173. (Eugenio Montale)

The final poem in La Bufera e altro, “Il sogno del prigionero,” “The Prisoner’s Dream,” is also the second poem in the section titled “Conclusioni provvisiorie,” “Provisional Conclusions.”  Below is the Arrowsmith translation:

.

Here, except for a few signs, you can’t tell dawn from night.

.

The zigzag of starlings over the watchtowers

on days of fighting, my only wings,

a thread of arctic air,

the head-guard’s eye at the peephole,

the crack of broken nuts, an oily

sputtering from the basements, roasting spits

imagined or real–but the star is gold,

the winey later is hearth enough of me,

if I can dream I’m sleeping at your feet.

.

The purge never ends, no reasons given.

They say that those who recant, who make signed statements

can save themselves from this massacre of silly geese;

that by breaking down and selling out the others,

by confessing and informing, you get the spoon

instead of being dished up yourself in that stew

reserved for the gods of plague.

.

Slow-witted, and pricked

by this piercing mattress, I’ve fused

with the soaring moth whom the sole of my boot

pulverizes on the stony tiles;

with the shimmering kimonos of light

strung out to dry from the towers at daybreak;

I’ve sniffed on the wind the burnt fragrance

of sweet rolls from the ovens,

I’ve looked around, conjured up

rainbows on the horizons of spiderwebs,

petals on the trellis of my bars,

I’ve risen only to fall back

into that gulf where a century’s a second–

and the beatings go on and on, and the footsteps,

and I don’t know whether I’ll be at the feat

as stuffer or stuffing. It’s a long wait,

and my dream of you isn’t over.

.

Arrowsmith speculates that Montale, at the same time as he imagines a medieval prison, might be invoking the prison’s of Stalin’s Russia: “the beatings go on and on,” the century’s atrocities continue even after the end of the war. Something is over–the collection–but the need for the dream of her remains.

Most of the poems of La Bufera e altro exemplify what the “poetry of witness,” the species of poetry by which some of the high points of twentieth-century European poetry could be classified. But something strange happens in this poem whereby the nature of that poetry is challenged: the scenery of the poem is the scenery of a stage–not the stage of history, but history presented as stagecraft. The speaker, also, is a dramatic persona, playing out a role quite other than the one we’ve seen in the poems so far. What is being witnessed by the poem does not align what is being witnessed in the poem–the history that surrounds the poem is transformed. To put it yet another way, the “here” that Arrowsmith gives us as the opening of the poem (the Italian leads with “Albe”–“Dawn”) is not the “here” of the rest of the collection.

Transformation, or transfiguration, is not itself out of place in La Bufera e altro. Clizia, the Vixen, Iris: the second-person of the poem undergoes metamorphosis into divine and carnal presences. But the transformation of setting, of place, is different. It would seem to break with Montale’s returns to objects and places heavy with a personal significance that, though hermetically sealed from readers, are nonetheless transparently (or so the poetry suggests) of the poet’s world and personal history. The suggestion of “The Prisoner’s Dream” is that all of that has itself been a fantasy–which in some sense, its being poetry, it has.

But “The Prisoner’s Dream” retains something that we are encouraged, in light of the retention, to recognize as most fundamental to the poetry: the poles of self and other, “I” and “you.” The impulse of many readers of the poetry is to search within these terms for meaning and understanding of the poems: to find within the life of the speaker or the addressee the source of the poetry. The notion of a “poetry of witness” might similarly ask such an investigation: to see more clearly what the poet is witnessing in those places, surrounding those objects, whatever they are.

When we try to see more clearly those places and objects, when we try to restore to vivid clarity the circumstances and grounds of the poems, we are reading against the poetry, which instead is trying to see through, beyond, around all of that in order to reach her again, the “you” of the poems.  The poetry bears witness, but as many witnesses do: without intending or wanting to, going about some other business. Montale has to confront history because he cannot attain her; the medium of events, war, public calamity distorts her, but the effort to see her in turn fragments these.

“The Prisoner’s Dream” restores some unity to the circumstances of the poet’s life, gives us a clearer and more unified sense of place, but can only do so by means of overt stagecraft; but the concrete coherence of the prison, so easy for a reader to apprehend, is felt to be at a distance from Montale’s lived, historical world, and so cannot bring it into focus as we would expect a witness to do, any more than the fragments and fleeting visions of the other poems.

The constant is the “dream of you,” the end to which all of the poems in the collection move, impeded by the century’s atrocities and menace; the poems, this and others, do not serve as clear witnesses to those atrocities or sources of menace, but they testify to the experience of being stranded, obstructed, imprisoned, by them.

 

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