Sono: Cantos

Sono: Cantos

by Sarah Arvio

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Here is Sono, a new collection of bracingly original poems, from the prizewinning author of Visits from the Seventh. Composed during a long stay in Rome, these cantos look outward in order to look inward, transforming sights and stories into expressionistic explorations of the state of the heart. Playful, probing, philosophical, colorful, often funny,


Here is Sono, a new collection of bracingly original poems, from the prizewinning author of Visits from the Seventh. Composed during a long stay in Rome, these cantos look outward in order to look inward, transforming sights and stories into expressionistic explorations of the state of the heart. Playful, probing, philosophical, colorful, often funny, they describe a struggle to come to terms with loss and grief and to find a basis for renewal; they ask whether and how life is worth living, taking pleasure in the questions themselves. “It wasn’t the life I would have wanted, / had I known what sort of life I did want,” starts the poem entitled “Chagrin.” “I do believe I was never loved,” announces “Obelisk.” Riffing expertly, Sarah Arvio brings wit and exquisite formal discipline to her gorgeous meditations on the life lived. These are high-burning songs of the self— colloquial, sexy, unflinching, and unforgettable.

A colossal mess I made of my life,
in the flesh and also in the round;
this was the essence of colosseum,

the museum of my colossal shame,
where I mused on the blood sport of it all. . .
(from "Colosseum")

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
The poems in Arvio’s second collection are described as cantos, and they show almost as much allusive range as those of Pound himself. Written in pithy, often playful tercets, these verses (many set in Rome, where Arvio has a home) frequently begin with a simple string of words that serves as the basis for assonant riffing; “I was wandering in a quandary” becomes “and never without a qualm or a pang, / and thinking of taking a quantum leap / out of my quondam life and into yours.” Arvio deploys insights from philosophy, psychology, and physics, but a constant preoccupation is that language constructs the things it attempts to describe, and in this her clearest forebear is Stevens, to whose “palm at the end of the mind” she alludes in the first and final poems.
Publishers Weekly
Arvio's sophomore follow-up to Visits from the Seventh (2002), reckons with the "Interior Ostracism" fostered by a life's disappointments and regrets-almost all relationship-based. Often set against belittling examples of Roman grandeur (portrayed in titles like "Colosseum," "Sistine" and "Pantheon"), many poems begin with self-deprecating observations ("I was trammeled, I thought, by tragedy"), grim questions ("So, was there something grand in all this grief ") or wavering assertions ("I was saying I never had a care,/ meaning maybe that I was free of care,/ or else meaning that no one cared for me"). Most then proceed through clever vacillations ("I was a sister or I was a saint,/ maybe a gilded statue of Venus,/ sporting a halo or wearing a hat") and stunning sonic associations ("the prison or prism of myself") to arrive at painful confessions: "Oh boy, boy, I know I broke your heart/ with my broken song, I know I was wrong." While repetition of strategies and subjects throughout these 43 poems-composed of nine or 10 strict tercets each-eventually dulls some of the book's punch, Arvio has crafted a humorous, unflinching arrow of self-assertion via self-revelation: Sono means "I am" in Italian. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
What are the 44 poems in Arvio's (Visits from the Seventh) second collection about? Their titles hint at an Italian/classical connection, but even after several readings, many are difficult to summarize. Consider the opening of "Renaissance": "I meant I was and I had always been/ the thing I was, though I wanted to be/ another version of what being was." With some exceptions (e.g., "Song"), Arvio's attempts at wordplay and alliteration even further confuse the issue. In "Sine Qua Non," for example, she writes, "I was wandering in a quandary/ and never without a qualm or a pang,/ and thinking of taking a quantum leap." Mostly, one plods through the book hoping for some snippet of interesting poetry. Instead, readers will find trite language or overused imagery, such as "angels ruffling your wings in the wings" or "where the forest was always in the trees" in "Thesaurus." As poet Jane Hirshfield said in Kingfishers Catching Fire, "Genuine art...has `vision,' and good poetry and good seeing quite literally go together almost always." Sadly, in these poems, good art and good seeing are mostly lacking. Not recommended.-Doris Lynch, Monroe Cty. P.L., Bloomington, IN Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt


Though the home, we say, is where the heart is,
wonder if the heart is where the home is.
Had I found a heart for my home and did

I live there and love there: this was the point that all roads should lead to if I traveled.
This was the question that was romanesque,

or else something random or romantic;
this was the ancient question of amor,
was it Rome and home and could I live there.

Here was a hurrah and a holiday,
all the domes planting a star in the sky,
all the domes pointing upward and somewhere,

all the crypts sinking downward and nowhere;
but did they point and did they also pierce,
did they crack the shadow or the sunshine.

Chiaroscuro of the coffered heart,
or the yes and no of the offered heart.
Did I fit with it, did it fit with me,

was I its shadow or its positive,
was I its pentacle or palindrome.
The point was to see there was no point

or was the arrow pointing to the heart,
a road sign, a feather or a weapon.
There was a dome and a home, there was Rome,

and for every recto there was verso.
One lives to live and that's the best we know,
and then dies to die and then it's over.


Was I allowed to be alive, was I
allocated to life, was I alive,
was I a specimen of the species:

these were the questions I asked myself while the scirocco was thrashing the sky,
raining red leaves and raining orange sand.

Was I dust, dirt and sand, dare I be dust,
there in Africa where they swept me up off the orange drifts of shoulders and hips,

off the drifting dunes where bodies were heaped,
lying in sleep, shifting in sleep and dream,
where I dreamed I was a specimen

born to be special and specialized,
as all specimens of the species were,
while dusk flames and dawn flames climbed on the dunes

in an ambience of rage artistry or an arrangement of orange and red artfully arising; was I dead or

alive; was this my allowance of life,
my own modicum of become become,
my scirocco my barocco of rage.

There were candle flames, there were cigarettes,
amber whiskeys, amphoras of I am,
there were amulets of I am I am;

there were orange flames, red leaves, orange sand,
moons, mornings; there were moments still to burn back in Africa where they swept me up.


Did I have a genie or a daemon to usher me onstage or sweep me off,
my own dear harbinger or usherette.

Curtains! came a cry, and the curtains shook.
Here was a masquerade en abime,
a hidden histrion hamming my lines

deep in the jewel box of my drama,
angeloform, deiform or magic.
O angels ruffling your wings in the wings,

which of you is my own special angel?
Why not have the courage of Coleridge to say it was a dream or a vision;

it might be a wish or else an anguish,
it might be an image or a language.
Was it anecdotage or sabotage,

was it chanson or could it be chantage.
Historical or else hysterical or else ancestral or angelical.

Was this the character I often shunned,
so sultry and desperate and ravaged;
was this the character I often wished,

oh my little magus oh my cabbage;
was this verbiage or genius or madness.
No rehearsals: you get only this chance,

one call for this life, one cue for this love
(know how to bow in and how to bow out),
you did it or you didn't, that's the play.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

SARAH ARVIO is the author of two previous books of poetry, Visits from the Seventh and Sono. She has won a number of awards and honors, including the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Guggenheim and Bogliasco Fellowships. For many years a translator for the United Nations in New York and Switzerland, she has also taught poetry at Princeton. 

From the Hardcover edition.

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