Whitechapel Rhapsody by Alessandro Manzetti including a dozen white on black illustrations by Stefano Cardoselli. 2020 Independent Legions Publishing 89 pp. $10.90. https://www.amazon.com/Whitechapel-Rhapsody-Poems-Alessandro-Manzetti/dp/8831959735
Review by Herb Kauderer
Allessandro Manzetti’s Whitechapel Rhapsody is a magnificent whirlwind of twenty-six poems, a book to be read while drinking a glass of blood-red wine, beautifully produced, with an evocative painted cover and interior illustrations reminiscent of Bill Sienkiewicz.
When Robert Frost made regionalism famous in poetry, he described New England’s glory, but also its warts, making the landscape a major character in his writing. Likewise, Manzetti’s Whitechapel Rhapsody reveals Whitechapel’s warts, its syphilis and bloody angel, but also a glory of place across time.
The belly of Whitechapel is its own character even while it hosts the lives that inspired Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol across the channel, where horrific dramas aroused audiences by portraying characters inappropriate in other venues. The time was right to include the people of the slums in drama, and in the audience, and so Manzetti’s Saucy Jack raises them to art:
and I shant quit ripping them
‘till I finish my still life galleries
turning the alleys to museums,
allowing many eyes, even the poorest,
to admire the show without ticket.
(“Dear Boss”, 37)
While Whitechapel, its murderer, and its victims are all characters, there is a level on which the writing becomes an exploration of the continued cultural existence of Jack the Ripper, suggesting much of the book’s raison d’être in this quote:
the left ventricle? Heart is more dramatic,
perhaps wrapping it in a sheet of newspaper
mixing ink, words, blood,
emotions, fear and oxygen’s ghosts.
(“Dear Boss”, 38)
The characters’ real-life stories, sometimes told via first-person narratives, mix with the mythos of the killings that still permeates society. The victims lives and deaths, sensationalized in the papers of the time, and the books and movies of today, are a mix of ink and blood and fear. There were serial killers before the Ripper, and even his contemporary, the Torso Killer; but it was Jack who transcended the act into fame, societal consciousness, and disturbed fascination. And Jack who is somehow still with us.
Much of the book is written in a style comfortable in 1888 but it definitely references later events that outline the temporally cross-cultural existence of the mythos. For example “Ten Bells” dwells in the Reclaim the Night movement that, in 1988, forced the tavern frequented by two of the victims, to change its name back to Ten Bells after a dozen years of being called The Jack the Ripper and displaying memorabilia of the murders to attract customers.
Manzetti expands the timeframe of the mythos in both directions, reaching back to Poe with several references, and at the end, reaching forward to Bukowski, then to today. But readers don’t need to invest time looking up allusions. In the end, this poetry is neither references nor mythos. It’s experience. Reading this book, without knowledge or interest in Jack the Ripper, is still a dark, emotional journey full of music as implied by the rhapsody of the title.
but the blizzard inside her child heart
had given birth to too different dreams
compared to Whitechapel’s crooked tracks
which always lead to the same alley.
No red kimono, no flowers, no opera in those places.
The god of that night was a long-bladed knife
accurate like a Mozart composition.
(“Mary Ann”, 30-31)
Although this is a book of horror, often strong and graphic, it is also a book of poetry, beautiful and disturbing. There are an uncomfortably large number of typographical errors, which can blur the effects of historical quotes in dialect by making their intentionality uncertain, but the blood-red wine of the lines will reveal surface visions, and the outside of the glass will distort the lights of the room, ethanol connecting to older, stronger spirits. The emotional whirlwind of Manzetti’s verse permits no hint of sunshine nor shelter from the winds of suffering. If you’re ready for the experience, this book may be for you.
…only lonely hearts, which have seen
the stars disappear, or fell in love with ghosts,
can know my sadness
(“The God with the Black Hat”, 25)
Herb Kauderer is an English professor at Hilbert College, and a prolific poet and writer. His nineteenth poetry collection is titled A Book of Fibs from Written Image and is available on Kobo. One of his favorite hobbies is getting physicists drunk so he can understand them. He's sharing this because he considers it an artform connected to SpecPo.
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