GIORGIO LINGUAGLOSSA

Three Stills

in the Frame

Selected Poems 1986 –2014

Translated by Steven Grieco

Giorgio LinguaglossaPREFACE - What Yeats once said about Eliot could be extended to Giorgio Linguaglossa today, and could be further extended to the best modern poetry: “Eliot has produced his great effects upon his generation because he has described men and women that get out of the bed or into it from mere habit; in describing this life that has lost at heart his own art seems grey, cold, dry. He is an Alexander Pope working without apparent imagination, producing his effects by a rejection of all rhythms and metaphors used by more popular romantics rather than by the discovery of his own, this rejection giving his work an unexaggerated plainness that has the effect of novelty.” Giorgio Linguaglossa is in some ways the least Italian and most European poet to have come out of the poetic tradition of his country. Born, as he likes to say, in Constantinople, he has lived in Rome all his life—the two Capitals of the Roman Empire. Two decadences coexist inside him: the Roman and the Constantinopolite, a sense of the decadence of the Western Empire and the new paganism; the late Empire of present-day Rome, with its parties, orgies and corruption; his contempt for the men in power and his cult of Aphrodite; entertaining no hope, yet feeling no despair. Hence the devilish equanimity of his universe peopled with hunchback angels, crippled birds, demons and false angels like Sterchael, philosophers like Carneades who are unable to explain themselves, and emperors like Constantine who lie. But there are also female figures of striking beauty: Enceladon, Beltegeuse, Marlene, the masked Venetian lady, the girl with the pearl earring, and then lots of black humour scattered all around. His genealogical tree is quickly summed up: Mandel’stam, Eliot, Brodskij, Milosz, Herbert, Tranströmer, right down to Adam Zagajevski. This is his ideal constellation. Inside it, Linguaglossa has for the past thirty years cultivated a poetic discourse which is unparalleled in the Italian Novecento tradition. Using a medium-level, almost colloquial language, the poet moves from the harmony of the grand style to the idiom of the populace. Rome is still the pagan city of the ancient plebeians, with their tribunes and Menenius Agrippas, the intriguers and lackeys of Europe’s most corrupt nation. A poet like Linguaglossa could only have appeared in Italy—a country that lost the second world war and has since descended into moral and institutional decadence, declining politically, economically and spiritually as well. Rome’s decadence and the insouciance of its citizens are the metaphor and leitmotif 11 of his poetry, a poetry that can only live inside the alcove of that decadence and corruption, from which it draws its nourishment and raison d’être. “Three Stills in the Frame,” the poem that gives its name to this anthology, is probably the one poem which, even metrically speaking, “breaks” the tradition of 20th century Italian poetry. Here the metre is bent to the demands of the images and metaphors, literally warping under their force of gravity. This is exactly opposite to the experience of most other Italian poets in the late 20th century, who have cultivated a petty bourgeois “vernacular” style and used this to focus on purely private issues and fleeting, quotidian occasions—an intimate diary produced in the immediate now for the immediate now. Linguaglossa on the contrary opts for a poetry that turns the present into a launchpad of the future: a Dantesque poetry, constructed out of fragments of images and metaphors, absolutely felicitous in terms of expression. To heal the fragmented, this is Linguaglossa’s intention. A daring, almost impossible project. His poem “Three Stills in the Frame” starts in the 1930s, before his parents have met, and before the poet’s physical conception. The next stanza presents a picture of his parents in the 1940s, casually taken by a photographer in a street in Rome. The poem is like a ball of wool disentangling, it starts from a single point and branches out to embrace the full spectrum of 20th century Italian and European history in a dramatic crescendo that takes on epic overtones at the close, when we see the poet lying on his deathbed. “Three Stills” took twenty years to complete, and looks much like the most daring poem to have been written in Italian since Montale. In its construction, Linguaglossa applies the principle that there are no synonyms in poetry and that metaphors are transferrable and translatable from one language to another, moving from poem to poem with only minor changes; that poetry is more experience than meaning, or better that multiple and dissimilar meanings linked through inference and inherent sense yield an experience of meaning that goes beyond the poet and becomes everybody’s experience, a collective experience, a heritage belonging to the transnational community and to Language itself. Poetry communicates before it is understood, its force de frappe derives from the constellations of experience it expresses. “His poetry has the two marks of ‘modernist’ work, the liveliness