Reading Sveva is award-winning author Daphne Marlatt’s response to the life and paintings of Sveva Caetani, an Italian émigré who grew up in Vernon, B.C.
Daughter of an Italian prince, leftist, and scholar of Islam, Sveva grew up with the multilingual and highly cultured European traditions of her parents who moved to Vernon in 1921, when Fascism was on the rise in Italy. At age eighteen, after her father’s death in 1939, Sveva was forced into home-seclusion for twenty-five years with her grieving mother. When her mother died, she entered the community of Vernon and flourished as a high school teacher and respected painter. Her life experiences took the form of an extensive series of dry-brush paintings modelled on the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as poems and philosophical commentary.
Marlatt’s lasting interest in the lives of immigrants to the West Coast continues in Reading Sveva, a thoughtful collection of ekphrastic and lyric poems that respond to Sveva’s insular life, the late beginnings of her artistic grown in 1960, and the meaning of home.
Bringing her own perspective as an immigrant and as a woman, Marlatt illuminates the life of this forgotten female artist whose work is a testament to the struggle of the female artist, and the search for a sense of belonging.
Daphne Marlatt’s work in oral history (Opening Doors), in two novels (Ana Historic and Taken), and in earlier poetry (Steveston in particular) has been concerned with the lives of immigrants to the West Coast. She arrived with her family as a child immigrant herself in 1951. Her early involvement with the TISH poets and their interest in Black Mountain poetics in the 1960s influenced the development of her poetic, further shaped by her subsequent interest in feminist poetry and theory, particularly the work of Nicole Brossard and Erin Moure. She was co-founding editor of the innovative prose magazine periodics and the bilingual feminist journal Tessera. In 2006, her contemporary Noh play, The Gull, received the first full cross-cultural production of a Canadian Noh play in Canada, winning the international Uchimura Naoya Prize. In 2005, she was appointed to the Order of Canada in recognition of a lifetime of service to Canadian culture. In 2009, her long poem The Given won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, and in 2012 she received the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.
"In writing that brilliantly combines historry, narrative, ekphrasis, imagination, and speculaion, Marlatt creates a reader’s version of Caetani’s life… Marlatt’s poems embody a generous attention to details that unfold into worlds."— Capilano Review
“In Reading Sveva, Daphne Marlatt meets a kindred spirit in Sveva Caetani (1917–1994), a visual artist who, with originality equal to Marlatt’s own, strove to dissolve the same binary concepts that have preoccupied the poet and novelist throughout her career. … The poems are neither commentary, nor interpretation, nor do they evaluate or judge. Rather, they represent the summoning of one artist’s intuitive knowledge of another artist’s being. … At their most powerful, Marlatt’s poems conduct a kind of running interview with Sveva, addressing her as ‘you,’ quoting her own writings back to her in a new context.”
—Pacific Rim Review of Books
2014 ReLit Awards, poetry category (shortlisted)
Winner of the prestigious 2008 Uchimura Naoya Prize
This Tremor Love Is
Finalist for the 2002 BC Book Prize: Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize