Tuesday, October 12, 2010

`Decorum Aloof from Conformity'

Geoffrey Hill dedicates Without Title, his 2006 collection of poems, “in omaggio a Eugenio Montale” and includes a translation of the Italian master’s La Bufera – “The Storm.” In a comparable spirit of homage we dedicate this post to Montale, born one-hundred fourteen years ago today, Columbus Day, in the explorer’s native city, Genoa.

Montale fashions a private realm that in the hands of another poet might remain hermetic, surrounded by an impermeable membrane of arcane private reference. Instead, with patience and attentiveness, we are permitted entrance and learn to hear what Jonathan Galassi, in “Reading Montale,” in his translation of Collected Poems 1920-1954, calls the poet’s “nervous, astringent music.” Here is Hill’s version of Montale’s La Bufera:

“The storm that batters the magnolia’s
impermeable leaves, the long-drawn drum roll
of Martian thunder with its hail

“(crystal acoustics trembling in your night’s lair
disturb you while the gold transfumed
from the mahoganies, the pages’ rims
of de luxe books, still burns, a sugar grain
under your eyelid’s shell)

“lightning that makes stark-white the trees,
the walls, suspending them –
interminable instant – marbled manna
and cataclysm – deep in you sculpted,
borne now as condemnation: this binds you
closer to me, strange sister, than any love.
So, the harsh buskings, bashing of castanets
and tambourines around the spoilers’ ditch,
fandango’s foot-rap and over all
some gesture still to be defined…
As when
you turned away and casting with a hand
that cloudy mass of hair from off your forehead

“gave me a sign and stepped into the dark.”

Go here for a video of Hill reading his version of La Bufera and here to read translations of seven Montale poems by three America poets, including a translation of La Bufera by Charles Wright. In Section CXXXIV of The Triumph of Love (1998), Hill gives another homage to Montale in which he clearly identifies with the master:

“It surprises me not at all that your
private, marginal, uncommitted writing—
this is to be in code—came at the end
to the forum of world acclaim. Decenza
your term—I leave unchallenged; decorum
aloof from conformity; not a mask
of power’s harsh suavities. [Internal
evidence identifies the last
Eugenio Montale as the undoubted
subject of this address.—ED] It sets you
high among the virtuous avvocati
the judges with the grasp of such vocation—
and puts you with the place-brokers, purveyors
of counsel, publishers, editors,
and senators-for-life; a civic conscience
attested by comedy: twenty-five years
with the Nuovo Corriere della Sera
as leader-writer and critic of first nights;
still your own man; publicities, public life,
the anteroom to the presence-chamber
of self-containment. (Machiavelli described
entering his study, robed as if for Court.)
But one man’s privacy is another’s
crowded at home—we are that circumscribed.
Machado who, to say the least, is your
grand equal, sat out his solitude, habitué
of small, shaky, wicker or zinc tables—
still-life with bottle, glass, scrawled school-cahiers—
put his own voice to slow-drawn induration.
I admire you and have trained my ear
to your muted discords. This rage twists
me, for no reason other than the sight
of anarchy coming to irregular order
with laurels; now with wreaths: Duomo drone-
bell, parade-mask shout, beautifully-caught
scatter of pigeons in brusque upward tumble,
wingbeats held by a blink.”

Decenza is “decency,” “decorum,” “propriety.” Avvocati is “lawyers,” “counselors, “advocates.” Antonio Machado (1875-1939) was the Spanish poet of whom Montale wrote: “ten lines of Antonio Machado are enough to announce the presence of great poetry.” Il Corriere della Sera was Italy’s most important newspaper after World War II, where Montale worked for many years as an editor and music critic. Hill celebrates Montale as a private man with the gift for living a public life, “decorum / aloof from conformity.” One thinks of T.S. Eliot, a great favorite of Montale’s.

After Dante and Zbigniew Herbert, Montale is the foreign-language poet I most often read. I recommend Montale in English (Handsel Books, 2004), a selection by many poets and translators edited by Harry Thomas; Galassi’s translations of Collected Poems 1920-1954 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) and The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale (The Ecco Press, 1982); and Selected Poems (Oberlin College Press, 2004), with translations by Galassi, Wright and David Young.


William A. Sigler said...

“Muted discords,” I like that, Hill’s sense that there’s something proper about someone who is so resolute in his private music, who refuses the follow the conventions of social communication because he is chasing after something so fleeting and so sublime that to compromise in any way would be to spoil the vision. While Machado is agony to translate – to see his perfect language rigidify into the simplicities of English – Montale is agony to read, to try to understand and hold on to any meaning seems sometimes to lose the essence.

Montale speaks of a certain feeling, the love for someone or something missing, perhaps unknowable, a spirit I tried to capture in Montale in New Canaan:

You dissolve like sugar in the lemon juice, til
you are just that gift of surf, the catch
in an oriole's song, the footfall that is almost
Signs without lives of their own,
never love, because never absence
(though these things possess us as any lover,
they dole out all we know with the perversity of the divine).
You rush through the vistas
of mountains and streams for the glimpses
in the golden air of the unfamiliar
remembered, but there's only a painful
reminder, that the lover, the great invisible,
is you, just as it's painful to remember
that other people are also angels, equally ghosts.

The fireflies rise, in an emerald evening,
dim enough to hold all our dreams
but too bright to offer salvation.
Then schrapnel thunder, that makes audible stars.

Eric Thomson said...

Hill’s version, admirable though it is, is more an ‘overdraft’, to use Bunting's term, than a translation. To take only the first stanza, 'batters' stands for 'sgronda', which actually means 'trickles' or 'drips'. Perhaps it is Dante's use of ‘bufera’ which gives Hill the license - 'La bufera infernal, che mai non resta,/ mena li spirti con la sua rapina;/voltando e percotendo li molesta’ (The hellish hurricaine, never resting, sweeps along the spirits with its rapine; whirling and smiting, it torments them. Canto V, 31-33). The Jewish-American addressee, Clizia/Irma, who incidentally must have been particularly alert to the 'crystal acoustics', was an authority on Dante. The magnolia leaves are simply hard (‘dure’). No leaves are impermeable though the Magnolia’s do look preternaturally leathery and weather-proofed. In ‘long drumroll of Martian thunder’ there is no drumroll as such in the Italian and the word translated by 'Martian' is not the expected 'marziani' but 'marzolini', the adjective of March. 'March' in its quiet way would be just as martial but ‘Martian’ is typical Geoffrey Hill, who knows this is the Italy of 1942.
Let me put in a good word here for parallel texts for poets who write in languages vaguely related to English. Chinese and Arabic poets need not apply. They are the parallel bars on which translators perform their gymnastics and it’s always a recreation to follow their moves.
Thanks, Patrick, for a fine post. Yet another. I don't know how you do it.