“Lightness moved things”: Opening the Windows of the Translator’s Identity
by John Taylor
Above all, there is a word that appears now and then in Calogero’s poetry: “lievità.”
The labor of translation sometimes leaves traces in my own writing or in my thinking about questions related to writing. For some of the poets and writers whom I have translated (Elias Papadimitrakopoulos, Philippe Jaccottet, Pierre-Albert Jourdan, Pierre Chappuis, José-Flore Tappy and, recently, Franca Mancinelli), I can detect in my writing the benefits of an implicit or explicit dialogue. At the beginning of my work on foreign texts for which I usually feel immediate affinities yet which necessarily remain “other” because I am not the author, I might not be entirely aware of this phenomenon of “permeability,” of this “welcome” that takes place inside me and goes beyond the act of opening a door to a stranger. Later, sometimes years after I have moved onto other projects, I find myself adopting in my own writing a literary form with which I had never experimented, or delving once again into a theme which I had not sufficiently pursued, or daring to take a syntactic liberty that is unusual in English, or employing words that were not in my active vocabulary until I had used them to render terms in the foreign language. Translation enables the translator to open the windows of his identity, to unlock his identity — and an “open identity” is, by the way, a concept about which I have begun to think often because of my discussions with Franca Mancinelli while I translate her poems.
And Lorenzo Calogero? When I began translating his poetry in 2012, it was only after working through the difficulties of the Italian texts and attempting to decipher the deeper implications of Calogero’s vision that I was able to understand more precisely what had spontaneously fascinated me when I first hunted down his poetry in a bookshop in Florence. As in some of my own poems, Calogero aspires for something out of reach, beyond a threshold that sometimes seems crossable but very probably is not. Indeed, he envisions a state of being that would include a transcendent union with an “Other” who, in his case, might be a beloved woman or the “other half” of his divided self. Moreover, in his later years especially, Calogero, like me, shows a predilection for fragmentary forms, that is, for a poetry that seeks to remain open, to present perhaps a fundamental ambiguity or an unavoidable polysemy, and thereby strives to reflect a certain immediacy or proximity to thoughts, feelings and images as they emerge in the mind.
Above all, there is a word that appears now and then in Calogero’s poetry: “lievità.” When I was translating his poetry, the English equivalent of the word — “lightness” in most cases, but also sometimes “slightness” or even “gentleness” — was not really one of “my words.” Now nearly a decade later, I still hear the word “lightness” every time that I think of the author of As in Diptychs. One of his poems in that book notably begins: “La lievità commosse le cose” (“Lightness moved things”). The line still spellbinds me. Calogero seems to listen to the last line of Il Paradiso—”The love that moves the sun and the other stars”—and offer a variant more appropriate to his experience, to his sensibility. A more sober or austere variant in which love becomes lightness and the sun and the stars become “things,” any “thing,” a more abstract term whose metaphorical extensions in everyday language can indicate “more” than strictly material things, such as the events and phenomena that we experience. In his mind, this mysterious “lightness” has the ability to move things, to give emotion to them. It is a kind of primum mobile. Could Being be like this? The cosmos? Human life? I don’t know the answer, but the line encourages me to keep asking.
Without appealing to Christian metaphysics but otherwise like Dante in this specific case, Calogero imagines a cosmos that is constituted of more than mere matter, a cosmos that is (or at least that sometimes can be) ruled by more than mere material determinism: by mathematics, physics, biochemistry, and the like. A “lightness” is at work in our midst, at least now and then. In rare privileged moments, perhaps we can perceive it. In his poem, Calogero continues: “Yet inside a leaf in the gardens, / appearing late, gradually becoming opaque, was the grand nakedness of being” (“Pure appariva tardivamente / nei giardini entro una foglia / una somma nudità dell’essere / a poco a poco opaca che si fa nostra”).
