A second in a series of readings of poems by Eugenio Montale, from his collection La Bufera e altro. Here, from the fifth selection of the collection, “Silvae,” is the poem ” ‘Ezekiel Saw the Wheel’.” The original title is an English quotation, alluding, believes William Arrowsmith, whose translation I consult, to a African-American slave spiritual.
Was it you, strange hand, that snatched me
from the ivy’s tangle?
I was leaning over the slimy
cistern, the air was black, only
a vein of onyx shivered in the depths
below, like a reed in the gale.
But the clenched hand held me hard, its grip
in the darkness tightened, icier still,
and the rain pouring down
in my hair, in yours as it once
was, too soft, too fine,
went desperately groping for a vestige
buried inside me by a mountain,
a barrow of sand I’d heaped
to suffocate your voice, push it back
down, deeper, into that little
circle that changes everything–
the rain kept eroding the sand, exposing
the print of bedroom slippers
on the hardpan mud, the splinter,
your cross’s fiber
in the rotten flesh of shattered
beams, the grinning
skull interposed between us
when the great Wheel appeared, its menace
mirrored in the dawn, and peach petals
turned to bloom came raining down on me
and with them came, as now
Rather than comment directly on Arrowsmith’s translation, I’ve attempted a translation of my own, based on Arrowsmith’s, but altering some of the words, and the word-order and line-breaks in places, based on a rough consultation with dictionaries and a sense of the poem’s internal logic. The original Italian:
Ghermito m’hai dall’intrico
dell’edera, mano straniera?
M’ero appoggiato alla vasca
viscida, l’aria era nera,
solo una vena d’onice tremava
nel fondo, quale stelo alla burrasca.
Ma la mano non si distolse,
nel buio si fece più diaccia
e la pioggia che si disciolse
sui miei capelli, sui tuoi
d’allora, troppo tenui, troppo lisci,
frugava tenace la traccia
in me seppellita da un cumulo,
da un monte di sabbia che avevo
in cuore ammassato per giungere
a soffocar la tua voce,
a spingerla in giù, dentro il breve
cerchio che tutto trasforma,
raspava, portava all’aperto
con l’orma delle pianelle
sul fango indurito, la scheggia,
la fibra della tua croce
in polpa marcia di vecchie
putrelle schiantate, il sorriso
di teschio che a noi si frappose
quando la Ruota minacciosa apparve
tra riflessi d’aurora, e fatti sangue
i petali del pesco su me scesero
e con essi
il tuo artiglio, come ora.
And here is my attempt (a commentary follows):
Was it you that snatched me from the tangle
Of the ivy, strange hand?
I was leaning against the basin’s
slime, the air black,
only a vein of onyx trembling
in its depths, like a reed in a squall.
But the hand would not relent
in the freezing darkness,
and the rain dissolving
on my hair, on yours,
as it once was,
too fine and too smooth,
scouring desperately for a trace
buried within me, buried
in a heap, in a mountain of sand
hoarded in my heart to suffocate your voice
and push it down, just a little, and set it within
the circle that transforms everything,
scraped, bringing into the open
along with print of a slipper
hardened in mud, a splinter,
a fiber of your cross
in the rotting pulp of broken old beams,
the grin of the skull intruding between
us, when the menacing Wheel seemed
reflected in the dawn, and, as blood,
the petals from peach trees rained down on me,
and with them,
your talon, like this.
There’s no doing justice to the syntax of the opening line, where the verb, “snatch,” opens the poem, but I thought I would preserve the original place of “Mano” at the end of the second line–the surprise that the addressee of the poem is a hand, and not the whole person seen at once seems crucial; the unity of the addressee has fractured, so that the hand is a fleeting memory, one of the fragmentary images that inspire Montale throughout the collection. There is a tension in the line, between the relative acquaintance presumed or implied by any address (he must at least know who or what the stranger is in order to address it), and the word “strange,” and it may be owing to the hand’s not being attached, but being recognizable nonetheless; he knows whose hand it is later when he recalls her hair.
