Editor’s note: Although the upcoming print issue of Poetry Northwest (Fall & Winter 2012-2013, v7.n2) is not themed, it does bring together a number of poems that deal with travel in some way. As a prelude, then, we find Karl Kirchwey introducing two poems with their own sort of movement: from landscape to landscape; joy to grief; language to language.
My sonnet “On the Janiculum, January 7, 2012” and my English version of Italian poet Giovanni Giudici’s “Una sera come tante” (“An Evening Like So Many Others”) are in fact both translations, one indirect and the other direct. The antecedent for my sonnet is William Wordsworth’s poem “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802,” in which he tenderly describes the delicate beauty of a great city at dawn before it has awoken to its own chaos. Even the River Thames, which attended upon poet Edmund Spenser’s wedding song in the sixteenth century and which T.S. Eliot ironizes in its degraded state in the twentieth, in this poem of Wordsworth “glideth at its own sweet will.” For Wordsworth, the Lake District is where he learned nature, and therefore God, which he recognizes even in an urban landscape; the “mighty heart” of the sonnet’s last line belongs to that God, to that nature, to that city.
The city of Rome, like London, has its “towers, domes, theatres and temples,” which are recast in my poem (with a nod to one of Du Bellay’s sonnets in Les Antiquitez de Rome) as “walls, arches, baths and temples.” But it is impossible for a twenty-first century poet to recognize, or feel, in any landscape, urban or otherwise, the Romantic heart that beats for Wordsworth. And without that heart, what is there? There is the beauty of the world, of course: and aesthete poets follow beauty. There is even a moment, for the onlooker, in which the emotions of joy (at its power) and grief (at its brevity) caused by this beauty are momentarily resolved in a sense of tenderness at the apparent vulnerability of the city—just as Wordsworth responded to the vulnerability of the sleeping city of London. But this tenderness almost instantly corrects itself, recognizing that Rome, of all cities, with its long, cruel and dazzling history, is utterly indifferent to the individual human life.
I discovered Giudici’s poem while preparing a public program of readings and conversations based on a large new anthology of twentieth century Italian poetry in translation. I had never encountered his poetry before, but was immediately struck, both by the technical skill of its intermittent rhyme scheme and by the ruthlessness with which it moves from comfortable middle class family life to devastating spiritual self-examination. “How many years since I’ve seen a river at the full?” asks the speaker of this poem: no Thames, no Tiber, and a despair beyond that of even Prufrock. Indeed, what perhaps links my post-Wordsworth sonnet and my translation of Giudici is precisely the spiritual emptiness that it seems must, for us Postmoderns, follow every epiphany. “Truth required a much simpler temperament,” says Giudici: and though Wordsworth, even in his day, wrote of what he perceived as the modern that “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon,” we might long now for the strength of his vision and his security in himself. For Giudici, there seems to be nothing but compromise and emotional dishonesty, instantly and uncomfortably recognizable to any contemporary poet. (Karl Kirchwey)
On the Janiculum, January 7, 2012
Earth has not anything to show more fair,
and you’d have to be dead inside not to feel something—
but what, exactly? There are scholars who could tell me
about the walls, arches, baths and temples, and
it’s not that I’m indifferent to such knowledge,
but long ago I learned to follow beauty.
The city lies flushed by sunset in its bowl,
the snow mountains on the far horizon like a dream,
as runnels of violet invade each street,
and what is left, on a winter afternoon,
is a feeling of joy so closely followed by grief
you might almost miss the moment of tenderness
in which both resolve, as if toward something vulnerable:
though the city does not have you, has never had you, in mind.
An Evening Like So Many Others
An evening like so many others, and once again
we’re here, for how much longer who knows,
on our seventh floor, and after the usual commotion,
the children have gone to sleep, the puppy also asleep
whose waste we found again on the study floor.
You beat him with a rolled-up newspaper
and remark, while you do so, on his cries.
An evening like so many others, my resolutions apparently
intact, just like years ago, indeed
even clearer, even more concrete:
at least two hours a day for me; to write
Christian poems that will show how I was destroyed,
when I was a boy, by the priests’ education;
and enough with goodness, sometimes I will lie.
An evening like so many others (how many more, though,
before death?) and I’m not tempted by anything,
sleep, or the desire to drink, I mean to say,
or the trivial anguish that sneaks up on me,
born out of my strictly-white-collar frustrations:
I ask myself again, I would like to know,
if one day I will be less tired, if illusions
might after all be the ancient hopes of savalation;
or if in my worthless body I naturally suffer
the same fate as everyone else, not common
literature, but life that folds in on its own summit, with
no virtue to it any more, no youth.
