Love Lessons: Selected Poems of Alda Merini reviewed by Carla Scarano
Love Lessons: Selected Poems of Alda Merini translated by Susan Stewart. £12. Princeton University Press. 978-0691171265
An excellent selection of poems by the well-known Italian poet Alda Merini (1931–2009) is featured in Love Lessons, translated by Susan Stewart. The title of the collection was suggested by Merini herself, who viewed the translations before publication. Stewart’s work is a good example of what Umberto Eco calls the negotiation of translation, that is, an experience of translation that cannot say exactly the same thing in another language but needs to negotiate with the meaning and say almost the same thing. Translation is a form of interpretation that should respect the intention of the original text, according to Eco. Stewart is faithful to Merini’s work and respectful of her poems, sometimes in an almost literal way. Her translations can be read line by line immediately in front of the original and clearly convey the meaning and intention of the source in a positive negotiation that is, at the same time, fresh and poetic in the target language.
The collection can be read in two separate sequences, that is, in the original Italian first (for those who know the language) and then the English translation. In this way, the reader can appreciate the musicality of both versions and can especially appreciate the translations that efficiently express the poet’s prosody and imageries. In addition, Stewart’s introduction explains Merini’s poetics, her personality and the adventures and misadventures of her life very well, and it also discusses the environment and the cultural context in which she lived. Was she a ‘madwoman’ or did she only suffer from depression? Was she unjustly hospitalised for about ten years in mental hospitals? That was a time in Italy when electroshock treatment, physical restraint and heavy sedation were common therapies. Merini was also sterilised when she was thirty-nine after having had four daughters. It goes without saying that the abuse she underwent in the mental health hospital and the suffering associated with mental illness resonate in all of her poetry in different forms and voices and are reflected clearly in the selection of poems for the collection.
Merini started to write poetry when she was a child and was part of cultural circles from when she was a teenager. She was in contact with poets such as Giorgi Manganelli, Salvatore Quasimodo and Pier Paolo Pasolini. They appreciated her work and published her poems in anthologies. Her first collection, La presenza di Orfeo, was published in 1953, the year she married Ettore Carniti, a bakery owner. Various critics see the influence of Campana and Rilke in her poetry, which was considered unusually complex in terms of its language and its visionary imageries for such a young poet. Other collections followed: Nozze Romane (Roman Wedding), in 1955, and Tu sei Pietro (You are Peter), in 1961. There was a silence during the period she spent in the mental health institution. In the 1980s, the poetry came back, which was a solace after the terrible years she spent in the institution: La terra Santa (The Holy Land), from 1984, which won the Montale Prize, was about her hospital experience; there were poems about her love for and marriage to the poet Michele Pierri after the death of her first husband; and several other books and poetry collections, such as L’altra verità: Diario di una diversa (The Other Truth: Diary of a Misfit), in 1994, Delirio amoroso (A Rage of Love), in 1989, Sogno e Poesia (Dream and Poetry), in 1994, Vuoto d’amore (Emptiness of Love), in 1991 and Superba è la notte(Magnificent is the Night), in 2000. She was twice nominated as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature and in 2005 she published her last works: Uomini miei (My Men) and Sono nata il ventuno a primavera (I was Born on the Twenty-first in Springtime). It is a prolific production that testifies to the centrality of poetry in her life in a process of growing awareness as a writer and as a woman. Her work reflects her life and is mainly centred on the topics of memories and love; the mutlifaceted aspects of the latter are explored and encompass sensual love as well mystic, abstract and symbolic kinds of love, and friendship too. Stewart’s collection of translations spans Merini’s poetic career with a really good selection of poems that brilliantly describe the poet’s development and highlight the characteristics of the texts.
From her early works onwards, Merini employed language, forms and imagery innovatively, using distinctive techniques that make her poetry compelling and original:
I won’t prepare you by revealing myself to you
in a bound-about closeness,
but just in case your hand, in touching me,
might hold a memory of omens,
I’ll lie down, fused
with what is formless, melted within the darkness,
as far as I can, secreted and alive,
becoming chaos again …
Orpheus, new friend of absence,
out of your lyre you’ll tune once more
my dawning figure.
At the threshold, you’ll be gentle, divining
silence’s absolute mystery,
unaware of my limits from so long ago,
you’ll leap for joy, holding the lonely essence.
(‘The Presence of Orpheus’)
The myth of Orpheus is a recurring trope in Merini’s poetry; she adopts it as the symbol of the poet that she may identify with but above all as an example of the betrayal experienced through the male gaze. This is also connected with the experience of the apostle Peter, who denied Jesus three times. Therefore, love implies betrayal, which, in Peter’s case, is re-experienced as redemption, while in Orpheus’s case it is the total loss of the loved one. Both experiences are present in Merini’s poetry, and her thirst for a form of total love seems insatiable. It is proposed as a combination of joy and pain, spirituality and eroticism; it is often unrequited, as in her early love affairs with Manganelli and Quasimodo, and is always emotionally and physically involving:
Yes, this will be our house,
today I’m here to see it;
but you, lusty man, who are you?
