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 they were passionate sponsors of life. The reverse however is true. For the drive toward the Infinite—the sense of the boundless—that carries them through their poems has nothing to do with life. Rather life prevents the drive toward the Infinite even as it engenders it. For them, life and the imagination, unlike the cherished unity espoused by some of the Romantics, are always seen as alien forces, absolutely irreconcilable. The beauties of existence are idylls at the edge of an abyss. Nature for Leopardi was malevolent, for Mallarmé meaningless, a creature of Chance governed by Chance, whose law, as he formulated it in a famous phrase, a throw of the dice can never obliterate. With them you get the sense not of something that has gone wrong in man, which you get, say, in Büchner or Hölderlin, but of something that is, always was, always will be wrong—with life. The transformations that occur are transformations of language, verbal victories; regenerative acts are more than prohibitive, they are metaphysically impossible. In “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui,” no amnesty awaits the symbolic figure of the poet, the swan imperiled in its frozen lake, except its own exilic contempt, Mallarmé’s “songe froid de mépris.”

A se stesso,” which Leopardi published in the Canti of 1835, is very probably the first modern poem. Modern not because of its message, which is merely one of betrayal and deceit, but modern because here the words themselves become as palpable and wounding as the experience that they enclose—an introspective style not previously available in literature, I think, except on the stage, in the soliloquies of Shakespeare. It is not poetry as pure sound, not language as charm and riddle, as in “Kubla Khan,” but a poetry where one can hear the protagonist’s sense of blank hurt in every line and every comma, in the halting, scornful procession of vowels which, especially in the ending, even without his knowing Italian, surely reverberates in a listener’s ear, right down to the final encapsulating “tutto“:

   Omai disprezza
Te, la natura, il brutto
Poter che, ascoso, a commun dan- no impera,
E l’infinita vanità del tutto.

(Now and forever hold in contempt
Yourself, and nature, the brutal
Power that, in hiding, rules to the common harm,
And the infinite vanity of every- thing.)

If Leopardi added to the universe a pessimism so black that it became for him its only color, the poetry of Mallarmé, fifty years later, often takes away from the universe all color whatever. So that where before an older aesthete might have thought of love as happening immaculately like a line of poetry, for Mallarmé it was vacancy, vanishings, the absences in presences that alone could reveal and sustain the annihilating purity he sought. “Rien, cette écume, vierge vers….” Virginal lines, like the foam of the sea. Both apostrophized distances. For Leopardi there was the sky, for Mallarmé the sea. More important, both were the first delineators and interpreters of the disenchantment of distances—those between people and between things, between objects and words. In them the theme of negation, the melancholy undercurrent of Hegelian philosophy, achieves at last poetic haven.

But Hegel of course was a believer. Though the first to speak of “the death of God,” he spoke of it only as “possibility” or in Christian terms as “a dying God” not, as Nietzsche later did, as “fact,” an occurrence of History. For Hegel, the steps to religious truths are still the surest approaches in the “spirit knowing itself as spirit”—that is to say, absolute knowledge. In Leopardi and Mallarmé the sense of the absolute is the sense of the void. That’s why in poem after poem it is not through “success” that one triumphs in the world or over the world but through one’s powerlessness, one’s “failure.” The “annulments” of art and thought that go now by the name of modern consciousness with them first take their prophetic bearings.

After Leopardi, Italian poetry, with rare exceptions, went nowhere, creating instead a crepuscular or fustian sort of verse culminating finally in the bombast of D’Annunzio. But, surprisingly enough, it was in twentieth-century Italy that that other pervasive theme of nineteenth-century philosophy, the theme of the Will, made its triumphant reappearance. Mussolini, we know, often spoke of his own will as feroci, and himself—or the order that he represented—as the embodiment of totalitarismo. He was, in fact, the first to use the term. With the arrival of ermetismo, however, two significant changes take place.

Through the sparse and fragmentary style of Ungaretti and the harsh and inward style of Montale, we have at last a repudiation of Italian cultural provincialism: a response to the seriousness of Mallarmé and a restitution of the art of Leopardi. (In one of Montale’s great seascapes, “La casa dei doganieri,” for example, there is not only a reminder of Mallarmé’s dice—“e il calcolo dei dadi piú non torna,” “and the calculation of the dice doesn’t pan out”—but also the tactical employment of what is most probably Leopardi’s favorite reference point, “l’orizzonte.”)

Moreover, in these poets one can surely feel as well an implicit condemnation of the gaudy ethos of fascism. For the peculiar moods of ermetismo are phenomenalist not behavioralist. “Acts of experience” occur here in a way they never really do in Leopardi or Mallarmé, but the poetry they point to is still a poetry of sequestration, of destiny, weather, memory, of unexpected alterations in tones and colors, poems that “contain their motives without revealing them”—“un’altra orbita,” as Montale has it, one set proudly apart from a debased language of power, the vox populi of Mussolini.

