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A sunlit page: Pesto & poets—the landscape of Eugenio Montale’s poetry

  • Published at 07:48 pm August 12th, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:03 pm October 14th, 2017
A sunlit page: Pesto & poets—the landscape of Eugenio Montale’s poetry
In May, I was on the Italian Riviera with family and friends, and visited the rugged, numinous beauty of the Cinque Terre villages clinging against the serrated Ligurian coastline, draped like a stone veil of rainbow hued houses, with pines, bushes of yellow broom and wild flowers breaking through the rocks sprayed by the glinting Mediterranean below. The English Romantics, Byron and Shelley, had once stayed in this region, giving it the title of ‘the Gulf of Poets.’ But it was the half-remembered, revenant words of a celebrated native poet, who had spent thirty ‘distant summers’ in one of the Cinque Terre’s five villages, Monterosso, and written about its ‘deserted noons’ and ‘occluded valleys’ and the lessons learnt from the ‘thundering pages’ of the restless sea, that flit through my mind like the wings of sea gulls.
This celebrated Italian poet, Eugenio Montale, who won the 1975 Nobel Prize ... set off on his own journey, not with seafaring vessels in search of undiscovered lands but with the seascape of Liguria as his personal compass, re-charting the map of the contemporary poetry of Italy
This celebrated Italian poet, Eugenio Montale, who won the 1975 Nobel Prize, came from Genoa, and like another fellow Genovese, Cristoforo Colombo, set off on his own journey, not with seafaring vessels in search of undiscovered lands but with the seascape of Liguria as his personal compass, re-charting the map of the contemporary poetry of Italy. Of all the kinds of poetry I read voraciously, I love best the poetry of nature, of places and moments intensely felt and described. I thus love the poetry of Montale, which reflects the mystical connection with the natural world, especially his early work inspired by the Ligurian landscape. Of course, the Monterosso of today, as also the other villages: Riomaggiore, Corniglia, Manarola and Vernazza, is not the elemental and wild land it used to be during Montale’s youth of the 1920s. He juxtaposed images that were not always beautiful by tourist-brochure conventions, but often harsh and evocative (“that land of searing sun where the air/ clouds over with mosquitos”) against the inner world of his spiritual quest. This often led him, not just to the sea (seen by him sometimes as ‘il palpitare/ lontano di scaglie di mare’ or the distant palpitations/of the scales of the ocean, thus an elusive living creature in the horizon; and at other times addressed intimately as ‘father’) but also the flotsam it washes up to the shore like the bleached bones of the cuttlefish, which became the title of his first collection of poems. *** From the train station at Monterosso’s beach, we walk up the path overlooking the breathtaking bay, and enter the walls of the town. At lunch in a courtyard of pink oleanders and lemon trees, we are overwhelmed by the freshness of the Pesto that Liguria and Genoa are famous for: that poetic paste of fragrant basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and parmiggiano cheese that the commercially packaged confections in my Roman supermarkets can only aspire to be. As the shade of the lemon trees lengthens on the flagstones and we sip our Sorbetto al limone, I think of Montale’s famous lines: ‘… here even we, the poorest, find a fortune/ and it is the scent of lemons ... Montale, however, was not poor. His family owned a summer home here. That villa, unfortunately, is not open to the public, but there is a‘Literary Park for visitors to take guided walks through the terraces leading down to the sea to enjoy the vistas that inspired the poet. We don’t have time for this, so I content myself with rereading one of his famous poems from his first published volume Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish Bones) from 1925. The title ‘Meriggiare, shows how a poet can make a verb out of a time of the day: ‘meriggio’ meaning mid-day. It’s past noon, and the verb implies exactly what I am doing just now: whiling away the torpid hours, just reflecting on the world.   Montale had trained to be a singer, so the complexities and discordant aspects of music and language, of consonance and assonance, and not just the melodic and lyrical nature of word and sound played a huge part in the way Montale employed his poetic language. He created a counter-eloquence to the lushness of Italian poetry that was dominated by the incantatory lyricism of Gabriele D’Annunzio. In this early poem we can taste what Montale created: an astringency not unlike the lemon and sea salt and pesto of this land, producing, despite the structured rhymes and meters, something untamed and gritty, both in the hard sounding words, and in the harsh beauty of his unpredictable images. Having enjoyed the original, I wished my readers could hear the deliberate choppiness and the many onomatopoeic sounds of the Italian: the croak of the merli/blackbirds in the ‘schiocci’ where the ‘ch and cc’s are pronounced as ‘k’, and the hissing ‘frusci’ (pronounced ‘froosh-shi’) of the serpi/snakes’ rustling. I compared the many translations done by scholars of Montale, like Arrowsmith, Galassi, Archer, Young and Bell, but I was still dissatisfied, and created my own version. Still, my translation here of the first verse of ‘Meriggiare’ merely sketches the meaning of what the original paints in aural and visual colour. Meriggiare pallido e assorto /presso un rovente muro d’orto, ascoltare tra i pruni e gli sterpi/schiocchi di merli, frusci di serpi. Whiling away the noon, pale and scattered beside the scorching walls of an orchard, listening among the dry bush of brambles the blackbird’s croak, the snake’s dry rustle ... The rest of the poem describes a summer’s day loud with the jagged screech of cicadas, spent watching red ants file through cracks in the dry earth, and glimpsing afar a heaving sea holding out illusions of liberty. It’s a world suspended between despair and negation on the one hand, and a desire for transcendence and hope on the other. It ends with Montale’s vision of the human condition in a world that’s both a prison and a refuge from Fascism and the looming of the two world wars: a life protected by ‘una muraglia/che ha in cima cocci aguzzi di bottiglia’, or a boundary wall topped with shards of broken bottles. *** Montale wrote reams of poetry on diverse subjects, but his other collections, such as Noon and Shadows, Occasions, The Storm and others, always attest to the fact that he remained a non-conformist and an intensely private person. He worked for ‘Il Corriere della Sera’, was the director of the Gabinetto Vieusseux library in Florence (which ended when he refused to join the Fascist party), and was also a senator for life. It’s time to leave Monterosso. Around me the afternoon is waning, and the sunlight lies at my feet like a drowsing cat. From balconies potted geraniums and laundry wave at me. A waiter rushes to a table near me carrying a pizza slathered green with pesto, the colour of new life. I ponder about Montale’s latter poetry that was decisively pessimistic, and wonder how anyone can be despondent in this charming place? He whispers to me: Maybe only those who want to, become infinite, And, who knows, you can do it; I cannot. I think Montale did manage to embrace infinity with his immortal poetry. I turn for a final look at his first muse, the Mediterranean seascape. ‘Like that circle of cliffs/that seems to unwind/into spider web of clouds,/ so our scorched spirits/in which illusion burns/a fire full of ash are lost in the clear sky/of a single certainty: the light.
Neeman Sobhan is a writer, poet and columnist. She lives in Italy and teaches at the University of Rome. Her published works include a collection of her columns, An Abiding City: Ruminations from Rome (UPL); an anthology of short stories, Piazza Bangladesh (Bengal Publications); a collection of poems, Calligraphy of Wet Leaves (Bengal Lights).