensnare the reader in a labyrinthine read that adds to the power of his poetry: the reader is assaulted by extremely powerful imagery while lost in a text whose syntax is overpowering. Bulla does not pander to the reader, he does not please the reader, he assaults the reader and forces powerful emotions on her or him. The voice of his poems is almost tyrannical, which is an impressive feature, especially considering the high level of empathy Bulla has demonstrated for situations that are not necessarily tied to his experience, and ‘Shadow Whisper’ is a prime example of this: there is no doubt that the speaker empathises with the victim, there is no doubt that the poet was struck by powerful emotions, possibly simply aroused by Kamille Freske’s homonymous painting and felt compelled to divulge this feeling by all means. In so doing, I feel Bulla has put masculinity, as traditionally understood, at the service of a very feminine predicament. In this way, the irony mentioned in my introductory statement is resolved. If it is true that ‘the feminine sentence’ does not need to be written by women, Bulla’s ‘Shadow Whisper’ is as feminine as it gets, intense, complex, compelling and deeply poetic.