Poetry Review – After Montale: in these translations from the Italian Caroline Maldonaldo finds that Roy Marshall has achieved a good balance between his own voice and that of Montale
Eugenio Montale was born in 1896 and died in 1981 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975. He is probably the twentieth century Italian poet best known to English readers which in some ways is surprising, given the acknowledged difficulty of many of his poems and their complex symbolism. Yet the fact that they are also rooted in the real, the landscape of coastal Liguria where he grew up as a child, with recurring images of sun, sunflowers and lemons, cicadas, barren rock and violent seas makes them accessible on an immediate and physical level, as in these 27 poems chosen for After Montale.
In his Preface, Roy Marshall gives some of the reasons he was drawn to translate Montale. Both the poet and Marshall’s Italian grandfather were born in Northern Italy in the 1890s, both were soldiers on the Austrian front in World War One and both lost employment as a consequence of their opposition to fascism. The horrors of WW1 lie as a backdrop and context to Montale’s work although his poems were metaphysical and existential rather than declamatory and he wrote an essay in 1952 that attracted some criticism from fellow writers justifying his non-engagé position as a poet. Contradiction and ambiguity runs through his work even in this poem, ‘You’ with its unusual direct reference to politics:
Remember the good Dr Mangano, How he smiled when you exposed him As a blunt instrument of the fascists? That was you all over; even on a precipice Sweetness and horror were in harmony’
The greater part of After Montale is drawn from his earlier work, in particular his first volume of poems, Cuttlefish Bones, although it also includes some later work such as love poems written after his wife died. The pamphlet opens with what could almost be his manifesto (or the negation of one) with its third stanza:
Don’t ask me for formulas to encompass Worlds. I only have these syllables, gnarled As branches. All I can tell you here and now Is what we are not, what we don’t know.
Montale’s verse can be harsh and dissonant, a reflection of his response to his times as well as a modernist reaction against the romanticist style that preceded him; and despite some glorious verses, many of which are in this pamphlet, they often contain a Dantesque darkness. Yet in his preface Marshall questions critics who describe his style as ‘nihilistic modernism’; he observes ‘I feel that the metaphysical emptiness to be found in them is not only experienced and recognised but also embraced’ and it is this aspect of the poet he has chosen to emphasise.
Shoestring Press have not published a bilingual edition but it is sometimes revealing to compare the original and the translation. In Marshall’s version of one of the best known and most anthologised poems ‘Sunflower’ the last stanza ends on an epiphanic note:
Bring me a sunflower to trace the sun’s Trajectory while its essence escapes in haze; Bring me a sunflower, its face ablaze
The final line in Italian reads: Portami il girasole impazzito di sole which in literal English translates as ‘Bring me the sunflower, crazed with light’ and Montale’s impazzito with its cutting sound together with other ambiguities in the poem can suggest a darker alternative to the one this translator has chosen.
For the translation and the selection and organisation of these poems (not chronological) are also an expression of Marshall, the poet. They are a delight to read, beautifully crafted, spare yet lyrical, as in ‘Light’ where Marshall has pared down the original 24 line poem made up of quatrains to this delicate version, bringing to the fore its reflective tone by introducing a question in the first stanza:
Why head for the shadow of that stand of trees like a kestrel dropping out of summer’s heat? Leave the soporific reeds in their bed, come instead and watch life on its journey towards dust. Walk out into this haze, a glare that will make you feel weak. Those clouded mountain tops are like us, hidden from ourselves and from others. The serenity of the sky depends On only one certainty. Light.
Reading or reviewing a book of translations when the original poet is relatively well known can be an intriguing experience. How close is the translation to the spirit of the original? What has it lost sonically? What has it gained in contemporary resonance? How far has the translator used the original to express his own voice? The truth is that there will always be room for a new reading of a great poet which can enlighten a contemporary reader with new facets uncovered by the translator.
Marshall states as his aim: ‘to achieve a balance between fidelity to the essence of the original and fidelity to my own voice’. With this pamphlet he has brought us his version of Montale, a selection of poems that work beautifully in their own right and through which his own voice resonates. He ends with a reminder of the contemporary relevance of this great poet:
“Gotterdammerung” I read that the twilight of the Gods is about to begin. Whoever wrote that was mistaken. Beginnings are always unrecognisable, and any definition can be punctured with a pin. Twilight began when man considered himself more dignified than moles or crickets, and a recurring hell is hardly a rehearsal for a grand premier, long postponed because the director is ill, busy, or holed up somewhere, and no one can replace him.