Penultimates are the next to last, the people you may consider at the bottom of the ladder but Francesco Forlani, rejecting the finality of failure, gives them the humanising hope of being one step up from the bottom, hopefully on the way up. The penultimate will not cross the line first, but damn it, won’t be last.
Francesco Forlani is a philosopher, a writer and a poet who grew up in Caserta and now lives in Paris. He wrote this collection of poems during a winter of daily commuting from the French capital to Normandy, where he merged with an army of penultimates meeting at dawn, hanging in there to crack-on for another day and then again at night, knackered, on the way home staring at the moon.
I met Francesco at school in Naples at fifteen. Like many at Nunziatella, he remains a lifelong friend. I felt honoured, if a little apprehensive at the challenge, when he asked me to translate these penultimate works.
Note: clicking on each poem’s number allows you to toggle between the original Italian and the English versions.
It’s really not that much what the penultimate
requests of things, a clue sometimes, a sign
from here to there in life yet unequivocal
not only showing where, how far you’re heading
but like a wedge – precise – to hold the door to living.
A smile will be enough for the penultimate
rushed past, sat at the stop or in the clanging
of carriage doors, an advert on a billboard
which unexpected overlaps your thoughts
a holiday afar, a view, the lines of René Char.
He needs such precious little the penultimate
to feel if just a crumb, part of this world
and so three rose buds, on the platform’s heavy winter
of heavy snow, whisper hang on, Spring’s round the corner.
Today the penultimates seemed to notice a sharper pitch
as the birds adjusted their tune to light and season changing
so, waiting for the train, there were more than the usual lot
at the head or at the back of the queue, in random order.
Now we are all aboard and the woolly heads of men,
the rattling of the carriage going from under to over ground,
that tumult – I tell you – sounded like the echo of mine carts
or of escalators in Montparnasse, or even lifts
but not the vertical ones, those on a slope from a to b.
The women’s scarves, in this dark dawn, the diligence
of knots reveals the shy trace of a present
with no memory of the face and yet without oblivion,
something akin to the soft fragrance of trees
outside the house, to the sharper singing of birds.
I noticed on the way, in the commute
that windows on the train would let you see
the prayers of penultimates, transparent.
The heads flopped at an angle
or raised a tiny bit
above the chin, of passengers
in rows, in squares of four,
in aisles, on tip-up seats.
I noticed that their eyes
– half-shut but not asleep –
conveyed the grace of icons,
of concentrated words – perhaps
graffiti from before – addressed
at the Right Honourable penultimates.
…Yes, Sir! Because for every caste
– be pure or not – there’s someone
who’d defend the rights of others,
who’d be worshipped and they worship,
eyes half-shut, in the commute
which from Nation rolls into Montparnasse
– Parnassus mount, the realm of gods penultimate.
I hadn’t realised that even objects
could be penultimate, possess a time,
not simple durability, but immanence
of living creature, limitless, sublime.
At 1 2 7, Rue de Charenton,
there balanced, in a corner, on the pavement
a little mirror from an unknown bathroom
and on it, with no stamp of postal payment,
a letter, like a passport for the dump.
It wasn’t shattered, wasn’t broken, wasn’t scratched,
nor had it blackened corners like the one
at home, whose doors would hardly slide
and often they got stuck
as they got shut, imprisoning inside
the razor and the toothpaste and the muck.
Immaculate, that object with its missive,
seemed unaware of any change of place,
and now, no longer captive to its owner,
but guardian to our steps, its shiny face
seemed happy, there, reflecting in the corner.
It happens that perception is betrayed
and the meaning of the rose and its perfume get lost
– a rose is still a rose! –
and you’re off with the fairies where fairy winds blow.
The penultimate man was sleeping rough,
curled up on the pavement by the window
of the pharmacy, lit-up but only by half,
on one side of his body, as he lay asleep.
Oh, to see the surprise in his face at the rise
not of the random sound of horns
but of that inner voice which warns,
yells, lies in your dreams and wakes you.
