Giuseppe Ungaretti, “The Buried Harbor”

The necessity of speaking hides. When sought, it proves elusive, not only avoiding bright spots but creating false trails. Honesty begs for brevity — truth must be simple, or it cannot be found. And that’s how, I suspect, one conjures a small set of challenging words:

The Buried Harbor (from Selected Poems)
Giuseppe Ungaretti (tr. Andrew Frisardi)

  Mariano, June 29, 1916

The poet arrives there
and then resurfaces with his songs
and scatters them

All that's left me
of this — this poetry:
the merest nothing
of an inexhaustible secret

Bearing witness to an underwater ruin in wartime fills him with terror and ambition. Ungaretti pronounces himself the poet, a recoverer of songs: The poet arrives there / and then resurfaces with his songs / and scatters them. As a result, the first stanza possesses an incredible tension. Even if one reads “e poi torna alla luce” more literally, “then comes back to light” as opposed to “resurfaces,” Ungaretti grants himself access to a divine, creative realm by virtue of a destroyed world. It seems no less than hubris to assert that one recreates the action of those who actually recover artifacts and bodies. Maybe truth should not be spoken.

I remember last year reading a feature by Jen Percy about Japan, entitled “I Have No Choice but to Keep Looking,” an actual quote from one of the people interviewed. Years after a tsunami which washed their loved ones away, a few were diving as often as they could, looking for any remains of those they lost. One man, Takamatsu, made 110 dives looking for anything of his wife. It feels as if only his actions, imagined through these words, speak his devotion:

In December 2013, Takamatsu spent an hour each day reading a 350-page textbook to earn the national diving certification that would allow him to move debris and search for bodies. He passed the exam in February 2014. For months, he dove with Takahashi’s volunteer groups to remove debris off the northern coastline. He retrieved small items like fishing ropes, and once he found a tire and made a knot on a rope so volunteers on the surface could pull it onto a boat. After six months, Takahashi started to give Takamatsu lessons he wouldn’t normally give: how to find and retrieve bodies from the ocean, living or dead. Takamatsu learned the way colors shifted at different depths, because it would help him locate a body that had sunk. On sunny days, he descended through shades of blue, and in storms, shades of brown. He learned that the bodies of drowned people are usually found poised with buttocks high, hands and feet dangling. The corpses of scuba divers are like dead bugs, on their backs, hands and feet floating.

I remember when I initially read this passage thinking how his grief had become something quietly useful and absolutely necessary. How he removed debris that injured the environment, could hurt others. That alone was a small revelation, that great pain might make one seem broken even as one made good. It didn’t take me much longer to register something closer to the full weight of this passage, that while he wasn’t finding his wife’s body, he was routinely finding many others, giving the closure he himself sought. I remember a professor of mine dismissing Heidegger, saying his work was nothing but high-sounding language, but in speaking of her encounter with Takamatsu, Percy reminded me why I ever started reading philosophy in the first place:

We often think of searching as a kind of movement, a forward motion through time, but maybe it can also be the opposite, a suspension of time and memory. Heidegger wrote of a metaphoric pain, calling it the “joining of the rift.” It’s this rift, he said, that holds together things that have been torn apart, to perhaps create a new space where joy and sadness can find communion. This is the space I believed Takamatsu found beneath the sea, where he could feel close to his wife, in the rift between “missing” and “deceased.”

All this is to say that Ungaretti’s first stanza stakes a great claim, and he knows it. Should he retreat and not try to match words to ruin? He considers again the wreck — All that’s left me of this — and sees the desire to speak reflected in it. All that’s left me / of this — this poetry: / the merest nothing / of an inexhaustible secret. He pronounces his song nothing precisely because of the magnitude of his task. The necessity of speaking disaster, tragedy, decay is one and the same as trying to speak oneself. Takamatsu would know. Asked if he remembers his wife because of a particular song, he says he does not recall because he has not forgotten.

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