Part Two of an extended essay on translated poetry.
By Peter Riley.
translated by John Taylor
An Orchid Shining in the Hand: selected poems 1932-1960.
Chelsea Editions 2015. Bilingual text | 428pp paperback | £28.83 $20.00
Guarda a lato. Non più risuona
Il plinto giallo. S’inacerba
Il rumore non più giovane.
Non giova più sull’erba la memore
Dipinta lapide di cristallo.
Look to the side. The yellow plinth
Resounds no more. No longer young
The noise gets bitter. In the grass
The painted crystal gravestone, mindful,
THESE ARE THE FIRST five lines of Calogero’s poem “Guarda a lato” (titled, as most of his poems are, by the opening phrase of the poem) written some time between 1945 and its publication in his book Ma Questo in 1955.
This is clearly the work of an experienced and confident poet. You could easily assume it to have come from someone engaged at the heart of mid-century ventures among Italian poets into what some call Modernism1 but the Italians for some reason generally refer to as Hermetism, a term I’ve always found inappropriate both for its espousal of mysticism and for its implication that the poetry is deliberately “sealed” – its subjects and motivations hidden from the reader in an act of secretising.2 Calogero (1910-1961) might be assumed to be one of the poets younger than Ungaretti who were influenced by him or who agreed to the Modernist agenda in public and private discussion in the cultural centres of the country. But Calogero spent most of his life alone in a village in Calabria, and had no great public recognition while living, nor posthumously until very recently, apart from surges of interest when two parts of a still incomplete Opere poetiche were published in the 1960s and a selected poems in 1989. Basically he has been the missing item from the history of modern Italian poetry for half a century.
I hardly feel it necessary to expound Calogero’s mature poetry, having quoted five lines of it. There is a lot of it, and it is a mass of surprising figuration, semi-connected phrases weighed carefully against each other, epithets transferred from a silent elsewhere, locational insecurity, and the occulted delineation of personal conditions which remain half-silent, in a dominant tone of lamentation without associated negativity. We are constantly thrust into past events or stories which have dissolved into a piecemeal present tense, forming a transformed scenario involving things we can identify (gravestone) alongside things we can’t (plinth, noise). Objects here attain a symbol-like luminosity from the very uncertainty of their status or their narrative participation.
Those five lines show most of this, but we don’t always have such a sense of being at a place (here a cemetery) and there are other important features including a frequently addressed “you” which shifts among several possible identities, most strongly as the poet’s love-object (sometimes successful sometimes failed, generally not happy), but may also seem to become the poet himself, or an unknown other, or otherness itself. Frequently the poem laments a recent or imminent death, which may be the death of “you” or “I” or both or a third term. Through these vagaries and the wavering sense of location the “you” figure is always liable to be the reader, the primary other that the poet never knows, or it stands as a total sense of “you-ness” without loss of affect, indeed with augmented resonance. The tone is indeed lamentational but it is not a poetry of complaint; the feeling/seeing eye of the poem acts as witness to what remains of what happened, sadly enumerating but without overt show of bitterness. If there is a dominant emotional tone it is more like renunciation. It is also important that most of the poems do not “hang together” in the way that is expected, but may begin in a location, or a hint of one, and go into a further section located somewhere else without any continuity of time or place or purpose, except at the very end, the closure which is the repeated act of submission. The five lines quoted are helpful, but here, for good measure, are fourteen more lines from c.1957 which behave rather differently—
Vedo angeli vaganti
I see wandering angels and a moonlike clarity.
A tide submerges and sounds on colors
cluster like grapes. Breath speeds onwards,
splendidly, in its diligent flight. At a standstill,
Lingering behind, the origin of the silent light
Was slow, and, if I withhold,
On a finger, your movement restored to life
and visible inside a circle of motionless
splendor, so also do I withhold
my breath in the vain awakened surface left to me.
The shapeless dead are listening. Clouds
Stretch out here and there, having invaded
breath’s vast impetuous flight around
the remote arching trembling horizon.
