Luciano Erba's poems discover in the details of everyday life--a cream-colored tie, an old book, a swallow--access to far-reaching mysteries, including the fact of our being here at all. One of Italy's most important contemporary poets, Erba is approachable yet complex, distinctively and artfully combining traditional and informal means in his brief lyrics. He turns a cool eye on the passing scene, allowing us to see life in a new light.
This bilingual edition contains the most comprehensive and representative selection of Erba's poetry ever published in English. Distinguished British poet and translator Peter Robinson, working with the encouragement and advice of the author, has rendered accurate and elegant English translations of the facing-page Italian originals.
Complete with a preface, introduction, and notes, this is an ideal introduction to a unique and compelling modern Italian poet.
About the Author
Luciano Erba was born in Milan in 1922 and is the author of numerous books of poetry and a short-story collection. Peter Robinson is a renowned British poet, translator, and critic whose books include Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations and a forthcoming collection of interviews, Talk about Poetry: Conversations on the Art.
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The Greener MeadowSelected Poems
Chapter OneTHE POETRY OF LUCIANO ERBA
The first words of any poem by Luciano Erba that I read were in one by Vittorio Sereni-who had, I later discovered, been his teacher for a year of high school in 1939. "The Alibi and the Benefit," a poem set inside a fogbound Milanese tram whose doors open onto nothingness, cites lines 1-2 and 4-5 of Erba's early poem "Tabula rasa?": "It's any evening / crossed by half-empty trams" and "You see me advance as you know / in districts without memory?" Sereni sets these as two linked phrases in italics. He leaves out the question mark and adds: "never seen a district so rich in memories / as these so-called 'without' in the young Erba's lines." The young Erba doesn't in fact say that the districts are without memory, he wonders if they are. The difference may seem slight, but is underlined by the different directions taken by the two poems containing these words. In his own 1985 rereading of Sereni's poem, "Mixing Memory and Desire," Erba referred to the quotation of his own early lines as a barrier or obstacle that the poem has to overcome so as to reach its destination. Sereni's goes on to emphasize the fog's ambivalence: it is both a way of avoiding noticing the world's possibilities and the place wherethey remain with their potentials hidden. His is a poem of self-criticism and tentative cultural optimism.
"The Alibi and the Benefit" was inspired by a moment experienced on Sereni's journey home one evening in 1950. Erba's poem was published in his first collection, LineaK(1951):
It's any evening crossed by half-empty trams moving to quench their thirst for wind. You see me advance as you know in districts without memory? I've a cream tie, an old weight of desires I await only the death of every thing that had to touch me.
Sereni's comment on the quoted lines serves to indicate the ambivalence about memory half-concealed in Erba's question marks-the ones in the title and at the end of line 5. Is Erba's poem upset by the possibility that the districts may be without memory? Or does the close of his poem reveal that it is inspired by the further desire to see the slate wiped clean? Sereni's poem is set to accuse its poet of being evasive about the roots of the past, of using the fog as his alibi, while simultaneously underlining the hidden benefit in the flourishing of a possible different future. Erba's is poised between the need for a clean start and such a start's potentially alarming emptiness.
Signaling the point of equilibrium between possibilities canvassed by his question marks, there appears, as if a non sequitur, one of Erba's signature details: "I've a cream tie." Italian critics have dwelt upon how often these poems turn to seemingly casual details of wardrobe. Such details too are precisely located between the haphazard and the symbolic, neither one nor the other-as in "La Grande Jeanne," whose desire to rise from poor prostitute to great lady is manifested in her having "a hat already / broad, blue, and with three turns of tulle." The poet's interest in clothes and social ambitions forms part of a much older theme through which settled values are poetically destabilized. The simultaneous fullness and emptiness of our vanities and wishes, revealed by the poems' delicate ironies, is what makes them human. The pathos of unreflected-upon desire and ambition produces instant instances of carpediem and mementomori.
