Tiziano Broggiato, Against the Light, translated by Patricia Hanley and Maria Laura Mosco (Toronto: Guernica, 2012). Paperbound, 110 pp., $20.
Since its beginning, Guernica Editions has consistently made the publication of translations of literary works from a variety of languages one of its missions. A recent addition to its list is a selection from Italian poet Tiziano Broggiato’s volume of poetry Parca lux (2001), translated by Patricia Hanley and Maria Laura Mosco, with a preface by the former. Since Hanley takes the time to inform us that “this is a nearly complete selection” of the original publication, one has to wonder why the translators chose not to publish the full-length book.
The English title of the collection, Against the Light, while suggesting that one take an adversarial relationship to a source of luminosity, also quite aptly captures the play of light and shadow that such a positioning might produce. Being Brossagio’s first book, Parca lux contains elements that allow us to go as far as to credit his verses for having brought him out of the shadows and into the light when it was awarded the prestigious Montale Prize in 2002. Even so, and despite his continued success, Broggiato cannot be said to be a well-known poet. I say this not to disparage the writer but to echo what others have suggested as to his tendency to isolate himself, and to point out what the expectations for a preface to a book such as this might be. A translation of a writer unknown outside of his own language is either best left to speak for itself or, if a preface or introduction is thought necessary, it would be helpful to have both the work and the writer situated for new readers within possible relationships to a particular poetics, cultural context, or school. Hanley does suggest a genealogy of sorts that goes from Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale, to Vittorio Sereni, to Mario Luzi, and then on to poets of Broggiato’s own generation such as Milo De Angelis and Roberto Mussapi. And yet, the opportunity to elaborate on the relevant aspects of their relationship is left as merely a list. How, for example, does Broggiato evolve the line that goes from the older Montale, Sereni, and Luzi (and we might add other ghosts present in this volume, such as Piero Bigongiari and Giorgio Caproni), early practitioners within what was the Hermetic school (1930s), through to De Angelis, and Mussapi?
There is an existentialist lyric thread that makes its way through the work of most of these writers that often appears to want to transcend the present by relating themes, subjects, experiences, and revelations from the past, as in these verses: “It is the same time of uncertainty / of warnings and prayers / that deprived our forebears / of the necessary purification – / a time that seizes hold here / with eyes of entreaty / that the fading of prophecy / not be that imminent / even in these dawns / always so much slower to arrive” (“It is the same time”).
Given such a list of influences and poetic tendencies, it follows that the compositions gathered in this small volume should reflect the suggestions of light and shadow, clarity and opacity, silhouette and detail, to produce a poetry that is only slightly revelatory of both its sources and eventual forms. These trans-generational alliances with writers such as Luzi make sense and, these poets’ appearances as “ghosts” in and between Broggiato’s verses, become explicatory of a long and rich literary tradition. However, Hanley proposes yet another “spirit” behind Broggiato’s poetics: Paul Celan. Although references to Celan are certainly evident throughout the collection, it is once more disappointing not to find an elaboration of that “spirit’s” gifts. There is no engagement with the cited Celan references, the first, a quotation of verses from Broggiato’s “Celan’s Affliction” and, the other, a mention of the title of another composition, “May 12th,” which marks the date of Celan’s burial following his suicide. While these references take up about half of the preface they fail to give readers any insight into the relationship between the works of the two poets.
I have probably spent too much time on the Preface, not the main intended focus of the volume, but I hope to have said some useful words regarding Broggiato’s poetry itself. As for the translation, every such task is always both a success and a failure, fraught with the difficulties of that “carrying across” from one language to another. It is a process that can never be fully faithful, never fully expressed in any language. Hanley and Mosco have done an admirable job with Broggiato’s poetry, seeing as the interpretative difficulties presented by this verse make translating it an arduous task. Personally, I find each work of translation I read instructive for my own work in this field. It is particularly difficult to shed one’s grammatical/syntactical habits, no matter what one’s facility with either the original or target language might be, often resulting in correct but odd-sounding and cumbersome constructions. This may also be the effect of an overly cautious and anxious sense of having to be fully faithful to the original, leading to literally correct but poetically awkward constructions. Whatever the case, in the end translation itself is an imaginative and creative process, a desire to share in an author’s intimate language of discovery. The poem “Nothing is left” echoes this desire, the manner in which each one of us, upon reading a poem asks: “I beg of you // Let me reach beyond my sight.”