Jorie Graham reading at the Centro Studi Americani last week. Of course, we English-language-starved expat poets are delighted when poets like Jorie come to read in Rome. But at Italian poetry events, be prepared for at least 45 minutes of critical discussion from various experts and professors who will explain to you what an important poet he/she is, and his/her place in the American canon, and and and -- and then the poet gets to read 6 or 7 poems if you are lucky. Agh. But I was very happy to hear her read "San Sepolcro" and a few other favorites.
["Veltroni, don't get any ideas" is the message of this poster, put up by Azione Giovani, representing the far-right. The guy was in the process of covering it with a Partito Democratico poster for a referendum to "save the schools" from the proposed, enormous cuts.]
Interesting times here in la bella Italia. Today there's a transit strike that was hardly publicized, leaving many people stuck wherever they were without warning. They usually have the good manners to inform the populace of their impending actions. There are no metro buses at all, so Damiano walked an hour to work this morning. So far today, I've seen no manifestazione passing by the apartment building, but the day's not over yet! There are plenty of videos on YouTube that show the potentially violent outcomes of these days of unrest, and then it seems that the right-wing kids got pissed off that they were shown on TV wielding pipes in the Piazza Navona, so they went over to try and wreak havoc at the RAI studios.
And I'm guessing that you've heard about Berlusconi's latest utterly stupid and inappropriate remark. 1573 comments on the New York Times blog at last count--most of them from Italians, apologizing. O Silvio --
In spite of all of this, you can feel the post-November-4th-collective sigh over here as well. Probably nine out of ten people whom you see spontaneously weeping in the streets are Americans, but the joy all around is nearly palpable. And Italy has always been good for "dolce vita" distractions, even in difficult times.
[No! it's not a Hallowe'en party! It's teachers from L'Aquila wearing ass ears to protest proposed changes in education here in Italy (guess what: less money, fewer hours: "useless people" those teachers!]
Every day this week, we've had thunderstorms and protests. Students are occupying the schools. Thousands (hundreds of thousands, from the looks of things) are marching in the streets, in spite of thunder, lightning, and heavy heavy rains. "If nothing else, Berlusconi has really energized the populace," everyone is saying. Indeed. Though why they weren't so energized on election day here is another question ----
One of the advantages of being married to the Italian translator of many Best American Poets is that I get to along for the weekend when the Poets win their Italian poetry prizes.
As I was taking this picture, a woman in the piazza suddenly understood what was going on, and, as they say, much laughter ensued. But it wasn't all fun and games for this weekend of the Premio Laudomia Bonanni (sponsored by La CARISPAQ, the major savings bank of L'Aquila): whew, Mark worked hard for his Bonanni Prize!
Venice is a ridiculously beautiful city, as I'm sure you know whether you've been there or not. Even with the four hundred thousand other slightly lost visitors wandering through the winding passageways, the imperious tour-group leaders with their brightly colored flags held aloft on scary pointy sticks, the restaurant guys who try to lure you in several mispronounced languages into coming to their place for lunch, shop after shop after shop of masks and Murano glass and tacky tourist things--with all of that, there's nothing like that first step out of the labyrinthine shadows into the bright sun of the breathtaking Piazza San Marco.
[big round building in the neighborhood. I confess to endless fascination with how its appearance changes in various lights]
Before I say anything else today, I want to thank David and Stacey for inviting me to spend some time here this week. It's been a lot of fun, and I hope it's been as enjoyable for you to read as it has been for me to write. Grazie mille!
So, it seems that my constant reflection on "translation" this week has begun to influence all of my thinking. Isn't it funny the way life imitates art when you have an idea like that buzzing around in your brain? We've just had our pranzo, which was a simple frittata made with potatoes, onions, and red peppers. But as I was cooking, and thinking about what I was going to write today, I realized that our lunch was really just a translation into Italian of many of the egg dishes I've learned to cook along the way. To wash it down, we had a pretty decent Hungarian wine (a tokaji), which Damiano bought as part of his ongoing but temporary quest to find good, reasonable wines at one nearby supermarket that's actually OPEN during these last days of August. He uncorked it, we sniffed, a nice light flowery thing going on, so far so good. After the first sip, I said, "ah, an immodest little white wine," yet another sign that our work on translating John Ashbery will likely continue to influence our synaptic activity for quite some time. But that, as they say, couldn't be better!
"It's the place where they set you back down after you've been taken up in the Rapture," Sarah the English novelist said when I asked her how she was enjoying her stay at Civitella Ranieri. Then she quickly apologized, worried she might have offended me; I said, "Hell no, heavenly imagery is about all you can use to describe this place!"
"Synergy" is one of those poor words rendered nearly useless now by having been hijacked by the business world, but I think that synergy is one of the things that makes this place so magical. (Oh, "magical" is another word that doesn't mean much anymore either, but hey, I'm talking about a castle here.) The experience really is greater than the sum of its elements, and each element, taken on its own, is pretty wonderful.