Luciano Erba first came to prominence in 1952 when his work was associated with the so-called "Linea Lombarda," thanks to Luciano Anceschi's anthology of that name. Anceschi identified and presented a grouping of poets based in or around Milan with roots in the Luino-Como-Varese "Lake District" of northern Italy. He saw them as sharing a poetry of objects, of understatement, irony, and self-criticism, which included social commentary and cultural commitment-but only if mediated through a skeptical grid of humanistic intelligence and aesthetic detachment. The most senior member of this "line" was Vittorio Sereni (who was among the first to write about his one-time pupil in a 1951 article for MilanoSera). Among the other poets anthologized were Erba's contemporary Nelo Risi and Giorgio Orelli. Notwithstanding the reasonable accuracy of this identification, and, what's more, in accord with the assigned characteristics of the group, Erba's short poem "Linea Lombarda" quietly mocks the group's name as yet another commonplace-one that is a little too conveniently true to be more than a misleading pigeonhole.
This helps to explain why his poetry was so largely not to the taste of the postwar neorealists and their theoretically engagé successors. In a cultural context where all is "political," detachment of a French nineteenth-century bohemian kind, of a Gautier or Baudelaire, can be crudely construed as reactionary. So Erba, whose poetry is of no convenient party, and who speaks by means of a wry intimacy for the survival of neglected and unconsidered ways of life (ones either not yet quite come into existence, or on the way to extinction), has been seen as an apologist for a Catholic conservatism. It's as if he were naturally inclined to side with Giovannino Guareschi's local priest, Don Camillo, in his cold war games of ingenuity and trickery played with the Communist mayor of a village not far from Parma. Yet Erba's approach to the loss-of-faith theme is also distinctly "homemade":
At waking there comes back the ancient doubt if this life weren't a chance event and our own just a poor monologue of homemade questions and answers. I believe, don't believe, when believing I'd like to take to the beyond with me a bit of the here even the scar that marks my leg and keeps me company.
The world and the afterlife are turned inside out. In his later poems, especially, what had seemed a world of solid objects becomes a Cézanne-like mapping of spaces and relations, while the absent and the void is to be furnished with some substance from the here and now. Thus attentive readers of these poems will notice that they are no more in thrall to the Catholic Church than they are to a Communist mayor.
Most of Erba's poetry is situated, in one way or another, at points of transit between indeterminate states. These can be geographical, historical, social, political, cultural, and metaphysical. Evident examples in the selection appearing below would be two of the poems from "Railway Suite," which derive from Erba's flight to Switzerland to escape conscription into the forces of Mussolini's Salò Republic, or "The Young Couples," a poem presenting the encounter of a guest and his hosts with their different socioeconomic evolutions:
The young couples of the postwar years would lunch in triangular spaces of apartments near the fair the windows had rings on their curtains the furniture was linear, with hardly any books the guest who brought Chianti we drank from green glass tumblers was the first Sicilian I'd ever met us, we were his model of development.
What provides this poem with its particular savor is the barely implied mockery of "us," even us, being someone's vision of a better future. Yet it's the presence of just this corrosive perspective that grants pathos to the Sicilian's aspirations. The encounter is decisive for all concerned, but not quite perhaps in the ways they were imagining. Among the many functions of these delicately sketched transitional states is the preservation of a cultural space where the knowledge that poetry is uniquely able to deliver can be brought to life within the course of even so short a poem.
