Interior Distances: On Patrizia Cavalli’s Objects

Patrizia Cavalli’s bilingual selected, My Poems Won’t Change the World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) edited by Gini Alhadeff, is a collaborative translation by an array of prominent names in American poetry. Her celebrators, too, are prominent: among them, John Ashbery and Jhumpa Lahiri, who described reading Cavalli as “nothing short of ecstasy.” [1]

Despite being lauded as one of Italy’s most important post-war poets, despite her near-mythic persona (the introduction to the selected opens with an anecdote of Cavalli dedicating her first book to a cat sired by one of Elsa Morante’s cats, and Cavalli herself once said in an interview: “I’m from Umbria…if I had been born in the 13th century I might have been a mystic”) [2] Cavalli remains somewhat enigmatic in English; either beloved or otherwise unknown. After her death in Rome last June, she received a little more attention: The Paris Review Daily published an interview with her, and the following February, the slick interior design magazine The World of Interiors published an online article titled “Lady of the Lamps,” featuring a slew of crystalline photographs of the inside of her home: slant light, filled bookcases, lamps, flower vases, her self-tiled kitchen sink, constructed from 18th century and roman marble fragments. [3]


I first read Cavalli in a translation course during my MFA. I was reading Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature, edited by Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, and Catherine of Siena’s letters. I knew some Italian. I was playing around with my own translations. In some round about internet searching, I found Cavalli’s work, and soon fell under her spell. One of her poems stayed with me like a mantra, long after I’d finished reading it. I’d find myself turning over its lines:

I had cut my hair, darkened my eyebrows,

adjusted the right fold of my mouth, thinned

my body, raised my height. I had even lent

the shoulders a triumphant bent. A girl


again, on the streets, a workman’s gait,

no superfluous embellishments. But I hadn’t forgotten

the languor of the chair, a clouded vision.

And I distributed caresses, not knowing I did. My secret

body untouchable. In the lower back

expectation condensed without satisfaction; in the gardens

long walks, advice repeated,

the sky sometimes blue

sometimes not. [4]

                                    trans. Gini Alhadeff

Mi ero tagliata i capelli, scurite le sopracciglia,

aggiustata la piega destra della bocca, assottigliato

il corpo, alzata la statura. Avevo anche regalato

alle spalle un ammiccamento trionfante. Ecco ragazza


di nuovo, per le strade, il passo del lavoratore,

niente abbellimenti superflui. Ma non avevo dimenticato

il languore della sedia, la nuvola della vista.

E spargevo carezze, senza accorgermene. Il mio corpo

segreto intoccabile. Nelle reni

si condensava l’attesta senza soddisfazione; nei giardini

le passeggiate, la ripetizione dei consigli,

il cielo qualche volta azzurro

e qualche volta no. [5]

On discussing Proust’s use of the image Walter Benjamin said: “It is never isolated, rhetorical, or visionary; carefully heralded and securely supported, it bears a fragile, precious reality… It detaches itself from the structure of Proust’s sentences just as that summer day at Balbec–old, immemorial, mummified…”[6] Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was this sense of reality’s precious-ness, solidified in her use of objects, that drew me to Cavalli: her utmost respect for the things of the world, and her desire to preserve them, as such, still strikes me as a profound form of reverence.


In his essay “Thing Theory” Bill Brown poses the question: “Should we develop a ‘theory’ for ‘things?’” He begs the question—why not

[l]et them [things] rest somewhere else… in the balmy elsewhere beyond theory. From there, they might offer us dry ground above those swirling accounts of the subject, some place of origin unmediated by the sign, some stable alternative to the instabilities and uncertainties, the ambiguities and anxieties, forever fetishized by theory. Something warm, then, that relieves us from the chill of dogged ideation, something concrete that relieves us from unnecessary abstraction. [7]

While Cavalli is a poet of syntax, a poet of the body, of queer desire and longing, she is also undeniably a poet of things. Nouns punctuate her poems. They appear like stops: attention in Cavalli lands on the object with a kind of finality, signaling not only the limits of the body, but the limit of what can be sensually known. As Susan Stewart (incidentally, one of Cavalli’s translators into English) says of the miniature in her book On Longing, “the miniature… cannot be known sensually; it is inaccessible to the languages of the body…” [8]

Again and again in Cavalli’s work it is the female body that is lent her scrutinizing attention, an attention she directs to both self and lover, equally: “I had cut my hair, darkened my eyebrows,/… lent/the shoulders a triumphant bent. A girl / boy/ again, on the streets, a workman's gait,/ no superfluous embellishments.” Only the female body is given these “superfluous embellishments.” If there is a detachment to Cavalli’s gaze (a word often associated with her), it is the detached, objective, self-conscious gaze demanded of the utmost desire to see both world and lover clearly.

The collapse of distinction between body and object in her work is nothing less than the attempt to make both known in the languages of the body.


If the miniature is the absolute object of desire because it can be seen from all sides (held in the hand) but cannot be sensually entered or known, it's this kind of miniaturization Cavalli turns on her own "girl" body/self in this poem. Her gaze is precise, attuned to the smaller details of the world: signaled, often, by interior domestic spaces and the things we fill them with. In her work body and object are treated equally: the comb, the hair, the bottle, the mirror, the doorbell, the mouth. She constructs, out of objects, a phenomenology of desire. It is through this collapse between object and body that the self (and the other) become known. She turns her objective gaze on herself: “I am nothing but an object of inquiry that provokes certain feelings…” Cavalli said in a 2002 interview with L’Unita, “being in my own way day and night, I have become rather an expert knower of myself and it could be that a certain fondness has developed. That’s all.” [9]


As Stewart says in her essay Objects of Desire: “When the body is the primary mode of perceiving scale, exaggeration must take place…”[10] An inverted exaggeration, Cavalli’s work miniaturizes. Her vision is a honing one, she zooms in on particulars (“the right fold of the mouth”) and it is this miniaturization that is the absolute essence of desire, its catastrophe and jouissance, the literalized recognition of the distant being desire makes of us. In making things small, in emphasizing the smallness of things, she creates a phenomenology of desire: her objects show us the distant being desire turns us into. We are made aware of what can, and can’t, be entered, observed, held, known.

