My youngest son, nine years old, won a drawing contest sponsored by the Houston Public Library for illustrating scenes from a book, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger. It’s hideous stuff, badly written and illustrated, and soaked in pop culture, and David loves it. On Saturday we went to a luncheon at the central library, where we ate hot dogs and listened to whining children and patronizing adults, and Angleberger signed two of his books for David. Beforehand we made a quick run through the library and I found The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale (2012), which gathers all of William Arrowsmith’s translations of the great Italian poet, and gave me something to do once I’d finished my hot dog.
By happy serendipity, the first poem I turned to was “Agave on the Cliff” from Montale’s first collection, Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones, 1925). “Happy” because I’ve been admiring the monstrous agaves so central to yard landscaping in Houston. Picture a spiky, broad-leafed, underwater-looking plant the color of the cover of the first edition of Ulysses, a succulent that thrives in drought and stony soil. What I’m seeing is not Agave tequilana, the Jalisco native treasured by tequila fanciers. No, this is its steroidal cousin, Agave americana, known commonly as century plant, maguey, flowering aloe, spiked aloe and American aloe. Agave is a New World plant brought to Europe by Spaniards and Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Did Montale know he was writing about a plant on the Ligurian coast transplanted from America?
The poem has three parts, each named for a wind – “Sirocco,” “Tramontana” and “Mistral.” The first-person speaker is the plant, an Ovidian conceit Montale frequently uses. From “Sirocco”:
“O stifling wings of air
now I am
the agave that hugs the crevice
in the cliff,
flinches from seaweed arms groping
from the surf, jaws agape, clawing at the rocks;
and in that seething
of every essence, my buds clenched tight,
incapable of breaking into bloom, today I feel
this rootedness of mine is torture.”
For a poet so devoted to a place – the Ligurian coast -- and a tradition (classical, Italian), the final sentence quoted comes as a surprise. Rootedness, one supposes, would be a virtue. Arrowsmith glosses the speaker’s situation as “an undecided self whose conflicting spiritual impulses – confinement and immobility (expressed as earth-rootedness) on the one hand, and boundless free movement (sea, sky, birds) on the other – are set against each other in revealing dialectical tension.”
Normally I run screaming when someone uses “dialectical” in other than a comically pretentious sense, but I see what Arrowsmith is getting at. In the human realm, most impulses contain their opposite. Rootedness and freedom are not necessarily contradictory. What is less free than driftwood bobbing on the waves? The poem’s third section, “Mistral,” closes with these lines:
“O my stalk, you
whose arms, all bursting blossoms
now reveal rebirth
in everything, look:
“beneath the dense blue
sky, seabirds flash by, never
pausing, driven by images below:
When the wind eases and the weather turns benignly Mediterranean, the agave-poet blossoms but remains restless and discontented, envying the birds.