In his editor's introduction to Poesie 1951-2001, Stefano Prandi notes that Erba's poems contain the Italian word for "if" 89 times. This word can be used not only to project a space for imaginary possibilities; it may also help maintain an air of skepticism and uncertainty. "The Mirage," for example, flourishes within the vagaries and limits of childhood memory. Such indeterminacy and fluidity of image allow the poetry to do its work independently of those fixities and definites of opinion and ideology that appear to form the unbroken surface of everyday life. Part of Erba's cunning is to achieve his revival of classical epigram by means of a childlike simplicity. Frequently these poems actively promulgate a child's own view of the world, one notoriously subject to the breaking of spells and disillusionment-as in the boys gone fishing in "The Yellow Orris." So the presence of the childlike view keeps the world fresh, while the gentle irony shows it impacted with a more mature knowledge of how things fall out. Similarly, Erba turns history into a kind of child's play. By this means he can contemplate it with detachment and intervene in it ideally. The poet's describing himself as no more than a chasseurd'images also points to the seeming paradox that poetry must frequent the apparently insignificant for its sources of fresh meaning. So too, it is only within experiences of the transitorily quotidian that what can stay may be intuited and rendered even as it disappears.
Erba's lifelong skepticism about large systems of thought and explain-all theories appears over the last decade or so to have come into its own. His doubts about psychoanalysis, for example, can be read in the intermittent series of poems concerning Doctor K, the earliest of which dates back half a century or more. Similarly, his apparent portrait of himself as "petitbourgeois" in "Without a Compass" subjects various grand designs to a quiet debunking:
According to Darwin I'd not be of the fittest according to Malthus not even born according to Lombroso I'll end bad anyway and not to mention Marx, me, petitbourgeois running for it, therefore, running for it forward backward sideways (as in nineteen-forty when everyone) but there remain personal perplexities am I to the east of my wound or to the south of my death?
The poem outflanks the sorts of class-based political criticism that Erba's work had received at the hands of Franco Fortini and others. Yet, nevertheless, "petitbourgeois" is exactly the experience with which Erba's poetry might fictively identify itself, because that is a class in ambivalent transit between two more unequivocally valorized social positions. Something similar could be said for the attribution of essential function to such bit-part players as those from Hamlet in "The Circus Hypothesis": "Extras, unmeaning interludes / it's thanks to you perhaps / that the Tightrope walker doesn't fall."
I say "fictively identifies itself" because there has also been a tendency among Italian critics to see Erba's poetry as essentially autobiographical. Again, there is sufficient truth in such a notion for it to be plausible, but not quite enough. After all, there is nothing "confessional" about this poetry, which appears to have few wells of guilt or shame or bad faith to empty out. Here too we can see a difference between his and Sereni's poetry. Erba has said of Fortini's importance in Sereni's life and art that he played the role of a necessary accuser and tormentor. Yet in Erba the autobiography is too close up and too intentionally "inconsequential" to figure as the material of such cultural dramas. Even when he treats of his flight to Switzerland, there is little sense that Erba is narrating an explanatory story that gives shape to his life. He appears rather to be following a vein of reflection or responding to a recurrent impulse. If the mother who makes a number of appearances in these poems appears to be a source of anxiety, the "socialist grandfather" who figures in "Implosion" may be no more nor less than a typical character borrowed, perhaps, from Victor Hugo's L'Artd'etregrandpère. Similarly, there is no gain in assuming that "The Young Couples" is a poem actually about the poet's life in postwar Milan. It's a representative encounter. For Erba, the minute autobiographical-seeming detail is his quickest means for accessing an experience of life itself.
His work's uniqueness, some might say eccentricity, can be attributed to the poet's being so casually centered upon his own impulse, his own response to the world. It's by no means an unusual condition among distinctively good poets. I'm reminded of Sereni's phrase describing Attilio Bertolucci as a "divino egoista," or that other lake poet Wordsworth's "egotistical sublime." Erba's strategy may have been to seem like a minor epigone of Montale's high cultural snobbism, crossed with a quotidian Milanese adaptation of Jules Laforgue's or Guido Gozzano's irony. But, as P. V. Mengaldo has noted, the epigone's self-proclaimed minor status allows for a wide field of divergence and of camouflaged originality. His work has also been compared to that of a Jacques Prévert-and there is a curious similarity between the informality of means which Erba deploys and that of such Beat poets as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of Prévert's most distinguished translators, and just three years older than Erba. Quietly going his own way, borrowing hints for what he has needed from whoever and wherever he likes, while nevertheless sticking to the task of exploring the confines of his own inspiration, Luciano Erba has over more than half a century gone about producing one of the most unusual and original bodies of work in contemporary Italian poetry.
