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Man of Pain

Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti

translated and edited by Allen Mandelbaum
Cornell University Press, 228 pp., $15.00

From his earliest important poems, written in the trenches of World War I, to the last poems of his old age, Ungaretti’s work is a long record of confrontations with death. Cryptic in utterance, narrow in range, built on an imagery that is drawn exclusively from the natural world, and displaying an obsessive preoccupation with only the most fundamental metaphysical themes, Ungaretti’s poetry nevertheless continually escapes being predictable. In spite of the limitations of his manner, he leaves an impression of nearly boundless energy and invention. For no word in Ungaretti’s work is ever used lightly—“When I find / in this my silence / a word / it is dug into my life / like an abyss”—and the strength of his verse derives precisely from this restraint. For a man who wrote for more than fifty years, Ungaretti published remarkably little before he died in 1970, and his poetic work amounts to no more than a few hundred pages. His poems are more a distillation of experience than a commentary on experience, and what they lack in variety, they make up for in intensity.

Born in 1888, Ungaretti belonged to a celebrated generation of modern writers, his contemporaries including Pound, Joyce, Kafka, Trakl, and Pessoa. Like theirs his importance is measured not only by his own achievement but by its effect on the history of the literature of his language. Before Ungaretti, there was no modern Italian poetry. When his first book, Il Porto Sepolto (The Buried Port), appeared in 1916 in an edition of eighty copies, it seemed to come from nowhere, to be without precedent. These short, fragmented poems, at times hardly more than notes or inscriptions, announced a break with the late nineteenth-century conventions that still dominated Italian verse. The horrible realities of the war demanded a new kind of expression; and for Ungaretti, who at that time was just finishing his poetic apprenticeship, the front was a training ground that taught the futility of all compromise.

VEGLIA

Cima Quattro il 23 dicembre 1915

Un’intera nottata
buttato vicino
a un compagno
massacrato
con la sua bocca
digrignata
volta al plenilunio
con la congestione
delle sue mani
penetrata
nel mio silenzio
ho scritto
lettere piene d’amore

No sono mai stato
tanto
attaccato alla vita

WATCH

Cima Quattro, December 23, 1915

One whole night
thrust down beside
a slaughtered
comrade
his snarling
mouth
turned to the full moon
the bloating
of his hands
entering
my silence
I have written
letters full of love

Never have I held
so
fast to life

As Allen Mandelbaum writes in the preface to his translations of Ungaretti’s Selected Poems, it was when Ungaretti’s earliest book was published that

Italy found its first certain, complete modern poet. Whatever the role critics now assign to Clemente Rebora’s Frammenti lirici (1913), or to Dino Campana’s Canti orfici or Camillo Sbarbaro’s Pianissimo (both of 1914), Ungaretti was the first to face unequivocally the…terrible task of every modern Italian poet, the task that takes its toll in silence: to resurrect or to bury the cadaver of literary Italian. Ungaretti resurrected. But so drastic were his means—sweeping away the clamorous inconsequences of D’Annunzio, the tenuous meanderings of the Crepuscolari (the Twilight School), and almost all after Leopardi—that resurrection was revolution.

If the brevity and hardness of his first poems seemed violent in comparison to most Italian poetry of the period, Ungaretti was not a poetic rebel, and his work showed none of the spirit of self-conscious sabotage that characterized the Futurists and other avant-garde groups. His break with the past was not a renunciation of literary tradition, but a way of affirming his connection with a more distant and vital past than the one represented by his immediate predecessors. He simply cleared the ground that lay between him and what he felt to be his true sources, and like all original artists, he created his own tradition. In later years, this led him to extensive critical work, as well as translations of numerous foreign poets, including Góngora, Shakespeare, Racine, Blake, and Mallarmé.

By the twin accidents of his birth-place and the nature of his education, Ungaretti was freed from many of the constraints of a pure Italian upbringing, and though he came from old Tuscan peasant stock, he did not set foot in Italy until he was twenty-four. His father, originally from Lucca, had emigrated to Egypt to work on the construction of the Suez Canal, and by the time of Ungaretti’s birth he had become the proprietor of a bakery in the Arab quarter of Moharrem Bay in Alexandria. Ungaretti attended French schools and his first real encounter with Europe took place a year before the war, in Paris, where he met Picasso, Braque, De Chirico, Max Jacob, and became close friends with Apollinaire. Apart from serving in the Italian army, he did not live in Italy until 1921—long after he found his poetic voice. Ungaretti was a cultural hybrid, and elements of his various past are mixed into his work. Nowhere is this more concisely expressed than in I fiumi (The Rivers) (1916), a long poem which concludes:

