In Contrapasso, we soar between examination and observation, moment and reflection, freedom and confinement. Fössinger’s lyrical approach to the collection can be felt in the lines that thrum with remembrance. The poems here work as frames, capturing reverential images, offering them up to the reader with an open hand.
In many senses Contrapasso is a story in itself. It is one long poetic epic that flows from start to finish through the pages of this collection, much like Dante’s journey through Hell – and, later, Purgatory –, from which this book takes its name. It's a beautiful and at times harrowing account of a love for someone who is imprisoned, a love that perhaps should not exist, should be unable to continue, but nevertheless, does exactly so.
Q & A with Alexandra Fössinger
What is the concept behind this poetry collection?
The writing of these poems was an almost oneiric journey through bewilderment and sorrow; an attempt at survival after an entirely unexpected bereavement – the imprisonment of someone very dear to me. The collection explores questions of innocence and guilt, but also what it means to be judged, or to judge others – on what base do we decide that someone is to be punished, and in what way? What gives us our certainties? And, how do we find liberty and comfort in whatever space is given us – are we ultimately more chained by social restraints and the inability to look beyond what is apparent than by actual confinement, as long as we manage to maintain the freedom of thought given us through art, literature, our intellect, but also the knowledge that we’re, after all, animals? I’ve somehow always thought that to be entirely free one would have to commit social suicide, accept complete and utter loneliness – and I suppose that this poetry collection is an experiment in that sense, too, because it took me courage to tell this story.
How did you approach the writing of these poems?
I can’t say that I planned any of them, they all grew out of me very organically in an extremely difficult period, shortly before and during the outbreak of the pandemic. While I was writing about imprisonment, a very individual experience, it suddenly became a collective experience, with the world going in lockdown. It was almost ironic, I was overcome by a sort of gallows humour, which is something very helpful when one must survive, it gives the detachment one needs in order to function despite everything. I hope it shines through a bit, too. Some of the poems developed from a simple line that suddenly appeared in my head while walking, some came as near-prose, which I later transformed into poems, others I wrote down partly in German or Italian, my main languages, hence some of the multilingual titles or verses. Of course, even the more spontaneous poems underwent major changes and editing – or were rewritten entirely altogether – over the course of several months.
I think that as someone who writes in her third language, my tools might be more limited than those of a native speaker; then again, my own cultural and linguistical background inevitably flows into my writing, making it perhaps weirder or less accessible – but hopefully also adding something interesting.
What was your inspiration?
I tend to write about my own experience, but it is an experience always transcended by something I would call the spiritual world – which doesn’t have to be the supernatural: simply, I perceive nature itself as very spiritual. I’m always tempted to imagine nature, even objects, as animated, that is perhaps why I am drawn so much to both animism and Shintoism, as well as magical realism and surrealism – if I observe them closely, they all seem to me just a different plane of what we perceive as the everyday world. Thus, all the elements in my poems that seem oneiric, or surreal, are in truth very real; just interpreted from a slightly different angle – from my position between things. I take elements from conversations, things I’ve experienced or dreamed, and try to see them in a different way, I let them shift in time, or space. This comes very naturally to me, though, it’s not something constructed. What I build and shape is the poem, not the experience leading to it.
What would you like readers to take from it?
Everyone should take whatever they want or need from these poems. I’m not subject to the illusion that texts should (or can, for that matter) be understood “correctly”, the way I might have imagined or meant them. I think that’s one of the most important lessons for any writer, to learn to let go of the written word, once it’s sent out into the “world”; to trust the readers to fill it with their own meaning and history. Doesn’t all communication work this way, really? It’s perhaps one of the reasons why I like poetry that dares to be a bit cryptical: all my poems mean very precise things to me, they’re never, in any way dictated by a mere stream of consciousness, they’re not absurd for the sake of absurdity, nor uncontrolled – but they don’t aim at conveying a meaning, even less an intention. If we’d try to explain everything precisely, we could never leave things out, break a statement down to the essential. All writing would have to be technical. I’m not afraid of the spaces between word and meaning; in fact, it’s the place where I tend to find poetry most easily: in the unsaid more than in what’s been said.
And if readers would find just an image that surprises them, a light in which they’ve not yet seen something, or a shared/imagined experience in one of my poems, that would be beautiful. It’s what I want to find in poetry.
What does poetry mean to you?
For me it’s probably the essence of literature, maybe of language itself. I’ve been struck by it ever since I was a very young teenager. I would try to read Yeats’ collected poems at a time when I had hardly any command of English, struggling to understand the single words, let alone the poems’ meanings, but taken by the sheer beauty of them, by a “flow” I understood to be deeper than what was said. I think that poetry, being so concise and elusive, can capture human experience more than anything, what we call “soul”, simply by alluding to it. As Charles Wright said, “Poetry is just the shadow of the dog... The dog is elsewhere, and constantly on the move.” Yet it tells us more about the dog than the dog itself, because it makes us want to recognise its meaning.
'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.' – The Gentian Journal
'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.' The Gentian Journal
'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.' – The Gentian Journal
Read the full review here
'Contrapasso vividly encapsulates the sense of disorientation that comes hand-in-hand with separation in a way that is so vividly relatable you cannot help but be drawn in. The opening lines from Dante’s Inferno mark the beginning of a journey which continually thrusts the reader in and out of reality and consciousness, height and depth, the dream world and the prosaic, with fluctuating speeds of intensity.' – Kayleigh Cutforth, Editor, MONO
'Fössinger’s poetry addresses survival, the hinterlands, the vast spaces between emotions that are too deep to be expressed and painful memories which sometimes come peacefully and at other times fiercely.' – Kayleigh Cutforth, Editor, MONO
'This collection flawlessly reflects the ebbs and tides of grief and loss in all its forms, from the titles in multiple languages to the editing and ordering of poems which read like a stream of consciousness, this is a masterly debut collection from an accomplished poet and certainly one to take notice of.’ – Kayleigh Cutforth, Editor, MONO
'Love, loss, trauma and how we find healing are themes that weave through so much poetry that our senses can become blunted to the emotions being explored. Yet this is the story that all of us are immersed in and when a poet comes along who can give us new images for the human condition, new perspectives for the journey, the effect is powerful. Alexandra Fössinger is such a poet.' – Jan Fortune, High Window
'Haunted and haunting, Contrapasso is an exquisitely realised debut collection from a poet I look forward to reading more from.' – Jan Fortune, High Window Fortune, High Window