Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Reading. Ungaretti.

It began with Ferlinghetti, his poems collected in These Are My Rivers. That title comes from a poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti, I Fiumi, part of which goes I have revisted the ages of my life/These are my rivers, and which is mentioned in Ferlinghetti's epigraph. Those brief phrases haunted me, pulled me in, and I felt that tiny burn at the back of my brain that tells me I am about to fall in love. But I put those thoughts back into some distant corner of my mind and let it alone, for a while. And then I came across a volume of interviews given by Primo Levi, whose own history I was about to fall into, when he references Ungaretti and Montale and Quasimodo as being the three giants of Italian poetry, which was all the encouragement I needed to come back to Ungaretti.

The poet Giuseppe Ungaretti was born in Alexandria, Egypt, where he grew up, and then left for Paris, where he spent a few years before returning to his Italian roots. Upon being drafted into the Italian army, he finds himself at war, the first world war, in the north of Italy, and it is during this time that his early poems, collected in L'Allegria (Joy), were written. He was then not much older than myself, in his "grimy battle clothes," and I feel my heart twist a little as I read his words. Some of the poems are marked with the date and place they were written, a few words laid forth to express all those secret thoughts that must have crowded in his mind.

This, then, is the poem that first drew me to Giuseppe Ungaretti, the words for which I will always love him:

I fiumi (The Rivers) (Cotici, August 16, 1916).

I hang on to this mangled tree
abandoned in this sinkhole
that is listless
as a circus
before or after the show
and watch
the quiet passage
of clouds across the moon

This morning I stretched out
in an urn of water
and rested
like a relic

The flowing Isonzo
smoothed me
like one of its stones

I hoisted up
my sack of bones
and got out of there
like an acrobat
over the water

I crouched
beside my grimy
battle clothes
and like a Bedouin
bent to greet
the sun

This is the Isonzo
and here I recognized myself
more clearly
as a pliant fiber
of the universe

My affliction
is when
I don't believe myself
in harmony

But those hidden
that knead me
freely give
the uncommon

I went back over
the ages
of my life

These are
my rivers

This is the Serchio
where maybe
two millenia of my farming people
and my father and mother
drew their water

This is the Nile
that saw me
born and raised
and burn with unawareness
on the sweeping flatlands

This is the Seine
whithin whose roiling waters
I was mixed again
and came to know myself

These are my rivers
reckoned in the Isonzo

This is my longing for home
that in each one
shines through me
now that it's night
that my life seems
a corolla
of darkness

(The Isonzo river now lies in present-day Slovenia. During the first world war, it ran just inside the Austrian border with Italy. Many battles were fought along this river as the Italian army struggled to cross over and push back the Austro-Hungarian forces; many lives were lost).

Ungaretti, Giuseppe. Selected Poems. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. pp 35-39.

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