Montale’s best translator, William Arrowsmith, writes of the collection La Bufera e altro: “these are love-poems, both personal and cosmological, without doubt the most remarkable sequence of love-poems in Italian since Petrarch.” “Love-poems” rather than “love poems” because love does not so much characterize as constitute the poetry, and vice-versa. But what does this mean? To understand Montale’s achievement, I’ll first try to set out some principles of what it means to write a love poem in the first place, and then turn to how those principles animate his poetry.
A proposition begot on my experience of literature: love poetry succeeds where it admits into itself the threats to love, and where it registers love’s transformative power. But having stated that theory, further explanation is required, because the crucial term, “love,” remains nebulous. It need not be defined, but it can be grasped, and W.H. Auden offers a neat handle when he observes that, whatever else love may be, it is “intensity of attention.”
I like the phrase because it immediately distinguishes love from its near-kin, desire, which might begin with intensity of attention, but soon becomes intensity of attraction, and involves the interplay of absence and presence, the erotic and the physical, and the possibility of consummation; for a love poet, consummation would be the same attention returned in proportion.Without it, the poetry is about obsession (Tennyson’s Maud), elegy (Hardy’s late lyrics), God (Rossetti, Hopkins) or perhaps other shades of caring and devoted relationships (siblings? parents? children?).
To return and improve: love poetry admits into itself the threats to paying intense attention to another human and records the transformative effects of intense attention on that person. The result tends to be the elevation of a person (the beloved) into a symbol, without the loss of individuality, and an apprehension of the threats to the attention the lover gives the beloved.
There is less great love poetry than one would expect; perhaps because it requires that the poetry admit the threats to love it can focus its attention on those threats instead of on the beloved, becoming another sort of poetry entirely; perhaps a great deal of love poetry is really poetry written out of hope, so that is either poetry of desire; or else, because it is written out of an intense attention that does not have a genuine fixed object, or that has never reached its object, it cannot be threatened (it has not been established); or else, because the opportunity for stable expenditure of attention is unavailable, the transformative effects of attention cannot be imagined and registered.
Of modern poets, early-twentieth-century Russians have written some of the most moving love poems; as have Latin American poets; as has Eugenio Montale.
Maybe it is because these poets write in traditions that embrace, with more readiness the principles of symbolism, while also resisting its dogmatic imperatives, that they had the techniques available to writing love poetry: addressing a beloved who becomes a symbol in the eyes and words of a poet whose gaze and thoughts that beloved understands (or would understand, and not flee or scream out against), and whose transformation into a symbol is hindered both by particularity, the granularity of individual memories (the privacy of meaning that threatens to undo all symbolism), as well as by forces external to the poem, usually the forces of history.
Montale’s achievement is clearest in La Bufera e Altro. Take the title poem, opening the collection, “The Storm”:
The storm splattering the tough magnolia
leaves, with the long rolling March thunder
(tinklings of crystal in your nocturnal
nest startle you, out of gold gone
from the mahoganies, on the edging
of bound books, a grain of sugar
still burns in the shell
of your eyelids)
the lightning blanching
walls and trees, freezing them in that
forever of an instant–marble manna
and destruction–which you carry sculpted
inside you for your damnation, and that binds you
to me, strange sister, more than love–
then the hard crack, the castanets, the shaking
of tambourines over the thieving ditch,
the stamp of the fandango, and overhead,
some gesture, groping…
As when you turned around and, with your hand, the cloud of hair
clearing from your forehead,
you waved to me–and stepped into darkness.
What distinguishes Montale’s poem from other love poems I know is the abrupt movement of the second person (“you”) in the poem: disappearing, lost sight of in the clatter and haze of impressions, and then reasserting itself with a shock before the final disappearance. The poem will not relinquish its attention on the beloved (whose attention is returned in the final wave), but nor will it attend to her as easily and confidently if she were an object, a taxidermy still-life posed in an airless display; she possesses a life and agency of her own, and his capacity to attend, and reach to her with his attention, is threatened by the storm of history, the Second World War.
Montale attends to her vigilantly, waiting for the beloved (Clizia, the name given to Irma Brandeis, is the name of the woman in this poem) to move before him when he cannot summon her through his own powers; but though he attends to her, he does not see, or present, her clearly; she is a suggestion of other things than herself, and suggested by things other than herself, and so she accrues symbolic weight, greater than Montale’s experience of her. And she achieves that symbolic force not despite but by means of the associations and recollections that are charged with intensely private significance. Montale’s achievement is technical.
Because of the technique, Montale can compose lyrics of real power, despite their wispiness on the page. Take “On the Greve,” from a section of the collection, “Flashes and Dedication”:
I no longer feed on looking only,
as once, at my whistle, you leaned out
and I could hardly see you. A rock, a funneling
furrow, the black flight of a swallow,
a lid on the world…
That velvet bud unclosing
over a mandolin glissade is bread for me,
my water the flowing rustle, your deep
Not looking, but attending–she cannot be seen, but he can attend to her in what she is not. And, as a final example, a poem less elusive in its address, but just as evasive in its plotting and range of associations, “The Shade of the Magnolia”:
The shade of the Japanese magnolia
is thinner now that its blossoms of peacock blue
have fallen. At the top, off and on,
a cicada trills. It’s no longer the season
for singing together, Clizia, no longer
the time of the limitless god
who devours his own believers and revives
their blood. Exertion
was easier, to die at the wing’s
first flutter, at the first encounter
with the enemy, was child’s play. From now on
the going’s harder. But not for you,
deep-rooted, consumed by sun, yet delicate
fieldfare soaring hight over your river’s icy
landing–not for you, fragile creature,
fugitive to whom zenith, nadir, Cancer,
Capricorn was all one blur,
because the war was fought in you and him who worshiped
in you the stigmata of your Spouse–no shuddering cold
makes you cringe. Others fall back,
droop. The subtly biting file
will soon be still, the late singer’s hollow husk
will turn to powdered glass, grit
underfoot, the shade is ashen,
–it’s autumn, it’s winter, it’s what lies beyond the horizon
that lures you on, and there I hurl myself, a mullet
leaping up, up, out of water, at the new moon.
Speaking to her is not the trouble; the poem does not strain or falter at the moment of address. Instead, it obstructs comprehension as it recovers her from the world at war; it cannot reinstate her presence, but it can recuperate her for the attention, intensifying in proportion to what would prevent its reach. By the poem’s end, Montale’s has pushed her free from the world’s attrition, harassment, and desiccation, but only by setting her at the furthest reach of his attention; she is nearly beyond his poem, transformed into something (a symbol?) he cannot understand, but loves nonetheless.