On the cover of Dana Gioia’s translation of Eugenio Montale’s Mottetti: Poems of Love (Gray Wolf Press, 1990) is I piaceri del poeta, a dream-like cityscape by Giorgio de Chirico, not flowers. The Motets are a sequence of twenty short poems originally published in 1939 as part of Montale’s second book, Le occasioni (The Occasions). They are love poems of a peculiar sort and tell an elliptical tale of “impossible love,” in Gioia’s words. The speaker has lost his love. He needs her but knows he will never again have her. I could be describing a soap opera, but the speaker experiences a cryptic series of what Gioia calls “visionary moments.” Little is overtly spelled out. All is compelling mystery. A similar work by a very different poet is J.V. Cunningham’s To What Strangers, What Welcome (Swallow Press, 1964). We know the woman in Montale’s poems represents Irma Brandeis (1905-1990), the American Dante scholar and the original of “Clizia” in his poems. Gioia dedicates his translation to her, and says in his introduction: “The Motets are among the loneliest poems ever written.” Here is Gioia’s rendering of “Motet I”:
“You know this: I must lose you again and cannot.
Every action, every cry strikes me
like a well-aimed shot, even the salt spray
that spills over the harbor walls
and makes spring
dark against the gates of Genoa.
“Country of ironwork and ship masts
like a forest in the dust of evening.
A long drone comes from the open spaces
scraping like a nail on a windowpane. I look
for the sign I have lost, the only pledge
I had from you.
Now hell is certain.”
The conventional complaint about Montale concerns his “hermeticism” and “obscurity,” made by readers and critics who expect verse to read like newspaper prose. (Forty years ago, this former reporter was instructed by an editor to write at the fifth-grade level.) Irked by such criticisms, Montale in 1950 wrote “Two Jackals on a Leash,” a fanciful retort to his more obtuse critics. Jonathan Galassi’s translation of the essay is included in Gioia’s Mottetti (and in The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale, 1982). The brief essay concludes:
“There is a middle road between understanding nothing and understanding too much, a juste milieu which poets instinctively respect more than their critics; but on this side or that of the border there is no safety for either poetry or criticism. There is only a wasteland, too dark or too bright, where two poor jackals cannot live or cannot venture forth without being hunted down, seized, and shut behind the bars of a zoo.”
Montale takes the title of his essay from “Motet VI”:
“I had almost lost
hope of ever seeing you again;
“and I asked myself if this thing
cutting me off
from every trace of you, this screen
was the approach of death, or truly
vision of you
out of the past,
“(under the arches at Modena
I saw an old man in a uniform
dragging two jackals on a leash).”
Montale suggests the vision of the old man and the jackals was sent to him by Clizia, “like an emanation.” He puts in parentheses “to isolate the example and suggest a different tone of voice, the jolt of an intimate and distant memory.” Montale was born on this date, Oct. 12, in 1896, and died on Sept. 12, 1981.