Experiencing this “lightness” was a central goal for him. Many of his poems struggle with obstacles, with impossibilities, with discouragement, but then occur slight yet significant miracles that enable him to glimpse or feel something “lighter.” For example, in “Mildness or lightness” (As in Diptychs), he sets off his bitterness against a “lightness of things” that is a real possibility, not a “fairy tale”:
The mildness or lightness of things responds
and are equally divided twin souls
no longer like fairy tales where I
behave so bitterly, nimble,
as if I were the strongest or perhaps
I no longer know
how joy can be granted gently, fraternally
(Dolcezza o lievità di cose risponde
e sono alme parti uguali divise
non più come favole, dove io
mi comporto così amaramente
agevole come il più forte, o forse
non so più come si concede
lievemente una gioia e fraternamente).
Similarly, in one of his last poems, “CLIV” (The Villa Nuccia Notebooks), he attributes “lightness” to a “wing” falling in a dream, an oneiric event after which “there’s dancing, / dreaming” (“si danza, / ora si sogna”). In other poems, this “lightness” is like a realm across a threshold or border. In “If the echo liable at borders” (Miserly in your Thought), for instance, he passes “into a shadowy, fleshy, rare / line-signing lightness” (“dentro una lievità ombrosa, carnosa / canora rara di linee”). And in another late poem (“XXXV,” The Villa Nuccia Notebooks), he envisions a feminine “you” in this way:
You had the lightness of your scattered
eyelashes. Perhaps a name, a murmur
would point at you as you sat on a chair,
under the beech trees, dusky, distracted
by your own
(Tu avevi la lievità delle tue ciglia
sparse. Forse un nome, un murmure,
soleva additarti — tu seduta sopra una sedia,
sotto I grandi faggi, vespertine — e ti distrasse
dalla tua chiarità
che si ritrasse).
Much more could be said about this search for “lightness,” but let me come back to the poem “Lightness moved things.” For nearly ten years now, it has accompanied me. It encourages me to ponder and especially to “feel” in my body issues involving ontology, metaphysics, cosmology and the earth sciences—but it also serves as a reminder, even a caveat. At the end of the poem, after evoking “lightness” and “a grand nakedness of being,” Calogero distinguishes two kinds of “breath,” a real one and a false and thus deceiving one:
and one breath was real,
the other false, stirred by the veil
of memory in a shiver
(e un fiato era vero
uno era finto smosso dal velo
della memoria in un brivido
che ti ricorda).
As to our desire for transcendence, for “something more” than mere matter, than the material world, or, at the minimum, for a human love which would provide real joys along with the exhilarating impression that it was moving the sun and the stars, the poet knew that illusions lurk, stalking our vulnerabilities, especially when we reminiscence about what has been or what might have been. By indicating these illusions, Calogero engages this poem in another direction. He tells us to focus on the present, fleeting as it is. The last lines of the poem remind us to keep all our senses open, to keep our identity open, to try to capture and experience “the true breath,” not in the vanished past but rather in this present which—we must admit (and to quote another poem by Calogero, from But This)—is a “fugitive image” (“immagine fuggitiva”).
This essay initially appeared, in Italian, in the series Sud I poeti (volume 11, edited by Bonifacio Vicenzi, Macabor Editore, 2022). The quotations are taken from Lorenzo Calogero’s An Orchid Shining in the Hand: Selected Poems 1932-1960 (Chelsea Editions, 2015). John Taylor was awarded the 2013 Raiziss-de Palchi Fellowship by the Academy of American Poets for his project to translate the poems of Lorenzo Calogero.
John Taylor’s most recent translations are, from the Italian, Franca Mancinelli’s The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose 2008-2021 (The Bitter Oleander Press) and, from the French, José-Flore Tappy’s Trás-os-Montes: Poems (The MadHat Press). His most recent personal collections of poetry and short prose are Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees (The Bitter Oleander Press), a “double book” co-authored with the Swiss poet Pierre Chappuis, A Notebook of Clouds & A Notebook of Ridges (The Fortnightly Review Press), and Transizioni (LYRIKS Editore), a bilingual English-Italian collection of poems, translated by Marco Morello, with critical notes by Franca Mancinelli and Tommaso Di Dio, and illustrations by the Greek artist Alekos Fassianos.
English translation originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, August 16, 2022