This is rather untypical in its maintained running pressure, the “classical” play of connected periods against line-length, the consistency of address. But it shows where he stands, how experience is translated into a theatre of terrestrial forms which shares its space with angels and the human bodily condition. The meaning of “breath” here is particularly strong, chiming with angels in flight and encompassing and restoring to life both “you” and the earth, at the loss of itself. Breath resurrects the other and voluntarily offers itself to the earth. A sudden, cautionary, chilling sentence such as “The shapeless dead are listening” may occur in almost any of his poems as a sign of the privileged and tense space his writing commands.
CALOGERO’S MATURE POETRY dates from 1945 to the end of his life. The war seems to have marked a crisis and turning-point in a life intimately bound to the poetry, involving an attempted suicide in 1942, a broken engagement, and the career of a pathophobic doctor, an occupation which he thereafter sought to minimise, and he passed most of his last dozen years living alone in the village in which he was born, periodically entering psychiatric clinics. He was found dead in 1961 from unknown causes, presumed to be suicide but without certainty. There is an obvious connection between the life and the content of the poems, but the stronger that is, the more I would prefer to set it aside. This is a matter of principal but is specially necessary when we are dealing with a Modernist textuality which is too easily reduced to an extension of the author’s mental condition. This demands caution even when that condition emerges plainly in moments of the poetry, as it does (“Or I will have to tell you / I desire my own death // And not by chance, but by fate.” … “But I had no desire / to move away from beloved places.” … “Perhaps I speak to myself and to myself alone / to human substance.”) “Biographism” (explaining every artistic move as a product of the author’s mental or emotional condition at the time, with or without the involvement of the political or social context), is axiomatic in British non-academic cultural commentary now (even as I sit here writing somebody on the radio is using it to explain away a Schoenberg string quartet) but the possibilities for poetical language opened up by someone like Calogero are too important to be understood as extensions of symptoms.3
If Calogero’s life still seems to cling to the poems, as it well might, the answer may lie in considering the poetry not as an expression of that life, but as a transformation of it, in which the unhappiness is intact but acts in a much larger theatre, and becomes a constructive force. In the five lines above, the feeling self or heart is no longer the centre and source of the process, but acts as witness to a falling world, in which the gravestone becomes a transparent thing, painted, and useless: the solid block marking the end is of crystal and so disperses sight through itself towards the world, but is painted, as if to conceal its plurality behind a makeshift surface barrier, and “useless” because the singular person in whose name it stands is dispersed and lost; there is nothing left to remember. But the principal result of the poetic technique, is that the anguish, divided into a series of more-or-less discrete and incomplete utterances, is no longer a personal property but existential, powered “not by chance, but by fate”. We can see such implications as these in the poem’s imagery, and we can recount them, but there is always the possibility of more. I would need to take the poignant phrase “Guarda a lato / Look to the side” home with me for a month or two before trying to define its force in the poem. Something about lateral perception as an act which opens up the real, extended, theatre of our existence…? But precisely as a looking away from the “reality” of the gravestone…?
In Vedo angeli vaganti a whole figurative narrative is projected outwards from the speaking figure, offering its breath into the cosmic parade. It remains a very personal poem, as much saying “I seek my death” as any of the more direct utterances do, its central despair redeemed by transforming the relinquished breath of the victim into a power of renewal by participation in the music of a total space.
I don’t know what to call this. Not transcendence for a start. Whatever it is there is an essential factor of the classical in it, of being related to something very old and substantial, a relation which conventionally formal (or casually informal) poetry so often fails to locate and which too much “advanced” poetry casts to the wind. Many of the gestures of address which constitute the poem bear marks of an ancestry in the history of poetry – rhythms, disposition of periods, tone, etc., (note for instance the echo in Guarda a lato of “non più giovane” and “Non giova più”, a lyrical gesture not reproducible in English) — but also in the raised voice, the assumption of the widest address, the honour of the mode, which in Calogero’s cases is normally the elegiac. The linguistic disturbance or fracture of the poetry all the more discloses the classical mode behind it.
