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XENIA by Eugenio Montale Translated Mario Petrucci (Arc Publications)

XENIA by Eugenio Montale Translated Mario Petrucci (Arc Publications)

Montale’s sequence of twenty-eight poems written in response to the death of his wife in 1963 has, naturally enough, been compared to the Poems of 1912-13 written by Hardy after the death of Emma. Regarding those earlier responses to profound loss Mario Petrucci suggests that the Italian poet thought that the section from Satires of Circumstance was “one of the summits of modern poetry”. The comparison is interesting and F.R. Leavis referred to it in some detail in his recognition of the “direct simplicity of personal feeling” relating the two poets. In his introduction to G. Singh’s translation of Montale’s New Poems Leavis went on to question this simplicity in terms of the impersonality of art:

“Now I think that great art is necessarily impersonal, and that the true creative impersonality is what we have in the poignancy, the profound movingness, of Xenia…For a major poet such as Montale is, poetry is one’s profoundest response to experience. The theme of Xenia is as central, important and moving as any human theme can be, and the reticence it requires of the poet is not a refusal to recognise the full nature of what, intimately for him as a sufferer, it in reality portends; but the contrary.”

Leavis discusses the central idea of how can an “actual pondered sense of irrevocable loss” be defined and communicated and the derivation of that word irrevocable pushes us forward to think of how a voice of a “Woman much missed” can “call to me”. Leavis is not alone of course in recognising the appropriateness of a connection between Hardy’s poems, subtitled as Veteris vestigia flammae, and Montale’s elegiac words for his little Mosca. But he is perhaps unusual in his awareness of what Donald Davie also noted about Hardy’s Victorian diction and the quality of those elegies to the memory of Emma that took the poet beyond the world of the technician, “the laureate of engineering”:

“…a direct simplicity of personal feeling certainly relates the two poets…Montale is immensely more subtle, more supple and more diverse than Hardy. The fact is apparent at once in the texture (hardly a felicitous metaphor – but what better is there?) and the nervous life of their verse. Hardy had to fight an unending battle against Victorian ‘poetic diction’, and the evidence of it is there in the handful of his major victories…Montale, on the other hand, is, as poetic ‘practitioner’ (to use Eliot’s favoured term), clearly a master of living – that is, today’s spoken – Italian.”

Hardy’s yearning to create a bridge between the Now and the Then, to give voice to the irrevocable, leads Leavis to “recognise that she [Emma] exists only as posited by the poet’s nostalgic intensity”: she is the woman with whom he was in love forty years ago. “But Mosca in Xenia is the highly individual woman apart from whom daily life was inconceivable until the catastrophe of her loss, and is almost inconceivable now”. Almost…and yet Montale’s achievement is to make her “so compellingly actual” in the “evoked day-to-day ordinariness”.
I possess no great facility with the Italian language and my reading of translations of Montale’s work is dependent upon my sense of trust in the way in which they present themselves. Let it be clear: I think that these new poems by Mario Petrucci are remarkable in the way that they capture a profound response to experience. The translator’s introduction makes it clear to us that he knows very well indeed what is involved in this subtle and complex work:

“The familiarities of a shared life are allowed to brim but never to spill over, as they might under less dextrous or more assertive hands, into sentimentality. Those details, things as things in themselves, contain the emotion.”

William Carlos Williams would have course have recognised the centrality of this awareness of the ordinary out of which our lives are composed and Petrucci highlights for us how “Around household bric-a-brac and household oddments – a telephone bill, old books, his (as he elsewhere puts it) totem of a rusty shoehorn – Montale constructs a humble reliquary of loss”. As a translator Mario Petrucci presents a firm method of approach:

“I should add that I skirted, initially, the Matterhorn of Montale commentaries, not wishing to commence Xenia in the boa grip of academic conclusions or with that pressing sense of an author’s sanctified objectives. This might seem cavalier, even heretical, with someone as elusive and allusive as Montale can be; but it paid the language, as well as the poet, a different sort of respect. It allowed a fresh and unencumbered approach, one that (for all its dangers) facilitated a certain freedom to express and reinterpret the spirit of the verse. I was able to come to textual insights in my own way rather than second-hand.”

I find this focus upon the translator as reader and literary critic admirable and the living quality of the result is there for all to see.

“At the Saint James, Paris, I’ll request
a single room. (No love lost there
for the uncoupled client). So, too,
in the mock Byzantium of your
Venetian hotel; then quick on the scent
of those friends of yours in their
switchboard hutch; only to start
again, my clockwork charge all spent,
with that longing to have you back if
only in some gesture, or knack.”

The power of Hardy’s Poems of 1912-13 is held in the architectural magnificence of a structure such as the opening stanza of ‘The Going’:

“Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here…”

And the musical yearning, the echo, is caught then with the rhyming “Where I could not follow / With wing of swallow” before the last line draws out as the vibrant ‘g’ sounds merge into open air:

“To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!”

Petrucci’s Montale attempts a more matter-of-fact record of loss:

“No glasses, nor antennae,
poor insect – such wings
you possessed only in fantasy –
a bible broken and much less
believable, this night-blackness,
a flash, a clap and then
no – not even the squall. Perhaps
you never left so soon without
speaking? Though it’s laughable
to consider you still had lips.”

For anything equivalent to Mario Petrucci’s Xenia we must turn perhaps to Simon Marsh’s STANZE (c.f. my review from 7/3/16) to read

“you promised me Dante after supper
the circumstances no longer exist
only changes in air scent
intensely captured light
page-bound radiance of individual days
when we last scooped vacant autumn oysters
from low tide silt at Minnis Bay”

And, as if to bring some wheel round full circle, I am delighted to announce Riccardo Duranti’s translations of Marsh’s poems into Italian, a versioni italiane, published by his own Coazinzola Press which has also just produced a beautifully presented version of John Berger’s Collected Poems available from http://www.coazinzolapress.it

As this moment of the year’s turning let us raise a glass not only to the fine poets, whose sensitivity to what they read and experience makes their publications so worthwhile, but also to their publishers such as Arc (www.arcpublications.co.uk) and Coazinzola.

Ian Brinton 30th December 2016

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2 responses »

  1. And let’s raise a glass to you, too, who – since retirement? – has devoted even more time to that slave-master Poetry. To the benefit of many of us out here in the invisi-world. Thank you!

    Reply

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