Friday, January 11, 2013

Antonia Pozzi: "If words tasted of snow...."

My Italian is nearly non-existent.  Many years of Latin have helped me to keep a few words and a bit of grammar, and I was forced to do translations of Dante in graduate school, but I'm hopeless with Italian literature past Dante. But I want to quote this line of Pozzi's in her own words, for the starkness of the original captures much of what we know of her brief and mostly unhappy life, a life I have been considering, on and off, since I came upon Peter Robinson's translation of Pozzi's poems last year:

"Io credo e temo che una vera donna non sarò mai, che anzi, cercando malamente di esserlo, finirei col perdere la parte più vera e meno banale di me”

 "I believe and think that I will never be a real woman, that, in fact, in trying hard to become one I will lose the most real and least banal part of myself." 

A real woman. Perhaps she meant a wife and mother--or the daughter her father wished her to be, the daughter she could never be.  And in "trying," as in, "pretending." she would lose herself, as we so often do when we try against our will to be someone we can't be.

Pozzi committed suicide when she was twenty-six years old, in December, 1938.  She began to write poems as a teenager, poems of great sensitivity, showing them, perhaps, only to Antonio Maria Cervi, her tutor and lover (I am following Peter Robinson here).  Her work is both original--its sensibility in particular is that of girl becoming a woman--and derivative. Those familiar with Italian poetry of the period will find in Pozzi the influence of Eugenio Montale and Umberto Saba; even the student of modernist poetry unfamiliar with these names will find in her work the influence of Paul Valéry and Rilke. 

Robinson writes, in relation to Pozzi's despair and death that "it [her suicide] appears to have resulted from her inability to integrate, or at least accommodate, her creative aspirations and emotional needs with the family's expectations for her."  Pozzi's life has been surveyed thus far only in Italian, and I am in no position to comment on it with any authority, but, according to Robinson, there is speculation that Pozzi took her own life due, in part, to political events in Italy after the rise of fascism. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that Pozzi, at a young age, possessed a sensibility rare in any person, no matter how mature.  Pozzi wrote her thesis, at twenty-three, on Flaubert, and one feels that the great French realist and student of human psychology was a worthy subject for this young woman, herself an honest and astute observer of her own tumultuous emotional life. 

Lying Down

Now the bland annihilation
of swimming backstroke,
with sun on my face
--the brain pierced by red
through eyelids closed--,
Tonight on my bed, in the same posture,
the dreamy candour  [il candore trasognato]
of drinking,
with dilated pupils,
the white soul of the night.   (1929)

St. Anthony Fires

Flames in the evening of my name,
I feel them burn on the shore
of a dark sea--
and along the ports bonfires
of old things.
algae and shipwrecked
boats catch alight.

And in me nothing that could
be burned,
but every moment of my life
still--with its indestructible
weight present--
in the quenched heart of night
follows me. 

(Trans. by Peter Robinson)

I love how Pozzi moves from the world outside to the world within without missing a beat: "Desire for light things/in the heart that weighs like stone/inside a boat--" ("Desire for Light Things").  Images of weight and levity, of snow and the clarity of light, of lost childhood, of the body and of the earth--and, above all, of fear and longing--predominate in these short, deceptively simple lyrics.  Even at twenty, Pozzi's feelings were pitched high--she doesn't dissect her heart in the open, but disguises her pain, or displaces it, in a rather Freudian way, by focusing on the world around her. Again, I think of Valéry:

Le vent se lève! . . . il faut tenter de vivre!
L'air immense ouvre et referme mon livre,
La vague en poudre ose jaillir des rocs!  [Le cimetière marin]

Yes, we must find a way to live.  Or as Freud puts it, each of us must discover for herself the means of being in this world.  There is nothing promised to us, and loss, such as the loss of someone we love, or the gnawing sense that we may never be the person we wished to be, can become unbearable:

"If I knew
what it would mean
--not to see you anymore--
I believe my life
here--would finish.  [from "Rejoining"]

From Poems, Antonia Pozzi, translated by Peter Robinson, published by Oneworld Classics in 2011.

George Ovitt (1/11)

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