Eugenio Montale: At the Threshold of Life

lemon-grove-lemons-lemon-trees-green

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Eugenio Montale (1896–1981) was one of the most important Italian poets of the 20th century. Amongst his most famous collections are Ossi di Seppia/ Cuttlefish Bones (1925), Gli Occasioni/ The Occasions (1939) and La bufera e altro/The Storm and other things (1956). He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1975. Linked to the rough, bare landscape of his native Liguria, His poetry  expresses a profound feeling of disillusionment and ‘il male di vivere’ (the evil of life). Although his poetry was considered difficult and obscure, by some critics, he contributed greatly to the revival of Italian poetry in terms of both language and prosody and is considered one of the greatest Italian poets after Giacomo Leopardi.

In his later works, Montale’s poetry changed in terms of both prosody and themes; a disenchanted wisdom pervades the lines together with an understated tone. The most famous poems of this period are collected in Satura (1971) and Xenia (1966); these form a conversation with his dead wife. He remarks: ‘La mia Musa è lontana’ (‘my muse is far away’). His work includes prose pieces as well, such as Farfalla di Dinard, travel journals, and critical essays and articles he wrote for Corriere della Sera.

In his most famous poems, he expresses the anxiety concerning life and death that he faced bravely with austere pessimism and inner strength. This attitude restores dignity to the human condition despite its mortal destiny. In this way, humankind are invited to question themselves and their choices in the quotidian that is also universal and where the artist, though isolated, conveys the essence of things thanks to his keen observation and poetical vigour.

(Carla Scarano D’Antonio)

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Eugenio_Montale with objects

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David Cooke: a  Poem in Memory of Eugenio Montale

STARING AT A HOOPOE

‘ilare uccello calunniato’
E.M.

Caught in the moment,
there is no way of knowing
who might have blinked first –
the old man or his visitant,
the bright, crested
ambivalent bird. A few
scattered objects
implying a workspace,
the room is otherwise
unfocused beyond
the reciprocal stare
of two survivors.
The eyes of one are stoical,
but lit by a sense
that all is not determined.
The other’s are steeled,
impenetrable – the maligned
harbinger of spring
or a bird whose piping
mnemonic call
is like a final summons.

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On translating Montale

Translating Montale’s poems was a long and difficult process. Sometimes Keith and I spent days on one word trying to find the best possible meaning but also a word that had the right sound, because in poetry it is not only the meaning that counts; sounds and rhythm are important as well. The poems had to make sense and sound beautiful in another language. We were always wondering whether our translations conveyed the real meaning and were acceptable in English. By spending so much time on this process and agonising over our choices, we hoped that we would not mislead our future readers.

Translating is not just conveying the meaning and it does not involve creating a new piece of art; the translator needs to find a good balance between being faithful to the original and producing a meaningful, interesting piece in translation – something that doesn’t jar in the other language. Montale is particularly difficult to translate because he combines different prosodic characteristics and renews them in various ways, connecting sounds and words that on the face of it seem jarring and using dialect and unusual, sophisticated expressions and creative, innovative images.

In our translations, we tried to remain faithful to the meaning of the original poem but at the same time aimed to create poems that work in English that might give some indication of the poetic effects of Montale’s work.

(Keith Lander and Carla Scarano D’Antonio)

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Eugenio Montale: Four Poems
translated by Keith Lander and Carla Scarano D’Antonio

(NB: You can click on the titles to access the poems in Italian)

THE LEMON TREES

Listen to me, though the classic poets
only meander through shrubs
with odd names—box, privet, acanthus—
I much prefer roads that lead to grassy
ditches where boys snatch
skinny eels from shallow puddles,
and paths along embankments
that slope down among reed tufts
to emerge in gardens of lemon trees.

Better if the ruckus of the birds
dies away swallowed by the blue
so you can hear the whisper
of friendly branches in the breathless air,
and the sensations of this smell
that’s wedded to the earth,
the restless sweet trickle on the breast.
Here, by some miracle, the war
of amused passions finds peace.
Even we poor are entitled to the riches
found in the fragrance of the lemons.

It’s in these silences, you see,
where things surrender
and seem on the point of betraying
their ultimate secret, that we expect
to discover a flaw in Nature,
the dead centre of the world, the failing link,
the final thread to unravel that will lead
to the heart of the matter.
The eyes scan their surroundings,
the mind inquires, accords, separates
in the heady scent
when the day is most languid.
It’s in such silences you can see
in every fleeting human shadow
some disturbed divinity.

