Friday, February 24, 2017

Dark things are drawn to brighter - Eugenio Montale polishes some Cuttlefish Bones

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:

from Seacoasts

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…
                                            O seacoasts,
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
is torture.

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.


  1. This ossi di sepia seems to reverberate louder with every passing day:

    Meriggiare pallido e assorto
    presso un rovente muro d'orto,
    ascoltare tra i pruni e gli sterpi
    schiocchi di merli, frusci di serpi.

    Nelle crepe del suolo o su la veccia
    spiar le file di rosse formiche
    ch'ora si rompono ed ora s'intrecciano
    a sommo di minuscole biche

    E andando nel sole che abbaglia
    sentire con triste meraviglia
    com'è tutta la vita e il suo travaglio
    in questo seguitare una muraglia
    che ha in cima cocci aguzzi di bottiglia.

  2. And then, walking out, dazed with light,
    to sense with sad wonder
    how all of life and its hard travail
    is in this trudging along a wall spiked
    with jagged shards of broken bottles.

  3. I like my bilingual Collected Poems, 1920-1954 translated by Jonathan Galassi (of whose 600+ pages about a third are notes); he renders your Seacoasts quote thus:

    Oh, tumbled then
    like the cuttlefish bone by the waves,
    to vanish bit by bit;
    to become a gnarled tree or a stone
    smoothed by the sea; to blend
    with the sunset's colors; deliquesce as flesh
    and re-emerge a spring drunk with the sun,
    drunk by the sun...

                These, coasts,
    were the hopes of the age-old boy
    who stood at a rusted balustrade
    and, smiling, slowly died.

    Which is not only truer to the Italian but (in my opinion) infinitely preferable in rhythm and poetry to the Arrowsmith. YM, as they say, MV.

    In any case, Montale didn't think much of "Seacoasts"; he called it "the favorite poem of the incompetents" and almost left it out of the book. He said of the later poems that "they show up Riviere even more in its juvenile bombast, with those pale camellias, those golden voices, etc.!!" Maybe too d'Annunzian for him?

  4. And of course Montale is not wanting in the leaf department; from "Crisalide/Chrysalis":

    Ogni attimo vi porta nuove fronde

    Every moment brings new leaves to you

  5. I have the hope that someday I will acquire the big Galassi and Arrowsmith collections, reading them together, and thereby learn something. We shall see.

    Galassi says Arrowsmith's versions are routinely better, which I feel tells me something about Galassi's generosity.

    The leaf obsession of these poets! They make leaves do a lot of work.

  6. I've been meaning to respond somehow to your lovely Montale post since you wrote it. I just read through the Selected Poems (Galassi, Wright & Young) and now can't wait to tackle the big translation volumes, Galassi especially. Such abundance, gravity and humility in these poems - maybe what Wallace Stevens might have been had he had someone like D'Annunzio as a predecessor and foil.

  7. You'll get to it before me - good, good.

  8. I checked the annotations to "Maybe one morning" in my Collected and discovered that the conceit of the poem is straight out of Tolstoy! To be precise, from chapter XIX of Boyhood, where the following passage occurs:

    I fancied that, besides myself, nothing and nobody existed in the whole world; that objects were not objects, but images which only appeared when I directed my attention to them; and that, as soon as I ceased to think of them, the objects disappeared.

    In a word, I agreed with Schelling in the conviction that objects do not exist, but only my relation to them exists. There were moments when, under the influence of this fixed idea, I reached such a stage of derangement that I sometimes glanced quickly in the opposite direction, hoping suddenly to find nothingness (néant) where I was not.

  9. !!! I surely did not remember that passage.

  10. It continues to amaze me how everyone in the first half of the nineteenth century (at least in Russia) was obsessed with Schelling. Every time I try to read him, or even read about him, my mind gets lost in the fog. Something about nature and the world-soul...

  11. Like most German philosophy of that period - or any - way over my head.

    But it is useful to see how fashions in philosophers change in literature. As I move into the 1900s I can see Nietzsche replacing Schopenhauer.

  12. Ah. By coincidence, or maybe not, I have been thinking I should learn something about Bergson, although by means of William James, who I hope is more my speed.