SCARLET embodies the disembodied, earthy and ethereal experience of pandemic shock. Searing seer unfurls a lyric documentary here. Each page sings and singes with koans of unfolding insight: “When you’ve/ no more and you’ve/ suddenly stopped/ on a/ fitted arrow.”
The words dwell within the frame of an apocalyptic pandemic imagined by a past Californian author, eerily pointing to deadly patterns revivified ad infinitum. Glitches, blots, words overlapping and erased, bits of words peeking out, (peaking with sound) exemplify the human experience of attempting to process and surmise a new physical (and digital) reality. “I remember it/ spat loudly/ the word/ a strange disease that had/ broken out.”
In this ruminative work, words float through the Bardo state we are collectively inhabiting. Though the matter is dark, the stark words arise out of the page’s earthy colors, allowing the reader grace and space to absorb pain.
At the most primal level, SCARLET embodies our fight for survival:
“we ground on/ eyes down/ It was more about getting food”
“left little to take away”
Our attempts to cope—superstitious and bewildered:
“Spit when you cross/ to keep off bad luck”
“don’t know how/ to/ Let go”
SCARLET employs technocracy as healing agency while also aware of its limitations. What is lost poetically, metaphysically?
“that light on you/ interrupted”
A dirge for our lost intimacy:
“It is/ years since I have/ seen You”
Eco-poetics are also present, an abiding awareness of Earth’s pangs:
“the/ heat of/ the spreading like wildfire”
“the flood/ sweeping handiwork/ away”
“like the last days/ of/ gasoline”
Scarlet, a color, both bloody and signifying a dictator:
“Mingled with the/ roar/ a continuous, deep-/ throated barking/ a jagged/ lie/ a/ fire, tended savage”
“a mass of /population, mad from fear and/ fires raging.”
“Strange and terrible sights/ slipped by”
In many ways the poem feels like an expression of the Hell-realms experienced, replete with hungry ghosts and images of bodies, hot from a funeral pyre:
“fell to / as/ it must/ Scarlet/ and/ alive”
“skeletons exposed./ everywhere run-/ inng from contagion”
“bodies everywhere,/ not yet /smoke”
“bodies/ increased/ countless and/ packed together”
The “We” takes centerstage in SCARLET, as we share the common experience of suffering. The “I” is seen in brief moments, as a pathway to comprehend what We lost: “he/ died./ there were no lights,/ no more being/ I heard/ the glare of sky.” This is a hauntingly compassionate work, a balm for our world sorrow, highly empathizing with the beings undone, the millions of lives unsung in this unsettling time.
—Heather Woods, author of Bundling
When I was a child, I learned the word “opaque” from a package of ballet tights. But after my mother explained that opaque meant unable to see through, I couldn’t understand why the opaque ballet tights still showed through—they didn’t block all sight or light, as the word advertised, and it was only later I learned that no, they were only opaque relative to the more common “sheers” still worn daily by women in the 1970s of my youth. That this sort of relative opacity posited its own gendered universe was lost on me at the time—as Francesco Levato’s Scarlet says, “I was overwhelmed with sight.” The best art is similarly obfuscated, as Bernadette Mayer had it, “The best obfuscation bewilders old meanings while reflecting or imitating or creating a structure of a beauty that we know.” (The Obfuscated Poem). In Levato’s multivalent cross-out of Jack London’s 1912 novel using the 1917 Victor Shklovsky technique to “defamiliarize” our 2020s un-reality, Levato and Scarlet collaborate to morph daily objects into abstracted smears, peeling sentences apart to reveal their veined interiors. Levato shakes the poetry from the prose, asking us to view the quotidian as altered as we are. The titles themselves are still lives of objects in uncanny juxtaposition, seen anew and uncommon and fitting—Crown royal bag and bronzed baby shoe—while the poems that bleed through the pages ask about the culpability of language in our pandemic-laced trauma, the onus of communication erased, information unshared. With an eye and ear inside the machine that is the book, Levato reveals “the jagged lie” under the “continuous deep-throated barking” that contained both “more than we knew” and “if anything, nothing.” Years on and years to come, Levato beautifully and structurally understands that we will forever wear the pandemic not as a metaphor but as a bewilderingly opaque sheer, another skin.
—Sandra Doller, author of Leave Your Body Behind
"A connection… lifted… into view.” Levato’s SCARLET magnificently captures the withered yet still holding social and textual connections between us during the first years of the Covid 19 pandemic. Using language processing techniques like erasures and, more importantly, semi-erasures, Levato discovers networks between primary, subsidiary, and subterranean vocabularies and uses his discoveries to inscribe an apocalyptic yet all too necessary togetherness we grasped at during the terrible first months and years of the 2020s.
—Mark Nowak, author of Social Poetics
The table of contents could be read as an anxious list poem of pandemic preoccupations and activity. The combination of glitched photos of everyday life during lockdown and erasures of the text of a dystopian novel written in the early twentieth century is an effective and artful way to represent the pandemic years of our time. The murkiness of the muted and dark colours of the images and the abstractions of the glitched artefacts gave me the feeling of swimming underwater, slowly making my way through unknown depths. The erasure’s disruption of existing narrative evokes the disjointed and troubling feelings of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially in the first lockdowns. Reading Scarlet, I had a sense of truth being stranger than fiction. What London predicted in his 1912 novel has come to pass. Levato has skillfully and sensitively carved current fact and feeling out of another writer’s prescient imagination. Scarlet gives me feelings of connection, recognition, and relief in a disturbing and anxious millennium. In a world where nothing makes sense, the book feels like an attempt at sense making. It pieces together what is fragmented, indecipherable, unknown, and frightening. In using the techniques of glitch and erasure, Levato is also playing. I like to imagine that it was fun and satisfying to make these poems.
— Amanda Earl, Editor of Judith, Women Making Visual Poetry
Francesco Levato is a poet, literary translator, new media artist, and writer of speculative fiction. Recent books include SCARLET; Arsenal/Sin Documentos; Endless, Beautiful, Exact; Elegy for Dead Languages; War Rug; Creaturing (as translator); and the chapbooks A Continuum of Force and jettison/collapse. Recent speculative fiction appears in various publications, including Savage Planets, Sci-Fi Shorts, and Tales to Terrify. He has collaborated and performed with various composers, including Philip Glass, and his cinépoetry has been exhibited in galleries and featured at film festivals in Berlin, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Poetry, a PhD in English Studies, and is currently an Associate Professor of Literature & Writing Studies at California State University San Marcos.