that comes from topicality and the difficulty that comes from intellectual abstruseness. The topical and the intellectual, the lively and the difficult, these are effects of modernist work.” The metaphysical character of Linguaglossa’s work is extremely clear: not for nothing did he write the Manifesto of the New Metaphysical Poetry in 1995, placing himself in diametrical opposition to the Italian poetic practice 12 of those years. And this is also why indirection, emotional restraint, metaphor and antithetical metaphor (catachresis), all have an important role in his versification. Similarly, the final synthetic summa which integrates all the poetic detail into one whole, in Linguaglossa is almost always left out, given that it already peeps out of the detail and yet never gives itself away entirely. It requires no platform, indeed the reader is expected to seek it out for himself and recognize it for what it is. It is the human condition in our late modern times that Linguaglossa has at heart. As he says: “poetry is only a tool (a highly sophisticated one) to detect how many uranium and cesium isotopes inhabit the atmosphere (biosphere) of our linguistic environment. Given that in our times democracy loudly proclaims all the arts to be equal—equally non-essential, and non-essential because they’re all decorative—it follows that decorativism as a tendency is the sloping plane of all art today. It becomes a problem even only to discuss art in our “real” global media village, which only peddles the dissemination of the ‘aesthetic sense,’ since we have lost touch even with this concept. Not to mention the fact that an art without style—as the practice of poetry shows us today—finds its way back to the ‘aesthetic sense’ through the service door (certainly not the main door). I would say that it is precisely an art without style that has a need for this sort of peddling. For what is the ‘aesthetic sense’ if not a ‘service’ which in our Western European democracies architecture and design bestow as a favour on the other arts? Although it may be true that all philosophies that expound on an art without style don’t know what they’re doing (since they’re working on the euthanasia of freedom), it is equally true that such art sides unconditionally with the community of servants, proudly upholding the techne of the medallions.” Linguaglossa’s poetic language on the other hand aligns itself unconditionally with freedom. The poet’s task is to work with a language that has been worn to the bone by the media, and is now unusable—non-orientable, like the Möbius strip. The language of poetry per se already comes down to us from someone else’s or something else’s scrap material. And this is truly the specific statute of the language of poetry in our times. It’s as if authenticity were only possible by digesting huge doses of “waste.” Expectation without a future can only reduce itself to an entr’acte, an interlude, an interval of time between two points in an undifferentiated present time. This is how existence is deleted—by suspending it between two points—and here at last we glimpse the true state of the human condition. Linguaglossa’s poetry is no longer derived from any greater order of things, because there is no overarching Reason today that governs the totality of human life, there’s only passivity. 13 Poetry’s task, then, becomes simple: to keep us alert to any sign that we may possibly uplift the human condition. Linguaglossa makes use of the same hinterland Dante Alghieri employs in his Divine Comedy: an endless gallery of characters who act, dream and fight to stay alive. Its power comes from the poet’s understanding that poetry today must rummage in the domain of scrap and rejected materials and snatch up what it can. Any meaningful experience will necessarily inhabit the domain of indistinguishable waste thrown up by History, which itself is sordidly and sarcastically guided by the Angel Achamoth (the angel of History, according to Christian theology). It is clear, then, how Linguaglossa seeks to withstand the apologetic tendencies of European and Western minimalism in our late modern times, going well beyond Western poetry’s surface world—the permanent and undifferentiated multiplicity of directions and stylistic stagnation of the Empire’s Western provinces. Clearly, our present non-style is also a style. Indeed, it is the style of our times: the style of the Beotians and the minions. Perhaps nobody as well as Eugenio Montale understood the issues dealing with the “ectoplasmic” verse in the age of the elephantiasis of styles which European poetry has spawned since the 1970s. Now that we sink further into our late modern times, poetry’s pop mode draws freely on the colloquial ironic style used in both the film industry and the trite cabaret of TV and the Internet, and with this constructs its own obese sense of aesthetic irresponsibility. These brief notes illustrate how Giorgio Linguaglossa is one of the very few European poets today who writes an aesthetically responsible poetry, and dares to take the responsibility of the language he uses. This is why I hope readers will read his work and reflect on its implications.