I take your measure: an eternal formula.
You take on an inexorable look.
You will dig me down to my roots
(not to search for me, not to help me)
you will strip away everything hidden
through the savagery of your crazy habits.
And it would be even easier for me
to come down to you by the darkest stairs,
that one out of the desire that assaults me
like a barren wolf in the night.
As for my crying over you, I bleached it away slowly
day by day as full light does
and in silence I sent it back to my eyes,
which, if I look at you, are alive with stars.
(‘And It Would Be Even Easier’)
The poems that are directly inspired by the period spent in the mental health hospital express the dark side of the experience in sometimes brutal images, such as in ‘The Moon Unveils Itself in the Madhouse Gardens’:
The moon unveils itself in the madhouse gardens,
some patients sigh,
a hand in the nude pocket.
The moon demands torments
and exacts blood of the inmates
I have seen a patient
dying from shed blood
beneath the shining moon.
The translation reflects the original form and the perfect choice of words convey the context of the poem and respect its message. This negotiation with the original is not always so smooth; in some of the poems translated by Stewart it is more difficult to adhere to the source. This happens, for example, when Merini’s syntax reverses the position of the subject and the verb, which cannot occur in English, or when the translator needs to interpret words that are untranslatable in the target language. For example, ‘vento di fuoco’ is translated as ‘fiery wind’, ‘dove adagio si stendono le suore’ is ‘where, slowly, the nuns lie down for their nap’, and ‘e oggi avanzi in cielo come donna superba’ becomes ‘and today you ascend to the stars like a movie star’. These are not literal translations but the translator’s choices that imply an interpretation that is always a negotiation, a win-win situation in which one part gives up something but obtains something else. As Eco claims, the important thing in translations is to respect the context in a satisfactory economy of loss and compensation. Stewart’s translations apply Eco’s idea successfully and with satisfactory results that provide an enriching reading. This reflects her accurate knowledge of Merini’s work and conveys a competent experience of her poetry.
Later in her life, Merini became a celebrity of sorts, not only appearing on TV programmes about poetry but also participating in debates on current events and singing in shows. She even posed naked for the Italian magazine Panorama. The myth of the ‘madwoman’ attracted an audience and was apparently reflected in her chaotic everyday life, her obliviousness to practical matters, such as money management, and the untidiness of her house. Nevertheless, her poetry became more and more aware of the human condition and more accurate in its descriptions of it. The human condition is centred on the body and, at the same time, is universal, aspiring to wider perspectives that go beyond the physical. Her sense of freedom is expressed in both tones and grammar where the so-called ‘scorrettezze’ (grammar improprieties) break the barriers of language and of common sense and disclose her powerful poetry.
Christianity and paganism, which is linked to classical myths, mingle in this view in a balance that is encompassing and ironically describes the hybrid condition of humanity. Poetry is therefore the poet’s way of exploring life; it is the door to redemption after the unsettling experience of mental illness, where intimate pain is rooted in the flesh, as she states in her self-portrait, ‘Alda Merini’:
I tenderly loved some very sweet lovers
without them knowing anything about it.
And I wove spiderwebs from this
and I always fell prey to my own creation.
In me there was the soul of the prostitute
of the saint of the one who lusts for blood and of the
Many people gave a label to my way of life
and all that while I was only an hysteric.
It is an ambiguous self-portrait that expresses her multifaceted personality and the construction of identity that is shifting and incomplete. In ‘As for me, I used to be a bird’, the poet is described as an albatross, which is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s famous image, who ‘whirled over the seas’ but ‘someone cut my throat/just for laughs,/I don’t know.’ The poet speaks the truth and is misunderstood, as she states in the following aphorisms:
who sees everything
is accused of freedom
I enjoy sin as if it were
the beginning of well-being.
I am in love because
Thus, in Merini’s poetry, spirituality implies eroticism, love is linked to betrayal, joy can be painful and irony can end in dreamlike imageries. It is an ‘unbearable chiaroscuro/shifting concept of every day’ that starts from the ordinary and expands to the eternal. Susan Stewart’s selection appropriately defines this multilayered quality of Merini’s work in accurate translations that cleverly convey the intention of the texts and engage the reader in Merini’s poetical world.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She obtained her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Lancaster University and has published her creative work in various magazines and reviews. Alongside Keith Lander, Carla won the first prize of the Dryden Translation Competition 2016 for their translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems. She is currently working on a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading. Her most recent publication is the chapbook, Negotiating Caponata (Dempsey and Windle, 2020). http://carlascarano.blogspot.com/ http://www.carlascaranod.co.uk/
Dawn Gorman’s Instead, Let Us Say reviewed by Ruth Sharman
Instead, Let Us Say by Dawn Gorman. £8. Dempsey and Windle. ISBN: 978-1907435904
I have read and re-read my copy of Instead, Let Us Say to the point where the pages are falling apart and the pamphlet needs replacing. These are haunting poems written with seeming effortlessness, the lightest of touches, dancing off the page. This is the language, these are the idioms, of everyday life but manipulated to produce phrases, lines and images that stop us in our tracks, surprising, thought-provoking and often luminously beautiful.