I like what Heather said in her very nice comment about my previous post. It reminds me of one of the first conversations about translation that I had with Damiano. He was talking about his idea that the original text is like sheet music, and that a particular translation of that text can be seen as a "performance." That evening, we sat and listened to each of Glenn Gould's two very different versions of Bach's "Goldberg Variations," one recorded in 1955, the other in 1981, not long before his death. (Go and listen now! I can wait.)
Let's just say it's fun to collaborate closely with your translator. Today, for example, Damiano sent me an email asking about the use of the word "finish" in a particular poem: did it lean more toward "the end" or "the surface, the decoration" in the poem? It seemed to me to be more at "the surface" on the literal level, but there's no getting around the echo in English of that other kind of finish (and it is a poem about death). So how do you translate that?
When we were working on John Ashbery's poems, the running joke was that Damiano would point out a sentence to me. "Do you think this means this, or that, or this?" he would ask, and of course, the answer was, invariably, "Yes." Then how do you render that multiplicity into Italian? Oy. Or should I say, "mamma mia." Puns and jokes and double entendres, not to mention cultural references, are such a challenge. Then of course, with poetry, there's also the form.
So today I thought I'd talk about two poems and their translations. One is by me (so I feel reasonably well qualified to talk about it), and the other is that famous villanelle by the late, great Elizabeth Bishop.
Yes, I confess: I'm obsessed with sonnets. I love reading them, writing them, teaching them. What is it about this little form that's allowed it to stick around, despite its detractors, and falling in and out of fashion, for lo these many centuries? Not long ago a poet/professor friend of mine asked another good question: why do so many poets seem to go through "a sonnet stage" as they are working to find their voices? Hmm. I wrote back, thinking about how the sonnet epitomizes (and dare I say, in a formal way) most of the things that we look for in poetry: compression, flights of figurative language that take us along for the ride, careful attention to the actual craft of the writing, and the payoff at the end: the volta, that turn that steers us toward epiphany or surprise. And oh!, the shapely sonnet: it embodies these in a way that feels right, proportional, measured: it's like walking into a villa designed by Palladio and thinking, “Oh yeah. This is just right. I want to live here."
But then I started to wonder about my own little love affair with sonnets. When did it start? And a funny thing happened (coincidence? I think not). For another reason altogether, I decided to track down David Trinidad, a beloved former teacher who had, over the years in those workshops, given us several poems by Tim Dlugos. Weird enough, David had suddenly appeared in a dream one night (I've already told him about it; it was a nice dream, and not at all alarming!) just as I was trying unsuccessfully to find a poem by Tim that had, metaphorically anyway, saved my life back in those days. Bad bad break-up, you know how that goes, and I had actually taped this poem up on the wall so that I could read it every day before I left my teeny-weeny Upper West Side studio. I didn't remember the title, but I did remember that, just-post-break-up, the speaker "finds a shiny dime from Canada" and eats "the same beef stew he always eats" at a particular restaurant. I wrote to David, who, as it turns out, was two or three pages away from this poem in his typing-up of Tim's manuscript, which David is assembling for publication. He kindly sent it to me:
Oh, in case you were wondering what I'm doing here in Rome, it's kind of a funny story. I married my translator. We met in Baltimore at a party that was very much populated by many good poets. At some point, I was introduced to Damiano Abeni (research doctor by day, poetry translator by night, I was told). Damiano started telling us about the edition of Elizabeth Bishop that he and two other translators, Riccardo Duranti and Ottavio Fatica, had just published with Biblioteca Adelphi (a very fine house by the way). But the really amazing thing was that the first printing of 5000 sold out within a couple of weeks, and it immediately went into a second printing. It's still unbelievable to look at the publication page of the second edition: First printing, January 2006. Second printing, February 2006. How often does that happen with a book of poetry?
Meantime, yes, we started dating, or I wouldn't be telling this story. After about a week, we were to meet up at the Cat's Eye in Fells Point, Baltimore, a pub into which I'd been crawling for many more years than it was legal for me to do so. Damiano was already there, and pulled out of his backpack a translation of one of my poems, carefully lettered onto heavy ivory stock. Yes, this is one direct path to a poet girl's heart.
I'm still trying to describe the very weird sensation of reading one of your own poems in a language you don't know so well. At that point, I had a little bit of Italian still resident in my brain from when I lived here as a child, and I'd studied other languages along the way. But to be able to read fluently, because you've written the thing, in a language that you CAN'T actually read: it's very visceral, like you're reading through your bones and gut instead of through your eyes and brain or something. No, that's still not quite right. I'll get it someday.
Since then, I've learned a lot more Italian, and he's still translating. In fact, poor guy, I've given him a translation interview questionnaire, which he's been working on these past few days, and in a later post or two, I/we will talk about poets he's translated, not to mention work we've done together (like the John Ashbery book, link to which Stacey was kind to put up a few weeks ago). But for now, I'll give you an example close to home. AND it's a sonnet, a form near and dear to my heart that can, as you know, be less than a picnic to translate.
This is a naughty little thing by the way; I excuse myself in advance. Thanks to Innisfree.com for putting it up the first time, and to Lo Straniero for publishing the Italian version.
At 3 a.m.
And when my cell phone vibrates in the dark,
its alien green eye blinking me awake,
I hardly start. My past, both near and far,
at these hours never lets me get away.
