I find that Giuseppe Ungaretti becomes more cryptic as he gets away from his war poems. Images, or perhaps the associations of specific words, seem more arbitrary to me.
I hear a dove from other floods.
D’altri diluvi una colomba ascolto.
That is a complete poem from 1925. A narrative can be pulled from this line, with the poet on some kind of ark, metaphorical, I suppose, soon after a catastrophe, like, say, a world war. But past the Noah reference, it could mean anything, private or public.
In 1939, Ungaretti lost his nine-year-old son to appendicitis. The poems in his 1947 book Il Dolore (The Grief), at least the examples translated by Mandelbaum, are impossible to separate from that event, or from the second war that surrounded Ungaretti.
OUTCRY NO MORE
Stop killing the dead,
Outcry no more, do not outcry
If you would hear them still.
If you would not die.
Their whisper is imperceptible.
They are no louder
Than the growing of the grass,
Happy where man does not pass.
Ungaretti may be referring to a stanza of his 1935 “Greetings for His Own Birthday,” from before his public and private tragedies:
Yet and yet I would outcry:
Swift youth of the senses
That, in the darkness, keeps me from myself,
Allowing images to the eternal,
Do not leave me, suffering, stay!
What a terrible irony or bit of fate-tempting. I believe the verb Mandelbaum translates as “outcry,” “gridare,” is more commonly translated as “shout” or “cry,” neither of which must have seemed anguished enough.
Ungaretti’s poems are on the miserable side. The 1953 “Secret of the poet” begins “Alone I have the night as a friend,” which sounds practically Goth in English. A companion poem is titled “Variations on Nought”:
This null-and-nought of sand that flows away
Within the silent hourglass and settles,
And, fugitive, the imprints on the flesh,
Upon the flesh that dies, of a cloud…
Ellipses in the original, but in the original original, there are so many repetitions of words across the three stanzas that I wonder if there is some kind of system to the poem, as if it is a relative of the sestina. As so often with Ungaretti, the emphasis turns out to be on individual words rather than images or even sense.
I’ll leave Ungaretti with a song, one full of life, until the end:
A woman wakes and sings
Wind follows and entrances her
And stretches her upon the earth
And the true dream takes her.
This earth is nude
This woman is warm
This wind is strong
This dream is dead.
Una donna s’alza e canta
La segue il vento e l’incanta
E sulla terra la stende
E il sogno vero la prende.
Questa terra è nuda
Questa donna è druda
Questa vento è forte
Questa sogno è morte.