Andrej Silkin

 

The Soul Looks at the Toad’s Starry Eyes

The soul looks at the toad’s starry eyes.

Silverfish swim upstream.

Green tumefactions of putrefaction shine

on my mother’s mother-of-pearl hands

as they rest on the piano keys.

The black notebook on the dresser,

the poems written in China ink

the black gauze gloves,

the perfume in the silver perfume vial.

It’s the soul wearing no stars that sails

to the round moon.

A fuchsia-colored skirt moves away from the window.

An imperious north wind comes in, its icy forehead

knocks against the cartilage of the universe.

At the piano my mother plays a mother-of-pearl Lied.

In the shadowy courtyard rats nibble

at a corpse’s white flesh.

A sky-blue sister chants

the enchanted lines of Orlando Furioso,

who yearns for lovely Angelica, comes out of Ariosto’s lines

and turns into a black cormorant,

vast-horizoned bird.

“Yes,” says Enceladon from a star:

“Crippled birds fly crookedly off

the branches of trees

flying towards a pale sun.

In their breast

they carry my mother’s star-sickened grief.”

(1986)

 

 

 

Three Stills in the Frame

The 1930s. The cartilage of the stars casts a shadow.

Cities made of wings and backdrops move, while

the characters of the play stand still. A puppet theatre,

a child’s kingdom of fairy tales and the mind. Happiness.

A hunchback boy with wings jumps down from the blossoming

apple tree,

enters my room through the window and says:

“The catalogue of ships is ready:

amongst them is a deck-hand, Homer by name,

he doesn’t know the past because he hasn’t seen the future.”

My father is happy, and my mother is happy, too.

Neither knows about the other. A child yet to be born

runs on the gravel in Piazza Bologna.

A monkey puts on a redingote, patent leather shoes

and a top hat. Blackshirts spread everywhere like worms,

saluting the Duce. Mussolini has declared war on England

and I’m happy not to be there.

 

A photo from the 1950s. My mother is there, looking out over

the edge

of the frame. She’s looking at one of her shirt cuffs. Vertigo.

She makes a gesture as if to avoid (!?) something or someone,

or is she hiding (!?) the ivory cigarette holder in a case.

In the first drawer of the dresser, on the right,

a bundle of letters tied together with a blue ribbon.

On top of the dresser, a vase with the face of a Moor, a white

majolica mask,

the powder-compact without the powder, the silver propeller

pencil, 

 

the little blue-flowered enamel box, cameos with ivory faces

facing left,

the perfume bottle without the perfume, the silver hair clip,

black gauze gloves,

silver stockings impalpable as a butterfly’s wings.

The looking glass in the purse blackened by the smoke of bombs.

A letter has arrived, my mother opens it: it’s me writing:

“Carthage has been razed to the ground. I’m coming home soon,

the war is over.”

Shadows embrace inside a dusty mirror,

ice-cold winds kiss in a pond.

Anonymous has taken on full citizenship. Its speakers

talk on the radio with a polished eloquence.

 

The 1950s. Snow falls outside the window.

A child watches the snow from behind the glass panes,

his cobbler father hammers the nails on the anvil,

the hydrochloric acid burns a groove in my mother’s velvet dress,

a nymph plays a flute for the goldfinch on a branch

of the strawberry tree. A music box chimes,

on the window sill a red geranium glows in the majolica vase,

a flash of lightning lights up the bread and wine on the table,

a white-maned horse gallops on the beach

in front of a stormy sea.