THERE ARE SOME 70 pages of pre-1940s poetry in the book which offer a clue as to what happened. These poems are not so very different from the later ones; already we have the tone of melancholy in building poems out of instances of failure, loss, and death, questing for a comprehensible space, but the singular condition is much more insisted on and the discourse takes familiar short-cuts towards sublimity, with reliance on words such as nature, eternal, divine. Above all there is a constant recounting of event in the tone of the victim which is also an explaining and an attempt to understand. The “I”, a pronoun which equally dominates the later work, appeals against its sentence, and is thus very much a self rather than a figure of the poem. The poems are already both eloquent and perceptive, with a confidence in the speaking voice which was carried into the later work and affirms what I called their classical tone, whether in floating clauses or sustained discourse full of surprising and irrational figurations.
In many ways it is as if after 1945 he continued to write the same kinds of poem with the same intentions, but something radical had overtaken his writing hand. But it was also a textual necessity, a need to augment the reach of the poem beyond what the self could comprehend, since the self found its own existence incomprehensible. By 1945 Calogero had got himself into a fairly dreadful state of hopelessness and was comforted only by his distance from the demands and rewards of urban centrality, in a pastoral location which to him was more real than the university or the state. 4 The need had to be as acute as this to summon up the full strength of his art.
It was not entirely a singular act or conversion. There are moments among the earlier poems which seem to reach forwards. A poem called “Son of the Universe” (a kind of title very unlikely to happen later on) ends—
Now you’re but a breadcrumb
That I pick up with my loving eyes,
That birds then come to peck at
And make sweet prey of.
The more evident discourse of the earlier work is obvious here, but it would be no easy task to say what kind of event is being reported in this stanza; as a “death” it is as occulted and scattered as in the later poems. And the following very small poem itself expresses in an utter simplicity typical of parts of some of the later poems, the desire to articulate his condition fully under its own impetus, merely facilitated by the author—
Sadness sunning itself alone
to become fuller
to know how to speak.
Although hinged on 1939-1945 the opening up of his poetry continued fitfully thereafter, reaching a condition of masterly disregard for its own subjectivity and a freedom to engage with a wide range of verbal events. A certain caution is necessary because his last poems, 1959-60, are known as “The Villa Nuccia Notebooks” after a psychiatric clinic he was in at that time. There are 35 of these manuscript notebooks and it is an open question to what extent their contents consist entirely of finished poems. Some are very short and inconsequential, others are grammatically incomplete at start or finish (one begins with a semi-colon) and in other respects can suggest jottings. I believe transcription is difficult. Certainly the books published during his lifetime (the last one in 1956) for all their wild behaviour present solid sections of text mostly following subliminal courses, without the ragged edges of the last poems. But for all we know these “unfinished” poems may be perfectly legitimate creations as far as he was concerned. And there are passages where he seems to surpass himself, such as the imagery of bone at the beginning of the poem numbered CXXV— “…E quell che mi remane / è un poco di turbine lento di ossa…”
…And what’s left to me
is a slow little whirl of bones
in this terrible bustling
where a stage of death
has also been raised.
And I have loved a hawthorn flower
in your joints, your bones,
the open lands.
Calogero here moves effortlessly between the static and the dynamic from one syllable to the next, and effects an immediate transition from the singular mortal anchorage of bone to “the open lands” as if nothing could follow more naturally, all within the tone of yearning which his entire work inhabits.
AS FOR “MODERNISM”, the form it takes in the post-1945 work of Calogero still clearly bears the author’s despair on its back, but resolved into a creative condition, contacting the reader through recognisable authenticities. Modernism operating like this within a small perspective — here little more than self, other, site and circumstance — opens this enclosure out to the world’s width. This is what the poetry is for and constitutes its value, as it does in Rimbaud, Hopkins, Thomas or Pessoa and most other poets like them, with the notable exception, as I see it, of the big American Modernists, to whom damaged language was mainly an opportunity for claiming global authority (with exception to Wallace Stevens for operating linguistic perversity on the basis of pleasure rather than prophesy). With Calogero and the rest; a blighted life experience becomes a saving grace on the page, partly because the poetry is reverberatory rather than referential but also because the authenticity of the experience is caringly crafted into the construct, that is, as if with real concern for the reader’s companionship through a variety of linguistic adventures. These are not “challenging”; they are in fact quite friendly.
