Nicely Combed

Matthew Reynolds

In Italy you can buy poetry T-shirts featuring lines by Dante, Leopardi and others. The Ungaretti shirt is good value: it gives you a whole work, though not a very long one. ‘Mattina’ (‘Morning’) reads in its entirety as follows:

M’illumino
d’immenso

In books, those words are tethered to a particular location, Santa Maria la Longa, 26 January 1917; but there is a rightness about their transplantation to innumerable present-day torsos. The genius of the poem is in the way it laminates the unique and the general; the way it recognises that while being illuminated with immensity may feel like a miracle to a soldier who has lived through a night – or night after night – in the trenches, it is to most people at most times just the start of another day.

The features that render ‘Mattina’ so amenable to mass reproduction make it a nightmare to translate. On the one hand, extreme paucity of paraphrasable content; on the other, extreme subtlety of nuance. Andrew Frisardi illustrates the first difficulty rather painfully when, in the introduction to this new Selected Poems, he attempts to say what ‘Mattina’ ‘literally means’: ‘something like “I turn luminous in an immensity of spaces.”’ But Ungaretti’s poem mentions no spaces and says nothing about turning. The verb ‘illuminarsi’ means ‘to light up’, not ‘to turn luminous’: your porch might ‘illuminarsi’ when you get home, at which point your children’s faces ‘s’illumineranno’ with joy. Still, one can see why Frisardi felt the need to bulk up ‘Mattina’ with some SF rhetoric (or is he thinking of nuclear apocalypse?). Taken ‘literally’, ‘Mattina’ means not very much at all.

But the suggestions inhering in the poem’s shape, rhythm and tone – everything the word ‘literally’ shuts out – are many. The reflexive verb form, ‘m’illumino,’ quite standard in Italian, is tantalising to the English reader because it leaves open a question about agency which our language tends to close: it is neither ‘I illuminate myself’ nor ‘I am being illuminated,’ but somewhere undecidably between the two (Ungaretti is fond of such constructions and of the uncertainties they bring into focus). The timescale is no more definite: released from narrative context, the present-tense ‘m’illumino’ can refer equally to a sudden revelation and to the slow brightening of the dawn. Phonetically, ‘Mattina’ is composed of soft words of the sort which Dante, in a delightful passage of De vulgari eloquentia, called ‘womanly’ and ‘nicely combed’ (‘pexa’); rhythmically, the little lines combine to form a classically harmonious seven-syllable verse, a settenario, such as might have been written by Tasso or Leopardi. The illumination, then, is neither revolutionary nor harsh. In fact, the implied smile in the poem is almost a grin. There is something comic about the way the big noun and verb pile into the pronoun ‘mi’ and preposition ‘di’, leaving them squished; and surely there is a cheekiness in writing such a short poem on immensity, the more so when it is located in a place called ‘Santa Maria la Longa’. ‘Longa’ is not the Italian for ‘long’ (‘lungo/a’) – but it nearly is.

This particular conjunction of threads is, of course, unique to Italian and we might in consequence pay ‘Mattina’ the ritual homage of saying that it is untranslatable. And yet, in line with a not unfamiliar law of desire, the poems that are least translatable are those that offer most stimulation to the translator. Words that can readily be rendered into other languages – ‘Fire Exit’, ‘I love you’ – give the translator little to do, and, once translated, afford readers no stylistic surprise. Literary translation begins where literal translation becomes impossible; the translators’ nightmare is, from another point of view, their dream. When we read literary translations we should not expect them to provide us with an ‘equivalent of’ their source. We should instead – as Walter Benjamin proposed in his visionary essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ – ask how the imaginative life of the source text has been prolonged, what has been done by the translation, what it points to, throws light on, or mimes.

Take the first of two versions of ‘Mattina’ by Allen Mandelbaum:

I illumine me
with immensity

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