Ho ripassato
le epoche
della mia vita

Questi sono
i miei fiumi

Questo è il Serchio
al quale hanno attinto
duemil’anni forse
di gente mia campagnola
e mio padre e mia madre

Questo è il Nilo
che mi ha visto
nascere e crescere
e ardere d’inconsapevolezza
nelle estese pianure

Questo è la Senna
e in quel suo torbido
mi sono rimescolato
e mi sono conosciuto

Questi sono i miei fiumi
contati nell’Isonzo

Questa è la mia nostalgia
che in ognuno
mi traspare
ora ch’è notte
che la mia vita mi pare
una corolla
di tenebre

I have gone over
the seasons
of my life

These are
my rivers

This is the Serchio
from whose waters have drawn
perhaps two thousand years
of my farming people
and my father and my mother

This is the Nile
that saw me
born and growing
burning with unknowing
on its broad plains

This is the Seine
and in its troubled flow
I was remingled and remade
and came to know myself

These are my rivers
counted in the Isonzo

This is my nostalgia
as it appears
in each river
now it is night
now my life seems to me
a corolla
of shadows

In early poems such as this one, Ungaretti manages to capture the past in an eternal present. Time exists, but as an accumulation of discrete moments that can be revived and made to emerge in the nearness of the present. “Innocence and Memory”—the title given to the volume of Ungaretti’s essays translated in French—are the two contradictory aspirations of Ungaretti’s poetry, and all his work can be seen as a constant effort to renew the self without destroying its past. What concerns Ungaretti most is the search for spiritual self-definition, a way of discovering his own essence beyond the grip of time. As in the war poem “Watch,” the sense of life for Ungaretti is experienced most fully only when facing up to death, and in a commentary on another of his poems he describes this process as “the knowing of being out of non-being, being out of the null, Pascalian knowing of being out of the null. Horrid consciousness.”

It is this preoccupation that distinguishes Ungaretti’s work most sharply from that of Eugenio Montale, and the “polarity of these two major figures,” as Allen Mandelbaum notes, “is the central fact in all modern Italian poetry.”

Montale, the younger of the two, buried—or ignored—the cadaver. With an expansive verbal fantasy, he ransacked prose for poetry, and with an agonizingly minute graphic precision, he fashioned…the various hell that is his world. Montale’s mainspring is the restless horror of any immobility, a vision of nothing but vacuous repetition in the permanent. Ungaretti’s point-of-origin is much more traditional: anguish in the face of mutability, a longing for claritas, for static quiet at meridian point of insight, beyond the weight of world and body.

But if Ungaretti’s poetry can be described as basically religious, the sensibility that informs his poems is never monkish; he will not try to solve spiritual problems by denying the flesh. It is, in fact, the conflict between the spiritual and the physical that sustains the poems and gives them their life. Ungaretti is a “man of pain,” as he calls himself in one of his poems, but also a man of great passions and desires, who at times seems locked in “the glare of promiscuity,” and who is able to write of “the mare of your loins / Plunging you in agony / Into my singing arms.” His obsession with death, therefore, does not derive from morbid self-pity or a search for other-worldliness, but from an almost savage will to live, and Ungaretti’s robust sensuality, his firm adherence to the world of physical things, make his poems tense with conflict between the irreconcilable powers of love and vanity.

In his later work, beginning with his second major collection, Sentimento del Tempo (Sentiment of Time) (1919-1935), the distance between the present and the past becomes a chasm that it is almost impossible to cross, either by an act of will or an act of grace. As with Leopardi, perceiving the void becomes the central metaphor of an unappeasable agony in the face of an indifferent universe, and if Ungaretti’s conversion to Catholicism in the late Twenties is to be understood, it must be seen in the light of this “horrid consciousness.” “La Pietà” (1928), the long poem which most clearly marks Ungaretti’s conversion, is also one of his bleakest works, and it contains these lines, which can be read as a gloss on Ungaretti’s particular anguish:

M’hai discacciato dalla vita.
Mi discaccerai dalla morte?
Forse l’uomo è anche indegno di sperare.
Anche la fonte del rimorso è secca?
Il peccato che importa,
Se alla purezza non conduce più.
La carne si ricorda appena
Che una volta fu forte.
È folle e usata, l’anima.
Dio, guarda la nostra debolezza.
Vorremmo una certezza.

