Sunday, April 12, 2020

Easter 2020: The yellow birds that fill the trees

No River Where We Parted
After Eugenio Montale’s “Dora Markus”

There was no wooden bridge,
no river where we parted:
a stream of taxis yellow as daffodils,
the air tasting of smoke.

With a wave of your hand
you pointed to the city of brick
where an old man, almost motionless
at the window, awaited your return.

Your sadness made me think of a winter morning 
when so many yellow birds arrived
that they filled all the trees in all the woods
that stood behind my father's house.

I spent the day shoveling snow
from the neighbors' walks,
thinking and thinking about hundreds
and hundreds of yellow birds.

This poem, originally published in the Spring 1999 issue of the long vanished Brownstone Review, was loosely inspired by one written by the Italian poet Eugenio Montale in 1926, and continued in 1939. The woman in the title is someone he never met.

Montale survived the Fascist era by concealing his meaning behind such intricate symbols that his poems can be interpreted in many ways, all of them beautiful. 



Fu dove il ponte di legno
mette a Porto Corsini sul mare alto
e rari uomini, quasi immoti, affondano
o salpano le reti. Con un segno
della mano additavi all'altra sponda
invisibile la tua patria vera.
Poi seguimmo il canale fino alla darsena
della città, lucida di fuliggine,
nella bassura dove s'affondava
una primavera inerte, senza memoria.

E qui dove un'antica vita
si screzia in una dolce
ansietà d'Oriente,
le tue parole iridavano come le scaglie
della triglia moribonda.

La tua irrequietudine mi fa pensare
agli uccelli di passo che urtano ai fari
nelle sere tempestose:
è una tempesta anche la tua dolcezza,
turbina e non appare.
E i suoi riposi sono anche più rari.
Non so come stremata tu resisti
in quel lago
d'indifferenza ch'è il tuo cuore; forse
ti salva un amuleto che tu tieni
vicino alla matita delle labbra,
al piumino, alla lima: un topo bianco
d'avorio; e così esisti!



Ormai nella tua Carinzia
di mirti fioriti e di stagni,
china sul bordo sorvegli
la carpa che timida abbocca
o segui sui tigli, tra gl'irti
pinnacoli le accensioni
del vespro e nell'acque un avvampo
di tende da scali e pensioni.

La sera che si protende
sull'umida conca non porta
col palpito dei motori
che gemiti d'oche e un interno
di nivee maioliche dice
allo specchio annerito che ti vide
diversa una storia di errori
imperturbati e la incide
dove la spugna non giunge.

La tua leggenda, Dora!
Ma è scritta già in quegli sguardi
di uomini che hanno fedine
altere e deboli in grandi
ritratti d'oro e ritorna
ad ogni accordo che esprime
l'armonica guasta nell'ora
che abbuia, sempre più tardi.

È scritta là. Il sempreverde
alloro per la cucina
resiste, la voce non muta,
Ravenna è lontana, distilla
veleno una fede feroce.
Che vuole da te? Non si cede
voce, leggenda o destino.
Ma è tardi, sempre più tardi.ult to decipher


As Montale found beauty and hope in a dark time, so may we this Easter:

Now it seems, and I may be wrong, that
I will come to where you are sitting across
from the fountain in the Piazza Navona.
You have already ordered a bottle of Frascati.
You are thinking that I am late but I am not.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Ezra Pound: the Best and the Worst

Lady Wang, found in Mogao Caves, Tang Dynasty

Ezra Pound was a truly great poet - and he wasn't. Leaving the United States in the early 1900s, he settled in London and later in Italy and immersed himself in European and classical culture and literature. His best poems came early, but as he moved into middle age, his charm and generosity were displaced by a bitter anti-Semitism. This led him to make rather incomprehensible propaganda broadcasts for Mussolini during the war. And that, in turn, led to his arrest for treason and his subsequent commitment to a mental hospital for twelve years. Pound appears in my novel In the Forest of Tombolo in scenes set at a prison camp in Pisa in and at St. Elizabeth's Mental Hospital in Washington.

I prefer to remember him now for his early and remarkably beautiful poems, often loose translations from other languages. Here is my wife's favorite:

The River Merchant's Wife
          after Li Po

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed
You went into far Ku-tō-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.