Maelstrom and Mirroring in Edoardo Sanguineti’s “My Life, I Lapped It Up,” translated from Italian by Will Schutt


By Judith Vollmer

9780997335545All good poems wrestle with acute contradictions.  They sweat and sing the facts and mysteries of living, while simultaneously revealing the scaffoldings and artistic intentions of their surface textures. Sometimes poems sound imitative of traditions they’d rather reject. Sometimes they sound overly self-conscious and merely experimental. But when they’re good—even great—they startle us with meaning and method we’ve not heard before. The project of Will Schutt’s translations of post-war Italian poet Edoardo Sanguineti (1930-2010) offers us a clear path to reading Sanguineti as poet and practitioner who, in joining with the self-declared Italian avant-garde that took shape during the 1960s, fused high culture with low, and countered earlier, established “poeticism” with blunt vernacular. Sanguineti’s early work is filled with aural, visual, and lexiconic gestures intended to rebut the quieter and, as he viewed it, more politically decorous work of his forebears.

Schutt’s excellent introduction offers a clear primer on Sanguineti’s early intentions as a poet and Marxist, and highlights his personal, political, and literary biography in an engaging and precise summary. Of his own intentions in gathering, translating, and selecting the poems of this new volume, My Life, I Lapped It Up: Selected Poems of Edoardo Sanguineti, Schutt suggests “that this book will inspire future translators to take up Sanguineti and the new avant-garde Italian writers who remain little known to American readers otherwise familiar with the generation of Italian poets that came before them, like Eugenio Montale or Giuseppe Ungaretti.”

In making his selections, Schutt foregrounds Sanguineti’s change-ups in tones and tempos; his cheeky or raunchy, comic or wrenching confessional pronouncements; and his intricate balancing act of contradictions earned. Sanguineti loved jest, punning, riffing, and, maybe most of all, improv. How else, he cajoles, do we live life other than making it up as we go, making it up in the most direct way possible? Notable, too, that while throwing off tradition, Sanguineti samples tools of Pound and Eliot. Schutt’s “Introduction” capsules Sanguineti’s trajectory, to be sure, and wisely crafts his volume by focusing on the final two periods of Sanguneti’s work, and more specifically, on “the elegiac and the comic.” As Schutt explains, “Collections from these two phases contain, for me, Sanguineti’s most psychologically probing and approachable work, when he outgrew the demanding and hyper-allusive manner of [the earlier] Laborintus and adopted a messy, diaristic, inclusive mode.”

I’ll venture that in Schutt, Sanguineti already has met his best American translator. Schutt brings the poet’s best poems over into excellent poems in English that live on the page and amplify their effects when read aloud, freed from the page. Further, Schutt’s introduction guides us into the poet’s complex intentions toward how the poems are made, and leads us inside the cumulative effects of the poems selected, revealing Sanguineti’s development.

Sanguineti, in addition to writing poems across several decades, also wrote criticism, translated prose (Joyce, for example), ran for office and served as both a city councilor in Genoa and a member of the Italian Parliament on the Communist Party ticket. His work, lifelong, sustained the thorny and biting role of clown-persona, of rebel, and poet-chameleon most comfortable in the vernacular. Schutt’s selections show us something more, a deepening of spirit and strength within Sanguineti’s dramatic monologs, as in “in my life I’ve already seen,” excerpted here:

    I’ve already seen the firing squads of the Third of May (reproductions only,
in black and white), the tortured in June, the massacred in September, the hanged in March,
in December: and my mother’s sex and my father’s: the void, veritas, unarmed
worms, and thermal spas:

Schutt’s close reading of American poet James Wright surely has informed his keen awareness of elements of place, class, and voice in Sanguineti. And in his own poetry—his first book, Westerly, was selected by Carl Phillips for the 2012 Yale Series of Younger Poets—Schutt creates balance and imbalance in elegy and in poems of place.  Consider another intersection, in which Sanguineti echoes lines from Cesare Pavese, beloved by Wright, in the final line of “in my life I’ve already seen”:

     I’ve already seen the neutrino, the neutron, the photon, the electron,
(in a graphic, schematic display): The Pentamerone, the Esamerone: the sun,
salt, cancer, and Patty Pravo: and Venus, and ashes, and mascarpone (or
maskerpone), and a mascaron, and the demi-cannon: and mascarpio (Lat.) to manus
but now that I’ve seen you, life, pluck out my eyes—enough:

And here is the second stanza of Pavese’s poem:

Death has a look for everyone.
Death will come and will have your eyes.
It will be like renouncing a vice,
like seeing a dead face
reappear in the mirror,
like listening to a lip that’s shut.
We’ll go down into the maelstrom mute. [1]

Sanguineti looks into both the mirror and the maelstrom. He abandons, returns to, fractures formal prosody; he invites the canonically revered and reviled inside, then pushes them out; he exposes decay and delight of pop culture and places it alongside the Classics; he laments even as he catalogs accumulations and disembodiments of pleasures. Here are lines from his “I emerge from your dream”:

I’m whiter than white: (and full of special
offers and coupons and freebies and vouchers and prizes) (and toys and stickers):
(I’m portable, indispensable): (I can be raffled off): I seduce you three times, four (on sight):
(at first sight): (et à bout de souffle, i.e., breathless): I’m a stroke of lightning:
(a shot to the heart): (and a stroke of luck):
(me, your (half-baked) half moon:

Schutt tells us Sanguineti listed as favorite poets Lucretius, Dante, and Baudelaire, and that “in the past he had wanted to be a dancer.” Perhaps two other poets, forebear Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), master of fluid persona and reverie (“No matter, I’ll stay here dreaming verses and smiling in italics”); and Sanguineti’s contemporary countryman Andrea Zanzotto (1921-2011), master of homages to the divine and the quotidian (“ecstatic choosing, of every devotion”) stand beside Sanguineti as sibling experimental poets, fellow singers of wrestling contradictions.

Sanguineti, Edoardo. My Life, I Lapped It UpTranslated from Italian by Will Schutt. Oberlin College Press, 2018.


[1] From “In the Morning You Always Come Back.” Translated by Geoffrey Brock, Disaffections, Copper Canyon Press 2002.


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