- The Coastguard’s House by Eugenio Montale, translated by Jeremy Reed
Bloodaxe, 223 pp, £7.95, December 1990, ISBN 1 85224 100 4
The first Montale poem to make any impression on me was ‘Eastbourne’ in the harsh translation by G.S. Fraser in the New Directions Selected Poems:
‘God Save the King’ the trumpets moan and groan
From a pavilion high on piles
That gape to let the sea through when it comes
To wash out wet
Horse-hoofmarks on the sand
Of this sea-shore.
Coldly the wind claws me
But a burning light snakes along the windows
And white mica of cliffs
Glitters in that glare.
Bank Holiday ... It brings back the long wave
Of my own life,
Creeping and sliding, sluggish up the slope.
It’s getting late. The brassy noise balloons
And sags to silence.
There come now on their wheelchairs the cripples.
There accompany them dogs with long
Ears, silent children, and old folk. (Possibly
Tomorrow it will all seem a dream.)
And you come,
You, pure voice, long imprisoned, spirit now
Set free but with no bearings yet,
The blood’s voice, lost and given back
To the evening of my days.
As a hotel’s revolving door
Moves shiningly upon its four leaves –
One leaf answers another, flashing a message! –
So I am moved by a merry-go-round that sweeps
Everything up in its whirl; alertly listening
(‘My country!’) I recognise your breathing,
And get up; it grows too stuffy, this day.
Everything will seem pointless: even the strength
That in its gritty matrix aggregates
Living and dead, trees and rocks,
And from you, through you, unfolds. Holidays
Have no pity. The band expands
Its blare of sound, in the first dusk
An unarmed goodness spreads itself around.
Evil conquers ... The wheel does not stop:
Also Thou knewest this, Lux-in-Tenebris!
In this burnt quarter of the sky, whence at the first
Clang of bells Thou departedst, only
The guttering torch remains that, already, was
And is not, Bank Holiday.
What first held me was this harshness, the criticism of the band’s efforts, ‘moan and groan’, ‘balloons and sags to silence’, ‘blare of sound’, part of the sensuous pessimism of the poem’s vocabulary. Public music is a wonderful subject (Rimbaud’s ‘A la Musique’, Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress’, Joseph Roth’s novel The Radetzky March), public music as a backdrop to private musings better still. Eastbourne, (August) Bank Holiday – ‘the English ferragosto’, Montale domesticates it in a letter – a country taking its ease, luxuriating in patriotism: but then it’s the wrong country, neither Montale’s Italy nor the USA of his addressee and of ‘I vow to thee, my country’. Montale is in the wrong place, as everywhere since the beloved’s departure is the wrong place, as indeed he has been in the wrong place from birth, feeling – a little histrionically for once, in an interview – ‘total disharmony with the reality that surrounded me’. No doubt the band’s harmonies don’t help.
Like many of his poems, ‘Eastbourne’ has a way of communicating experience without depleting it. Finishing the poem, the reader doesn’t say ‘Oh dear!’ or ‘So that’s what happened,’ or ‘Poor you!’ The reader would be hard put to say what happened, and yet it’s not because Montale has failed to be straight with him or talked about other things that don’t matter. There is narrative, but of a uniquely interior kind, discontinuous scraps, observations that give rise to reflections. The poem exists on its own, it sticks to its own side of the net, it doesn’t play pat-ball with the reader. There are things in it that have chronically troubled readers, and bamboozled translators: that wave, ‘sluggish up the slope’ (troppo dolce sulla china), the day, which is ‘too stuffy’ (troppo folto). One might note that it is impossible to locate the poet, the tu, or the reader in the poem; a series of external-internal camera positions is really the best one can do. It is another characteristic of Montale’s poems that they are set in oceans of empty space. Nothing in the poem allows the thought that there is anything outside it – no brand-names or politicians – and the poem is characteristically situated at the very edge of land: as it were, at the limit of reference and experience and paraphrase. There is no such exclusion on time – there is in Montale’s first poems, which often end on a frozen image: time passes (‘It’s getting late’) and suddenly, at the end of the poem, we learn that a whole evening has gone up in smoke. A poem of Montale’s is often less like the usual short story than like a novel. In its way, Eastbourne is as deadly and exotic as its 1930s contemporary, the Quauhnahuac of Under the Volcano, with which it shares the wheels, the holiday, the noise, the triumph of evil – as well as the basic situation of a man left by a woman, and thinking about his life.