You have banished me from life.
And will you banish me from death?
Perhaps man is unworthy even of hope.
Dry, too, the fountain of remorse?
What matters sin
If it no longer leads to purity?
The flesh can scarcely remember
That once it was strong.
Worn out and wild—the soul.
God, look upon our weakness.
We want a certainty.

Not satisfied to remain on safe ground, without the comfort of a “certainty,” Ungaretti continually goads himself to the edge of the abyss, threatening himself with the image of his own extinction. But rather than inducing him to succumb to despair, these acts of metaphysical risk seem to be a source of strength. In “The Meditated Death,” a sequence that serves as a kind of hub to the whole of Sentimento del Tempo, and in nearly all the poems in his following collection, Il Dolore (The Grief) (1937-1946)—most notably the powerful poem written on the death of his young son, “You Shattered”—Ungaretti is determined to experience the extremes of his own consciousness. Paradoxically that is what allows him to cure himself of the fear of these limits.

By the force and precision of his meditative insight, Ungaretti manages to transcend what in a lesser poet would amount to little more than an inventory of private griefs and fears: his poems seem to us objects beyond the self for the very reason that he never treats himself as an example of all selves. One always feels the presence of the man in the work.

In the poems of his later years, Ungaretti’s work comes to an astonishing culmination in the single image of the promised land. It is the promised land of both Aeneas and the Bible, of both Rome and the desert, and the personal and historical overtones of these final major poems—“Canzone,” “Choruses Describing the States of Mind of Dido,” “Recitative of Palinurus,” and “Final Choruses for the Promised Land”—refer back to all of Ungaretti’s previous work, as if to give it its final meaning. The return to a Virgilian setting represents a kind of poetic homecoming for him at the end of his career, just as the desert revives the landscape of his youth, only to leave him in a last and permanent exile:

Si percorre il deserto con residui
Di qualche immagine di prima in mente,

Della Terra Promessa
Nient’altro un vivo sa.

We cross the desert with remnants
Of some earlier image in mind,

That is all a living man
Knows of the Promised Land.

Written between 1952 and 1960, “The Final Choruses” were published in Il Taccuino del Vecchio (The Old Man’s Notebook), and they reformulate all the essential themes of his work. Ungaretti’s universe remains the same, and in a language that differs very little from that of his earliest poems, he prepares himself for his death:

Mi afferri nelle grinfie azzurre il nibbio
E, all’apice del sole,
Mi lasci sulla sabbia
Cadere in pasto ai corvi.

Non porterò più sulle spalle il fango,
Mondo mi avranno il fuoco,
I rostri crocidanti
L’azzannare afroroso di sciacalli.

Poi mostrerà il beduino,
Dalla sabbia scoprendolo
Frugando col bastone,
Un ossame bianchissimo.

The kite hawk grips me in his azure talons
And, at the apex of the sun,
Lets me fall on the sand
As food for ravens.

I shall no longer bear the mud on my shoulders,
The fire will find me clean,
The cackling beaks,
The stinking jaws of jackals.

Then as he searches with his stick
Through the sand, the bedouin
Will point out
A white, white bone.

Allen Mandelbaum has done a superb job in putting together this volume of Selected Poems, combining a poetic gift in his translations with a scholarly attentiveness in his editing. Nearly two hundred pages of poems are given in both languages (a spare but judicious sampling)—as well as a short, elegant introduction, a detailed chronology of Ungaretti’s life, and twenty pages of notes, which in most cases are translations of Ungaretti’s own comments on the poems.

This is Mandelbaum’s second book of Ungaretti translations—the present volume being a substantially reworked and enlarged version of the long out of print Life of a Man (1958). Between the two he has published a translation of the Aeneid, having come to Virgil largely through translating Ungaretti’s late “Virgilian” poems. It is instructive to note how, perhaps as a result of his work on the Aeneid, his new translations achieve a grace that the earlier versions sometimes lacked, for all their technical brilliance.

Sei la donna che passa
Come una foglia

E lasci agli alberi un fuoco d’au- tunno.

You are the woman who passes
Like a leaf

And leaves unto the trees a fire of autumn.

The greatest compliment that can be paid to any translator of poetry—beyond the essential literal accuracy—is that the poems do not read as translations, but as integral works in the second language, and this Mandelbaum manages to accomplish with amazing consistency. Here and there, he falters ever so slightly, but by and large his renderings are equal to the originals, and at his best moments, as in the final lines of the fifth song of “The Meditated Death” quoted above, the passage from one language to the other is almost imperceptible.

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