Reading: Via Velasca by Leonardo Sinisgalli

Leonardo Sinisgalli (1908-1981) studied engineering and mathematics before he became a poet, and they appear to call him the “engineer poet”. Here is a collection of his poetry in Italian. I found this impressionist poem about a street, in the translation of W.S. di Piero, and I quote:

Via Velasca
Years of pounding have nearly
Caved it in, and it’s hard to believe
The street’s gotten narrower.
This is my hour, my favorite hour.
I remember one night all noise died
In the fading light, a voice
Cried my name as if in a dream
Then stopped.
The street bends, the day
Drips from the rooftops,
The sweet hour sings in me.
The light is only a stubborn
Ghost, a glow: a fish
Gleams in the glass bottle.

Sinisgalli. Image Wikimedia

The pounding is ‘calpestio’ in the original, perhaps trampling would have been a better translation. The quiet old street has become a busy thoroughfare. Narrower, probably because all the streets from your childhood are grand and wide. But there is no nostalgia here, this is the favorite hour: The poet is aware that he feels so good because of the memories that he didn’t have back then. He remembers a silent night in which a voice cried (un grido disse: a cry said) my name as in a dream. I see an older poet smiling happily in the fading light, hardly registering the voice who is shouting his name.

Because he is painting in his head the image of the street. Look at these days that drip from the rooftops as the street bends. Dalí! The light is glowing, a shiny glimmer like a fish in a glass bottle. This imagery in Italian:

Non è che una larva restìa
La luce, un barlume: entro la boccia
Di vetro un pesce s’illumina.

The fish is lighting up itself, so we’re thinking of inner light and enlightenment. And even that light is only a stubborn ghost, overrated when the sweet hour sings. The light is a superficial glowing, what is essential is perhaps the voice that cries our name?

Reading: Via Velasca by Leonardo Sinisgalli was originally published on Meandering home


Reading: I hear that the axe has flowered by Paul Celan

Today, let’s dive into a mysterious poem by the great Paul Celan, in a translation by Michael Hamburger.

I hear that the axe has flowered
I hear that the axe has flowered,
I hear that the place can’t be named,

I hear that the bread which looks at him
heals the hanged man,
the bread baked for him by his wife,

I hear that they call life
our only refuge.

To my ears, it sounds quite different in German, but let’s pretend it is an English poem (I can’t bear any translation of Celan’s famous Todesfüge and the “Platz in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng” but here its not fatal). The German begins:

Image Wikimedia Commons

Ich höre, die Axt hat geblüht
Ich höre, der Ort ist nicht nennbar,

Ich höre, das Brot, das ihn ansieht
heilt den Erhängten

The image of the flowering axe is designed to be strange, elusive. Does it mean the axe has attracted the equivalent of birds or insects, who take care of its reproduction? But the place can’t be named, is it a concentration camp (of course, we’re reading Celan…)

The world is so completely ‘aus den Fugen’, incomprehensible that in this abyss of meaninglessness, the smallest thing can heal: The bread baked for him by his wife ‘heals’ the man even after he was executed. Why? It restorace the tiniest modicum of normalcy, it retroactively pierces an infinitely tiny hole in the narrative of the absurd that has enveiled the hanged man. What is healed is not the body of the man, but his story.

The story of life is our only refuge (“Ich höre, sie nennen das Leben / die einzige Zuflucht”). It is all Celan has to offer here, all we can hope for in the darkest of times: (imagining) being looked at by fragments of that, which we can still understand as life.

Reading: I hear that the axe has flowered by Paul Celan was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Female author by Sylvia Plath

An anthology has to have some Plath in it, or so they say. This one convinced me by its metaphorical precision. I would have liked it even if I didn’t know they author was Sylvia Plath (1932-1963).

All day she plays at chess with the bones of the world:
Favored (while suddenly the rains begin
Beyond the window) she lies on cushions curled
And nibbles an occasional bonbon of sin.

Prim, pink-breasted, feminine, she nurses
Chocolate fancies in rose-papered rooms
Where polished highboys whisper creaking curses
And hothouse roses shed immortal blooms.

The garnets on her fingers twinkle quick
And blood reflects across the manuscript;
She muses on the odor, sweet and sick,
Of festering gardenias in a crypt,

And lost in subtle metaphor, retreats
From gray child faces crying in the streets.

Okay, she is “one of the most celebrated and controversial of postwar poets writing in English”  (Joyce Carol Oates) and you can see why. In her poetry, life and death, lightheartedness and suicidal depression are closer together than anywhere. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Sordid excellence’. Playing chess with the bones of the world is something for emperors. I see a Cleopatra, a Katherina the Great. It begins to rain outside, so we’re drawn in, where she lies down and nibbles on a bonbon of sin. The word play bones and bonbon is striking. It’s a nice image of spleen.

The second strophe sounds like Hello Kitty to me. All pink, a little cabinet/drawer (highboy) and a hothouse with roses. But something is not right: We hear ‘creaking curses’.

She is writing passionately: the twinkling of her red jewelry is likened to blood. And she isn’t writing about chocolate or roses. She is inspired by the sweet en sick stench of decaying gardenia flowers in a grave. Muses-sweet and sick-crypt, here the poet enforces the immediate proximity of life and death. Thus she writes, and is – like we, her readers? – lost in subtle metaphor.

Then the perspective changes to the streets with the anonymous (gray) crying child faces. She can’t bear their sight and only in metaphor she finds some relief. But is it a dangerous relief, that only catalyzes her own death drive? She commited suicide at age 30, falling pray to depression. Can subtle metaphors indeed keep depression at bay, at least for some time?

Image Cioma Ebinama


Reading: Female author by Sylvia Plath was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: St. Sava’s Journey by Vasko Popa

The following poem by Serbian poet Vasko Popa (1922-1991) in the translation of Anne Paddington, did impress me.

St. Sava’s Journey
He journeys over the dark land
With his staff he cuts
The dark beyond him into four
He flings thick gloves
Changed into immense cats
At the grey army of mice

Amid the storm he releases his chains
And lashes the ancient oaken land
To the fixed stars
He lashes his wolves’ paws
That no trace of the dark land
Should remain on them
He journeys without a path
And the path is born behind him

St. Sava is a major historical figure of Serbia, a prince and an orthodox monk, the first Archbishop of the autocephalous Serbian Church, the founder of Serbian law, and a diplomat, according to Wikipedia. He is also known as the Enlightener and is venerated as a protector of churches, families, schools and artisans. The journey here begins with a powerful metaphor of that activity: He cuts the dark into four. He fights the grey army of mice by throwing at them what they fear most, who are they? Unbelievers?

He takes his task as enlightener of the Serbs very seriously. He releases his chains amid the storm: Does that refer to the relative independence from Constantinople and the foundation of the autocephalous Serbian Church? The metaphor of lashing the ancient oaken land to the stars is wild. And he not only enlightens the people, he must also obliterate every trace of darkness in himself (on his paws). He is what we would call a trail blazer who creates the path behind him. I’m sure this sounds more impressive in the original Serbian: “Путује без пута / И пут се за њим рађа”.

Reading: St. Sava’s Journey by Vasko Popa was originally published on Meandering home