A further reason why ‘Eastbourne’ made such an impact on me was that it wasn’t among the ten Montale poems that appeared in Robert Lowell’s 1961 book of translations, Imitations. I am saying, I suppose, that Lowell spoiled the ground in making it accessible. At this moment I would guess that Imitations is more influential than any other aspect of Lowell’s poetic practice: the idea of a popular poet with a current style refashioning some body of foreign work in his own way, and in order to reflect his own concerns. ‘I have tried to write live English and to do what my authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America.’ It remains an attractive blueprint, and one that Jeremy Reed has followed in his own work on Montale: ‘What I have tried to achieve in this book is a series of poems in which the poet’s intentions are placed within a context of late 20th-century values.’ Certainly, disdain for the poor conventional translator of poetry is always a strong card to play: ‘Most poetic translations come to grief,’ says Lowell simply. He calls translators ‘taxidermists’; Reed describes them as undertakers. And yet is Imitations anything to be imitated? Should Lowell’s karaoke procedures be encouraged? Which of his dirty dozen-and-a-half poets would one actually choose in Lowell’s version in preference to another’s, or to Lowell himself? perhaps only the Rimbaud of the teenage sonnets lumped together in a sequence called ‘Eighteen Seventy’: ‘On the Road’, ‘At the Green Cabaret’ and ‘A Malicious Girl’. These seem incorruptible in their freshness. Otherwise, I have a hunch that anyone who knows one or other of the languages of Lowell’s originals will find his treatment of them especially unforgivable, but will feel merciful towards the others; certainly I find his Rilke, and even more his Heine (‘Heine Dying in Paris’), hard to take, Imitations doesn’t even contain Lowell’s best work as a translator, which is buried without acknowledgment in Notebook in a poem called ‘ Volveran’: the original is by G.A. Bécqucr, who was one of Montale’s favourite poets, and from whom he took the epigraph for his Motets: Sobre el volcan la flor.
Like most everyone rendered by Lowell, Montale appears in versions so electrified and distorted by feedback their own mothers wouldn’t recognise them. ‘A death cell?’ is how his version of ‘The Coastguard House’ begins. The originals have no hope of asserting themselves against Lowell’s gleichschaltung, they are inaudible for all the crackle and pop and screech. The result is that one thinks of them as weedy, characterless and indeterminate – this if what I meant when I spoke of being spoilt for certain poems by familiarity with Lowell’s translations. For years I kept a line of his in my head – actually it’s from the selfsame ‘Coastguard House’ – as evidence of Lowell’s incredible usurpation: ‘For years the sirocco gunned the dead stucco with sand.’ The two Italianate words (neither exactly in the original), the half-rhyming American verb ‘gunned’, the American fascination with European antiquity and decay – all extraneous and false. Sometimes I think he used him as a pre text to evoke ugliness and dirt:
the ugly weather’s fire-cracker simmer
will deepen to the gruff buzz of beehives
Termites tunnel the public room’s rafters to sawdust,
an odour of bruised melons oozes from the floor.
A sick smoke lifts from the elf-huts and fungi of the valley –
like an eagle it climbs our mountain’s bald cone,
and soils the windows.
The thoroughgoing concreteness of such a passage is matched by its pervasive nausea. The poem as a whole may seem vague and histrionic and shot to pieces, but individual words and lines are of such force and brilliance that they make the efforts of other translators appear puny.
