Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Warble warble squashed blackberry - Dino Campana sings a love song

I think Charles Wright’s translation of Campana is better than the older I. L. Salomon translation.  If there is still such a thing as a great American poet, he is one of them, and his translations strike me as superior poems.  I am glad I read Salomon’s book, though; first, it has more poems and second it has the Italian.  I don’t know Italian.  Sometimes that does not matter.

from Serenade: Bitter False Melodramatic

The comedian with serious and deep voice
With a goat’s profile and a hollow
Infernal eye flashing
Sings a song of love:
Warble warble squashed blackberry
Dawn comes soon, the dawn’s awake.

That, you say, is the song of love sung by the Goat Comic.  Let’s glance at the original of the last two lines:

Trilla trilla mora pesta
Presto è l’alba, presto è desta.

Why, this is songful, with rhymes and assonance and all that poetical stuff.  This may even be, dare I say, beautiful, comparable to the most beautiful poem in English (Italian verse’s sad burden is that it is too easily beautiful).

Campana is a weird writer, but Salomon maybe plays up his weirdness.  If the alternative is flatness, all too common in poetic translation, the kind that makes a reader wonder what the big deal is, then Salomon made the right choice.  Still, there must be something better than “Warble warble squashed blackberry.”

Part of Campana’s genuine weirdness is that he read with deep appreciation not just Walt Whitman but Edgar Allan Poe.  Much of Orphic Songs is in prose; much of the prose sounds like:

I was in the shadow of an arcade which dripped drop after drop of blood-gorged light through the fog of a December night.  Without warning a door was flung open in a splendor of light.  In the foreground of the far end of the room in the luminescence of a red ottoman an older woman was lying up on one elbow, her head resting in her hand, her brown eyes like brown fire, her breasts enormous…  (“The Night,” tr. Wright)

Campana has read “The Philosophy of Furniture.”  Campana’s women are not Poe’s women, although they are similarly idealized.  Poe was not so interested in prostitutes.

The Poe-effect merges with another resemblance that everyone mentions, so I will, too, since I felt it first and then went looking for it:

I remember an old city, red walls and red battlements, on the immense plain burnt out from the August heat, with the far-away spongy cold comfort of green hills in the background… I raised my eyes unconsciously to the barbarous tower which dominated the long avenue of plane trees…  A Deserted little piazza, broken hovels like old bruises, dead windows: to one side in an enormous wash of light, the tower, eight-pointed arid impenetrably red and unadorned; a dried up 16th-century fountain kept silent, its stone shattered in the middle of its own Latin commentary.  (“The Night,” still, italics all mine)

I read this passage, and several others, trying to remember exactly which Giorgio de Chirico painting it was copying.  Several and none, presumably.  The Red Tower, above, is from 1913; Campana did not know De Chirico but could have seen his work in magazines.  Who knows.  Silent fountains, blue mountains, a woman off in the far distance, while “[f]rom among the twilit rocks a black horned immobile shape watches me I too immobile with its golden eyes” (“La Verna”)

A lot of fine weirdness.  Perhaps the next time I read Campana I will try to make some sense of it.  This time, I did not.


  1. "Campana’s women are not Poe’s women, although they are similarly idealized. Poe was not so interested in prostitutes."

    You know how these European writers are, they make everything more sordid.

    I think it's impossible to read that prose poem and not think of De Chirico's La Torre Rossa; but maybe that's because I make a reference to it in my own novel.

  2. In the novel, that's funny. Good. It does seem obvious. But of course it's not if you don't know the paintings.

  3. Incidentally, I read somewhere this painting also influenced the mood of that great Italian movie, The Desert of the Tartars; the atmosphere of mystery and stilness Buzzati evokes also has many similarities with De Chirico's; he is, to me, primarily a painter who captures ambience, moods.

  4. I have only looked at scenes of that movie - the idea that he had di Chirico in mind is plausible. The shots had that strange imbalance, or whatever I mean, of background and foreground that di Chirico can have.

  5. Just to clear up some confusion I find in the above, Buzzati wrote the book, Valerio Zurlini directed the movie.

  6. Yes, you are right. Miguel and I are actually continuing a conversation from a comment thread from long ago - I do not remember which post - so we are shorthanding a bit, or a lot. We are both members of the theoretical Max von Sydow Appreciation Society. I think that is how this movie originally came up.

  7. I suspect that the best prose version of De Chirico's paintings may be his own novel "Hebdomeros" (which I've only read excerpts from). Maybe a novel by De Chirico should be in your Italian reading list, eh?

  8. Not a crazy idea. Maybe if I read a book by him I'll learn to spell his name.

    Fixed in the post now, I hope.

  9. I don't know why an Italian has a De. The novel looks interesting, though.

  10. It does look interesting. I feel like I have read some poems by De Chirico somewhere, but maybe I am just confusing him with Hans Arp or someone like that.

  11. Thanks for that - I will never get "Warble warble squashed blackberry" out of my head.

    The emptiness, space and palette that De Chirico created seems to be abundantly reflected in 20th century literature. La Torra Rosa actually features on the cover of an American edition of Buzzati's novel.

  12. "Warble warble squashed blackberry" is my new favorite thing to say.

  13. On the cover - everyone sees it, I guess.

    I, too, have found myself repeating that phrase, mentally or aloud. I am not even sure that it is bad. In some ways, it is good.