But the illusion fails and time hauls us back
to the city din where the blue only appears
in patches up high between the eaves.
Then afterwards rain wearies the earth,
the winter’s tedium burdens the houses,
the light turns mean—the soul bitter.
Until one day through a half-closed door
onto a yard we see the flames of lemons
among the trees;
and the heart’s frost melts
and the golden songs
thunder into the breast
from trumpets of sunlight.

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 TO MY MOTHER

Now that the chorus of rock partridges
lulls you in eternal sleep, and the happy, broken
formation heads to the harvested slopes of Mesco;
now the fight of the living rages more wildly,
if you yield your remains like a shadow
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (and it’s not a shadow,
kind one, it’s not what you think),

who will look out for you? The empty road
is not a way, only two hands, a face,
those hands, that face, the gesture of a life
that’s nothing but itself,
only this puts you in the elysium,
crowded with souls and voices, where you live;

and the question you leave behind, that too
is one of your gestures, in the shadow of the crosses.

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THE HOUSE OF THE CUSTOMS MEN

You don’t remember the house of the customs men
perched high on the edge of the sheer cliff:
deserted, it has been waiting for you since the evening
your restless thoughts swarmed in and lingered.

For years the libeccio has lashed the walls
and the carefree sound of your laughter has gone:
the compass needle spins round at random
and the dice seem to be loaded.
You don’t remember; another time clouds
your memory; a thread unravels.

I still hold one end; but the house recedes
and up on the roof the smoke-stained weathercock
creaks and whirls without pity.
I hold one end; but you are alone here,
holding your breath in the dark.

Oh the vanishing horizon lit by the faint light
of the distant oil tanker!
Is the passage here? (The recurrent roar
of breakers way down under the crags…)
You don’t remember the house of this, my evening.
And I don’t know who’s going and who’ll stay.

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In this video you can hear Montale reading ‘L’Anguilla’ (‘The Eel’) one of his most famous poems. You will find Carla and Keith’s English version underneath.

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THE EEL

The eel, that siren
of northern waters, leaves
behind the Baltic to reach
our seas, estuaries and rivers,
heads upstream
beneath the downstream flood
from branch to branch, ghyll to ghyll,
becomes thinner, goes deeper,
always deeper to the heart of rock,
worms her way into sluggish rills
until one day light darts
from the chestnut leaves,
kindles a flash in stagnant pools
in ditches cascading
from the Apennines of Romagna;
eel, lamp, lash,
arrow of Love on earth
whom only our gullies or the dry
Pyrenean brooks lead back
to paradises of spawning;
green soul seeking
life where only
drought and desolation bite,
scintillation that says
all things start when all things seem
burnt black, buried stumps;
brief rainbow, replica
of the one that shines in your lashes,
you shimmer intact among the children
of men plunged in your mud, can’t you
believe she’s your sister?

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Translators

Carla Scarano D’Antonio lives in Surrey with her family. She has a degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and a degree in Italian Language and Literature from the University of Rome, La Sapienza. 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. Her short collection Negotiating Caponata was published in July 2020. She worked on a PhD on Margaret Atwood’s work at the University of Reading and graduated in April 2021. http://carlascarano.blogspot.com/    and        http://www.carlascaranod.co.uk/

Keith Lander gained an MA in creative writing from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2008, studying with Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy. His work has appeared in The North, Envoi, Obsessed with Pipework and a several anthologies. His poems have appeared on the long list of the National Poetry competition three times. Keith is a regular member of the Cross Border Poetry Stanza. His debut pamphlet Pandemonium was published in 2019 by Yaffle Press.

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1 thought on “Eugenio Montale: At the Threshold of Life

  1. I saw this first via Facebook and posted this comment:

    “Enjoyed your post David; enjoyed the discussion too. And it prompted me to reread an Oxford lecture of Paul Muldoon on The Eel as ‘translated’ by Robert Lowell : using it as a way into reflection on the art of translating poetry. Muldoon compares ten different translations of Montale’s opening and closing lines. Robert Lowell of course goes furthest down his own road.”

    Then Carla Scaralo replied. I do like her translation.

    In his lecture, Paul Muldoon was proposing that even an ‘original’ poem is a translation of a kind because he senses that there is some form of an ‘ur-poem’ that the poet is trying to capture. It’s his way of validating the art of translation I think, and he quotes Octavio Paz in support.

    I don’t know much about the art and craft of translation – I’m well out of my comfort zone here – but I do find The Eel and it’s various versions magnetic.

    Like

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