I’m going to devote a few posts to readings of Montale’s poems from La Bufera e altro, Montale’s 1956 collection that I would be my 20th-century desert-island poetry selection. The collection was written during the backdrop and in the aftermath of World War Two; Montale was from Florence but spent time also in Milan. Many of the poems are addressed to a female presence–Clizia, sometimes called Iride (a rainbow form), or else to a more voluptuous Vixen. Clizia has been identified as–though there is no need for the biography to determine how to interpret all that Montale writes–as Irma Brandeis, who frequented Florence before the war (she was a scholar of Dante).
I’ve written on Montale before, but I’m attempting something smaller here: an exercise in close-reading. Montage’s poems, especially from La Bufera e altro, are hermetically and hermeneutically closed, intensely private, and so present special difficulties for interpretation. William Arrowsmith’s introduction to his translation of the collection (Arrowsmith’s Montale should be read instead of Galassi’s) is eloquent on what sets Montale apart in difficulty:
Technically as well the aim is iridescence, and the translation must follow suit. Montale’s images are constantly in the process of mutation; it is largely their transformational rapidity, urgency, and complexity that make his poetry difficult. An image of a metaphysical sort, for instance, is set out; this is immediately transformed into visual terms, which then become chromatic, only to be transformed again into another associated but larger, cluster; image after image, each modulating into another so as to give a quite Ovidian sense of a world in endless process of metamorphosis. We get, not the intensive elaboration of a conceit, but rather imaginative expansion, no less elaborate and far less predictable. The result is a poem that seems to be alive, a tissue of shifting tints, the poem-as-prism or spectrum. What the translator (and reader) must do is to locate the hidden transitional pivot beneath the seemingly unpredictable thematic swerve, prosodic jump, or even pointedly abrupt silence or aposiopesis. When we find that pivot we are in touch with what Montale elsewhere, in a metaphysical connection, calls “the brief circle where everything is changed,” the “ditch of memory” or that voice of suffering that precedes all transformation, all individual becoming. Here the foundations of things are as it were “liquified”; distinctions of body and soul, day and night, reality and dream, living and dead are dissolved.
The poems elicit an interpretation that must make sense of those swerves and pivots, and fathom the silences, without straightening them out or filling them in; proliferation of ambiguities is not much help. Neither, I think, is the effort to saturate the poems in a history of ideas or a tradition of poetic ambitions. Instead, in order to respect what Montale wants to establish– the “transcendental I,” the (in Arrowsmith’s words again), the ” ‘I’ who communicates…opening toward the Other, toward individual otherness’ –and whose poems risk solitude and solipsism, but who refuse “escape into a larger self or a new community,”–we need to posit the individual experience behind the poems. We need to imagine, in a sort of fiction, what might be intended by the communicative acts, in the full recognition that we are only imagining possibilities of possibilities, but nonetheless opening towards the otherness of the poem; close-reading for the immanent other in poetry that itself expands out to an otherness that is not the reader.
I’m going to read the final poem from the first section of the collection, dedicated not to Clizia but to the poet’s mother. I choose it because of its mystery, but also because of the inadequacy of the critical commentary that Arrowsmith quotes as a note to the poem.
To My Mother
Now that the chorus of the rock partridge
lulls you in everlasting sleep, and the gay, broken
column makes its flight toward the harvested
hills of the Mesco; now that the struggle
of the living rages more wildly still; if like a shade
you yield your remains
(and it’s not a shade,
kind one, it’s not what you think)
who will shelter you? The road ahead
is not a way; only two hands, a face,
those hands, that face, the gestures of one
life that’s nothing but itself,
only this sets you down in that Elysium
crowded with souls and voices, in which you live;
and the question you leave behind, that too
is one of your gestures, in the shadow of the crosses.
She has always been sheltered, his mother, but now something has changed; now the rock partridges sing over her in sleep as they formerly did in life, and so who will shelter her now? Who, in other other words, can shelter the remains of the dead…if her remains are yielded or ceded (“cedi” in Italian) as a shade (“ombra”–the word is frequent in Dante) would cede or yield the physical remains that have been left behind.