The first three lines are unsurpassable, and the vigour of what follows argues the case for ‘imitations’ as well as anything. And then, even if the poem’s last line, ‘A porcupine sips a quill of mercy,’ is not to be found in the original, it is, first, extraordinarily beautiful, and secondly seems to have wandered in from ‘Skunk Hour’. A poem kitted out with a top and tail like that will quite reasonably seem unexciting in a more faithful or – better word – normal version. A chaste approach like that of William Arrowsmith, who all but forswears the use of diction, is pretty unappealing: ‘When the Italian text gives ridere, I have translated it as “laugh” rather than one of the more colourful modalities of laughter: chuckle, guffaw, titter, and so on.’ Perhaps even the Italian original and other poems by Montale will seem less worth persevering with to readers without much Italian, like myself, (while Italian speakers, in accordance with my hunch about Imitations, should come down particularly hard on Lowell’s Montale, ungaretti, Saba and Leopardi. This explains my pleasure and relief at finding Fraser’s ‘East bourne’.
It may also help to explain why I am happiest reading Montale in German, even apart from the fact that Henno Helbling’s versions are better and truer than anything I have seen in English, and German, an inflected language with genders and endings and a flexible word-order, is a better home for Montale than English (Montale: Gedichte 1920-1954, 1987). It is only since reading Helbling that I have been convinced of Montale’s greatness.
Lowell’s example and achievement are as much a problem for Jeremy Reed as Montale’s original texts, which are printed en face. At least Reed gives himself a chance – unlike Arrowsmith – by allowing himself as much freedom as Lowell did. Also, he doesn’t duck the challenge, including versions of all of Lowell’s originals in his own careful and generous selection. There is a difference, though, in that while Lowell professes ‘amazement’ at Montale (perhaps not the best basis for imitation), Reed recognises himself in the Italian: the imbalanced individual’, the loner, the ‘solitary upbringing on a seacoast’. These congruences are real and salutary, and they underwrite the hoped-for ‘empathic collusion’ between Reed and Montale. The Coastguard’s House has had more poetic labour and feeling applied to it than any other English versions I have seen.
Reed’s versions look reassuringly unlike the Italian opposite, more regular, often shorter, solid and compact – they are not translations in the geometrical sense, merely slid across the page. (In translations where the punctuation is scrupulously mimicked, I tend to fear that a similar attention has been paid to the words.) Reed has re-aligned and rephrased many of the originals, often breaking up sentences into shorter, punchier units. He has a superb sense of the music and tension of a line, and knows how to pace several lines in succession: this is perhaps the single crucial difference between a translation by a poet and the poetry of a translator. Take the beginning of Reed’s ‘Mesco Point’:
At dawn, unbending flights of partridges
skimmed over the quarry’s skyline,
the smoke from explosives lazily puffed
in eddies up the blind rockface. The ridge
brightened. The trail of foam left by the pilot boat’s
beaked prow settled into illusory
white flowers on the surface of the sea.
And that of Arrowsmith’s ‘Cape Mesco’:
In the sky over the quarry streaked
at dawn by the partridges’ undeviating flight,
the smoke from the blasting thinned,
climbing slowly up the sheer stone face.
From the platform of the piledriver
naiad ripples somersaulted, silent
trumpeters, and sank, melting in the foam
grazed by your step
(The original stanza is eight lines long.) Two things are clear: that Reed has re-imagined the scene, and that he writes English verse to an incomparably higher standard. He even manages that daunting form, the short poem, which in less skilful hands can resemble a few bricks falling over one another:
Insistently a cricket penetrates
so many layers of vegetable silk.
A scent of camphor rises, but can’t rout the moths
that fragment dustily in books,
while a small bird creeps round and spirals up
an elm tree’s bulk, and stabs a sun that dives
in its green whirl. Another transient gleam,
and in the scarlet ivies, other fires.
‘Poetry is less predictable than prose,’ Montale said endearingly and – at least where his own work is concerned – accurately. ‘A Window at Fiesole’ is a beautifully made little poem, its corruption close at hand, then further away, at first colourless, then burning, small and then stellar, but all the time in whirling radii.
