One more of these, with Eugenio Montale’s first book, Cuttlefish Bones (1925), translated by William Arrowsmith in an edition with far more notes than poetry.
Aren’t cuttlefish invertebrates? Yes, but they have an “internal shell” that young Eugenio would find in large quantities on the beaches of Liguria. As Whitman showed, the shore poem contains all poems:
Days of tumbling and tossing
like cuttlefish bones in the breakers,
vanishing bit by bit;
gnarled tree or sea-polished
pebble; melting away
in sunset colors, to dissolve as flesh
and flow back, a spring drunk on sunlight,
devoured by sunlight…
this was his prayer, that boy I used to be,
standing by a rusty balustrade,
who died slowly, smiling. (ellipses in original)
This 1920 poem ends the collection, and Arrowsmith says critics have often argued it is too jolly, like a forced positive ending on an otherwise grim book, an expression of deep pessimism. About “Maybe one morning,” one of a group of lyrics labeled “Cuttlefish Bones,” Arrowsmith writes that it “was memorized by two generations of school children” and “continue[s] even now to haunt the Italian mind” (213).
Maybe one morning, walking in air
of dry glass, I’ll turn and see the miracle occur –
nothingness at my shoulders, the void
behind me – with a drunkard’s terror.
Then, as on a screen, the usual illusion:
hills houses trees will suddenly reassemble,
but too late, and I’ll quietly go my way,
with my secret, among men who don’t look back.
Strong stuff! All is an illusion, all is nothingness. If you are lucky you will get a glimpse behind the veil. The Italian is, as far as I can tell, musical and beautiful. I know as a matter of literary history that Montale, like many other poets of his generation, were deliberately trying to “walk in air of dry glass,” by which I mean they were avoiding the baroque excesses and politically suspect decadence of the dominant figure of Gabrielle d’Annunzio. But the starkness Montale finds is in his imagery and philosophy or temperamental position more than form or language.
Bring me the sunflower, I’ll plant it here
in my patch of ground scorched by salt spume,
where all day long it will lift the craving
of its golden face to the mirroring blue.
Dark things are drawn to brighter…
That’s part of another “Cuttlefish Bone,” another famous one.
Just rummaging through the book, I keep coming across repeated images and motifs. What complexity. A sequence about figures on an ancient sarcophagus – “World asleep or world that boasts / life unchanging, who can say?” – embeds a number of them, like the sunflower. The “Agave on the Cliff” poems are from the point of view of a plant, buffeted by a series of winds:
incapable of breaking into bloom, today I feel
this rootedness of mine
This is what I meant by “grim.”
Hopeless to do anything with this book or poet on a first pass. This is a note to remind myself to try again some time.