The question is hypothetical–not “when” you yield your remains–because it is not certain that she will give up her remains, not certain that the dead can be divided from their remains. The word for remains in the Italian is “spoglia” which might be also be generally what is shed off or cast-aside (as by a reptile), and so suggests the possibility of rebirth in another form. What is uncertain is whether that sort of shedding the human form is possible as it is said to be for shades, which is why the parentheses interrupt. They are addressed, presumably, to Clizia but they may also be addressed, in a different key, with a less wavering faith, a more confident assumed intimacy, to his mother also. The purpose of the parenthesis, at any rate, is to distinguish, to query the simile, the word “like”: it would be like a shade for her to shed remains, but he is not imagining that she is a shade, at least not a shade as we, or the addressee, would think; entertaining the biographical reality of Clizia, it would not be a shade that a Dante scholar might think–though the word in the Italian is stronger, “credi,” with its overtones of religious faith). Here, as elsewhere, Montale cannot say what she is, but fends off clarity that relies on stock assumptions and poetic cliche.
But that is to leap to the poem’s central question, which marks the fault line running through it. Arrowsmith translates the Italian “schiera” as “column” in order to render it’s double-sidedness: a military formation, as well as a gathering or crowd. “Column” does both because it invokes a column of soldiers, clad in gray, merrily retreating to the hills of Mesco (apparently that northwest coastal region was a place resistance to Italy’s fascist regime), but might also suggest a column of birds in migration, the gray of the Italian rock partridge (grayer than its Sicilian or Northern European counterparts) in flight to the hills after a harvest (“vendemmiata”), to glean what grain is left behind. The identification of birds in flight and column and flight is encouraged by the structure of the clauses: “Now that” (“Ora che” in the Italian) precedes the “chorus of the rock partridges” and the “struggle of the living,” but the chorus and the column are conjoined by “and” in the English, and separated only by a comma in the Italian; the column in flight is syntactically nearer to the chorus than to the struggle of war.
But the struggle of the living might be more general than the war itself, might be a cyclical migration of life struggling to go on, and in so doing abandoning the claims of the dead–who will shelter the dead now that the world moves on? Or perhaps he asks who will shelter her now that the chorus of birds has flown on to the harvested hills?
The layering nature and war, of birds and soldiers, of the harvest of men and the harvest of bodies, of the struggle for life and the struggle for victory, of animal song and human carnage, of human history and seasonal cycles, is not symbolic or suggestive of relationships between them; it is a record of the experience of time at that moment, at that “now”–an experience of time that cannot be reduced to any one impression of the world, or any sphere of existence, but which includes them all simultaneously, so that the mind cannot but perceive them as temporally connected, and all connected to the memory of his mother, to which they also, strangely, remain irrelevant. Anything at all could have preceded that “if” in the question, “if like a shade you yield your remains, who will shelter you?” If like a shade she yields her remains, she ceases, in some way, to be of the earth, and moves beyond the capacity of any one to shelter.
The question feels like a break in the poem, like a destination beyond which the poem cannot proceed. But the question is itself broken, by parentheses, and by a break in the stanza structure.
The parentheses might seem mimetic coming where they do, containing something that is not essential to the poem–a sort of instance of “spoglia”–and also offering shelter to a voice. But they shelter an address to one who is still alive, or to an aspect of the mother’s memory that is beyond the poem’s concern, and so they make an exception that does not bear on its ache. In the midst of the question, the parenthesis offers solace as well as doubt; it opens up space for intimacy and they warn against false clarity.
Typographically, the parenthesis hangs from but also hangs to the first stanza, an antiphonal response to the word “ombra,” as if a second voice were completing the meter, and the rhyme of “credi” (“think”) looks back towards “tu cedi” (“you yield”); at the same time the word “ombra” rhymes down into the first line of the next stanza, which opens: “chi ti proteggera? La strada sgombra”; because of the rhyme down the page, the interrupting parenthesis forms a bridge between the stanzas. The poem is at odds as to the nature of its own continuity, and we realize why when we look more closely at the question, which is in fact twofold; first it is a question about what sort of thing she is (a shade?), and then it is a question about who will shelter her. Though the poet asks both questions at once, syntactically, the poem breaks the question formally, so that the first stanza really ends with a question about where she is, what she is in the world, after her death. That question, as it were, acknowledged by the parenthesis that warn against finding too easy an answer; that acknowledgment over, the poem can ask its second question: Who will shelter you?
