Lightly on this Earth: “Go Tell it to the Emperor” by Pierluigi Cappello, Translated from Italian by Todd Portnowitz


By Frederika Randall


gotellemperor_cover2.inddThe poet Pierluigi Cappello was born in Gemona del Friuli in 1967 and died in 2017 in Cassacco, a town 20 km away. In his fifty years in Italy’s far northeast he never lived beyond a 30 km radius of Gemona, a city whose name still evokes a devastating 1976 earthquake that killed 1000 people and reduced many of the region’s neat, pretty buildings to rubble. Nine years old at the time of the earthquake, Pierluigi and his family were evacuated to rural Chiusaforte, a village in the mountains near the Austrian and Slovenian borders that modern Italy had all but forgotten. In his poem “Campo Ceclis, 1978,” the place sounds something like an Appalachia of the Balkan borderlands, hardscrabble and beautiful. It was the wellspring of his imagination: he once called it “my Macondo”:

two chrome-plated wheel rims, tires worn right down
to their metal innards
an old Bianchi chassis
bedsprings with the heart blasted out
uncounted numbers of empty demijohns
Slavic disorder, a tin keg
a dead engine on a sawhorse
wet rust [1]

One of Chiusaforte’s quickly thrown up prefab houses (the children called them “barracks”) became his new childhood home, and as an adult he went on living in prefab housing intended to be temporary until he died. It was an impermanence that could serve as a metaphor for a life lived lightly on this earth.

Todd Portnowitz, who has now published a first collection of Cappello’s poems in graceful, fresh translations, observes that the poems, too, lie lightly on the page. “Pierluigi Cappello’s poems seem all to have been written in pencil: elegies for fading memories, they threaten impermanence […] And yet the words hold, so assured are they in their leave-taking,” he writes in his thoughtful introduction to the collection, titled Go Tell It To the Emperor, after the poet’s best-loved and most acclaimed book of 2010, Mandate a dire all’imperatore.

Portnowitz’s selection is taken from that volume and three others in Italian—La misura dell’erba (1998), Dentro Jericho (2002) and Stato di quiete (2016), along with Dittico (Diptych) in Friulian dialect and Italian, (2004). It was not Cappello’s only foray into Friuliano; he also published the volume Amôrs, not represented in the present collection. Not properly a dialect, but one of Italy’s main regional languages spoken before standard Italian was adopted, Friuliano is partly tuned to Slavic influences across the border. Much loved by poets for its archaic popular cadences and brusque lyricism, it is one of the most vital of Italy’s regional languages today, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s beautiful early poems in Friuliano continue to inspire a feisty group of northeast poets.  Since there are multiple dialects of Friuliano itself, strictly speaking they are all dialect poets.

The devastating Gemona earthquake was only the first hard lesson Pierluigi absorbed in his young life. When he was 16, a promising athlete training for the 100 meters, and a high school student studying to be a pilot, he was badly injured in a horrific road accident. The friend from whom he’d accepted a motorbike ride was killed; the future poet paralyzed from the waist down. Henceforth he would be wheelchair-bound, his adolescence and adulthood dogged by all the physical indignities a damaged spinal cord brings. Money to buy equipment and assistance might have alleviated some of the suffering, but money was always scarce. The family was modest and writing poems did not fill his pockets. The state disability pension he received provided only a meager subsistence. It was not until late in life, after he’d received the prestigious Montale and Viareggio-Rèpaci prizes, that he was awarded a special government pension for indigent artists. Luckily, because the Montale had exhausted its funds and so, he wryly observed, he was the last poet to get it, and the first to receive no prize money.

The Montale prize came for Dittico, with its Friuliano echoes. In Scrivi lune, for example, the poet reflects on writing about the moon, ending with the stirring Friuliano lines:  Che cence tiere e cence cîl /a si è achì, trimant al vivi, /come l’aiar ator ator di un sbâr. “To be right now, without earth /and without sky, trembling alive/ like the air around a gunshot” is Portnowitz’s effective translation, which captures a note of emotion lacking in the standard Italian rendering of the poem that has been provided. For Italian speakers, dialect can be very potent, the words striking deep chords older than memory, that school-taught Italian doesn’t. Friuliano is rich in short, sharp words, often ending in consonants, unlike Italian, mellifluous with vowels that link the words in a phrase together. The closest we have in English to that contrast is the double register of Anglo Saxon and Latinate diction, where Anglo Saxon plays the role dialect often does in mixed speech: the bold, concrete language of the people.