The poem, like many in the collection, finds alienation in recognition and recognition in alienation; here, though, the poem is about the process of being overcome by a recognition that is alienating, and by an alienation that is recognizable; it enacts, all the way to its final words “come ora”–“as now” or “like this.” I prefer “like this” because it recalls to my mind the last poem I commented on–“A mia madre” (“to my mother”)–where opening parallelism of “ora che” (“Now that…”) enforces immediacy. Something occurs in the vicinity of the poems, which the poems include within themselves; the poems become responses to, but also parts of, those moments of time. It feels right to end a translation of “Ezekial” with some translation of “come ora” because the final word of the poem ought to insist that the poem is a part of what is happening to Montale at that moment; it is not recollected at a distance, and the poems consequently do not find tranquillity on the page, though they might aspire to it.
In the opening question I set “tangle” at the end of a line for the momentary syntactical completion; the tangle of ivy is emblematic of a larger tangle, and before it resolves into the particular of the ivy that clings, I assume, to the edge of the basin, it refers more generally to a tangle in his life.
The familiarity and distance, the recognition and alienation, is felt in the alternation between apostrophe and narration; he addresses the hand, but then he also talks about it in the third person. The four quatrain after the opening question (“vasca”–slimy–rhymes with “burrasca”–another word for “storm” that I’ve translated as squall, since it has a connotation of violent weather that gale, referring to a wind alone, might lack) narrate. But the narration is brisk; it sets the scene, an anchor for the rest of the poem. Montale stares into the basin and the white onyx he sees makes him recall her hand, so that the memory of it grabs him. The one word in this section that I think Arrowsmith’s translate mitigates too much is “tremava”–not because “trembling” (mine) is better than “shivering” (his), though the difference is that of a being that is conscious and afraid versus one that is sentient and cold, but because of the location of the word at the ending of a line.
I wouldn’t care about Montale much at all without Arrowsmith (Lowell’s translations or Edwin Morgan’s would not have done enough–Galassi would do nothing), but in this poem, looking at the original, his sacrifice of line-endings bothers me. I don’t doubt his having good reasons, but when I started out it was mainly to gain a sense, for myself, of where words fell in lines; in a poem of such intricate syntax, the blank space at the end of a line does more work than usual, organizing and also embodying the life of the poem. Looking at what I tried to do, I decided to put “as it was” (“d’allora”–“as it once was”) alone on a line because I felt that the blank of the page offered a pressure to the phrase that it would otherwise lack, since English does not have an equivalent of the colloquial, but temporally charged Italian shorthand that Montale can accommodate within a line. Arrowsmith’s decision to separate “as it once” and “was” with a line-break, confuses me, since “as it once” already invokes the verb, and since the stutter across a line works against the casual ease of the Italian phrase. That the phrase is taken for granted, a trifle of speech, and yet so infused with regret and longing, is an achievement of Montale’s poem that translation probably can’t equal.
The memory of a hand becomes a memory of rain on her head, and the rain itself becomes a figure for memory, unconscious, with a will of its own, working to uncover the sound of her voice, the shape of her hand, until the hand and the rain are one and the same, scraping a deeper memory still into the open; the scraping of the hand and the rain, to uncover the past, has also made the hand seem a talon or claw that scratches. I have translated “talon” bearing in mind the imagery of the birds elsewhere in the collection–“Il gallo cedrone” for instance. (Is Ganymede in play here too?)
I understand–and I’ve attempted to translate accordingly–that the rain brought the splinter into the open, along with the mud-hardened footprint of a slipper (the imagery of the storm again). That footprint is not incidental to the poem, even though it does not correspond to, or speak directly to, the images that follow (the cross, the skull etc); it is related to them because it is her footprint, and so connected to the center of the poem, but it is also an example of how memory brings to light more than we would expect, and without design. The poem is as much, that is, about the terrible grasp of the past as it is about her; readers cannot know what the cross means (her faith? her dissolved faith?) but they can, by the movement and sequence of the poem, feel something of what it is like for him to recollect the cross.
The hardest thing for me to gauge has been what might be called the rhetorical attitude of the poem; I assume that the final period over all those lines must be sustained by a rhetorical tradition (Petrarch’s subordination of conceits?) that English struggles to recover in an equivalent form–and so I’ve offered some creative equivalents. Instead of “TO push it down…TO bring it within,” I’ve turned to the simplest tool of coordination, “and,” hoping also for a small anaphoric effect: a piling on of words to register the power of the past to erode (as Arrowsmith’s wonderful wording goes) the pile of the sand that he has brought into his heart and hoarded there.