It is fully possible to imagine a poem starting here, at the start of the second stanza. Montale includes the rock partridges, the column, the intensifying strife and struggle not because we need it in order to understand, in any logical sense, what he asks when he wonders who will shelter his mother–he includes it in order to dramatize the question itself, and so to loosen it from the sense we might attribute to it, to the significance we would naturally imagine. That question is not only about who cares for the dead once they are departed, but also, as the answer to it will reveal, about the particularity of human existence. Once she has departed from the realm of contingent history, of the flux of seasons and war, of the intermingling impressions of material and sensory existence, how can his mother be sheltered or preserved as what she was? What departs from her in the first stanza of the poem is life itself, which is only ever present in particular moments, fleeting and blurring; they correspond to and occasion the “gestures of one| life that’s nothing but itself.” They represent a unique identity that persisted in time, as itself, as a unique vantage point of experience and unique source of activity. It is, as much as a poem by Pope or Wordsworth, and as different from each as they are from one another, a poem about identity; though having said that, the relative proximity to Wordsworth should be granted.
“Is not a way” in Italian is “non e una via” and once again we might feel Dante being pushed aside, the word “via” appearing in the third line of the opening tercet of the Commedia; it is an open road ahead, “sgombra,” but it is not a way forward; and the remarkable italics in the original and translation: “quelle mani, quel volt”–“those hands, that face.” They are themselves a sort of “gesture” in typography, a reaching towards specificity that is impossible in language unless it is in the presence of its object, as Montale is not. The italics strike at the limits of language because what makes a person, in this poem, a person is the gestures of their life, their physical being, which is perhaps why so many of the poems in the collection recall images and objects rather than words.
In his introductory essay, Arrowsmith stresses Montale’s concern for Otherness, but the translation misses an opportunity here: “vita che non e un’ altra ma se stessa” becomes “life that’s nothing but itself” and so loses the word “altra”: “a life that is no other than itself.” Being no other than itself means being fundamentally Other to everyone else; though the word “nothing” emphasizes the paradox of the mother being lost to nothingness in death, while also being entirely herself.
Of course the stanza itself has not yet told us that she is still herself–if the road ahead is not a way, if a life depends on the particularity of hands, a face, and gestures, then we might think she is irrecoverably gone; but she is not. The fact of these having existed, “this”–“questo”–sets her down (“ti pone”) in the Elysium he claims. It’s an enormous “this,” a “questo” that answers to her entire, essential self, but it could not be adequately specified any more than the italics could be–critical paraphrase of it is itself a gesture towards the gestures of which she is the summation and source.
Arrowsmith renders it “that Elysium” but “the Elysium” might capture the sense too; he emphasizes what is definite and specific in the article to suggest that it is not the Elysium of the myths, that it is perhaps as particular to her as the memories Montale has. Not that she is alone there: “crowded with souls and voices.” But I suspect (without certainty) an ambiguity in the Italian that Arrowsmith’s punctuation partially alleviates: “folto d’anime e voci in cui tu vivi.” Arrowsmith sets a comma before the final phrase (“and voices, in which you live”) as if to clarify that it is Elysium in which she lives–but why is it not “sets you in that Elysium full of souls and voices in which you live,” so that she lives in the souls and voices, the souls of those still living and capable of remembering, the voice of the poet and others; those too could constitute an Elysium, the poem harboring traces of her gestures, as all of Montale’s poems harbor, and transfigure, traces of gestures, mementos, and memories.
Is the poem a sonnet? Without the parenthetical, it would occupy fourteen lines; but the Petrarchan sonnet would not end in a couplet, and would consist of an octet and sestet. Montale’s couplet, at any rate, is a typographical effect rather than rhyme on the page. But a sonnet form hovers in the poem’s memory.
The question (“domanda”–the imploring force is perhaps greater than the word “question” allows) at the center of the poem, its origin, has not been answered, and to the fact of the question the poem returns. But the question itself, the poet’s asking it, is now seen differently, as a gesture that the mother has left behind, and so as a part of her for the poet to cherish and preserve, even if he cannot answer it.
The final phrase is a rebuttal of Christian consolation; she has been sheltered all the while in the shadow of crosses, but he still asks what will shelter her. The “ombra” here (“ombra della croci”) is other than the “ombra” in the question he has asked, but the “ombra” of the question was itself not the right word, and the question grows out of the shadow of the cross; that question was left behind by his mother, who was given a Christian (Catholic, presumably) burial, and the terms of the question itself are the terms of a predominantly Catholic nation’s language and traditions; they are not entirely adequate for what he needs to say, but they are also not entirely inadequate; they make the need for saying it, and asking it, possible.