Two Jackals on a Leash

Jamie McKendrick

  • Eugenio Montale: Collected Poems 1920-54 translated by Jonathan Galassi
    Carcanet, 626 pp, £29.00, November 1998, ISBN 1 85754 425 0

The entomologist Henri Fabre tells how the cicada’s song is produced by its ‘musical thighs’ and how in Provençal folklore the source of the sound is thought to be the insect’s ‘mirrors’, although he points out that this ‘dry membrane coloured like a soap bubble’ actually dampens the sound. In Provence a singer out of breath or a poet without inspiration is said to have broken mirrors. In ‘Reading Montale’, an essay appended to his translation of the poet’s first three books, Jonathan Galassi considers the old and especially Mediterranean association of poet and cicada and its recurrence in Montale’s poems.

Feeble sistrum in the wind
of a lost cicada,
no sooner touched than done for
in the exhaling torpor

is how Galassi translates the first stanza of ‘Debole sistro al vento’, an early Montale poem which embodies in the cicada’s carcass (‘corrupted leavings/the void won’t devour’) that Provençal condition of a poetry with its mirrors broken. It is, even by Montale’s standards, a stark poem. The image of the sistrum, an Egyptian wire rattle, reduces to its barest essence the vast orchestral range that the poet has at his disposal (figuratively and literally: musical instruments abound in his poems; he was a professional music critic who also studied for many years with the baritone Ernesto Sivori). In ‘L’ombra della magnolia giapponese’ from his third book The Storm and Other Poems (1957), Montale foretells that ‘the empty husk of him who sang will soon/be powdered glass underfoot.’ Here, as Galassi observes, the self-identification is even more explicit. The cicada for Montale has something of that Yeatsian place ‘where all the ladders stop and start’, as the key-word foce (‘estuary’, ‘outlet’) in the last stanza of the sistrum poem suggests. There is, too, the amorous purpose of the cicada’s song, which is not so different from Montale’s own in relation to the elaborate identities of the Muse-like figures his poems address as ‘tu’. It’s not that his poems are simply mating calls but that, like the poetry of the troubadours he learnt from, the attitude to the world which brings them into being is essentially erotic.

The device or mythos – or ‘institution’, as Montale was to claim the critics called it – of the feminine addressee on whom the poet’s fate seems to rest, is present, though less consciously evolved, in the first book, Cuttlefish Bones, which the poet published in 1925 at the age of 29. Its terrain is almost exclusively the Ligurian coast of the Cinque Terre – not, as Galassi claims, the adjoining Tuscan coast. The cicada’s dry, persistent chirruping is the acoustic analogue of this rocky coastline which is not just the setting of the poems but their very condition, their reason for being. The earliest work Montale includes in the book (‘Meriggiare pallido e assorto’) is obsessed with sound. In its first stanza – ‘schiocchi di merli, frusci di scrpi’ – the hard clicking ‘c’ sounds of the thrushes (double consonants are sounded in Italian) and the sibilant rustling of the snake are picked up later with the percussive lines ‘si levano tremuli scricchi/di cicale dai calvi picchi’ (‘cicadas’ wavering screaks/rise from the bald peaks’). The final lines are perhaps too final in likening ‘all life’ to following a wall, harled on top with jagged bottle glass – ‘che ha in cima cocci aguzzi di bottiglia’ – and yet the alternation of hard and soft ‘c’s, drawing together the whole sound pattern of the poem with subtle menace, shows the phonetic complexity of which Montale is capable even in his early work. It’s these densely textured sound effects that present one of the most formidable challenges to any translator.

A sun-dazzled drought and inertia are described so insistently and precisely in Cuttlefish Bones that they take on the quality of an existential state, a state of entrapment but also of tense expectation. The proem ‘On the Threshold’ exhorts the addressee to ‘watch this solitary strip of land/transform into a crucible.’ The proem serves as a crucible in which the vision is broken down into its constituent elements so as to move beyond a merely naturalistic perspective. It’s only at this point that Montale envisages the possibility of an escape for the ‘you’ of the poem from the walled orto (‘vegetable garden’) which ‘was no garden, but a reliquary’:

Look for a flaw in the net that binds us
tight, burst through, break free!

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