Monday, July 10, 2006


The wind sways the stalks of the spiderwort and rustles through what hair I have. It is cooling on a summer morning. Archie is laying in sun at the edge of our backyard, staring at me as I type. He seems vaguely lost without Dixie here to bat him around.

The vet's office just phoned. Dixie's surgery is done and she is doing fine. Now, I must wait a few scant hours for her to recover enough to come home. Then, Michelle and I will have to be as vigilant as secret police, watching her every move so that she doesn't slow her recovery with an ill-advised leap from the sofa onto Archie's head.

Luckily, the World Cup is over now. Consequently, other than writing and business, nothing will prevent me from devoting my full attention to the dogs while Dixie recovers. Even though I did not watch the entirety of the Cup, I did spend many, many hours watching the action on the pitch from somewhere in Germany. Now, the Italians have won. My wife, who we both think of as Italian although she is adopted and her father is of German stock, took the news with a knowing smile, as though an Italian victory was the only possible outcome.

In deference to fate, I spent a couple of hours on the Internet looking for Italian poems. Oddly, despite the fact that the English and American tradition of poetry is derived from the work of Greeks and Romans, I've encountered very little Italian poetry via translation other than the obligatory Dante. More, from my brief searches, it seems to me that the influence of French and Chinese poetics had a much more profound effect on American poetry in the 20th century. Of course, my knowledge of contemporary Italian Literature is limited at best. I know of Eco and Calvino, so I won't claim my impressions are anywhere near informed.

Yet, I did manage to find a few poems, translated into English, that struck me as admirable, and in honor of the Italian victory, I'd like to talk about one of them today: “Kafka at Bologna” by Gregorio Scalise.

At first glance, the poem reminds me of the work of Jorie Graham. Unlike much of contemporary American poetry, the poet does not seem to fear the use of abstraction or rhetorical techniques. Although there are moments of stunning concrete imagery, the poem does not move from image to image, crafting a delicate personal narrative, as you might expect from an American poem. Instead, a philosophical thread seems to provide the cohesiveness of the poem.

And it is the imagined thread of Kafka’s purpose.

Yet, even as the Scalise’s narrator flits through history referencing philosophy to prepare his argument with lines like: “the season opens with a polemic/against the Stoics but the day is against/those arguments:… the poem never dissolves into pure abstractions. Instead, the poem offers moments of concrete imagery, like “the name that persisted/as far as the border with the rain” before veering again toward abstraction.

Throughout the poem, that play between the abstract and concrete imagery, seems to echo the narrator's argument, as well as the dialectic of Kafka's work itself. Consider, for example, these lines:

He can only be received again:
his alter ego in this projection
transforms the forest into a cultural zone:
among the nocturnal gestures
a virtuous exercise can be narrated
in common words: the swallows come
to visit Kafka's body.

Here, perhaps, we have a brilliant encapsulation of the writing process—complex “projections” narrated into common words. I adore these lines and doubt, as with the entire poem, that I can do them justice.

Scalise, with Kafka as a guide of sorts, wrestles with history and the nature of society and writing throughout the poem. With the final lines:

The altar boy walks between dialectic and
structure: he shakes the branches at
sunset, unaware that nothing is a syllogism:
and an insidious pair
leads a central idea to a baroque cart:
because of his solitude
he only lives twice.
The distance conceals those motives,
the defects whirl in the air,
he had conceived an important project
but saw his intentions vanish.

And here, we see the point. Our generic altar boy, symbolic of societal organization, youth, and religion “shakes the branches”. He leads us to the central idea, corrupted, dissolving with “distance” as “defects whirl in the air” until “intentions vanish.”

Amazing. I doubt, very seriously, that I've done the poem any justice, but as you head off toward other tasks, consider this question: what makes this poem worth reading? How does Scalise manage to weave multiple arguments and perspectives through the fabric of the poem without the poem itself falling apart?

Oh, and one last thing: congratulations, Italy.


Post a Comment

<< Home