It is the precision of her gaze that enacts this distance, which is the often-failed desire for clarity desire awakens in us. We want to see the world as clearly as possible. Miniaturization signals distance: in rendering smallness, the object falls away from us. Facing this object, now miniaturized, we are rendered gigantic; left with the grotesque realization of our own gargantuan desires.


Why do things matter? Even lovers are known (most intimately, and most often in absence) through the things they leave behind. Cavalli stands in awe of them, heralding them into her poems:

Before when you left you would always forget

your perfume, your best handkerchief,

your new pants, your gifts for friends,

your gloves, your boots and your umbrella.

This time you left

a pair of Puerto Rico yellow

underpants. [11]

                        trans. Judith Baumel

Yes, the things in this poem signify the lover’s absence, they are all that is left. The specificity, care, and attention with which they are rendered signals the loss, the devotion: “Puerto Rico yellow.” But it is more than devotion at work here: the speaker cannot move beyond the object, is stopped in the face of it, unable to draw any further meaning out.

This is not Proust’s madeleine. If anything, it is the inverse of that: no memory is sparked. Cavalli turns the object’s ability to yield further meanings on its head: evoking in us, with the subtle force of revelation, the awareness of the semantic irreducibility of things—their refusal to be absorbed into the phenomenological flow of being useful. [12]

Cavalli knows this about the material world: it resists us. This is the “precious reality” she so carefully renders. It is one we are kept perpetually outside of. She renders it plainly, because she knows “things” carry a near totemic power to “lurk there after the subject and object have done their thing, long after the party is over…”, she knows that, “Things are what we encounter, ideas are what we project.” [13]


Writing about Goethe, Walter Benjamin said that the works that prove most enduring were the works “whose truth is most deeply sunken in their material content,” that the truth content of any given work, graspable “only in the philosophical experience of its divine imprint,” emerges as that of the material content. [14] The two, while distinct, are inseparable: dialectically bound. Cavalli’s work knows this; it knows the “incorporation of the totality of material things into life is indeed a criterion of the mythic world.” [15] If Cavalli’s work takes on a mythic quality, it is because of the material content of her poems. The immanent and transcendent cannot be separated in Cavalli, she knew this, and knew it was the work of the sensual to manifest the link between the two. David Shapiro (one of her translators) said of her work: “It’s what any good analyst wants—she is giving you the état présent of her entire soul, her present state, and the world’s present. One poem equals her world.” [16]


[1]  Jhumpa Lahiri, praise for Patrizia Cavalli, My Poems Won’t Change the World (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux), 2013, back of book blurb.

[2] A quote taken from an interview Cavalli did with L’Unita in 2002, My Poems Won’t Change the World, Introduction by Gini Alhadeff, xxii.

[3] Caracciolo Chai, Marella. “Lady of the Lamps,” The World of Interiors. Photography by Oberto Gili. 21 February 2023. https://www.worldofinteriors.com/story/patrizia-cavalli-rome-apartment

[4] My Poems Won’t Change the World, 33.

[5] ibid 32.

[6] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings Volume 2, Part 1 1927-1930. trans. Rodney Livingstone, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 239.

[7] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 1–22.

[8] Susan Stewart, “The Miniature,” On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the

Collection, (Duke University Press, 1993), 63.

[9] My Poems Won’t Change the World, Introduction, xxii.

[10] Stewart, “Objects of Desire” On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the

Collection, (Duke University Press, 1993), 132.

[11] My Poems Won’t Change the World, 11.

[12] Brown, Thing Theory, 4. “… you trip over some toy, you get bopped on the head by a falling nut. These are occasions outside the scene of phenomenological attention that nonetheless teach you that you’re ‘caught up in things.’”

[13] Brown, Thing Theory, 3. A quote in Brown’s essay attributed to Leo Stein.

[14] Benjamin, 295-300.

[15] Benjamin, 308.

[16] My Poems Won’t Change the World, Introduction, xx

Works Cited

Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings Volume 2, Part 1 1927-1930. trans. Rodney Livingstone, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Bill Brown. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 1–22. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344258.

Marella Caracciolo Chai. “Lady of the Lamps,” The World of Interiors. photography by Oberto Gili. 21 February 2023. https://www.worldofinteriors.com/story/patrizia-cavalli-rome-apartment

Patrizia Cavalli. My Poems Won’t Change the World: Selected Poems. ed. Gini Alhadeff. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013.

Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way, trans. C.K. Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Random House, 1981.

Susan Stewart. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Duke University Press, 1993. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1220n8g.

Mary Helen Callier’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in New England Review, Colorado Review, Bennington Review, and elsewhere. She is a doctoral student in English and Literary Arts at the University of Denver, where she serves as one of the poetry editors for the Denver Quarterly. Her first book, When the Horses, was a finalist for the 2023 Bergman Prize and the winner of the Alice James Editor's Choice.