Excerpted from The Greener Meadow by Luciano Erba Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Translator's Preface ix
The Poetry of Luciano Erba 1
from Il nastro di Moebius / The Moebius Strip (1980) 7
Mi sento le guance di cartone / I feel my cheeks as pasteboard 8
from Gradus ad (Early Poems) 11
Pioverà / It Will Rain 12
La giacca a quadri / The Checked Jacket 14
Lontananza da mia madre / Distance from My Mother 16
Unàltra città / Another City 18
from Il male minore / The Lesser Evil (1960) 21
Il cavaliere del garbo / The Gallant Gent 22
Nel parco di Versailles / In the Park at Versailles 24
Sentimento del tempo / Feeling of Time 26
Una stazione climatica / A Health Resort 28
I globuli rossi / The Red Globules 30
Sul Tamigi / On the Thames 32
Gli ireos gialli / The Yellow Orris 34
Il bel paese / The Beautiful Country 36
Lombardo-Veneto / Lombard-Veneto 38
Dal dottor K / With Doctor K 40
Undecided / Undecided 42
Senza risposta / Without Reply 44
La Grande Jeanne / La Grande Jeanne 46
Don Giovanni / Don Juan 48
Un'equazione di primo grado / A First-Degree Equation 50
Terra e mare / Land and Sea 52
Qualcosa / Something 54
Tabula rasa? / Tabula Rasa? 56
Il miraggio / The Mirage 58
Libro d'ore / Book of Hours 60
Caino e le spine / Cain and the Thorns 62
Dignus est intrare / Dignus Est Intrare 64
Ippogrammi & metaippogrammi del pittore Giovanola / Hippograms & Metahippograms of the Painter Giovanola 66
Nella torre d'avorio / In the Ivory Tower 70
Vanitas varietatum / Vanitas Varietatum 72
Molto di là dagli agghiacciati mari / Far beyond the Frozen Seas 74
Lo svagato / The Inattentive 76
Incompatibilità / Incompatibility 80
Super flumina / Super Flumina 82
Aerostatica / Aerostatics 86
Dopo le vacanze / After the Holidays 88
from Il prato più verde /The Greener Meadow (1977) 91
Gli anni quaranta / My Forties 92
Tra spazio e tempo / Between Space and Time 94
Halloween / Halloween 96
Epifania / Epiphany 98
Trasferimento / Relocation 100
Barcellona Baltimora . . . / Barcelona Baltimore . . . 102
Pastello / Pastel 104
Perché non io / Why Not Me 106
Festa delle nazioni / Festival of Nations 108
Le giovani coppie / The Young Couples 110
Nuovi metodi del dottor K / New Methods of Doctor K 112
Mailand / Mailand 114
Idea fissa / Idée Fixe 116
Gli addii / The Goodbyes 118
Sette e mezzo / Seven and a Half 120
from L'ippopotamo / The Hippopotamus (1989) 123
Nel bosco / In the Wood 124
Grafologia di un addio / Graphology of a Goodbye 126
Istria / Istria 128
Il pubblico e il privato / The Public and the Private 130
Il roccolo / The Bird Trap 132
Richiudendo un baule / Closing a Trunk Once More 134
Suite americana / Suite Americana 136
Quartiere Solari / Quartiere Solari 138
Fine delle vacanze / End of the Holidays 140
Abito a trenta metri dal suolo / I Live Thirty Meters from the Ground 142
Se non fosse / If It Weren't 144
Se è tutto qui . . . / If This Is All . . . 146
L'io e il non io / The I and Not-I 148
Quando penso a mia madre / When I Think of My Mother 150
Una visita a Caleppio / A Visit to Caleppio 152
Implosion / Implosion 154
Ponte e città / Bridge and City 156
Filo di ferro / Iron Wire 158
Seguivo il tuo viaggio / I Was Following Your Journey 160
Il tranviere metafisico / The Metaphysical Tramdriver 162
L'ippopotamo / The Hippopotamus 164
La vida es . . . / La Vida Es . . . 166
