Giuseppe Ungaretti, “A Dove”

To speak of hope or possibility in these times looks foolish, if not dangerous. Plenty will say any advocacy for change risks disproportionate response from those who hold power. Some have companies and investments which receive massive infusions of cash from the government if there is the slightest chance of damage to them. Others have been armed with military-grade weaponry and deputized. They have been given the tools and permission to pursue violence. Still others have been given honors, privileges, and access unthinkable in any reasonable age. That the so-called leader of the free world pardons war criminals turned in by their own units demonstrates not just contempt for sanity, but a relishing of power where it can do no wrong. The abuse of power is cause for celebration.

Ungaretti presents an image of being eager to hear a dove like the one sent to find land after the Biblical flood. This makes me desire more clarity as regards the antediluvian world. Genesis 6 declares there were “sons of God” who married whomever they wanted, having their own children and bloodline. Genesis 6:4–“They were the heroes of old, men of renown.” The problem seems to resemble the Iliad. Achilles knows his divine lineage but wonders what it is worth, and Hector acts from jealousy that he is not so favored. In both cases, one might accuse them of being full of pride, absorbed in their exploits, wishing to build dynasties featuring their name instead of accepting the humility of a flawed, all-too-human ancestor.

One might say the world before the flood needs humility in order to be just and lawful. Then again, I might be accused of not being humble enough if I believe that fighting back against those stealing wealth and honor is worthwhile. The outstanding question: humble with regard to what? I hearken to a dove from other Floods:

A Dove (tr. Diego Bastianutti)

I hearken to a dove from other Floods.

Original Italian:

Una Colomba

D’altri diluvi una colomba ascolto.

What does it mean to listen to a dove? Central to Ungaretti’s image is yearning. The world has flooded. In the multiplicity of disasters, a lot of people, good and bad, have drowned. The possibility of pride has drowned, replaced with a desire to survive.

I imagine he voices an accompanying desire to obey. It is true our modern age tends to celebrate those with survival skills, skills considered manly and necessary for true independence. Does he “hearken to a dove” to be free? I hold that the tone of the poem sounds quietly but powerfully desperate to me. One depends on a dove for the mere hint that dry land exists. One doesn’t learn skills from a dove, but is instead in thrall to what it finds and communicates.

In the midst of many disasters, what Ungaretti wants to hear—what he wants to obey—is a hope which leads to more hope. I read “Floods” not only as a number of events which destroy the world, but a chain of hopelessness. In like manner, I’d like to believe one hope can build from another hope, so on and so forth. And if I do believe that, then there is humility, there is obedience. A belief in Providence has snuck in, and whatever its limitations, it will not abide mindless defeatism. Injustice has unleashed a blood-dimmed tide many times. That we have a world is testament to how many times it has been rebuilt.

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