Elsewhere, to face the challenge of coordination and ensure a firmer hold on the central thread, I considered placing parentheses around “as it once was | too fine and too smooth.” The price is high: it sets the voice in those lines apart, back in the mind, and the force of Montale’s poem depends on the strange leveling of various details, of distances of memory and time, in the unity of a single sentence. But the parentheses might do something to emphasize a distance in time that would be blurred if the reader were focused instead on matching subjects and verbs. I decided against the parentheses, at the last minute, hoping that setting “as it once was” on a line of its own would serve as a sufficient temporal marker, and wanting to preserve the uniform integrity of the closing period.
Similarly, I originally followed Arrowsmith in reintroducing the subject of the long period–“the rain kept eroding” in his translation–thinking that the reader would have lost the thread; but I’ve since changed my mind, the cost of clarity being a severing of the period; admittedly, it couldn’t be a full-stop after the line “the circle that transforms everything” because the period would lack a main verb, which (I think–here I might be wrong and base my hunch on Arrowsmith as well as the original) comes next, in the word “raspava.” Nonetheless, reintroducing “the rain” undercuts the trust in the unified structure of the period, and the strain on the reader,the distance between subject and verb, is appropriate given the strain on the poet’s mind as the past is brought into the open.
It is not only coordination of clauses that works to confuse a reader or translator; it is also the verbs involved. “Groping” and “scouring” personify the rain–as does “scraped”–but the rain ends up rather impersonally “bringing” something into the open. The jumps between the implication of human hand and impersonal rain do not ease the clarity of the clauses, since with every verb pertaining to a hand, it is natural to forget that the rain is the main subject of the sentence.
Returning to an interpretive point I touched on earlier: I think it clear that the rain brings first and foremost the splinter into the open, and that the splinter, rather than the slipper-print, is the center of gravity in the poem’s final lines; it sticks in his mind. However, the comma before “la scheggia” separates it from “portava” as an object would not normally be divided from a verb. One alternative would be to see “la scheggia” as the object of “raspava,” but then “portava” would have no object at all. “Portare” is a transitive verb, but “raspare” can be intransitive. What’s more, Arrowsmith’s translation neglects the word “con,” which implies that the footprint is brought into the open along with something else, which I think must be the splinter.
The splinter carries such weight because it is a buried memory, a remnant of the war’s destruction, an object of veneration like the medieval relic of a splinter from the true cross on which Christ was crucified (“her cross” might be a cross she hung on her wall, or else the cross on which she suffered); it might be what the poet buried in the heap of sand in his heart, or it might be transformed already in the circle that changes everything.
The sounds of the Italian–the irregular rhymes, the parallel rhythms–can be approximated in English, but not by me. A friend pointed out the corresponding pattern of alliteration and rhythm in the two lines: “la fibra della tua croce | in polpa marcita di vecchie.” To at least not to such parallelism, I tried for something similar in the most radical of my departures from the original’s syntax: “the rotting pulp of broken old beams|The grin of the skull intruding between” –and the line break intrudes before “us.”
Probably the most difficult and least satisfactory translation comes with the phrase “fatti sangue” four lines from the poem’s end: “made of blood”? “turned to blood” is Arrowsmith’s solution, but I wanted to preserve the word-orders best I could, and that meant I could not move, as Arrowsmith did, “peach petals” earlier in the poem; besides the loveliness of “i petali del pesco su me scesero” depends in part on its integrity as a line, set in contrast to the phrase (“fetti sangue”) before. Risking the implication of a simile, I asked “as” to do a lot of work: the petals fall “as” blood–in that form. The prospect of a simile is not catastrophic at any rate because the idea that the petals turn to blood is only in the poet’s mind anyway; it follows the same mental operations that lead to would lead to a simile.
I’ve already said something about the end of the poem: “come ora.” It might be that “like now” would be better, since “now” insists on the temporal immediacy. But I respect the powerful capaciousness, the lack of specificity of “this”–an immediacy that summons the entire poem, but also precludes our full understanding since what “this” refers to can only be appreciated by one in the presence of the poet, or the presence of the poet’s memory and past–we cannot be; we never forget that as we read the poems of La Bufera e altro. But we also never forget that in their presence Montale is himself estranged.