Weekly Poem: Suzanne Cleary tried to learn Italian, instead she wrote a poem

BY Victoria Fleischer  February 17, 2014 at 1:32 PM EDT
Suzanne Cleary

Poet Suzanne Cleary

Suzanne Cleary loves the sound of Italian. When she picked up a copy of “Italian Made Simple,” she was determined to teach herself the language before a trip to Italy.

Instead Cleary came away fascinated by the characters in the book.

“The man, Mario, struck me as someone who was just an enthusiast which, I supposed I am too,” Cleary told Art Beat. “So I kind of identified with Mario to a certain extent. As I read through the book, I saw in him a real kindness towards Marina and she towards him as well … these two characters, Mario and Marina, just struck me as interesting people, so I thought I’ll spend a little time with them.”

What Cleary came away with is a poem that tells the story of Mario and Marina.


Listen to Suzanne Cleary read “Italian Made Simple


Italian Made Simple
tells the story of Mario and Marina,
and by the end of Chapter 1, I’ve got it:
the r is a d, and Mario and Marina
will fall in love, he an American
planning a business trip to Italy,
she an Italian teaching English
in a school in centro, downtown,
which I take to mean Wall Street,
maybe Tribecca or Nolita.
For the first lesson, they meet
in Marina’s ufficio, where they repeat
the half-dozen Italian phrases for hello.
Both of them remain patient,
cheerful, even, in the face of their task.
They name every single blessed thing
on the desk. What good fortune it is
they cannot yet say, so many small things
here before them: the pen, the paper, and
the pencil, too, the newspaper, the lamp.
Marina pronounces each word slowly
while Mario watches her lips, repeats.
What is this? Marina asks in Italian.
What is this? and Mario, under a spell,
answers, although he cannot yet
be said to understand these words
that are little more to him than sounds,
air blown through the shapes
that Marina’s lips make his lips make.
By Chapter 4, simple Italian leads Mario
and Marina to the window, to the words
for street, hospital, bicycle, child,
where simplicity threatens to abandon
these two people who are just trying
to live, an idiomatic expression
for to make money. No, says Marina.
That is not a child. That is not a girl.
a woman, a car, etcetera. Mario loves
the word eccetera, which he figures
will save him lots of time. When their time
is up, Mario and Marina walk to the door,
at exactly the same moment say la porta.
The next moment, they laugh. Eccetera,
eccetera. Because I cannot live
in the simple present, where Italian Made
Simple begins, I read ahead.
In Florence, on his business trip,
Mario buys for Marina a gold bracelet.
A gold bracelet Mario buys for Marina.
Mario for Marina buys a gold bracelet.
He does not yet understand that Marina
already knows that he loves her,
that she has loved him since Chapter 5,
Familia, wherein Mario showed quick
concern for her ill niece. Mario, alone
in Florence, on the far side of his voyage
through the definite pronouns, the prepositions,
the baffling procession of possessive forms,
Mario sits at a café, drinking
the beverage he ordered by mistake.
When the waitress sets it brightly before him,
Piacere, Mario says, ever gracious.
Mario, at the end of my textbook,
of your slow, sometimes laborious story,
how will I live without you?
You do not yet know that the final lesson
finds you and Marina deciding to marry,
to live in Rome, yet here, in Chapter 20,
Firenze, still you sip and savor.
You open your dictionary.
The small table at which you sit
is called tavolino, just as you had thought,
and you smile to yourself,
now that you are lonely, now that you know
you know by heart,
the meaning of every single blessed thing.


Through writing that poem, Cleary found that Mario and Marina were in love, though that was not necessarily expressed in the book itself. She took poetic license with a few moments.

“I don’t recall, for example, if in fact Mario buys a bracelet for Marina, but when I thought of that idea, I thought wouldn’t it be funny to just have a few sentences there that are so typical of what you find in language instruction books, where you have the subject and verb switched and you’re experimenting with different sentence structure.”

She also doesn’t think Mario ordered a drink by mistake at a café, but, having done so herself, she added that tidbit in as extra color.

“I always hope that for any one character, I will be invoking other characters or making my reader think back to something from her or his own life. Mario is never just Mario. I hope he’s going to ultimately be a little bigger than that particular character.”

Cleary likes to write poetry about people. She likes to think of her poems as a way to record the moments that she sees and hears, but in the end, her poetry is more than a recording.

“I am trying on one level to just simply describe things whatever it is, but there, I guess there is no such thing as simple description. The person describing is always going to affect the objective reporting. So I do let myself imagine into scenes.”

By letting herself in to the poems, Cleary is always on a path of discovery. In fact, it’s that element of surprise that keeps her writing.

“If I knew ahead of time what I would be writing when I started a poem. I probably wouldn’t feel a great motivation to finish that poem or I wouldn’t feel really that excited about writing that poem … I don’t feel that I write poems because I necessarily have something that I must say, but I do feel there is something that I must discover, and that’s what motivates me to write.”