Giuseppe Ungaretti, “La Notte Bella”

With thanks to Abigail Schreiber and Charmi Vince

Lovely Night (trans. Diego Bastianutti)
Giuseppe Ungaretti

Devetachi August 24, 1916

What song has surged tonight
That weaves
The stars
With the crystal echo
Of the heart

What vernal joy
Of wedded heart

I’ve been a stagnant
pool of darkness

Now like a child at breast
I gnaw
This void

Now I’m drunk
With the universe

Comment:

So here we are, entrenched in the Dolomites near Croatia. The landscape might have a beauty of its own, but perhaps the present marvel of the ground is its combination of tedium, fighting and death.

It seems anything which contrasts would be subject to romanticizing, including the simple motion of looking up. Appropriately, Ungaretti starts his poem not with the milkiness of the stars, but with what may be within him (“what song has surged;” “the heart”). At first, this song does seem to be beyond him, not just his own whimsy or wistfulness. “The heart” has a “crystal echo:” it receives starlight an indirect way. Light is made a mere sound. The song itself weaves the stars with what little the heart receives.

But Ungaretti continues his praise. This song is at least partly within him, somehow. He describes his heart as “wedded,” with “vernal joy.” He is reborn, his heart has found a completion of sorts. The quickest way through the puzzle is to declare the heart itself the “crystal echo.” He is singing, to be sure, but this song is part of a greater whole.

While the heart now may be a crystal echo, he himself has been “a stagnant pool of darkness,” much like one part of the night sky. The milkiness of the stars, the childlike wonder at how the universe could be so vast, returns him to his heart. This is tricky. Ungaretti moves us to his felt solution, his experience, and it is difficult to see the problem.

I don’t think the problem primarily involves the parallel between fighting on a battlefield and a baby’s desire for sustenance. That may be suggested, though very indirectly. The bigger problem is how we’re a void ourselves that might comprehend anything at all. This is why I’m emphasizing a distance between the heart and the stars, talking about the heart as only a crystal echo. Ungaretti’s beautiful, delicate image has a power which can lead us to think the heart has grasped a truth which strengthens. Far from it.

To put it another way – that night sky is prelude to bombardment, to impending doom. Talking about man as having found some kind of wholeness makes almost no sense in this context. I wrote some notes for a poem after yesterday’s attack in Boston:

The Joker spoke:
not the body count,
not the carnage,
but perceived purpose
makes a horror
a victory
and vice versa.

Here we are
silent before death.
No declaration
from an enemy.
Only the waiting -
it is always too late -
and the fragments
of our time spent.

Not “our stars,” where our heart lies, not the nourishment of nature. We are fragmented creatures who at critical moments may put the fragments together or be overwhelmed by the uselessness and the triviality of it all. And even if we put the fragments together – what then? Suicide bombers die with a sense of purpose.

Still, Ungaretti’s on to something. “Stagnant” and “vernal” are almost hidden. The childlike man does not simply stay a child: “The child is the father of the man.” The question was not whether one would come to a tragic end doubting oneself, wrapped in the horror of the moment. The question was whether there is any possibility we could grow beyond ourselves, see beyond crippling limitations. Ungaretti points to a universe full of possibilities.

Giuseppe Ungaretti, “My House”

With thanks to Catherine RogersĀ 

My House (from A Major Selection of the Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti; tr. Diego Bastianutti)
Giuseppe Ungaretti

The surprise
after so long
of a love

I thought I’d scattered
round the world

Mi Casa

Sorpresa
dopo tanto
d’un amore

Credevo di averlo sparpagliato
per il mondo

Comment:

I’ll defer to Catherine’s thought on this one. The first stanza does remind of a brick, like it is building up to something. But what builds up to what? I think every discussion I’ve had of this poem has been relentlessly positive. One realizes how much one is loved, how much one has taken for granted; that enormity makes the world your home.

