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The Thoughtful Traveler: On Giampiero Neri’s Poetry

By Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani

Lake Annone in Lombardy, Italy.
Image: Lake Annone in Lombardy, Italy, near to where Giampiero Neri grew up. Wikimedia Commons.

Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani’s translations of Giampiero Neri’s prose-poems appear in the August 2016 issue: There Is No Map: The New Italian(s). Martha and Antonio will speak about their translations at Words Without Borders’s September 20 event in New York City.

Giampiero Neri’s Poesie 1960-2005 (Poems 1960-2005) is a container into which the poet decanted the dramatic experiences of his youth during World War II. Paesaggi Inospiti (Inhospitable Landscapes), published in 2009, is by Neri’s own reckoning the culmination of his work as a poet. This volume was followed in 2012 by Il Professor Fumagalli e Altre Figure (Professor Fumagalli and Other Figures), a collection of brief prose-poems.

In the midst of civil war in Italy and after the murder (most likely by local Partisans) of his father, a Fascist, Neri experienced the ruin of his family. After the war, he worked in a bank for forty years. He accepted his bureaucratic duties as a reasonable burden. His job allowed him to support a wife and two children; it also let him seek and find authenticity through language—which for Neri meant writing poetry. And his professional life separated him from the literary fray, which for the most part he has willingly avoided. He considers himself something of an outsider, a stance inherent in much of his poetry.

The poet is the “viaggiatore pensieroso,” a thoughtful traveler tirelessly revisiting the territory, literal and metaphorical, of his past.

The subjects of Neri’s poetry are the events of World War II, melded with other experiences on the stage of what he calls his “natural theater”: the woods, fields, riverbanks, and hills near Erba, the small town between Milan and Lake Como where he grew up. The poet is the viaggiatore pensieroso, a thoughtful traveler tirelessly revisiting the territory, literal and metaphorical, of his past. In this territory, obscure and complex procedures continually manifest themselves, perceptible only to the patient, attentive observer. And recollections of these workings are acknowledged in the poems as deceptive, even treacherous—for motives, actions, and outcomes are seldom as they seem. Facts themselves turn out to be like dried branches, “cut forever without remedy.” 

Nonetheless, remembering is what the poet must do. It is as natural to him as breathing. He watches and waits; he remembers; he distills. 

Now in his late eighties, Neri has decided to dedicate himself to writing short prose-poems. He began this activity a few years ago, almost for fun, but his work in this realm has become notable. The 2009 judges’ panel for the prestigious Viareggio Prize (for which Neri was shortlisted) cited him as a model for contemporary Italian poets: “Neri has become for many younger poets a true and real master, due to the impeccable limpidness of his style and his classical simplicity.”

This assessment seems all the more valid in light of Il Professor Fumagalli e Altre Figure. In earlier years Neri imagined (knowing it cannot exist) a utopian golden age in which perhaps we could do without language—that poisoned fruit, as he referred to it. And yet, ever curious, he now explores the possibilities of prose, bringing his characteristically oblique and light touch to the task. A mysterious transformation unfolds in Neri’s poetry and prose alike: fragments of memory and perception mutate, are refined and condensed by the poet’s stringent yet never icy candor. In his recent prose-poems the reader often finds, too, a quietly detached humor. In one such work, Neri observes that solitude and exile have “often touched poets”—Ovid and Dante, he notes, come instantly to mind. Here the reader might be lured into thinking of solitude and exile as gauzily romantic conditions experienced by poets centuries ago, but Neri knows full well the fates of certain modern writers of poetry. “Nearer to us,” he adds drily in his prose-poem, “the century just past could provide quite a long list, from diverse and opposing realms.” One thinks of Osip Mandelstam, Ezra Pound, Mahmoud Darwish, and Liu Xiaobo, to name just a handful.

A mysterious transformation unfolds in Neri’s poetry and prose alike: fragments of memory and perception mutate, are refined and condensed.

Our job as translators has been to capture Neri’s linguistic and emotional nuances and maintain their effects, recontextualizing them in a different language. We were challenged by the poet’s canny use of imperfect-tense verbs, with which he frequently conjures a sense of “used to” or “would”—of repetition in/of the past. This stylistic feature locates Neri’s work solidly in a Lombard linguistic context, conferring upon it an added value of continuity and duration. And the poems’ irregular and unexpected punctuation, their elliptical narrative strategies, their juxtaposition of incongruous elements, their conceptual slyness, their quietly elegant musicality: all of this strikes us as an unusual poetic procedure and a genuine enrichment of contemporary poetry, both in Italy and abroad.


Published Sep 13, 2016   Copyright 2016 Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani

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