March 2013

Josh Zajdman


The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry: An Anthology edited by Geoffrey Brock

Anthologies can be a tricky business. Omissions tend to be discussed more often than contents. The editorial hand can be absent, have a light touch, or painfully overbearing. Mathematically, it seems like readers are bound to be irresponsive to some of the material, or displeased with its presentation, regardless of their interest in the subject. The fact that The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry is one of the greatest reading experiences I've had, and not just as an anthology, is a testament to its editor and translator, Geoffrey Brock. With this luscious tome, Brock has offered anyone with even a modicum of interest in Italian literature, culture and history, the rare and wonderful opportunity to immerse oneself in toto. He has so deftly and intelligently edited these 700-odd pages. To begin with, though Brock is assuredly less responsible for this, the book is an aesthetic beauty in itself. However, it's the sheer variety and depth of its contents, which are of course his department, that are the real treasures.

Brock's introduction to the volume is captivating and considers Italy from a range of angles mirrored in the poetry to follow. These include but aren't limited to geography, social custom, gender, meter form, history (its presence or absence), religion, and, naturally, politics (their presence, overt or otherwise). Beginning before Dante and Petrarch, Brock gives a fascinating look into the progression of forms and subjects of interest in Italian Poetry. Slowly and subtly, but not overwhelmingly, he impresses on the reader the staggering variety of poetry produced during the twentieth century, one of Italy's most complex but productive periods. Along the way, he outlines the history of poetic movements, or "the famous Italian penchant for taxonomy," and the growing importance for poets to adhere or break from these.

Within the first decade of the twentieth century, Italian poets had segued from crepuscularism ("less a movement than a pathology") to Futurism. "In 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published The Futurist Manifesto, a seismic event... indeed, the manifesto itself might be considered the movement's highest poetic achievement." Regardless, the manifesto "had a profound influence on very subsequent European and American avant-garde movement, in addition to serving as a much needed shock to Italian poetry of the day." Marinetti's job was to function more as a gatekeeper. "He had flung open the doors too the future, creating a world in which almost anything seemed possible -- except going backward." As the cloud of war settled over Italy, that was a sheer impossibility.

Between both wars were regular "splintering[s] of the literary landscape" and rampant politicization of poetry, with a swath of fascinating responses both celebrating and denigrating Fascism and its rise. Brock has set up the volume with a comprehensive but un-distracting framework. As a result, an attentive reader can easily trace these developments and their connection to Italy's complexities and ever-changing sentiments. Of particular value, as outlined in "Two Tunnels: A Note on Translation," is Brock's terrific decision to have the poems translated by a handful of translators instead of just one. "I have chosen in most cases to represent individual poets with multiple translators, a choice that places certain demands on you, dear reader: namely that you try to hear your way through the varied voices of different translators to the original voice that lies beyond them." As one moves from poet-to-poet and begins tracing the progressions, the careful reader adapts to the voice of the translator as well and can sometimes pick them out. This enriches the reading and, in no way, detracts from it.

Of particular joy is the astounding number of poets. For every Saba, Montale and D'Annunzio, there are others like Signoribus, Sanguinette, Pennati, Fiori and Frasca who are represented. We readers are better for it. As the anthology includes a community of poets, it's hard not to wish for a community of readers to share the experince with. There are such depths of despair. Like in Alfonso Gatto's harrowing poem "Anniversary," written two years after World War II and translated beautifully by Giovanni Pontiero.

Oh, Europe frozen to her heart
will never again grow warm: alone with the dead
who love her eternally, she will be white
without boundaries, united by the snow.

Or the whacked out beauty and delight of Alda Merini's "Seven Aphorisms."

Every man is a friend
to his own

I never speak
when I am not
turned on.

The gun
I point at my head
Is called poetry.

Yet, it was the last couple of  lines of the last poem in the book,  Gabriele Frasca's "Ill-Belated Oar," which I found most affecting after such a marvelous and personal journey: "it ends up that you're there, / standing still, at the door, and it ends up."

And what a place to be.

The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry: An Anthology edited by Geoffrey Brock
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374533687
720 pages