Exchanging notes with Mike Birman about Petrarch, whose poems inspired some of the greatest composers of the 16th and 17th Centuries, I suddenly made a connection -- had an epiphany, to put it in grad school terms. Eugenio Montale (b. 1896) wrote a lot like Petrarch! That may not be such a surprise to scholars of Italian literature, or it may seem like pure nonsense to those same scholars. Che sara sara. But for the various readers of my reviews of Monteverdi and other madrigalists, the mere mention of a modern Italian poet, and an extremely good one, may be a revelation. Here's a very short poem by Montale:
Il soffio cresce, il buio e rotto a squarci,
e l'ombra che tu mandi sulla fragile
palizzata s'arriccia. Troppo tardi
se vuoi esser te stessa! Dalla palma
tonfa il sorcio, il baleno e sulla miccia,
sui lunghissimi cigli del tuo sguardo.
But Montale lived through tougher times, and modern themes show up in his work as veins of grief through his translucent marble lyricism. Here's my own translation of his poem "La Primavera Hitleriana" :
A thick lamp-loony mist, moths, dim as sleet
swirls down parapets, eddies, drains,
shakes down on the stones a sheet
that crackles like sugar underfoot.
When summer comes, now soon, it breaks
chill nitres loose the dying season held
hidden in coverts, quarries, orchards which
from Maiano snake down sandhills to sandy banks.
Hooked crosses, flags and flambeaux, mystic chants
of stooges gorged him in -- the hellbent henchman
cyclist who through the Corso just now
blazed. Shop fronts are shuttered, broke
and gutless though they, they too, sport
plastic cannons. Bars creak
across the butcher's counter closing, he
who used to deck his goats' heads out
with red small berries -- rite of those tender killers
who do not know blood yet, made over
in a puking reel of mashed white wings, larvae
on the mud-flats fledging, and foul water
rots its banks and no one is blameless.
For nothing is it? St. John's Eve
goes slowly blonde as roman candles streak
adios stark as baptisms to this dolorous watch
the horde keeps. Some precious something skates
your shoreline skyward, Tobias' seraph seven
spermed on ice. Heliotropes
foal from your fingers. --
Our bleeding ulcer, April,
if it freeze such death in death, is a holiday yet.
Clizia, whose fate this is, though changed, you
love unchanged until that sun that squints in you is
lacklustered in the Other, annihilated in
him for everyone. Sirens, pig iron bells,
sledging the horde's Walpurgisnacht, already
with peals broken off heaven,
descending, conquering, chime -- Oh dawn
of frosted breathing but unhorrible
which tomorrow bursts over the fried gulches of the south....
Clizia is Montale's recurrent feminine, his match for Petrarch's Laura. My translation was published some years ago in the Transatlantic Review #19. Robert Lowell included several translations of Montale poems in his book "Imitations" and Charles Wright has translated nearly all of Montale in very impressive poetic English.