Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The poet quits the party, but does not renounce his spiritual freedom

For a long time, I paid close attention to whomever the Nobel Prize committee awarded the literature prize, especially so when they honored a poet. In the year I graduated high school, the award went to Pablo Neruda. His little book of love poems, translated by W. S. Merwin and published by Penguin, was useful when trying to get serious girls to surrender their sweet hearts. I have gone marking the atlas of your body with crosses of fire. Hard to resist that shite.

But Neruda's fame was problematic in those years when Communism was still taken seriously. The poet died two years after winning the Nobel, just a few days after Chilean President Salvador Allende was murdered by fascists with the backing of the CIA. Nixon and Kissinger were still fucking around in southeast Asia and elsewhere. When I went to college, I found that many of my contemporaries knew of him but did not know his poetry -- a common occurrence when a writer becomes a symbol of resistance against oppression. This was only forty years after his political awakening during the Spanish Civil War, when he hung out with Lorca and Vallejo. His very career was an indictment of American hypocrisy. We supported the jackbooted bastards who ground the poor into dust, all the while singing hosannas of freedom. Revolting youth.

From Neruda I learned that surrender to love meant resistance to oppression. Or vice versa. (I was still a practicing Christian back then.) Years after his death, Neruda showed up in that likable Italian movie Il Postino, once again a helping the boy get the girl.

Four years later, the Italian poet Eugenio Montale won the Nobel. What I knew of him would not have filled a thimble, so I sought out his work and gave myself over to the few poems then available in English. They were sensual, tentative, ruminative, sad, almost defeated. After a cataclysm like the two world wars, human speech had found itself crawling back out of the slime from whence it came. Silences in which one watches/in every fading human shadow/something divine let go.

I knew a little Dante and Petrarch despite growing up on Long Island, and Ezra Pound pushed Guido Cavalcanti on me, but Montale was the first contemporary Italian poet I'd heard of or paid attention to. Such roiling emotion presented with such great restraint, a kind of old world courtliness that one could still see in the aged Italians who sat on their stoops in the early evenings, watching the world darken around them.

In the mid-eighties, Random House published a collection called Otherwise, translated by Jonathan Galassi. I carried it around with me for a while even though it had a remarkably ugly gray and purple cover. I liked the fact that Montale titled his first collection Cuttlefish Bones (Ossi di seppia) and I kept these lines close in my mind for a long time:

“In the future opening ahead/ the mornings are moored (anchored) like boats in the harbor.”

I was in my mid-twenties, at loose ends, wandering around New York, soured on love yet incurably romantic, dutifully yearning for the One True Soul, and I felt desperate to embark on a long voyage. (Any voyage would do except the one I was on.) Would the future ever open, or was I destined to stand on the shore, squinting at the horizon, watching the boats bob on their lines? Walking head down into the wind toward the Montauk lighthouse -- grasses, dunes, a vast impenetrable immensity out there -- I eyed the cold grey-green Atlantic. It was easy to believe that there was nothing but poems, filled with sunflowers, eels, bones, and a longing, like mine, for that which lay just out of reach.

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