Irreversibilità / Irreversibility 168
Quale Milano? / Which Milan? 170
Autoritratto / Self-Portrait 172
Motus in fine velocior / Motus in Fine Velocior 174
from L'ipotesi circense / The Circus Hypothesis (1995) 177
Un cosmo qualunque / Any Old Cosmos 178
Autunnale / Autumnal 180
Senza bussola / Without a Compass 182
Genius loci / Genius Loci 184
Off limits for doctor K / Off Limits for Doctor K 186
Questi ultimi anni / These Last Years 188
Soltanto segni? / Only Signs? 190
Dasein / Dasein 192
A scuola di sguardo / École du regard 194
L'ipotesi circense / The Circus Hypothesis 196
Suite ferroviaria / Railway Suite 198
Rincorrendo Vittorio S sulla strada di Zenna / Chasing Vittorio S on the Zenna Road 200
Altrove padano / Po Plain Elsewhere 202
Il circo / The Circus 204
Questo è tempo di haiku / This Is Haiku Time 206
Resta ancora qualcosa / Something Remains Still 208
Scale / Stairs 210
from Nella terra di mezzo / In the Middle Ground (2000) 213
Capodanno a Milano / New Year in Milan 214
Angeli neri / Black Angels 216
Gli incaricati / The Entrusted Ones 218
Vi era quasi una voce / There Was Almost a Voice 220
Il formaggio / The Cheese 222
Quando ce ne andiamo / When We Go Away 224
Linea lombarda / Lombard Line 226
Il dottor K raddoppia / Doctor K Redoubles 228
Dalla terrazza / From the Balcony 230
Vi sono giornate di vento / There Are Windy Days 232
Mani / Hands 234
Vorrei passare alla storia / I Would Like to Enter History 236
from Poesie 1951-2001 / Poems 1951-2001 (2002) 239
Una delle cose / One of the Things 240
from Làltra metà / The Other Half (2004) 243
E pur mi giova la ricordanza / And Yet the Memory Cheers Me 244
Altra seduta dal dottor K / Other Session with Doctor K 246
Quartine del tempo libero / Free-Time Quatrains 248
Homo viator / Homo Viator 250
Uomo pensoso con gatto / Pensive Man with Cat 252
Làltra metà / The Other Half 254
"On Tradition and Discovery" by Luciano Erba 257
What People are Saying About This
For the first time, Peter Robinson makes available in marvelously attuned English translations a generous, judicious, and well-balanced offering of Luciano Erba's poetry from the 1960s to the present. One of the most distinctive voices in Italian poetry of the second half of the twentieth century, Erba merits the attention of English-language readers who will be fortunate to encounter this substantial bilingual collection of his witty, engaging, understated, and refreshingly original verse. The translations are accurate, carefully crafted, and in harmony with the idiom and spirit of the originals.
John P. Welle, University of Notre Dame
The splendid Milanese poet Luciano Erba, represented here by a selection from his entire oeuvre, is a strong Italian modernist largely unknown in America, translated extremely well by Peter Robinson.
Richard Howard, series editor of the "Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation" and author of "Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003"
Erba's ironic, autobiographical, and imaginative verse deserves to be translated into English. Peter Robinson's fluid translations convey the originality and antirhetorical freshness of Erba's intense, pantheistic vision. And his selection introduces readers to the full spectrum of Erba's long career.
Gaetana Marrone, Princeton University