Saturday, April 02, 2016

`Memory Was a Literary Genre'

In the introduction to his translation of Eugenio Montale’s It Depends: A Poet’s Notebook (New Directions, 1980), Ghan Shyam Singh mentions that the Italian poet translated “The Garden Seat,” a poem he describes as “one of Thomas Hardy’s most delicate lyrics.” I knew Montale had translated Hamlet into Italian, and works by Melville, Dickinson, Hopkins and Eliot, among others, but the Hardy came as news. Here is the poem Montale translated as Vecchia Panchina:

“Its former green is blue and thin,
and its once firm legs in and in;
soon it will break down unaware,
soon it will break down unaware.

“At night when reddest flowers are black
those who once sat thereon come back;
quite a row of them sitting there,
quite a row of them sitting there.

With them the seat does not break down,
nor winter freeze them, nor flood drown,
for they are light as upper air,
they are light as upper air!”

As children, all of us are animists. Matter is alive. My toy soldiers battled when left alone. Hardy writes not of ghosts but memories, traces of the past that linger and condense in what remains. “The Garden Seat” is included in Late Lyrics and Earlier With Many OtherVerses (1922), published in Hardy’s eighty-second year. If one lives long enough, memories of the past, good and bad, outshine the present, and sometimes merge with it. The results resemble a double-exposure photograph: “those who once sat thereon come back.” Montale published It Depends (Quaderno di quattro anni) in 1977, in his eighty-first year. Past and present mingle, as in La Memoria, translated by Singh as “Memory”:

“Memory was a literary genre
before writing was born.
Then it became chronicle and tradition
but it was already stinking like a corpse.
Living memory is immemorial,
it doesn’t arise from the mind,
nor sink into it. It clings
to whatever exists like a halo
of fog around the head.
It has already evaporated and it’s doubtful
if it will return. It doesn’t
always remember itself.”

Memory in Montale (and Hardy) has a spectral quality, reminiscent of “The Jolly Corner,”the story by Henry James in which Spencer Brydon, an aging American recently returned from Europe after a long absence, encounters an alternate version of himself. James embodies Brydon’s sense of self-doubt and regret:    

“The image of the `presence,’ whatever it was, waiting there for him to go--this image had not yet been so concrete for his nerves as when he stopped short of the point at which certainty would have come to him. For, with all his resolution, or more exactly with all his dread, he did stop short--he hung back from really seeing. The risk was too great and his fear too definite: it took at this moment an awful specific form.”

Montale says of memory: “It clings / to whatever exists like a halo / of fog around the head.” Shirley Hazzard alludes to “Memory” in the title essay of We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think (Columbia University Press, 2016):

“Horace wrote that strong men had lived before Agamemnon, but they lacked a poet to commemorate them, and thus passed into oblivion. The modern Italian poet, Eugenio Montale, reminds us, however, that memory existed as a literary genre before writing was invented: men who lived before Agamemnon were not in their time unreported or unsung.”

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