Wednesday, April 28, 2010

`Knowledge Is Given in a Bright Instant'

“Maybe some morning, walking in dry glass air,
I’ll turn and see the miracle happen:
nothing at all behind me, at my shoulder
the void, and stare with a drunkard’s terror.

“Then as on a screen, the trees houses hills
will settle abruptly in the usual deception.
But it will be too late; and silent I’ll go on
among men who don’t look round, with what I know.”

The lyric is from Eugenio Montale’s first collection, Ossi di sepia (Cuttlefish Bones, 1925), as translated by Sonia Raiziss and Alfredo de Palchi. In Montale, “miracles” – not always happy ones -- are forever imminent, likely to occur at ordinary moments. Life is different afterwards. The “usual deception” never again reassures.

One of our students is the slowest post-toddler I’ve known. She’s not physically hobbled though her gait is peculiar, as she throws her legs slightly to the side before pitching them forward, in a manner that recalls one of Beckett’s little men. She takes ten minutes or more to move the two-hundred yards from her bus, up the hill to the classroom. Her slowness is compounded by an obsession with whatever is going on behind her, even if nothing is going on. She’s always looking over her shoulder, staring, whether in anxiety or nosiness we can’t say, though I suspect the latter. She reminds me of both a low-sodium update of Lot’s wife (Genesis 19:26) and Montale’s poem.

Idiomatically, “looking back” suggests a temporal gaze, a review of past events, not a spatial scan. Almost fifty years after writing the poem cited above, Montale published “Backward Glance” (in Satura, 1971) with a first line only an old poet could write convincingly: “You turn around and it’s another century” (translated by Jeremy Reed). Some of us understand the sensation. The poem concludes like this:

“Knowledge is given in a bright instant;
we open the segments of the orange,
and realize that walking in this life
we never know if we’re alive or dead.
Nothing’s stable. The word dries on the change…”

[Both translations are from Montale in English, edited by Harry Thomas, Handsel Books, 2004.]

1 comment:

Andrew MacGillivray said...

Montale, who was a distinguished translator of Shakespeare, lived for thirty years in Milan. 'nothing at all behind me, at my shoulder the void' (il nulla alle mie spalle, il vuoto dietro di me) reminded me of that Duke of Milan who asked his daughter what she saw 'in the dark backward and abysm of time'. Who but Shakespeare could evoke infinite regress by making a noun out of a directional adverb?