Tomorrow could we have a life that is simpler?
Is there a point to the way we suffer the present?
But it makes no difference whether we live or die,
if we are private citizens without a history,
readers of newspapers, TV viewers,
customers of the public utilities:
there ought to be a lot of us, a lot of us to go wrong,
to reckon up our vices all together,
not this gray innocence that keeps us defenseless here
where evil is easy and good unreachable.
It’s nostalgia for the future that exhausts me
but then contents itself with a smile or an as-it-were!
How many years since I’ve seen a river at the full?
For how long, in our cowardice, have we been reassured by
a discipline that comes without blows?
How long has fear been called goodness?
An evening like so many others, and it’s my old fraud
that says, Tomorrow, tomorrow… even if it knows
that our tomorrow was already yesterday always.
Truth required a much simpler temperament.
The tranquil despot who knows it laughs:
he counts me one of his own, along the road I descend.
There is more honor in betrayal than in being faithful by halves.
Una Sera Come Tante
Una sera come tante, e nuovamente
noi qui, chissà per quanto ancora, al nostro
settimo piano, dopo i soliti urli
i bambini sono addormentati,
e dorme anche il cucciolo i cui escrementi
un’altra volta nello studio abbiamo trovati.
Lo batti col giornale, i suoi guaiti commenti.
Una sera come tante, e i miei proponimenti
intatti, in apparenza, come anni
or sono, anzi più chiari, più concreti:
scrivere versi cristiani in cui si mostri
che mi distrusse ragazzo l’educazione dei preti;
due ore almeno ogni giorno per me;
basta con la bontà, qaulche volta mentire.
Una sera come tante (quante ne resta a morire
di sere come questa?) e non tentato da nulla,
dico dal sonno, dalla voglio di bere,
o dall’angoscia futile che mi prendeva alle spalle,
né dalle mie impiegatizie frustrazioni:
mi ridomando, vorrei sapere,
se un giorno sarò meno stanco, se illusioni
siano le antiche speranze della salvezza;
o se nel mio corpo vile io soffra naturalmente
la sorte di ogni altro, non volgare
letteratura ma vita che si piega nel suo vertice,
senza né più virtù né giovinezza.
Potremmo avere domani una vita più semplice?
Ha un fine il nostro subire il presente?
Ma che si viva o si muoia è indifferente,
se private persone senza storia
siamo, lettori di giornali, spettatori
televisivi, utenti di servizi:
dovremmo essere in molti, sbagliare in molti,
in compagnia di molti sommare i nostri vizi,
non questa grigia innocenza che inermi ci tiene
qui, dove il male è facile e inarrivabile il bene.
E’ nostalgia di un futuro che mi estenua,
ma poi d’un sorriso si appaga o di un come-se-fosse!
Da quanti anni non vedo un fiume in piena?
Da quanto in questa viltà ci assicura
la nostra disciplina senza percosse?
Da quanto ha nome bontà la paura?
Una sera come tante, ed è la mia vecchia impostura
che dice: domani, domani… pur sapendo
che il nostro domani era già ieri da sempre.
La verità chiedeva assai più semplice tempre.
Ride il tranquillo despota che lo sa:
mi numera fra i suoi lungo la strada che scendo.
C’è più honore in tradire che in essere fedeli a metà.
Karl Kirchwey is the author of six books of poems, including most recently Mount Lebanon (Marian Wood Books/Putnam’s, 2011), and of a translation of Paul Verlaine’s first book of poems, as Poems Under Saturn (Princeton University Press, 2011). He is also the author of a long poem-in-progress entitled Mutabor. He is Professor of the Arts at Bryn Mawr College and, from 2010-13, is serving as Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome.
Giovanni Giudici (1924-2011) was a major Italian poet of the second half of the twentieth century. He published some twenty books beginning in 1953, including La vita in versi (Life in Verse, 1965), Autobiologia (Autobiology, 1969, recipient of the Viareggio Prize), Salutz (1986, recipient of the Librex Montale Prize), and a volume of collected poems entitled Poesie 1953-1990 (recipient of the Bagutta Prize). He worked as a journalist for publications including L’Espresso, and also translated the poetry of Pushkin and Ezra Pound.
Additional work from Karl Kirchwey appears in the Fall & Winter 2012-2013 issue of Poetry Northwest (v7.n2).
drawing: Patrick Oliphant