In the heart of night you jitter
at generic sudden noises,
at people’s voices, typically
but tonight no one’s around.
Apart from the moon by the roof on the sky,
apart from the shadow of me walking by.
It’s at the end of the day, just after agreeing with each other: “we’ll fight, they’ll beat us or we’ll win” – that this thought comes to my head, as they serve me seared meat in salsa verde on a lava plate with a glass of red; in dignified, quiet solitude, I become aware of them, soldiers prisoners of their uniforms who observe me and seem to say that the front line, literally, is what’s in front not at the back and then I then start thinking about the many, too many, younger than you, who did not manage to cross the river, to stay alive.
Maybe we should stop referring to life in military jargon and surrender to things in the natural order in which they talk to us, generally towards the end of the day.
They are seated, the penultimates,
at half past five AM, on crowded benches,
before the train sails off, rolling away
transporting the first cargo of the day
of cleaning ladies to their seas of glass and flooring,
of workers to the factory, of employees to cubicles
no questions asked, there’s no special request.
A man wearing a suit,
what striking care he took
shining his boot in morning darkness.
It’s strange to see the train finally arrive
and, empty, carry on sliding away
on to the terminal, reverting soon our way
as if it needed that run-up for a purpose –
to welcome us – reminds me of a doctor
who, when the practice opens,
before he gets to wearing￼ his white coat,
utters good morning in the waiting room
and waves to patients as if to say
it’s time, let’s rock this boat!
There were many penultimates today
and New Year’s confidence had given all of us
straight backs and steady postures not yet crushed
by early hours, by the sound of bells on top of towers.
I recognised, along the road
before our journeys merge, by the front doors,
the silent pines no longer full of lights,
on top of one another as if sleeping, as if holding
the dreams of children tight within their branches,
imaginary nests, a fill of hope
gift-wrapped among the folds of every present.
A fill of hope, a sign with which we too
take on the world, today, fancying our chances.
Tonight after dinner, I was walking back along the road which, from the Château de Diane, takes you to the school where I teach. Due to the strikes they gave me a room in a serviced apartment. I therefore tracked back along the path I normally traverse the opposite way but in the same instant of light suspended between dawn, when I generally arrive, and sunset, a time you never quite know but you recognise from how knackered you feel – an end of day. And while pacing across the silent courtyard which but an hour ago was alive with voices and screams, animated by tens and tens of coloured school bags, legs, jumpers, I thought about all those times I happened to walk on a beach at night, deserted, out of season, or across a neglected football pitch, any place in my memories – really – inhabited by the dual presence of what was previously full and what now appeared totally empty. In a manner similar to when we visited museums without a soul in sight for whatever reason, I clearly sensed how much more things can tell us, as compared to how much we are able to perceive. Because life is noisy and all that revolves around it is a mirror.
Even you, penultimate moon,
Keep on hanging over the roof
like a big fat comma
pregnant with the paucity of time.
Now, I happen to recall that night
when the blanket of the homeless man
stretched on the pavement, on the vent
above the metro puffing at all hours,
had been altered by your beams
which made it clean and gave it gravitàs,
a mask resembling that of Baudelaire
inside the cemetery at Montparnàsse,
and it was beautiful, just as the carriage
was crossing Normandy’s uncertain border,
to raise my eyes to heaven, give a nod
to you, o moon in darkness, mother, god.
My dear penultimates I need to tell you
that the wind on some stretches of road
at this time appears to relay the whispers
from the front doors of houses
and that at Ville Lumière you’ll find
tableaux vivants in icy cold floating around
white clouds of smoke from the vents on the ground.
Right now, two friends lie on the street
just as we used to lie when we were kids
head to toe, toe to head,
like shoes arranged on top of one another,
in congruence, to win a bit of space.
A little further, a few steps from a billboard,
two lovers catch a nap over a mattress
imperial size, they’re frozen in position
– except to catch a breath –
their limbs impersonating tangled threads.