Aside from Mario Luzi and his contemporaries, ermetismo as a continuing literary movement left no real heirs, though perhaps an afterglow can later be felt in another realm, in the fictions of Pavese and the films of Antonioni. L’Avventura, for instance, where the environment itself becomes a sort of spatial metaphor of the solitude of the self—the mountains ringed against the horizon, the silent deserted town of Noto, the sea into which the heroine may have plunged—seems a visual equivalent in dramatic terms of some of the practices of ermetismo and an echo, no doubt, of Mallarmé and Leopardi.

With the pressure of the war years and the fascist debacle, the poetry of Mario Luzi was shaken and reshaped, irresistibly awakening to what he calls “the recognition of reality,” the claims, among other things, of the common man, “l’uomo qualunque.” His principal concerns seem to be those of corruption and purification, the energies of the intellect contemplating fishermen at dawn, a lone wolf on a mountain, a bird hunt, refugee camps, the disillusionment of the cities—above all, the figure of Man appearing and disappearing before him both in his own life and throughout the events of History.

Luzi is a meditative poet, conceives his themes generally against the coming of night, the break of day, silhouettes at noon; cherishes signs of Fate, Time, Woman, the Mother Church, of fire, smoke, dust, of rivers caught “between thunder and lightning,” the exigencies of the Florentine flood; mythologizes the penalties of the day, spiritual and cultural unease. Politically, I suppose, he is a democrat and a humanist, would probably second Ortega’s notion that “it is essential as Europeans adopt the point of view of life, of the Idea of Life, itself an advance over intellectualism, that they not let go of reason in the process.”

But what really permeates his cool and somber world, I think, is a muted devotional air: the Catholic concepts of charity and grace, in particular, often being the fugitive accompaniment to many of the harsh settings. For Luzi’s is a sort of skepticism that believes nonetheless, a resignation that does not imply despair. He’s also something of a philosopher, which perhaps will not endear him to Americans.

Coleridge thought that “no man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher.” And while that’s not at all true, I can’t think of another American poet aside from Eliot (Stevens is an aesthetician—not the same thing) who would adequately fit the description, though of course there are many European or English poets who could. But Luzi goes somewhat wrong for me as a philosophical poet, in that, as never happens, say, in the works of Eliot or Montale or Rilke, his perceptions tend to turn into philosophical statuary, the owl of Minerva stuffed and on display at the end of the tour.

A professor of French literature at the University of Florence and a translator of Mallarmé, he is, naturally, culture-laden. Fond, therefore, of evoking promises, gestures, portents, discoveries of the unsayable; fonder still of the sort of phrases one has to sit through at Commencement Day exercises: “Trotsky’s train breaks through the tough perspective of history,” “the long grief of the birth of an epoch,” “recedes into infinity.” His longer poems, such as “The Whirlpool of Sickness and Health” and the title-poem of the Salomon book, though they have indeed many beautiful moments, are often Byzantine and grand; the shorter ones, more successful, cling to the strife that prompted them, man “raising his head for the next blow,” and capture the troubled, supplicatory, autumnal tone of the poet at his best.

To give a taste of Luzi in English, let me quote from one of the most moving of the poems in Il guisto della vita, generally considered his most representative collection, the poem called “Las Animas,” though not in Salomon’s version, rather in what I take to be a more finished performance by Charles Guenther. In this poem, which has as its background the funereal ritual of All Souls Day, Luzi is dealing with another of his favored dualisms, the eternal and the mutable, “fire which in needlefuls ascends and descends,” the valley of losses where life loses life, where he counts his dead, where “the procession seems longer, it trembles / from leaf to leaf down to the bole.” Characteristically he sets his meditation, with its casually prosaic, chaste, but powerfully rolling rhythms, in a landscape where the stuff of life, its “turbulence,” is still going on. Characteristically too “Las Animas” ends not so much on a note of separation as on an apprehension of primordial inner light, transfiguring the dead, and ultimately the poem and its properties as well. Here are the concluding stanzas:

Give them peace, eternal peace, carry them
to a safe place, away from this turbulence
of ashes and flame which presses together
strangled in the gorges, is scattered
on the paths, flies fitfully, disap- pears;
let death be death, nothing else
than death, without struggle or life.
Give them peace, eternal peace, quiet them.

Down where the dry havoc of leaves crowds in
they till the soil, drive casks to the fountains,
muttering in the still changes
from hour to hour. The puppy stretches out
by the corner of the dooryard and dozes.

A fire so moderate is hardly enough,
hardly enough, to illuminate this life of
the undergrowth while it endures. Another,
only another could do the rest
and the most: could consume those remains,
change them into clear, incorrupt- ible light.

Peace from the dead to the living, peace
of the living and dead in a single flame. Fan it:
here’s night, night spreads,
it stretches its quivering web be- tween mountains,
soon our eyes serve no more and there remains
knowledge by fervor or darkness.