When Reed talks about placing Montale’s intentions ‘within a context of late 20th-century values’, I don’t really know what he means, but I’m sure that Montale, in the Thirties or Forties, did little to invite such treatment. (He seems to me neither marked nor deceitfully unmarked by what he called ‘the mechanical culture of our time’.) That said, there are certain words like ‘nerves’, ‘menace’ and ‘electric’ to which Reed seems to be addicted, and which he brings in at the slightest opportunity; there are also smatterings of an almost Ballardish technoflash vocabulary: ‘heliocentric’, ‘theriomorphic’, ‘the lever’s/ hairline imprecision in locking the gears/of the global spin’. On the whole, though, ‘late 20th-century values’ seem to mean the values of contemporary British and American poetry: a supple ten-syllable line (or eight or 12 or six, but seemingly always even numbers!), a quiet musicality and logical construction. He uses a predicate-subject inversion straight out of Joseph Brodsky: ‘What startles is the screeching of the years/ on rusty hinges’, ‘What lives on here’s the colour of the rat/ leaping through grasses, or the sudden dash/ of poisonous green metal.’ Most of all, though, he has assimilated Lowell’s style, less in the poems Lowell translated in Imitations than in Montale’s late work of the Sixties and Seventies which I hadn’t previously read and which, in Reed’s versions, is like Lowell redivivus or bootlegged: words run together like ‘chalkline’ or ‘deadmarch’ or‘ ripcurrent’, final lines whammed down like aces, ‘We hear you now without a telephone,’ ‘Living, we’re Shadows blown out by a breath,’ ‘Nothing’s stable. The word dries on the change ...’, the conjunction of humour and insanity in the astonishing sequence ‘After a Flight’.
I lazed the day through reflecting that Lear
and Cordelia suffered no such problems,
and mooned around the tombs of Lucumos,
the Piranesi streets of old Leghorn.
The sky was gentian, no tragedians
consoled the binding self-truth of my age;
I couldn’t even claim to be your father.
The effort is so eerie it seems to me Montale must have a hand in it as well as the translator. It would be interesting to know whether Montale – who published late books called Diario del ’71 a del ’72 and Quaderno di Quattro Anni – read Lowell, and, if so, whether he liked him (he was very severe on ‘the vast poetic reportage attempted by the new English poets from Auden on’). Certainly, Reed seems to me to have done wonderfully well to have enlisted Lowell on his side.
The only real criticism I would make of Reed is tautological: that he is not Montale. There are passages, especially at the beginning of poems, where decisiveness is muted into delicacy, which his even iambic lines can’t handle. The beginning of ‘L’Estate’:
L’ombra crociata del gheppio pare ignota
ai giovinetti arbusti quando rade fugace.
E la nube che vede? Ha tante facce
la polla sehiusa.
The kestrel’s filtered shadow leaves no trace
on dry bushes, but tricks a darkened cross
on the heath’s green awakening with spring.
The earth reflects the blue mirror of space.
Or even more, of ‘Barche sulla Marna’:
Felicita del sughero abbandonato
che stempra attorno i ponti rovesciati
e il plenilunio pallido nel sole:
barche sul fiume, agili nell’ estate
e un murmure stagnante di citta.
An orange cork-float drifts with the current
which eddies round overhanging bridges.
The chalk moon’s a shadow of the sunlight,
and boats on the river seem half in flight.
The city builds behind as sluggish surf.
The English is far too commonsensical and humdrum: it is one of the occasions where Reed fails to offer compensation for what is lost. In this case, the deficit is enormous: the happiness of the cork, a giddy world in which the bridges are upside-down, and the sun and moon – brother and sister, maybe – are together, an adumbration of the various perfect rounds and arches, the whole thing touched with envy, and almost in the form of a toast. For such things we have to use Lowell’s word for the feeling Montale induced in him: amazement.