Le api di Raos

Out of Itself. The Bees of Raos, estrangement, the artwork.

The bees of Andrea Raos. A critical note by Matteo Cristiano.

A few months ago, on the noticeboard of I don’t remember who, a post was shared by the publishing house [dia-foria announcing the reprinting of a volume that, in the aforementioned post, was exposed as a (now) classic of the poetry of the 2000s. I have a particular attraction to poems and narrative poetry books with a unified scope… Perhaps I have already said it: in my opinion, the future of poetry can only be narrative. I write to the publisher, I buy, I unbox: Le api migratori, by Andrea Raos. Let us call it, for convenience, a poem, a narrative in verse. Starting from a real-life episode, the unexpected escape of a swarm of genetically modified bees in the 1950s, Raos immerses us in the perception of the bees, follows them on their journeys, encounters, records some episodes and, above all, their moods.

Le api migratori comes off the press in 2007, but the story that frames the text dates back to the 1950s. A story of genetic mutation, and mutation, on which Gherardo Bortolotti rightly insists, is the watermark that determines the entire product. Mutation as frame and as paradigm. The story, however, lies outside the text: it is relegated to the back cover, almost as if it were accessory, a secondary premise. Perhaps more pregnant is that last line on the back cover, not casually underlined by italics: Events occur in real time. To this we again link Bortolotti, who refers to the monster movie as a genre to which Raos seems here to look closely. And indeed, the narrative unfolds in cinematic and almost theatrical ways, with the reconstruction of scenarios, focus, scene changes. And that readers should imagine it, this narration, is almost imposed by the author, who even before the title of the first section tells us: «Immagina, lettore, un pianeta / una sfera. Neve. Brulica. Nera. / Ora.»

For the whole linguistic and formal issue of the text I refer to Bortolotti hands down: impeccable. What I would like to focus on, however, is the great sense of loneliness and helplessness that emerges from the pages. And not so much for the sometimes languid, pathetic flavour, always useful for that effect of estrangement generated by the monstrosity of mutation expressed in disjointed but often lyrical modules, of certain passages of narration. Rather, the bee banally has no home. We know this from the beginning: ‘They cannot nest’. But similar images recur until the end of the book and produce a sense of suppression. There is an unresolved core concerning the relationship between subject and set of subjects that would represent the community of belonging.

On Queue I, 2023
Singular V, 2022

In the sign of mutation, this other paradox unfolds: the irreconcilable contrast between the violent nature of the bees of Raos, condemned by an original sin, and the continuous will to refound, the tension towards the arnia, almost always associated with the arma and always included in contrastive strings as arma-arnia, non arnia ma arma, arnia non arma etc. Entropy reigns. And it is clear that finding unified meaning is impossible here. Palimpsests of interpretations overlap, contradictions, unspoken, dense intertextual plots amplify the web of meanings.

Let us try, then, to show how this red thread that runs through the whole book unfolds and which sees, in essence, an unresolved conflict between the bee and the swarm. The manipulation of the genome of these bee species almost takes the form of a new big bang, a new creation. Here, too, we find a form of reversal: the creation of the world takes place as a result of human intervention – a creation that, moreover, has escaped the control of its own creator (almost a Hobbesian Leviathan), who is also invested with a sin that is not redeemed in the book. This new form of life is born without memory, without history: «È questa vita? È vita non sapere?/ […] non capire, ricordare, porta alla memoria, trasporto di nulla?». And the climate of primordial creation, always mottled with the aberrant background of mutation, is realised in the geological lexicon, from craters to shattering, explosions, and shaking of the earth, lava, and the calling into question of time in the order of «milioni di millenni […]/ per completa frantumazione».

From here, from the primordial explosion, the bees of Raos move through the world destroying and killing, embodying a primordial violence that is the violence of aberration, of error. It is peculiar that the first victim of the mutant swarm is a bear, or rather a bear cub. As if to take up that idea of suppression, of premature funeral trauma. So much so that this point is insisted upon even further on, on page 45, in a much more explicit manner: «Nascono morti dalla nascita quei pochi / che nonostante tutto nascono». Even when the bees meet the Madre orma, a voice that is not well verified, she will turn to ess in an assertive and mortifying manner, denouncing the damnation that will affect her forever:

Siete soli al mondo, lo sapete,
siete nudi e vuoti, eppure ora
uscite, menomati, meno amati.
Uscite geneticamente modificati,
api, non è colpa mia se siete.
Uscite, è fato. È sete.

In short, I believe that the focus of this book revolves around the question of the individual-society relationship, even considering a particular volume indicated in the author’s notes, not by chance precisely Norbert Elias’s The Society of Individuals, a book that questions the two terms (individual/society), highlighting their implicit relationship and inseparability: considering individuals outside the relations of socialisation prevents a full understanding of this; similarly, considering society as a hypostatised entity in which the individuals that make it up are relegated to the background, as mere passive pieces of a mosaic, cannot go as far as describing the dynamics of that. There seems to be, then, a preliminary datum implicit in all this failed mythology: the paradigm that binds individuals to the set of relations they form and by which they are formed is no longer acceptable. A tear that is irrevocably given, and which leads one to question the possible new paradigm to be constituted.

