Between Thunder and Lightning

In the Dark Body of Metamorphosis and Other Poems

by Mario Luzi, translated by I.L. Salomon
Norton, 110 pp., $6.95

Tolstoy says that art commences with “that certain little something” and then grows larger and deeper, never losing its initial vibration. In a translation, I suppose, the most one can hope for is but an echo of that certain little something, but I’m afraid that’s not always what one gets in the votive offerings that I. L. Salomon drops at the feet of the brilliant and forbidding Italian poet Mario Luzi. Some of the translations, or individual passages from them, are often quite fine, but many more tend to have a lurching or flustered diction. And I say that even though I’ve read only a few of Luzi’s poems in various Italian journals or anthologies. But surely it makes no matter: one’s sixth sense can always tell whether things are really right or not. Norton of course has compounded the difficulty by committing the blunder of presenting Luzi’s poems on these shores without the original texts to accompany them. And that is inane—Italian is not Chinese.

Mario Luzi belongs to the generation (Sereni and Sinisgalli are other members) that began publishing in the middle Thirties, a generation highly influenced by the strange and elliptical style of what later came to be known as ermetismo, a literary movement best represented in the early works of Ungaretti and Montale, Italy’s two great modern poets. Ermetismo, meaning alternatively “hermetic” or “hermeticism,” was merely a smear term concocted by an Italian critic affronted by what were presumed to be the movement’s unintelligibility and inhumanity. But ermetismo has, I think, more complex, more dramatic and interesting derivations, goes as far back as the nineteenth century, to the crucial examples of Leopardi and Mallarmé. And perhaps a few words here about them might be appropriate before continuing with Luzi.

Though Leopardi died five years before Mallarme was born, and one can’t even be sure that Mallarme ever read him; though the former has an aloof and flowing style and the latter a style so dense that at times it appears to be that of a pedant: still, they were unquestionably soul mates, two of the most unhappy poets who have ever lived. Both were rhapsodists of nothingness, of noia, of impuissance, suicidal types who of course would never commit suicide except through their poems, those defiant acts of creation they often thought of as worthless. Leopardi was a provincial aristocrat, a philologist, and a hunchback, Mallarme was a schoolteacher. But biographical instances are irrelevant; the truths that they represent are ontological not psychological. At heart they were romantic protagonists longing to merge themselves with the glory of life that was not there. And it is precisely the essence of absent glory that they conjure up, each in his particular way, in their magical verse—through omissions, pauses, silences, indirections, through Leopardi’s negative conjunctions and “interminable spaces,” through Mallarmé’s odd couplings, “glaive” and “voile,” steel and veil.

It is often thought that, because the effect of the poetry they create—a poetry of sensations—is so great, deep down…

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