Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale (trans. Jonathan Galassi). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 640pp., $30.00.
Even today, bedecked in helpful bridges, tunnels, and train service, the Cinque Terre region of Italy’s Ligurian riviera strikes visitors as almost a portal to another world, an angular, steepled world of bleached air and rustling, restless balm. Houses are stacked with a jeweler’s care off a sea so blue it seems black in places, and the sun seems somehow to disappear into its own light, creating a daily luminescence that feels like it had no beginning and will have no end. Along those narrow cliff-side tracks or in the paradisiacal shade of the many sequestered gardens behind those old, watchful hillside houses, the days feel like they will never reach twilight. The whole area is suffused with peace, but it isn’t a restful peace.
Even for strangers, and even in its current domesticated state, it’s a landscape guaranteed to provoke inspiration, and this effect was all the more vivid a century ago, when the area was wilder and had far more forbidding. This was the turbulent version of the Ligurian coast that worked its way into the imagination of the poet Eugenio Montale, whose family had property there and whose boyhood was punctuated by frequent visits to that strange land. The impressions it made on the poet were vivid and longlasting; they fill his early work. Montale poured himself into Italy’s great poetic tradition from Dante to Leopardi, and in 1925 he produced Ossi di seppia, “Cuttlefish Bones,” a stunning debut and the first part of the large and newly updated bilingual volume of Montale’s poetry now appearing from veteran translator and long-time Montale devotee Jonathan Galassi, Eugenio Montale: The Collected Poems 1920-1954.
Galassi’s volume labors under the long shadow of the great American classicist and translator William Arrowsmith, whose translation volume The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale: 1925-1977 is published this year by W. W. Norton and makes an excellent, almost indispensable companion to Galassi’s book. Arrowsmith’s renderings of Montale have won wide acclaim, and Galassi freely acknowledges the debt he and all other English-language Montale devotees owe to him, but Galassi’s version proves there’s plenty of room for both in any serious reader’s poetry library. Arrowsmith’s ample notes are more magisterial but less far-ranging than Galassi’s, and the translations themselves are very different: Arrowsmith doesn’t hesitate to alter a line in order to convey a meaning, whereas Galassi is as scrupulously faithful to Montale’s Italian as English will allow (minus the few inevitable lapses that will always occur in a work of this length and ambition).
It must be admitted that this approach often wrings the spare, intelligent beauty out of what Galassi himself refers to as the “nervous, astringent music” of Montale’s poetry. (A symptom of this occasional tone-deafness is Galassi’s rendering of the title of “La Bufera e Altro,” “The Storm and Other Things,” as “The Storm, Etc.”). “Mediterraneo” (“Mediterranean”), for instance, is crammed with dense, quick rhymes:
Scendendo qualche volta
gli aridi greppi ormai
Autunno che li gonfiava,
non m’era piu in curore la ruota
della stagioni e il gocciare
del tempo inesorabile;
ma bene il presentimento
di te m’empiva l’anima,
dell’aria, prima immota,
sulle rocce che orlavano il cammino.
Any English rendition determined to keep the same meter must fail to reproduce that weird echo-chamber of rhymes and counter-rhymes, and Galassi doesn’t even try:
Sometimes, coming down
the dry cliffs, distant now
from the many-humored
Autumn that swelled them,
the wheel of the seasons
and the dripping of inexorable
time were gone from my heart;
yet the sense of you
still filled my soul,
surprised in the gasping air
that was still before
on the rocks that edged the road.
Likewise inimical choices face a translator of Montale’s tangled poems; for instance, the signature poem “Casa sul mare” (“House by the Sea”) from Meriggi e ombre (Noons and Shadows). Such intricately balanced cadences have come close to defeating even such poets as James Merrill and Paul Muldoon:
Tu chiedi se cosi tutto vanisce
in questa poca nebbia di memorie;
se nell’ora che torpe o nel sospiro
del frangente si compie ogni destino.
Vorrei dirti che no, che ti s’appressa
l’ora che passerai di la dal tempo;
forse solo chi vuole s’infinita,
e questo tu potrai, chissa, non io.
Galassi takes a prudent literalist course, divesting the lines of their mordant little bounce but infusing them with an angular grace that grows on the reader with each re-reading:
You ask if everything dissolves like this
in a thin haze of memories,
if in this torpid hour or the breaker’s sigh
every destiny’s fulfilled.
I’d like to say no, that the moment
when you’ll pass out of time is rushing toward you;
maybe only those who want to become infinite,
and, who knows, you can do it; I cannot.
And in addition to Galassi’s always-interesting facing-page translations, this volume includes his 12-page essay “Reading Montale” (placed, with becoming modesty, after the translations rather than as an introduction). In it he appropriately asks “Why has this incandescent poetry that narrates this anguished itinerary not only set the course of twentieth-century Italian verse but also had an increasingly resonant influence on our own?”
After the essay comes the true crowning achievement of this edition: 170 brimming pages of careful, exhaustive, utterly fascinating annotations to the poems, a tour de force of accessible scholarship expanding on all the densely-packed complexity of this highly allusive, passionate student of Dante and Manzoni, Leopardi and Foscolo. “He is the last major Italian poet,” Galassi tells us, “to see his spirit as fundamentally consonant with those of his predecessors, to conceive of his own project as a full-scale coming to terms with the engendering past.” Thanks to this translator’s tireless contextualizing, even readers coming to Italian poetry and Montale for the first time will have a key to that project
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and Historical Novel Review Online. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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