Anyway, this poor, tormented man certainly did something worth knowing about, call it what you will — an offer of his abandoned self to the world, stories of loss and hopelessness rendered into the calm of the earth itself, sometimes as simply as possible. Poem LXIII, “tu per il soave desiderio / eri condotta / alla tua patria quieta…” (1959)
Through gentle desire
You were led
To your quiet homeland…
You were lying like a stone
From wave to wave
And from you the aura divided the moon
From the quiet dawn
I am not in a good position to judge John Taylor’s translations, but the Academy of American Poets is, and in 2013 they awarded him the $25,000 Raiziss-de Palchi fellowship for his work translating Calogero (Taylor’s comments and a reading of his translations of Calogero are here [left]). They certainly read well. I feel sure that he has transmitted with authenticity the particular tone of much of Calogero’s poetry, the sense as of classical lyrical poems which have begun to fall apart.
ANTONELLA ANEDDA WRITES ACCOMPLISHED poetry with an interesting instability in its modes, liable to make deft moves mid-poem between prosaic and poetical ways of writing which imply quite different roles for the reader. This is not so marked in Antonella Anedda’s first book, Rezidenze invernale /Winter Residences (1992), which is a quite sombre series of meditations on hospital wards in winter, challenging the Italian lyrical tradition with a realist stress on suspended animation, cold5 and quietness, picking out the most resonant and contrastive detail: rows of human bodies motionless in beds, ice on the window…
The aisle is a plain with imperceptible mounds.
With what silent bows do the thoughts of the dead meet there.
In the nurses’ room silver foil shines,
The smell of wine wafts in the air.
This is actually as much a lyrical writing as a realist one, there is no conflict between them. It shows too how the bleakness and the hard detail yield into a poetical breadth of vision, as here:
From now there’s time enough for us to go
on, one beside the other,
in the brief space given to us.
Still able to cast shadows
on the wall, still mortal.
The pointing of the final clause as a separate sentence, as in the Italian, shows the dramatic skill at her command: the message is one of continued life and thus hope, negatively expressed but set firm by the syntax as a substantiality.
This work of the early 1990s establishes Anedda’s mastery of the short poem marked by a constant opening and questioning of the apparent, worked into an insistent discourse, not without irony and paradox. Thereafter the scope of the poetry is progressively less specialised and more subject-defined. The work of the late 1990s is concerned with war (at the time of the Gulf War) under the ironic title Nights of Western Peace. The first poem of this sequence, which I quote entire, forcefully declares the night/light paradox of this discourse, its merger of hope with hopelessness and the human body in a metaphysical engagement with harm: “Vedo dal buio / come dal più radiosi dei balconi.”
I see from the darkness
as from the most radiant balcony.
The body is an axe: it strikes the light
silently removing it
to its starkest passage – to the black
of time that composes
from the space trodden down by my soles
an unbearably slow
(Surely a reference to Ungaretti in that last line.)
As the book continues the poetry expands its attention, and also relaxes and normalises to some extent. It is less and less immersed in darkness. It is much involved with Sardinia, Anedda’s ancestral and adopted habitat – small islands and American submarines – and there are four poems in the Sardinian language Logudorese. There is a section of resourceful ekphrasis, but increasingly the focus is directed onto her own events and experiences. Here there is a degree of normalisation which all the more contrasts with lurches into high poetry or metaphysical scenarios, in neighbouring poems or in the same poem. A poem begins “Today watching the city and its tower blocks trembling with heat / I thought of Japan…” – that easy entry into the poem by assimilation of author and reader which is so highly favoured over here for popular poetry, but which to others means that the poem has not yet started. Yet the poem goes on, descriptively concerning Basho’s house, and arrives at “…how many different kinds of tremor we are forced to learn.”
