[271pp, $17.95,
Princeton University Press]

This is a bilingual (Italian and English) collection. The translator, Peter Robinson, says in his preface that he prefers ‘translations that stick as close to their originals as possible, but which nevertheless aim to read as poems in their new language’. Is there any other kind of worthwhile translation? This seemingly modest declaration hardly acknowledges the amount of effort and frustration that must go into achieving the aim that lies behind it. As far as I am able to judge (this is not as far as I’d like it to be; let’s not kid ourselves) Robinson has had a fair stab at bringing Luciano Erba’s poetry to an Anglophone readership.

These are ‘selected’ poems, covering the period from the early fifties through to just a few years ago, a period of more than half-a-century. Luciano Erba, born in the Milan of 1922, has been writing poetry (a great deal of it with a strongly autobiographical element) for a long time. Peter Robinson makes sure that his comfort with words shines through in either language.

What I like about Erba’s poetry, probably more than anything else, is that he always resists the temptation to say a word more than is strictly necessary. Many poets, of course, display commendable brevity, but Erba has elevated  this to an art form through all of those fifty years. Many of the poems comprise a single stanza of no more than ten lines. Take ‘The Young Couples’ / ‘Le Giovani Coppie’, from the title collection The Greener Meadow / Il prato più verde
(1977). I’m going to quote the translated version in full:

     The young couples of the postwar years
     would lunch in triangular spaces
     of apartments near the fair
     the windows had rings on their curtains
     the furniture was linear, with hardly any books
     the guest who brought Chianti
     we drank from green glass tumblers
     was the first Sicilian I’d ever met
     us, we were his model of development.

What more is needed to create a picture of life still carrying on in post-war Italy? The opening of the original of this poem, incidentally, shows just what an ambitious target is concealed by Peter Robinson’s modest words: ‘Le giovani coppie del dopoguerra / pranzavano in spazi triangolari / in appartamenti vicini alla fiera’.

In his 1995 collection, The Circus Hypothesis / L’ipotesi circense
, a sense of the heaviness of age sometimes creeps in and Erba asks questions like ‘am I to the east of my wound / or to the south of my death?’ (in ‘Without a Compass’ / ‘Senza Bussola’) and says things like ‘These last years given as a bonus / at times have the faintly “off” taste’ (in ‘These Last Years’ / ‘Questi Ultimi Anni’, but even in this collection he has the spirit to end the short poem ‘Genius Loci’ (about a hotel stay for a conference)  with the lines ‘I had been wanting a casual affair / or to die like a travelling salesman’.

The poetry is still fresh in the last collection featured in this book, ‘The Other Half / L’altra metà’ (2004). One of the ‘Free-time Quatrains’ / ‘Quartine Del Tiempo Libero’ that would stick in the minds of most people reads ‘Stretched out on a torrent’s brink / to be distracted seeing the glitter / of a countryman grinding his scythe / on the hillside’s highest terrace.’ Or:

     Disteso in riva a un torrente
     distrarmi al vedere il luccichìo
     del contadino che affila la falce
     sul ripiano più alto del pendìo.  

‘Le Grande Jeanne’, from The Lesser Evil / Il male minore
(1960), is by far the most memorable poem for me despite, or perhaps because of, its unvarnished simplicity. As the opening makes clear, Jeanne is a wartime prostitute: ‘It made no difference to la Grande Jeanne / whether they were English or French / so long as they had hands / the way she liked them’. But the short final stanza tells us that things could have been different if only circumstances were: ‘At heart / la Grande Jeanne would have liked / to become a respectable lady / she had a hat already / broad, blue, and with three turns of tulle.’

Yes, I confess that I had to look up ‘tulle’ to confirm it was what it sounded like: ‘fine silk etc. net used  for veils and dresses’. I don’t know whether la Grande Jeanne ever became a fine lady with a fine hat in later life, but Erba’s poem means that she doesn’t just remain a dockside working girl in the dark year of 1943.    

              © Raymond Humphreys 2007