Then, as I walk slowly down the stairs
in the faint yellow of a neon sign,
I ask myself when did it happen
that the volcano set on fire the bodies
and left no trace of grace under its ash.
Pavement weeping gold
cascade of warmth the blanket
seeking a body
Trafic ralenti, perturbé, inexistant says the voice
at Dugommier, loudspeaking to the platform
jam-packed with double numbers of penultimates
in disarray, the time slots all messed up
because of signal failure at Étoile.
I imagined then (when on the tracks appeared
the usual train and we all squeezed in on board)
that, as we went, the ringtones would go off
like fireworks, chasing after cleaning ladies
in breach of contract, brickies not on site
and teachers not in school, clerks not around
– who will administer the time of men and women?!?
Instead, the silence – broken at each stop
by beeping doors – suggested no one from the world
above us seemed to be concerned at all
or realise the presence, never mind the absence,
of us penultimates shrink-wrapped in non-existence.
When it comes to love I have, at times, the impression that the collection of one’s love stories is nothing but an attempt to forge the weapons that, in the first big story, could have saved us from defeat. And, year after year, the more experience increases the knowledge of our own invincibility, the more we know with extreme clarity that no enemy will ever engage with us again in full-on war.
C’est l’heure! C’est l’heure!
seems to say from the top of the tower
the clock which dominates the street
and the Twelfth District’s town hall.
At the call of the register, no sign of
white people, cleaning ladies,
couriers or commuters –
just factory workers and the skin is black
I notice a gentleman not very far
looking quite normal at first
even at that minimal hour
were it not for the bags which he’s wearing for socks
puffing out of the edge of his shoes.
The knees of a builder
against mine in equal measure
stuck in the flux of passengers
on the first metro.
And we stand by each other
students and workers
like hands of a clock
a clock which is set
on the exact half of the day
(and of the night)
C’est l’heure! C’est l’heure!
So I think of the runner
brushed past at the crossroad but now
and of the watch on her elbow – it too
turned from a keeper of time
to a bookkeeper of steps.
In the hour
when rats are in charge
and the echo of steps doesn’t wake
or scare them out of their slits
dotted along the tarmac of the boulevards
you can hear the prayers of fools
to the stars no longer in the sky
a lament which is a form of worship
a lullaby which is a form of wardship
to protect the sleep of children as they lie
tucked in their beds in the buildings all around
cradled by nightlights with their gentle beams
but it is they, the fools, who guard their dreams.
At dawn the eyesight of penultimates is low on colour
as objects wrap their pastel hues in layers
of sepia, blurring edges, blurring faces
as you walk in the street – a tramp mad as a hatter
asks for the time, an old trick for a coin or a minute of chatter.
Meanwhile, seasons change with changes of light,
time-thrifty, dark-devouring, ever rushing
at daybreak, transforming the street corner, the bus stop,
the front door, the edge of the wall, the silent bookshop.
But on a building it unveils the vowel-poem,
kaleidoscope of colours, letters, sounds
that whet the mouth and make emotions roam.
A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu, voyelles
marry the light and make the objects follow words,
the red of the red rose, the black of the black stall.
And bright, they spell amore in my soul.
Today, in the first carriage of penultimates
a fragrance was the imaginary driver
in the kind of journey which resembles
those moments when the mind meanders
until a random thought becomes alive,
shy, tentative at first seeking a link
on the chain of providence that everything connects,
then firmly clutching it, yet even stronger
than the fragrance of cologne
was the memory of the sound
of his cheek which gleamed and wobbled
from the happy slap of fingers open wide
as you may slap the muscle on your thigh.
And then his face – my dad’s – smiley and free
reveals from equal distance, in the mirror,
a young lad and an old man, him and me.