Neighbourhood I, 2020

The parallels between human civilisation and bees are certainly not recent: in fact, the operation of beehives and swarms has almost always been an exemplary structure for mankind. Because bees are seen as totally subject to the good of the swarm. The problem is that human civilisation’s appropriation of the bee’s life form is, as always, potentially ideological, anthropocentric and speciesist, and I quote Raos, who in turn I believe is paraphrasing (the verse is italicised):

Il farsi sciame delle api
è frutto d’apprendimento, non è innato;
è in seguito ad evoluzione
che si è inciso nel loro patrimonio.
Sfuggite a questo processo esistono tuttora, forse ignare,
api solitarie, relitti delle ère, che non sciamano.

Already from the second section, La favola delle api, the swarming paradigm is missing, and the bees that are the protagonists of the section, and of the following ones, are like exiles who find themselves founding a new civilisation, just like in the spin-offs of classical mythology. This bee does not swarm, does not join the other bees that move in the morning in search of food, «Ma io non sciamo», repeated twice, and so he meets another bee that, like him/her, does not swarm. And the fable seems to have a happy ending, as befits fairy tales. Except for that constant dissatisfaction, the constant failure that hovers in the pages of the book, often even explicitly. Indeed, in the fourth section, in the summer where we meet Lucan (reversed in the temporal order from the next section, the spring), the mournful quotations from the author of the Pharsalia question the secession of the bees, who have created for themselves a new home in a cavern, underground. It is no coincidence that the reference is precisely to Lucan, author of a poem that focuses precisely on civil war and its disastrous results in terms of the human fabric. It is as if Lucan is rebuking the bees for splitting from their body/mass, despite the fact that there is a constant striving for union within them:

Sensazione di sé, certo… Quella stessa che pure ci persegue,
anche noi due, da quando siamo distaccate dallo sciame,
e che vorremmo adesso che cessasse, né tornare.
Non essere più io né noi ma pura massa; non forma ma materia,
sì, mucchio di pietre.

But the bee couple has made a decision, it is aware of what it has done:

Siamo state scagliate dentro il vento, alla tempesta.
Noi non ci volevamo scindere, ma nonostante questo
la violenza di cui siamo stati attive testimonianza
ci ha indotte a riflettere sul gruppo
di cui eravamo parte dalla nascita.

Così ce ne siamo staccate, noi due, in due,
a causa dell’amore che ci spinge altrove.

And mind you, these two bees are not wrecks that have accidentally been left out of the bee civilisation’s reproduction system: it is the violence they have suffered and witnessed that induces Raos’s bees to rethink their form of aggregation and reproduction of the species. The couple breaks away from a paradigm, precisely, a paradigm that is now unnatural, violent, and that does not allow them to manifest themselves. One might think that it is love, the form of the relationship that serves as a new civilisation (which, in a vision alienated from human cognition, would be revolutionary, since the conscious choice to abandon the swarming social form in order to establish the couple form can be compared to the renunciation of the traditional family, in the anthropological sphere, in order to found a new relational nucleus that founds a new civilisation…), but the text tells us that it is not only this, there is more. Further on, again with Lucano, the bees say:

[…] è troppa pena
questo amore che giustificò il distacco,
non ne fu la causa vera, c’era dell’altro, e mai più vero.
Non è l’amore individuale
il contrario della violenza collettiva, non la annulla;
non l’assenza di violenza
atto d’amore.
The bees of Raos
Counterpoint, 2019

Indeed, it seems that love is not enough, the release from the form of collective violence does not have the power to negate it. But this opposition is not resolved, «L’amore non ha niente a che vedere, / lo sapevi? Non ricopre, non scopre, / non è niente. Un’aria portavoce.». Thus ends the book, as if to deny the possibility of reconciliation.

But it is not, I believe, Raos’ focus to point a way forward for the new society, a way that was certainly hovering in the air in the early years of the third millennium, and had been for some time. Raos offers us an object that tries to force our cognitive networks to break out of a shoddy binarism, that of society and the individual, bringing out an intolerance that can be said to be collective, generational: that of not recognising oneself in the social form in which one finds oneself thrown. But it is not heroic and effortless to escape from traditional logic: the laceration of the individual who marginalises himself from society is experienced deep inside, in consciousness and biology, and the bees show us this. The paradigm of mutation then seeks to be a special lens that allows the spectrum of reality to be altered and to go off the rails, to become aware of supra-individual issues. We return, then, to linguistic mutation, the key to the book, that is, to the concretisation of the abandonment of grammar (understood in the broad, normative sense, as the grammar of social coexistence can be) in favour of new norms.