IT WAS A GOOD IDEA to collect together Ruth Speirs’ translations of Rilke. And it would have happened a long time ago had not Rilke’s publisher, Insel Verlag, granted exclusive book rights in Britain to The Hogarth Press and J. B. Leishman in the 1930s. Leishman’s purpose in translating was to produce at all costs an English poem out of Rilke’s German. And the costs were great, his versions so cluttered with rhyme, meter, and periphrasis that there is no guaranteed intimacy between the translation and the original German poem, which is displaced by an almost constant echo of the mannerisms of 1930s-style English Romanticism or earlier, and sometimes falls into absurd verbal forms. There was a Selected Poems translated by Speirs publish in a limited edition in 1942 in Cairo, which is where she was when she did most of this work, in the company of the wartime British “Cairo group” (Laurence Durrell, G.S. Fraser, Keith Douglas, Terence Tiller et al.). Apart from that everything was scattered in magazines and anthologies, mostly in the 1940s, or remained unpublished.
Her intentions as translator are given straightforwardly in a Preface to the Cairo edition and two reviews of Leishman which are included in the book—
What I have aimed at is to give as exact a translation as is humanly possible.
. . .
Leishman must have thought of Rilke as a mannerist in poetry as well as in life. It is true, of course, that Rilke imposed his peculiar sensibility on the German language, to the extent of neologism, where necessary, and of daring grammatical, syntactical and stylistic innovation throughout. Yet he was also a master of the vernacular, of simple and natural speech – an element no less essential to his work than to Yeats or Mr Pound or Mr Eliot.
The insistence she makes is that sense has priority, because Rilke’s word choice was precise rather than impressionistic or ornamental. Her task was then to show exactly what Rilke was doing with language at every point of the text. The sense lay in the knots and gaps but also in the reach of the sentence, both involved in the perceptual discoveries made in the writing, which must be rendered free of both obfuscation and reductive forms of clarity. There are no doubt failures, and there are indecisions, but for the most part the result is a balance which even more recent experts cannot seem to manage without wooden awkwardness—
_________________Do not lovers always
come to the brink, one in the other, they
who promised themselves space, the chase, and a homeland?
There for an eyewink’s sketch a foundation
for the opposite’s laboriously got ready
so we can see it…
—who had expected spaces, hunt, and home—
not always step up to brinks, one in the other.
There is a ground of contrast, for a moment’s sketch,
laboriously prepared, that we might see it…
Surely the virtue of this lies in a sustained rhythmic flow which does not diminish the exactitude of the figures.
Ruth Speirs’ Rilke cannot become anyone’s definitive English Rilke, since the impossibility of a book meant that she made no attempt to cover all Rilke’s major works. The Duino Elegies are all here, but only twenty of the Sonnets to Orpheus, with a generous selection from New Poems and a scatter of earlier poems. But as a check on and comparison with other translations I think it would be extremely useful.
Part one of this essay is devoted to the work of Ilhan Berk and appears here.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (UK/US) (Shearsman, 2015). A collection of his “Poetry Notes’ columns appears in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint.
⇒ John Taylor’s new translations for the Fortnightly of six Calogero poems are here.
Note: This review was altered after publication to correct errors in transcription. 21 August 2016.
- I am still trying to find out what this word means. I use it throughout this review under protest (upper-case M this week, lower-case next week) in the usual sense of a poetry which uses language in unorthodox ways, especially the blocking or filtering of transmission as if a barrier is created between poet and reader by disconnection, intrusion of irrelevance, syntactical disorder, inexplicable figuration, etc. As a general definition of Modernism this will not do; you can find it all in folk song. ↩
- While investigating this I found out that the French poets (Rimbaud et al.) I refer to as “symbolistes” (not itself a perfect term) are known to some as “decadentists”. What a nomenclatural disaster zone is the study of modern poetry. ↩
- I would be the last to deny that it is very difficult to find any foundational Modernist work of poetry which does not seem to have emanated from someone living a far from normal existence, bearing a problematic mental condition, or habitually given to extremely bad behaviour. I don’t know any answers to the questions that arise from this, but to re-assert that the poem on the page does not itself “behave”. ↩
- I am sympathetic to John Taylor’s suggestion that the countryside where Calogero walked every day is marked by abrupt transitions of land-form and colour which can be related to the disrupted texture of his poems. ↩
- Jamie McKendrick suggests that the emphasis on coldness is in contrast to most modern Italian poetry and the general association of Italy with heat, as if in protest against popular or touristic imagery. This seems plausible, though I generally find the modern Greek poets to be much more soaked in sunshine and heat than the Italians. ↩