Saturday, March 21, 2009

`A Spark from a Beacon'

The fourth section of Eugenio Montale’s first book, Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones, 1925), is a suite of nine untitled poems he called “Mediterraneo” (“Mediterranean”). This is the ninth, as translated by Jeremy Reed (included in Montale in English, edited by Harry Thomas):

“Then obliterate if you wish
the errors of a life,
as a sponge erases
the chalk marks on a blackboard.
I need to re-enter your circle,
find help in my fragmentation.
my coming here signifies
a meaning I lost on the road,
and these words of mine allude
unconsciously to a signal event.
But whenever the wind carried
your lazy surf upon a beach,
consternation shook me
as it does a man who’s lost
then recollects his home.
Having learnt my lesson
more from the breathless gasping
of some deserted midday hour of yours
that is hardly audible
than from your glorious moment,
I give myself up in humility.
I’m no more than a spark from a beacon,
And well I know it, to burn,
this is my single, solitary meaning.”

It’s customary to speak of Montale’s poetry as “gnomic” and “hermetic” (Eric Ormsby calls it “blissfully cryptic), and it’s true his early work in particular is seldom explicit, and moves by oblique suggestion and a private mythology. In this reader, however, it also elicits a powerful emotional response. The “Mediterranean” is especially rich, perhaps the core of Montale’s work. The speaker of the poem above addresses the sea, his source, in words reminiscent of Eliot (whom Montale revered): “In my beginning is my end.” I sense a man wishing to mend his ways and return to something elemental, to his original aims – to answer a deferred calling, a vocation. As is customary with Montale’s speakers, there’s an element of passivity, of being acted upon.

I packed Montale in English with my lunch on Friday, when I worked with special-ed. kids in a middle school – a loud, spirited bunch. Most replaced conventional speech with moaning, shrieking or growling, though none was violent or abusive. Reading Montale at lunch was a sanctuary, one I left to join the collective crossword puzzle-solving in the staff room. A woman worked two newspaper puzzles simultaneously, reading clues aloud. I gave up puzzles years ago when they started consuming too much time, but the group effort was unexpectedly enjoyable. I felt a new sense of solidarity with my colleagues and a conviction that working with damaged kids is precisely what I should be doing, that working for newspapers, a wire service and in other capacities as a writer was merely prelude. In “Jackals in Parentheses,” his essay on Montale collected in Facsimiles of Time, Eric Ormsby writes:

“There are no manifestoes in Montale, no slogans, no agendas, no morals, no party platforms; nothing but that private monologue carried out with lovers, friends, mother and father, God, himself, the sea, the wind, the muse and that you, that tu, we all carry within us, call it guardian angel or daimon, as you wish.”


William A. Sigler said...

David Young's translation of this passage takes the poem away from an expression of personal regret in the face of the surf's effacing power, to a more metaphysical contemplation of man's place in the universe. It reads:

"Dissolve it if you choose,
this little whining life,
the way a sponge will take
a chalk-scrawl off a blackboard.
I wait to return to your circle
when my scattered passage is complete.
My coming was a witness
to an order I forgot along the way.
My very words confirm
an impossible happening they can't fathom.
But always, as I listened to
your soft surf breaking on the shore
amazement seized me
like someone with almost no memory
come suddenly home to the past.
Having taken my lessons
less from your rapid glory, more
from that slow panting that makes
almost no sound on your desolate noondays,
I surrender now in humility. I'm only
a spark from a thyrsus: to burn--
that's my meaning, and nothing else."

This reading captures the moment the speaker disengages from his identification with the elemental forces of surf to recognize that his life's purpose is to be a witness to something that will never be known, because the memory he chased his whole life, of his purpose and origins, will always be forgotten. Thus, he chooses to be absorbed into the unknowable, because there is no other access point to his own identity.

Levi Stahl said...

The Montale passage has impressed me to the point that, after a long work day, I have no comment other than to go read some poetry.

But I do think that, having mentioned how pleasant a group effort on a crossword puzzle can be, you'll enjoy my friend Luke's dismissal of Soduku: "How can Soduku be as much fun as a crossword? What do you do, ask people, 'What's a number that's not 6, 8, or 4?'"

May said...

Would you mind correcting "sepia" by adding a p?
It's "seppia"?