And I wonder: “the stormy sea, my mother,

the white-maned horse, the bread and wine on the table—what

do they mean?”

A yellow butterfly flits over a cyrrhus-thronged sea.

 

Dawn’s grey garnison lays down its greenish uniform on the city.

Somewhere on the gravel in Piazza Winckelmann

is a merry-go-round with hobby horses, a red dragon,

a blue-turbanned Moor with a sabre in his hand.

The toy car with treadles.

 

Now the platform starts turning, silvery bells tinkle:

ring-around-a-rosy! Everything moves counterclockwise

and yet lies still, like inside amber a million years old.

A lantern in the dark garden goes out.

The creaking, lit-up carousel remains.

 

A hotel room. A seaside resort. Sea, blue sky, Canary palms.

A red clock on the tower.

The hands point to the stillness of time.

A great iron gate with pointed stakes.

Beyond, overgrown kitchen gardens. I decide to go in. I go in.

A row of snow-white columns jutting out onto a steep

staircase descending in the darkness.

“It’s the Gate to Hell,” I think, in a muddled way,

and I’m frightened. The penetralia have bricked-up

windows and doors, lots of metal doors.

I open one of them.

A wide open window, an iron railing outside: beyond is the sea,

a ray of sunlight comes in through the shutters.

A naked woman sings in front of the sea.

A figure, seen from behind, is looking out of the window,

playing the violin. Gouaches découpées run along the skyline.

The easel and the painter are outside the canvas:

we don’t see him, but we know he’s there.

 

A photo from the 1940s.

My father, wearing an Italian Army uniform.

My mother stands beside him. Her face looks at itself in the

mirror

(the one blackened by bombshells) and from the darkness speaks

to the moon which poses for a picture,

has wavy hair.

They walk down a street in Rome as if worried and out of breath:

who or what are they running from?

 

“Where are they going,” I wonder, “and why in such a rush?”

How many years have passed? What is outside

the frame, on the left of the photo?

What is outside, on the right of the photo?

A window looking out on a starlit sky. Clothed in a shadow,

night enters the room. A maid searches for something in a chest,

follows instructions given by a lady on the right.

In the foreground the Venus of Urbino lies naked on the bed,

one hand on her crotch, facing us who are on the outside

looking at Titian’s painting.

The curtain takes one step back, Harlequin stumbles,

a winged putto shoots an arrow from his bow,

another putto dips his hand into the water

inside the sarcophagus. They look at the photo.

A still: the tobacco counter, Paternò.

My mother sells cigarettes to patrons,

turns the key in the lock, closes the door,

tosses the key into a jewel box, takes the velvet dress along with

her.

Now the big house in the orange grove speaks.

The sky is blue and the sun shines quietly.

We rewind the tape of time. 1945. Russia.

A sheet of snow. A submachine gun firing in the snowstorm.

The periscope turns, capturing space,

memories speak a foreign language,

they go hunting for souls that turn into shadows.

A white flag comes alive over the sea.

 

Las Meniñas: here on the left is the Infanta Marguerita in

crinoline

with solicitous valets, ladies-in-waiting and the dwarf, the Italian

Nicola Pertusato, who turns and looks at us.

Behind Velazquez an intruder eavesdrops at the door.

The comedy of looks is the drama of errors

 

(or is it the farce of errors).

The observer’s glance burgles through a keyhole,

depth breaking in, divisibility of the visible.

Living for years against oneself, mixing wisdom and idiocy,

watching from behind thick windowpanes

Denmark’s sad prince coming in with hesitant steps.

“Is this my theatre?” “Yes, it is, Sire, and you’re being asked

to act.”

A still from the 1900s.

White statues move up and down the escalators,

the veranda hosts the cock’s crow, and the sun

sets time and again over the blue sea.

