The Metaphysical Tramdriver: Reading Luciano Erba
The Greener Meadow: Selected Poems. Luciano Erba, translated by Peter Robinson. Princeton University Press, 2007. 288 pp. $17.95 / £12.50
with thanks to Poetry Ireland Review, where this piece first appeared.
The poetry traditions of different cultures intersect pretty randomly at the best of times. Poets will, if they can, peer over the fence of language to see what the neighbours are up to, or rely on the services of translators to bring them the news. Sheer happenstance often determines what gets translated: what happens to interest a given translator at a given time, what publisher is prepared to publish the result. Italian poetry has, in fact, been pretty well served in English. Of twentieth century poets, Montale, Ungaretti, Saba, Pavese, Zanzotto, Bertolucci, Luzi are all available in fine recent translations. Catherine O’Brien’s anthology The Green Flame is still an excellent starting point for an exploration of contemporary Italian poetry, as is Jamie McKendrick’s monolingual Faber anthology. But the immediately useful context for Luciano Erba is Peter Robinson and Marcus Perryman’s translations of Vittorio Sereni published in 2006 by the University of Chicago Press. Indeed Peter Robinson tells us that the first words of Erba’s that he read were in a poem by Sereni which cited two lines from his early poem ‘Tabula Rasa?’.
Sereni, like Erba a Milanese poet, was one of the most significant figures of post-war Italian poetry and one of the defining poets of the so-called linea lombarda or Lombard line, a term originating in an anthology edited by Luciano Anceschi in 1952. The linea lombarda is taken to mean a certain kind of lyric sobriety, a poetry of reality, of things, of the quotidian and often marginal; metropolitan in tone and often subject-matter, anti-idealistic or disenchanted, unillusioned. None of these will apply equally to the various poets associated with it and like all such terms it’s more useful as a shorthand than a true analysis. Erba’s own view of the usefulness of movements can be gauged from his poem ‘Linea Lombarda’:
Prejudices, commonplaces I adore
I like to think that there are
always girls with clogs in Holland
that they play the mandolin at Naples
that just a bit anxious you await me
when I change between Lambrate and Garibaldi.
Lambrate and Garibaldi are train stations in Milan; from the romantic clichés of Holland and Naples to the bathos of the poet changing trains is itself an entirely characteristic journey through shades of irony.
Probably the most defining characteristic of Luciano Erba is detachment – less a political position than a function of his sensibility. Fastidious, delicately ironic, he doesn’t fit comfortably into any category. Italian critics have observed the traces of Montale and Sereni but also his distance from the hermeticism of the 40s, as from post-war neorealism. They cite his ‘natural lightness of touch’ and preference for highly concrete details, as well as his subtle and apparently even-tempered music. In his introductory essay Robinson emphasises his anomalous position in the post-war context: ‘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.’
France and French poetry are important to Erba – he has translated Michaux, Ponge, Reverdy and Blaise Cendrars among others. One of his early poems is dedicated to Philippe Jaccottet who, like Erba, is a highly visual and material poet whose poems are, in his translator Derek Mahon’s words ‘recognizably circumstantial, and empirical in their relation to the “real world”’. The earliest poems here display a talent and sensibility already fully formed. Erba strikes his distinctive note and announces the temperament as well as the typical concerns of the work. He seems to have a very secure sense of where he is in relation to the tradition and the contemporary scene – but also he has a clear confidence in his own procedures. Only certain things tempt him into speech and very often they are things which are concealed, submerged, at the margins of experience:
The vignette in the old illustrated bookA typical Erba poem of this period begins in offhand manner, and with a few quick brushstrokes blocks in specific details and a mysterious situation.
never noticed under its tissue paper
all the times I’d turned its pages
revealed to me another city
that climbs and stretches along a river
under a night-blue sky.
From the roofs men look at stars
which seem like kites
women appear on high loggias
while on the far bank of the river
a traveler ties his horse to a tree-trunk:
he too has discovered the city.
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.