He’s drunk and lonely, wants to hear my voice,
although I’m guessing he could wake his wife
and do to her in person what he enjoys
explaining he would like to do to me. Night
can come on heavy, I’m first to admit,
the sheets twisted around you like a noose.
But I’m getting too old for this late-night shit
and being his 1-900 number muse.
I tell him I can’t talk; I’m not alone.
Truth is, these nights I’m sleeping with my poems.
* * *
ALLE 3 DI NOTTE
E quando il mio cellulare vibra al buio,
l’occhio verde, alieno, che sbatte e mi sveglia
mi sommuove appena. Il mio passato, prossimo, remoto,
a quest’ora non mi lascia sfuggire.
E’ sbronzo, solo, vuole sentire la mia voce,
anche se penso potrebbe svegliare la moglie
e con lei in persona soddisfare quelle voglie
che gli piace dire gli piacerebbe soddisfare con me.
La notte può scendere pesante, credo lo si sappia,
lenzuola attorte addosso come un cappio.
Non ho più l’età per queste stronzate, di notte o di giorno,
né per essere la sua musa da telefono porno.
Gli dico che non posso parlare, sono in compagnia.
Davvero, queste notti vado a letto con la mia poesia.
* * *
Though there's no shortage of porn opportunities in Italy, the phrase "1-900 number" doesn't mean anything here. I like what he did with those lines, bending it a little to get the "di notte o di giorno," which of course sets up the rhyme for "musa da telefono porno."
He'll tell you more about such things later this week, but I wanted to point out the nice way he keeps the rhyme and the integrity of the final couplet. Instead of saying exactly "I'm not alone," it's flipped to say something more like "I have company," "sono in compagnia," which clicks home nicely with "con la mia poesia."
And yes, the rhyme scheme shimmies around in the quatrains in the Italian, but I don't mind; I think the "sonnetness" of the poem is held very much intact. (But Amy! Denise! if he translates any of your ABBA poems, we'll be sure that that doesn't happen;)
Rome in August is a lot like New York in August: everyone leaves. You get that lovely, quiet feeling of having the city to yourself—and a slightly smaller handful of out-of-town visitors. In New York, you can be seated much more quickly—or at all—in your favorite restaurant, or one you’ve always wanted to try.
But in Rome, when I say everyone leaves, I pretty much mean it. EVERYONE leaves. Just about every Roman escapes to his/her requisite and hard-earned two-to-four weeks by the sea. The businesses they run are left behind, metal gates pulled down and padlocked, and, peeling in the summer heat, hastily scribbled signs informing of reopening dates. Our favorite restaurant, Ditirambo (yep, that’s Italian for Dithyramb) is, at the moment, closed. The butcher shop downstairs, where we buy not only meat, but also wine, eggs, bread, and cheese, is closed. The pet shop where we can find Iris’s mature-indoor cat food and clumpy kitty litter: closed. (Happily, they will open again on Monday.) The neighborhood “bar” where you get your mid-morning shot of caffè macchiato: also closed. Even the smaller supermarkets close. The other day we needed to buy matches, and managed to find a tabaccaio that stays open during this period. These are the small shops where you can buy not only cigarettes, but bus tickets, Kleenex, gum, and sometimes small Catholic knick-knacks for your home as well. All of the above were available in abundance, but the store was out of matches. The tabaccaio shopgirl joked that the driver of the match truck must also be on vacation.
So, though it’s slightly harder to find what you need (or want) in Rome in August, it’s oh-so much quieter. We live right on the ambulance path of two major hospitals, so we still get the scary loud Mweh-MWEH Mweh_MWEH of the sirens, though, for now, less frequently. But the politicians who careen through town, speeding through traffic lights guided by their escorts of six carabinieri cars with sirens on full-blare: they’re on vacation. Fewer buses are running, many many fewer cars: ah, it feels like a month in the country. Well, almost. And for deeper quiet, the churches of course are still open, maintaining their regular-season hours of approximately 8-12 in the morning, and then again 4-7 p.m., or so. It’s always nice to sit in the cool and visit with the likes of Michelangelo, Bernini, Caravaggio, Mattia Preti, et al.
You might well think that another way to stay cool and enjoy yourself in August, and maybe even learn something, would be to go the movies. And during the rest of the year, there are at least two or three
Moira Egan writes to us from Rome, where she lives with her husband Damiano Abeni. Together they've translated a new edition of poems by John Ashbery:
Damiano and I are going to be on Italian radio this evening (our evening, 8:15 p.m.) talking about the Ashbery selected that we've done, and that's just come out here. John has already recorded a couple of poems and some comments, and then we'll talk a bit as well.
If you want, go to http://www.radio.rai.it/radio3/index.htm and scroll down, just below the thick green stripe, to where it says “ascolta RADIO 3 in diretta,” and when the RadioRai Player pops up, choose Radio 3. It should work.
Thanks for the tip, Moira.
--Wandrers Nachtlied (1780)
Over the hills
Comes the quiet.
Across the treetops
No breeze blows.
Not a sound: even the small
Birds in the woods
Just wait: soon you
Will be quiet, too.
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.