There is, however, another question that permeates the pages of this volume. It is the question, in action, of poetry itself. Successful works are those in which form and content are in a relationship (which can be, mind you, both congruent and conflicting) that could not be otherwise. Without bothering Lukàcs or Fortini, it seems to me, however, that stylistic organicity, a fetish of contemporary poetry, is not sufficient to make a work. Books that exhibit strong stylistic and formal faculties but reproduce on the page episodes, objects, reflections as an end in themselves (and this is not a defect of lyric poetry tout court) and untied from everything that is not in the text, do not arrive at that aesthetic fullness that should generate the experience of the work. The books of poetry that come out daily are read with pleasure (or so), but once the book is finished what remains is nothing more than a few lines ‘done well’ and a few well-crafted metaphorical figures. If I finish reading Raos, I need, I need to read Elias, to relate him to Bourdieu, to go back to the G8, to reconstruct a discourse that has been going on for decades on questions of community (think of Blanchot’s dialogue with Nancy), to take up the reflections of the Neo-avant-garde (for example, but of necessity one must also go to Gleize) and to verify the formal instrumentations of the text. Coming out of Raos’s book, and out of the successful works, one finds oneself in the arena of a conflict with reality, modified by the experience of the reality of the work (and it is symptomatic how, in  Le avventure dell’Allegro Leprotto e altre storie inospitali, on page 9 one reads «Spero ti scardini la vita»). Because there cannot be a work that is such without there being a match (not Tinderian, read conflict) with material and historical reality: there cannot be, implicitly, we know, but this cannot allow us to gloss over the world, to think of reinventing it candidly. The fact that so much contemporary poetry, pseudo-orphic sapiential, metaphysical, still attracted to a romantic sublime, does not intend to address this conflict, or at least identify it, is not something that needs to be made explicit. And that lyric poetry is still a long way from manifesting reality or transmitting it is also noted by Luca Mozzachiodi in an article on Giovanni Giudici’s centenary, urging it to ‘disperse the mists of the sublime’ in order to plunge head-on into the everydayness of existence.

The bees of raos
Beach things IV, 2022
The bees of raos
Singular II, 2022

This book already intercepts the issues that two years later would be set out in Prosa in prosa, an anthology of which Raos is a part. Seventeen years later, even in the light of the discussions and theory in Prosa in prosa and afterwards (if there can be said to have been any, but I beg the reader to point this out to me in case I am deficient), I think the situation is essentially unchanged. It seems to me that research writing has remained bogged down in almost unresolvable issues: the overcoming of subjectivity, referentiality at degree zero, the autonomisation of language, disarticulation as a semantic trigger… all very important issues – but which in the test of works yield, in my opinion, few good results, very few memorable ones, despite the fact that they are tools that have now entered the basic toolbox of theory. On the other hand (drawing two macro-categories of convenience, certainly, but which also operate in the field), in assertive, lyrical writing, of the line and style one wants, they make books. Books that, for those who want to do criticism with those two stern people mentioned earlier in mind, waste precious time. There is a lack of organic proposals, research that brings concrete reflections to the problematisation of poetics. I will say one thing with extreme sincerity, I don’t want anyone to hate it: it is tiring to read the same things over and over again. Raos’s book interests me because it has a series of unexpressed meanings that emerge thanks to the integrity of the work, to his having to read it materially vertically in some parts (combinatory techniques that are also found in other books by Raos), to having to trace the voices that are piled up with a typographical arrangement that has yet to be discovered. It is a threefold structure: object (as book form), narrative, linguistic. And the collaboration of the components is a clash of atomic particles that must all be reconstructed. Add to that the semantic variables of the content, and you’re looking at a minimum of six months of research.

To confess a final reflection that I have been carrying around since my first approach to contemporary poetry (seen in the long term, since the second half of the twentieth century), I believe that even the vulgar opposition between research poetry and lyric poetry (which holds almost everything in), must be critically defused. But above all, certain poetry, especially of the older generations, must surrender to the fact that the posture of the lyric poet, from the long decadent tradition, to a large part of my generation is nothing but ridiculous. Pintor said it in the early 1940s that the new generation has no need of oracles and poetic theologies. The interesting areas lie in the non-artificial hybridisation of instruments and the non-exclusiveness of materials. The residues of Crucianism that Italian poetic culture reproduces still have the monopoly of widespread taste, and feeding it can only stagnate the poetic average in a bucolic tragic-sentimental lyricism that hides the most organic attempts.

The iconographic apparatus includes works by Gabrielle Raaff, South African, b. 1970.
Her works can be found in the New York-based online gallery Uprise Art.

Matteo Cristiano (he/him), 1997, is a PhD student at the University of Florence with a project on poetry and engagement in the second half of the 20th century. He deals with twentieth-century and contemporary poetry through socio-cultural paradigms in the Marxist field. For lay0ut he edits, together with others, the column of unpublished and poetic poetry Presa d’aria.