The specific details – the half-empty trams, the cream tie, seem to struggle to press some vivid reality on a scene the poet seems to have half vanished from. The dandyish tone seems itself to function as a kind of self-removal. The relationship with the world seems to operate within ironising distances. We are always conscious of the poet arranging his composition and placing himself as a self-aware character in his own dramas. Sometimes the poems present themselves as snatches of conversation offered without preamble or context. They are often as much about what is excluded as what is present, relishing their silences as much as their articulations, and the concrete details can be deceptive – they don’t so much tie us to a world as signal an attitude; they are knowing, subtle, highly conscious of themselves as artifacts and of their relationship with the tradition. The early poems evoke, or seem to evoke, a world of orderly comfort, of panama hats, fathers in white linen suits, cream ties and elaborate hats and women in fresh blouses:
Your white blouse, Carlina,
who ironed it with such care?
( ‘After the Holidays’)
Your latest blouse, Mercedes
of mercerized cotton. . .
It is ‘the beautiful country’ of memory, all iconic detail sufficient unto itself, the world as a series of meticulous friezes. It’s tricky to decipher the precise tone of these poems, and transferring their nuances is probably the single most challenging translation task. Their mixture of irony and longing give them a simultaneous intimacy and distance; their ambition seems to be, as in ‘In the Ivory Tower’ to ‘tell long stories of things/we’ve to leave behind.’ Yet Erba’s manner of telling is as much as about concealment and suggestion:
To tell and describe: medals
clouds tapestries skies
ciphers that are born in the hair
lamed zayin aleph
to D on June morning.
The notes inform us that D is a person and that the hair falling across her forehead somehow evoked the Hebrew letters. It’s a signal, maybe, that telling and describing function as elements in a highly individual erotics of perception.
Peter Robinson includes an essay by Erba at the end of the book, ‘On Tradition and Discovery’, which emphasises his distance from the various established modes of thinking about poetry and ‘isms’ in general and argues for ‘authentic simplicity’ and the ‘importance of objects’:
Whether you’re dealing with enlarged details, or with Gulliverized scales, even if we’d better not speak of gracious miniatures. I recover in this way the vision of adolescence, at least so I believe. It is in the comparison with the little, in the discovery of what had always escaped the attention, that I encounter the most diverse and unexpected surprises of being...
It may well be that Erba’s is ‘a poetry of objects’, as Robinson notes in his translator’s preface and that ‘Like other Milanese poets with whom he is associated, he avoids the dangers of high afflatus by sticking to the details of circumstantial existence’ but it is the manner in which the objects and the circumstances are disposed that really defines the poetry, and the apparent materiality can be as much a hindrance as a benefit for the translator. The objects and the poetry exist in a mind space that is both very distinctive and deeply embedded in the Italian poetic tradition, and the particular weight of the objects or poems can be hard to gauge. And it is a poetry ‘that lives in its intimate expressive detail. ‘The brevity and ‘lightness’ of the poems also pose their own challenges: ‘The translator has such a small canvas on which to effect an equivalent coordination of parts, and to find a recognizably similar lyrical gesture as that performed by the poem itself.’
There is, though, a temperamental affinity between Erba’s mandarin modesty and the expressive range of English. The English poems which Robinson has made out of Erba’s originals sit well in the tradition of English language poetry. The ‘lyrical gesture’ of the Italian seems to work as efficiently and as tellingly in English. This may be due to the tonal range Erba deploys; he is as much a poet of tone as of objects, and to enjoy him you have to tune in to his particular range. Once attuned, there’s much to enjoy. Some of the earlier poems here are as fine as anything he later achieved. One of the most striking is ‘Senza Risposta’ (Without Reply) a love poem or doubt poem, questioning yet still cool and poised:
Ti ha portata novembre. Quanti mesi
dell’anno durerà la dolceamara
vicenda di due sguardi, di due voci?
November has brought you. How many months
of the year will the bitter-sweet
affair of two looks, of two voices endure?
In the original the repetition of the idea of the woman ‘portata da novembre’ has a powerful rhetorical effect maybe not quite replicated in English
che un uomo tra mille e centomila
ma non sei
che una donna portata da novembre
e un mese dona e un altro ci saccheggia.
a man among thousands and hundreds of thousands
but you’re only
a woman that November brings
and one month grants and another plunders from us.