I went to a birthday dinner with my buddy Skillo and the guests were nice. An architect from Palermo told me: I am a right-wing activist. Then we ate his amazing casserole and while we were chomping away he declared that his grandad had served in the “X (Decima – Tenth) M.A.S.”. I told him that the soldiers in the Decima had been first and foremost navy special forces, then fascists. I soon said my goodbyes because life’s schedule imposed a parsimony of time. He then insisted that I took some of his casserole – which I had scoffed with gusto – with me and prepared a strange wrapping with a plastic bag and a double paper plate to cover it all. I just about managed to catch the 26 to Nation. We were at a crossroads of the important “rues” in Belleville, Rue de l’Hermitage and in particular Rue des Cascades, notorious for the anarchist Espace Louise-Michel and for Yann Thiersen’s song. On the bus, I kept the casserole warm with hands in a praying pose. At Nation, I realised that, from the Place, two philosophical boulevards – Bd Voltaire and Bd Diderot – originate as if to found the nation. And I also noticed that I have lived for three years in my favourite philosopher, Diderot. In the stretch of road separating me from home I came across two penultimates. She slept, tucked in, while he periscoped the sea of tarmac like a castaway awaiting rescue might inspect the expanses of water before him. He clocked me and begged for something to eat – not money, not the sky – and it felt natural to offer him the casserole I had kept warm in my hands up until then. I handed it over saying, “it’s all I’ve got” and off I went. The X M.A.S. had hit the target once again, this time a target of love, as if that acronym had actually meant “Christmas”.
In the sea – I thought – there’s no
the wave swoops in, rising only, it seems,
as it nears the beach, while further out
a quiet flow – save for a rush of love
cleansing the soul deep on the sea bed –
in the rhythm of currents, skims a day
which at dawn is but a horizontal line
of vastness and a regal solitude of salt.
Sometimes penultimates when half asleep
imagine things, surrender common sense
and let themselves be carried, led astray
by things on paths abandoned, worn away.
Right now a plastic bag is sailing past
Avenue Daumesnil here-there, it’s stranded,
propelled by gusts of wind, by light suspended.
And pink, a jellyfish among the lost,
is witness to the show with me, alone,
of green and red and yellow on the road:
lights imitating sergeants, giving orders,
to armies of deserters, to the gone.
And the chromatic diktats of the beams
from lamp posts arching over empty streets
were echoing the principles and treaties
of human rights, before an empty city.
During a walk with the Spanish teacher, a colleague, we were listening to Cesaria Evora. Since Sandra is Portuguese, I asked her to translate the song for me, a song I kept listening to over the years. So she translated, line by line, as it played. I had not realised that the first sentence was a question, clear, precise as much as its answer.
Who showed you
this long road
Who showed you
this long road
this road to São Tomé?
Sodade Sodade Sodade
of my homeland São Nicolau.
This made me think of that other Cuban street song, Compay Segundo’s Chan Chan: same kind of poetry of distance where the road is boss. In both cases there’s a choral dimension, the music carrying people, individuals, societies. A few days later, heading home in a taxi, exhausted, the car in front set off on a weird chase, dangerous and pointless. At which point the taxi driver commented: “il ne peut pas faire à sa tête, la rue c’est un partage” – He can’t do whatever he likes, the road is for sharing. Right then I understood – a sudden, soothing realisation – that it really does not make sense when you say: “everyone has to choose his own way, this is my turf”, etc…, because the road is not for lonely people, the path is always something to be shared.
27 September 2017
first poem The Penultimates
As if in front of stunning display windows
in Avenue Montaigne – haute coûture –
the convoy of penultimates
glides past the metro stations of the rich
and famous Odéon and St Germain de Prés
well worth the trip in this authentic dawn
because the skin is anything but white
because the day is still devoid of light.
Since I started this new job as a secondary school teacher in quasi-Normandy I have the double privilege of listening to teenage weather forecasts and of “opening” the metro in Paris at five thirty am, sharing with the penultimates the stretch between Nation and Montparnasse. To them goes my gratitude. Because so long as there will be penultimates it will mean that there is a chance for humanity, that we haven’t reached the end of the road, the final stop of night. EffeEffe.