There is so much that Gorman is “good” at. She’s good at writing about relationships – with lovers, in particular, although there are moving poems about her daughter here too. She’s good at observing, and extracting the full emotional impact from, tiny poignant scenes – a man and child walking by the shore, the final moments of a hare… She empathises with the plight of suffering creatures and engages with our threatened planet, hearing the “silence howl”. She uses prompts from the world of art and – as in all powerful ekphrasis – takes us to places where we never expected to go, a piece of sculpture evoking the memory of her child, all elbows and knees, butting up against her in the womb …
Many of these poems are characterised by a quiet, easy familiarity with the natural world. Boundaries blur between the human and natural so that in “Confidante”, for example, the poet finds herself asking advice from a hill. The opening line – “I asked the hill what she thought about this” – is intriguing, the “this” never spelled out, although by the final two lines of the poem we have a pretty good idea, a sense that “this” has to do in some way with “damsel flies mating”.
Sensuality marks the point of intersection between the two worlds, as we see perhaps most clearly in the remarkable poem “Old Baptist Graveyard, Mid-May” – one that ought, if there were space, to be quoted in full. The natural scene mirrors a moment of human intimacy: gates moan when touched, the “speedwell’s blue eyes” watch “the way skin meets skin”, the blackbird releases “the ache / in his throat”, while the very headstones lie back and mouth words that reflect the physical and emotional transactions occurring at the poem’s heart. There is something here of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the energy that invests his poems – think of “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”, the sense of all life as noisy and expressive, giving voice to itself in the only way it knows how – while Gorman’s startling final line (another thing she is good at) reads like an epiphany: the ecstasy of “a shout and a shout of blue” belongs to the sky but to the earth and to these two human beings too.
Gorman’s poems themselves are “loud with life”, her language muscular, strong and lean. “This is the blood of me”, she writes, daughter of a mineworker looking back at her roots in “Clout”. “This is the blood of me / men squinting at sunshine / through dust dark as moleskin…”, the word “moleskin” suggesting not just the colour but also the texture of that darkness, the air smothering, unbreathable. Her poems capture the urgency of the moment, life at its most elemental, unstoppable, the “feral drive” to live and love, but set against what she describes in “Memorial Spoon, 1664” – an eerily prophetic poem about plague victims – as “that swift scything to nothing”.
In “If we are all one”, we read
When that dunnock on the fence post
stops and looks straight at you,
can you imagine how the thinnest of wafers
could possibly slide between you?
This is how close we are to the world around us. But it’s also how close life is to death. “Portrait in the Museum” captures a sense of this wonderfully well. Gorman conjures up a life, a few imaginary details, for this unknown woman whose story, even as she poses for her portrait, “is unravelling / like a ball of fine thread”; but, as the poet turns to leave, her own reflection in the glass seems more ghostly than the image of the dead woman herself, “a passing shape, / nothing more than that”.
Death stalks these poems and Gorman’s ability to unsettle her readers in subtle ways is testament to how skilfully she works behind the scenes, despite the apparent effortlessness of the writing. “On Hearing Alice Oswald Read Memorial” is a poem unafraid to focus on mundane, everyday details – the McDonald’s vouchers “ripped from papers on the Tube” and the topping up of an Oyster card – and place the lofty and the mundane side by side so that each gains potency from the other. This poem, like so many others, demonstrates the poet’s instinct for finding just the right word: “startling homes for the tip of an arrow” offers a disturbing association, the only comfort here afforded for the cold metal of the arrowhead, while the transition from “cold metal between teeth” to “on the poet’s tongue” cleverly brings together the physical and the abstract, the action of speaking and the reality of dying.
The ending of a relationship, and with it the fading of joy, is in a sense another kind of death, and in “Compulsion” the poet links the irresistible pull of sexual attraction (and here its inevitable aftermath) to the strange and inexplicable urge of beetles to cross a road, “swap these nettles for those”, oblivious to the oncoming car. The glittering optimism of the woman who has replaced her in her lover’s bed finds its parallel in the “hopeful iridescence” of the beetle – where human emotion has been subtly transferred to the animal world – and, once again, love and life on the one hand, death on the other, are separated by the “thinnest of wafers”.
There are 25 poems in this pamphlet, every one of them meriting discussion – great riches in a relatively small space. Having read and repeatedly re-read them, I find myself wanting more and look forward with pleasure to seeing a full-length collection from Dawn Gorman.
Ruth Sharman was born in South India and moved to England when she was six. She read Modern Languages at Cambridge and now lives in Bath, where she works as a freelance translator specialising in French. Birth of the Owl Butterflies, her first full-length collection, was published by Picador. Scarlet Tiger won Templar Poetry’s Straid Collection Award for 2016 and Templar is due to publish a third collection focusing on India and the poet’s search for her roots.