Poems like these don’t seek any other purpose than themselves, and they resist definitive closure. They find their urgency in a kind of spareness and wit. The expedition of ‘Book of Hours’ ends with a separation in the city ‘amid building-site quartz and mica’ ; the poet and his companion return home ‘pursued at our heels by life/as by a friendly dog that catches up with us.’
These early poems were written in the fifties, a period of much experimentation in Italian poetry. Seventeen years separate the publication of Il male minore (The Lesser Evil) and his next collection, Il prato più verde (The Greener Meadow) so it may well be that Erba felt himself very much out of step with the poetic currents of his era – that he was too Frenchified, too middle-class, too much the self-aware ironiser.
In ‘On Tradition and Discovery’ he also affirms his attraction to ‘indefinite space’, ‘undecided regions, uncertain places, non-places’. Something in Erba’s imagination comes alive in these interstitial regions. In ‘Closing a Trunk Once More’ an unused object, a hat found in a trunk and replaced once more, is the impetus. The poet is literally suspended between the worlds of earth and sky in ‘I Live Thirty Metres Above the Ground’, where he imagines what happened in the air he now occupies
crossed over centuries back
perhaps by a flight of herons
with below it all the falconry
of the Torrianis, the Erbas even. . .
The in-betweenness is also a reflection of the middle class identification most explicitly portrayed in ‘Without A Compass’
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, petit bourgeois
running for it. . .
Robinson comments acutely on how a poem like this ‘outflanks the sorts of class-based political criticism that Erba’s work had received at the hands of Franco Fortini and others. Yet nevertheless, "petit bourgeois" 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.’ It’s certainly true that Erba returns again and again to emblems of bourgeois life – the obsessive attentiveness to clothing, the expensive ‘raphael album’ in which his ‘blondest daughter’ draws, or the fine furniture in ‘Relocation’ which offers a solitary consolation to the relocated gazer. When the rest of the city moves for the bars on a foggy evening
you head for the foggy blue sign
of a furniture shop display
where you look at the damask beds
the pettineuses the buffé the contrabuffé
then go home and stand a long time at the mirror.
It’s an equivocal poetry, a poetry of indefiniteness which holds the world at bay, and yet paradoxically this allows the world to press itself all the more powerfully on his senses when he does admit it. Some of the finest of the poems from the 1977 collection Il prato più verde (The Greener Meadow) are the poems written for his daughters, including that collection’s title poem, where all of the details combine to a form a kind of incantatory naming, as if the act of naming, of marshalling the evidence of the real could amount to a spell against disenchantment or metaphysical despair.
There are several other poems in this vein, such as ‘The Goodbyes’, and ‘Seven and a Half’, all economic and controlled gestures making much of the most unexpected and unpromising materials, and all seeming to observe life from a bemused height, and finding their energy in the zone between belief and disbelief. Maybe his most chara
cteristic poem is ‘The Metaphysical Tramdriver’ from his 1989 collection L’ippopotamo (The Hippopotamus):
Sometimes the dream returns where it happens
I’m maneuvring a tram without rails
through fields of potatoes and green figs
the wheels don’t sink in the crops
I avoid bird-scarers and huts
go to meet September, towards October
the passengers are my own dead.
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.
Sure, and so? another voice in excelsis
appears to say.
This ‘Credo, non credo’ defines very well the Erba enterprise, a scepticism which secures itself in the tangible – though it’s entirely typical that for Erba the tangible should be represented by a companionable scar.
The translations are very close to the originals and often deliberately flat – as if the intent is to move them as little as possible into an English language comfort zone. They very much defer to the originals on the left hand pages, and probably assume the readers will direct themselves to those. This might explain a certain awkwardness of phrasing sometimes where the English leans a bit too heavily on the Italian and the transition from poem in Italian to poem in English doesn’t full come off. In this sense the best way to enjoy this selection is stereophonically, moving from the Italian to the English and back again. The closeness is Robinson’s stated aim in his ‘Translator’s Preface’ : ‘I prefer translations that stick as closely as to their originals as possible, but which nevertheless aim to read as poems in their new language.’ More often than not he succeeds very well in finding an ‘equivalent gesture’ in English for what Erba does in his own language. He gives us a body of intriguing and challenging work that adds considerably to our sense of the tonal range of post-war Italian poetry.