Reviewed by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Theme of Farewell and After-Poems is the third book by the contemporary Italian poet Milo De Angelis to appear in translation. A native of Milan, De Angelis was born in 1952. As in previous collections, the capital of Lombardy—with its recurring metaphor of “asphalt”—serves as geographical muse: Roserio (the Luigi Sacco Hospital), Porta Venezia, and neighborhoods such as Bovisasca and Monferrato are the touchstones of De Angelis’s elliptical and galvanic images, timelines, and situational patterns.
In his latest work, though, the poet sets a different task for himself; he writes as if to battle against the failure of words—and feelings—in the aftermath of his wife Giovanna’s untimely death. Two epic-length poems—each published as a standalone book in the Italian, as Tema dell’addio and Quell’andarsene nel buio dei cortili respectively—strongly testify to De Angelis’s struggles with grief and the ghosts that haunt his inner world. Compiled in this bilingual collection with a translation by American poet-critic Susan Stewart and Italian scholar Patrizio Ceccagnoli, these poems are the best reflection to date of Milo De Angelis’s poetic engagements.
What may be most striking about the poems is that, as elegies of a sort, they do not merely strive for catharsis or drown themselves in pathos; they also demonstrate the Italian poet’s larger literary ambition to portray a quasi-mythic world that informs his experience and shapes his manner of expression. Tragedy is also the site of unvarnished truth and contemplation, and poetry—as De Angelis suggests from the outset of “Theme of Farewell/Tema dell’addio”—is where we might “[see] the open secret of a moment.”
Giovanna died in 2003. “Theme of Farewell,” published two years later, has allowed the poet to turn to art to work through his thoughts and feelings during the immediate period of mourning. It contains six sequences — each with seven to ten poems of free verse—with titles plucked out from the broader narrative: “We Will See Sunday,” “Dumb Snow,” “To Find the Vein,” “That Distance of Ours,” “Hotel Artaud,” and “Evening Visits.” Haunting refrains and the frequent use of double negation bring to mind ritualistic chants and incantations. The aches and pains one endures as a helpless witness to his dying beloved are once again made raw and unresolved:
oh, sleep, I said, sleepand yet I was with youand you were not with me.—“To Find the Vein”
The asphalt burned and you were aloneamong the trees of Quarto Oggiaro and the undyinglights of bars and the housesfrom the fifties, balconies and basil,a concert of seedlings and the sea:come back, don’t ever come backhere, in the nostalgia of the living, come back,don’t come back, come back, never, anymore.—“That Distance of Ours”
The “after-poems,” taking up the aftermath of Giovanna’s death, constitute the second sequence, “That Wandering in the Darkness of Courtyards (Quell’andarsene nel buio dei cortili).” By imbuing memories with figurative language, these poems articulate De Angelis’s resistance as a bereaved husband to the vicious relapses of melancholia. In his essay “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud describes melancholia as regressive and precursory of mania. Here, the poet resumes his daily routine as a teacher in a men’s prison as a French literary translator living “in Milan’s great village:” still, he knows the respite from pain is short-lived and deceptive:
The dark was there, in the vertex
of the first fall, it was myself,
this cold that, beyond centuries, speaks to me.
Darkness persists, and an even bleaker pessimism follows when the poet tries surrendering to the pain of his loss: “Destruction, you have made me.” The absoluteness of this conviction is as reverberant as the words themselves. His tone unchanged, De Angelis goes on to confess in more explicit terms, “I could not find / rest or motion,” before returning to his distinct rhythm-driven and image-focused eloquence:
Night leaves the hands,
the irresistible space spreads like wildfire, the space
that seemed to surround
this sheet of paper. The piazza shifts.
There is no circle showing where to stop, no full
name to be chanted on the lips. The apple
gets mixed up with time. Every sentence
turns into a lost line, sign of a time.
—“The Siege’s Ending”
In spite of its autobiographical underpinnings, Milo De Angelis’s writing balances emotional depth and critical discernment without adopting a strictly confessional aesthetic. Since his literary debut with Somiglianze (Resemblances, 1975), his poetic oeuvre is known for its verbal recursion and philosophical tangents. On the other hand, textured velocity—and fluidity— animates his lyricism; his is, in fact, an expansive verbal performance. It meanders through a range of registers “between speech and song”—to paraphrase translator Susan Stewart. Whether in the more gnomic poems or the less inward fragments, this has much to do with the pluralistic nature of the poet’s sense of narrative self. Earlier in his career, he chose to dismiss the authority of a lyric “I” in an eponymous piece, “The Narrator/Il narratore” (translated by Lawrence Venuti)—not by substituting “I” with another pronoun, but instead by challenging the idea that the “I” corresponds to a single, unified, and stable subject:
I too inhabit this revolving door
scouring the classified columns
with paintings to rent, cats given away,
I knock this obtuse cult,
teaching the alphabet with the same imagination
that obscures the other side to me.
Here he marshals an almost vatic tone, which courses through Theme of Farewell and After-Poems. (The poem sequences also reflect the influence of a canzioniere tradition.) The poetic self becomes malleable because it needs to account for a whirl of emotions and the blurring of time-spaces during the grieving process. If identity, as Wallace Stevens wrote, “is the vanishing point of resemblance,” the author has no choice but to deny his appearance in the text in order to assure its survival. Re-enacting the loss, its irreversibility, during the drama of mourning, the effect can be foreign and unearthly:
Where were you? I was waiting for you
in a youthful daze.
The song was chasing your throat,
your absolute coming and going.
(. . .)
Where were you? I was there, I was
in the courtyard that was everything. I was there, nailed
to a vanished existence.
—“You Are Lost”
Stewart’s introduction provides a biographical background with textual clues that complement an intelligent read, without giving away intimacy and intrigue. This is helpful because De Angelis’s work leaves few orienting signposts that point to an anchored, steadfast persona. As if to allude to traces of modernist symbolism and hermeticism inherent in this work, the introduction by itself demonstrates what the poet would evoke in “Alphabet of the Moment/Alfabeto del momento,” the expository section of “Theme of Farewell/Quell’andarsene nel buio dei cortili”:
. . . until here
until the moments that return to understand and remain
imperfect and open to question.
The translation is remarkable and adroit: in each text, de Angelis’s voice is heard in both languages. There is music, and perhaps more—a distance that allows echoes to linger and resonate.
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