I have been going over I Fiumi (The Rivers) again and again in my mind. Those words haunted me when I first caught a glimpse of a few short sentences in the epigraph of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's These Are My Rivers (I have revisited/the ages/of my life/these are/my rivers...). It became something else when I found the poem in its entirety, as I turned the words over and over in my head, as Ungaretti's Isonzo turns over the pebbles in its riverbed. In the trenches of wartime, on the Italian front, he thought of the rivers in his life that led to the moment where he found himself surrounded by war.
On the banks of the Isonzo, as the soldier-poet Ungaretti faces the daily battle against an enemy who was positioned higher than us and who was a hundred times better armed, he thinks of the Nile, which saw him born and raised/and burn with unawareness/on the sweeping flatlands. He thinks of the Serchio, where his ancestors and his own parents drew their water, he remembers the Seine, along whose banks he came to know himself. I turn his words over in my head and think of his rivers, and I come to see that the writers I love most, of which Ungaretti is one, are my own rivers, that some made me, some saved me, all of whom in whose words, as Ungaretti put it (though he was talking about the Seine and the years he spent in Paris, before the war) I was mixed again/and came to know myself.
The poems in the first part of Selected Poems are from his first collection, L'Allegria (Joy), written while he was a soldier in the Italian army during World War I, and in some way, it is these poems I find most compelling, as he reconciles his feelings as a poet and a soldier, his thoughts on life and death. I have never held/so hard/to life, he writes in Vigil, and yet he says, in Italy, that in this your/soldier's uniform/I am at peace/as if it were my father's/cradle. His words give me a feeling of peace, of serenity in the midst of death and destruction; it is almost a surreal sensation.
I was in the presence of death, writes Ungaretti, in the presence of nature, of a nature that I learned to know in a new, terrible way. From the moment I became a man who makes war, it wasn't the idea of killing or being killed that tormented me: I was a man who wanted nothing for himself but a relationship with the absolute, the absolute that was represented by death, not by danger, that was represented by the tragedy that brought man to meet himself in massacre. In my poetry there is no trace of hatred for the enemy, nor for anyone: there is the grip of consciousness of the human condition, of the fraternity of mankind in suffering, of the extreme precariousness of its condition.
Ungaretti, Giuseppe. Selected Poems. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002. pp 35-39, 264, 17, 51.