I already feel every bone in my body shaking. Poems can simply celebrate, to be sure. But what about being surprised by other, darker possibilities of love? What about realizing how much you loved someone? Sometimes we’re not even aware of how much we long for someone who reciprocates nothing, gives little or no benefit daily. We can be shattered, too.

The central identification is time (“so long”) with “my house.” Love doesn’t really build. It surprises, it scatters. It’s familiarity that lets you create something more than excitement. That familiarity serves as more than a basis for nostalgia. Unknowingly, you’re building a world brick-by-brick every day. Realizing that you are or aren’t loved puts you into the fullness of that world.

Giuseppe Ungaretti, “Eternal”

With thanks to Tyler Travillian

Eternal
Giuseppe Ungaretti (tr. Patrick Creagh)

Between one flower picked and the other given
the inexpressible nothing

[Tra un fiore colto e l'altro donato
l'inesprimibile nulla]

Comment:

Dr. Travillian looked at “colto” and thought that maybe “cultivated” was a better word than “picked.” He also looked at an Italian commentary that rambled on about the word “nothing.” I gulped when we talked about that.

Then again, I had no plans to sit and talk about “nothing.” (I had plans to sit and ramble about everything.) Two stories are being told about two flowers. One is “cultivated,” the other “given.” The picking of a flower – that part where it goes from life to death – is perhaps only hinted at.

The really curious thing: why are we talking about two flowers? Why not just one? And that’s just it, isn’t it – where we go from life to death in our own lives is a matter of perspective. In order to see the possibility of humanity flowering fully, you’d need an eternal perspective. Perspective always requires two.

Obviously flowers don’t see each other. It’s the doubleness and the distance between the doubleness that’s suggestive; it’s growth and death being so disconnected that’s the problem.

And yet they’re not disconnected. Flowers that grow do get picked. It just so happened that one was cultivated and the other was given. Ungaretti didn’t title this poem “Chance” or “Fortune,” though. Instead, he chose “cultivated” and “given,” two words describing human action, and also “inexpressible,” describing speech in a way.

So what is Ungaretti talking about? For now, I’ll take this as a love poem with some dark tinges. We pledge love despite having no claim to eternity. That seems to reconcile the disconnect between growing and dying. Our pledging, after all, is a realm of its own. But the flower itself, the sign of love, suggests that growing and dying almost belong to two different lives. What is eternal is not chance, but that we take chances.

Giuseppe Ungaretti, “A Dove”

With thanks to Catherine Rogers

A Dove (tr. Diego Bastianutti)
Ungaretti

I hearken to a dove from other Floods.

Original Italian:

Una Colomba

D’altri diluvi una colomba ascolto.

Comment:

I have no idea what this poem means, but it was time to bring forth the awesomeness that is Ungaretti. Catherine Rogers had the most beautiful discussion of his “Morning,” written at Santa Maria La Longa, Jan. 26th, 1917 (tr. Mandelbaum) -

Immensity
illumines me

M’illumino
d’immenso

We can imagine the speaker trapped in a trench in the First World War. Perhaps it is the first shell exploding that is the morning light. Miss Rogers rightly focuses not just on the enormity of that experience, but how quickly it washes over one. I heard from a professor that a number of these poems were scribbled on cigarette wrappers.

Re: “A Dove.” There’s no way to avoid the Biblical allusion. So why “Floods?” And what does it mean to “hearken to a dove?”

The only thing I can think of is this: to wash away your sin, to reconstruct the self, might be a plurality. There are others who do cleanse themselves. It does seem the process for any one of them is perpetual, that the floods never stop.

But that last part is exactly the problem. God said He wouldn’t flood the earth again and didn’t. Forget anything religious for a second; all you need is the literal story to see an impossibility with any sort of plural of flood.

I think that’s why the speaker is hearkening to a dove. The dove is the search for dry land, a new life. When you are calling yourself to it, you’re implicitly calling forth everyone’s flood-like experiences. The strange thing is recognizing those experiences as one. “Other” is the problem. “Other” isn’t real. It’s what the author of any experience is attempting to transcend.