My mother quickly packs her bag, she has to go far away,

she has to reach the open sea, westward, eastward,

Constantinople, Samarkand, beyond the meridian of Greenwich,

what difference does it make.

Kokoshka uses strong colors to paint the Colosseum,

Bach teaches liturgy in a country parish

and Rembrandt on the easel depicts my father seen from behind.

Fragments from a headlong flight.

 

A frame opens up. Palazzo Medici Riccardi, the Magi Chapel.

On the western wall the Magi on horseback wear striped cloaks.

The painter, Benozzo Gozzoli, paints a goldfinch on a branch of

the strawberry tree.

On the left, a window opens inside the frame: Venice.

The Rialto bridge. A crystal lady

wears blue silk crinoline, smiles, turns

in my direction—I, who am born in the future.

She feverishly waves her fan

as she strolls amid the lions in St. Mark’s Square.

City of lace, glass lagoon.

A white majolica mask hides her face.

On her right, a page in light-blue striped livery

 

carries on his shoulder a monkey who moves his tail and shouts;

a cicisbeo with a powdered wig makes a bow

she stops him with an awkward gesture. How beautiful she is!

The lady’s white crinoline lifts the darkness,

becomes translucent, light as a ball of feathers.

Another window opens in the second frame—

a yellow butterfly wings up from her cheekbone

vanishing on the other side of her forehead, outside the frame.

 

The third frame in my mind.

My mother as a little girl. Vast orange and lemon groves. Sicily.

I search in the second drawer of the dresser:

an inkwell, china ink, sky-blue ricepaper,

a fountain pen with a golden nib, knick-knacks, a photo:

my mother with her partner in the 1950s. Rome.

The painter’s atelier: again Titian is depicting sacred and profane

love.

My mother, the 18th century Venetian lady

with a face of white majolica, the translucent crinoline,

my father wearing an Italian Army uniform. What does it mean?

Why all this?

Is it a connect or a disconnect?

A seam, or its unseaming?

A leap or a scar? Fourth frame, fifth, sixth frames in my mind.

Rome, a window on the courtyard. 1954.

What century falls in this courtyard?

Piazza Bologna, the tricycle, the little boy runs around the

building.

Via Lorenzo il Magnifico, 7.

My cobbler father’s workshop

with the crocodile skin in the window.

Mr. Anonymous, in a dark suit, enters the shop.

“You have a beautiful view here,” he says.

 

“He’s so well dressed,” I think.

“We have a lovely panorama,” I reply.

Turning abruptly, my interlocutor says:

“Are you staying here this evening, sir?”

My mother opens the window wide. “Is it Spring?”

Is she just wondering, or asking the mysterious person?

Meanwhile, Titian starts packing his bags upstairs.

Venice reaches the open sea, grows distant,

wears a white mask, becomes unrecognizable.

I blurt out: “Your Majesty, do you order me to stay here?”

But Anonymous turns to the window open onto the sea.

“This morning Mr. Posterius got hurt—

he pricked his finger touching the stem of a rose,” says Titian.

“Anonymous has gone out on a full moon night,”

(“Going where?” I wonder)

“Thieves have broken into the shop of fragile crystals,

and Benozzo is still painting the goldfinch perching on a

strawberry tree.”

“Is that all?”

“That’s all, nothing else.”

A crystal door, the Lady in crinoline turns the door knob.

A scent of vanilla, face powder and talcum powder,

a tetralogy of mirrors on the four walls.

Is the Venetian lady from the 18th century my mother?

The century of enlightenment and tolerance?

 

A yellow drawing room.

Chancellor Von Müller, the trusty Eckermann and his mistress

Charlotte von Stein

at the dying poet’s bedside.

An icy wind blows down from the snow mountains.

From a side door, in front of the mirror, enter a gentleman

with a flourish, powdered and dressed in black.

He moves jerkily, with stiff, frozen movements,

 

dispensing maxims on etiquette, bon tons, idioms

and cheap prophecies.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the performance is over. Curtain.”

(1992–2013)

 

 

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