Portnowitz’s translations are relaxed and unfussy, true to Cappello’s Italian, which is never difficult although his language is thoroughly shaped and molded: the Italian poet likened his craft to that of a potter. When the translator reaches for an image, he often succeeds in producing something fresh and unexpected. The title poem of Go Tell It To the Emperor begins hauntingly,

As long ago, so today
go tell it to the emperor
the wells have all run dry
and the stone left by the water shines
set sail into the white heat

But then turns puzzling:

for here you must cross through the dark of the word
ankles cuffed in wool (13)

More than “cross through the dark of the word,” Cappello’s camminare nel buio della parola means “walk through the night of the word,” through the silence or absence of the word. And what hat did those woolen cuffs come from, when the poet actually writes l’orlo di lino contro gli stinchi: “linen hem against your shins”? So many of Portnowitz’s solutions are felicitous that the odd moments when a phrase is flubbed, or a noun mistaken for quite some other thing come as something of a shock. Cappello’s easy, playful late style and Portnowitz’s graceful rendering can be appreciated in “Poem Written in Pencil, 2010.” Sono devoto all’anima di grafite della matita, it begins, a statement that demands we pay attention to the word anima, meaning “soul”—but also, with no spiritual connotation, referring to a pencil, its “core”:

The soul I worship is the pencil’s graphite soul
one swipe of rubber and the mark is unmade
paths set out upon lightly
lead back to the ease of a small town drag
collapses are avoided with a shrug of the shoulders
the unforeseen is a codger with a blunted dagger.
A graphite soul knows no pauses, hesitations:
there in its forward movement
is the chance of turning back,
the relief of white, implied in its dark scrawl
and Angelina comes home smiling
holding hands with a child
washed in sunlight.

The speaker is devoto (either “a devout worshiper of” or simply “devoted to” “prefers”) the pencil’s graphite “soul” or “core.” Cappello is playing with the word anima: which has astounding number of meanings in Italian, only a few of which correspond to the word soul in English. Buttons, neckties, rope, pencils, books, musical instruments, and cast metal beams all have a part called the anima, a piece that’s pure thing, with no spiritual function.   

There is no way to convey that polysemy in English, and it’s really a very different poem depending on which meaning you choose. Soul, the translator’s choice, isn’t what I would instinctively have gone for. But it’s certainly the right choice here, ironically ennobling and animating the pencil, and evoking, along with the rhythm of the lines, the pleasure of correcting error, of starting afresh. Left unsaid but implicit: poems written in pencil are inevitably, like lives “writ in water,” fleeting, they must be savored in the moment.

In the poem “Shadows,” also from Mandate a dire all’imperatore, Cappello writes of vivid, impoverished Chiusaforte so dear to him and so different from the world beyond the mountains, “that part of Europe held together/ by crooked nails and bolts, hammers and wrenches” where the economy is bustling. But chiodi ritorti are not “crooked nails,” but spiral shank nails, masonry nails. It might seem a trivial point. But to this reader, those masonry  nails, almost by themselves, conjure up a busy construction industry manufacturing comfortable lives, far from the prefab, impermanent existence that Cappello stubbornly defends.

Here I’m probably on shaky ground. As a translator of Italian prose, I envy translators of poetry. If forced to choose, the lyric translator can decide whether to be loyal to the meaning or the music – while for the most part we prosies are bound to meaning first, then everything else. The crooked nails of this world are probably intrinsically more interesting to a lyric translator than masonry nails. He or she’s free to prefer the blunt simplicity of “crooked” to the bland abstraction of “masonry”—or simply to prefer the sound. While in my prosaic mind, the wrong name for a thing damages the ecological whole, the sense. And the sense—what something means to the speaker––is sacred in my book. I know, however, that it’s impossible to resolve this dispute except to concede that there are more ways than one to read a text.

Pierluigi Cappello died young: he was just fifty. In one of his Diptych poems, he writes of that elusive hereafter known as inniò in Friuliano, a very old word meaning roughly “No Where.” A traveler met by a dead man on the road is asked where he is going:

Jo? Jo o voi discôlç viers inniò,
i siei vôi il celest, piturât di un bambin.

Me? I’m headed barefoot to nowhere-really,
his eyes the blue of a sky a child would paint.

Cappello, Pierluigi. Go Tell it to the EmperorTranslated by Todd Portnowitz. Spuyten Duyvil, 2019.


[1] Although the poem is not part of the present collection, Todd Portnowitz quotes a couple of lines from it in English translation. One line differs slightly in my rendering here.


Pittsburgh-born Frederika Randall’s translations include Confessions of an Italian by Ippolito Nievo, Deliver Us by Luigi Meneghello, The Communist by Guido Morselliand his Dissipatio H.G. forthcoming in 2020. 

One comment

  1. A beautiful and sensitive review . . . Cappello’s work sounds so intriguing that I will have to check out this collection!

    PS: As for the line about nails, I’m personally rather glad that Portnowitz chose “crooked” — I’m in the camp that believes musicality is intrinsic to any good translation of lyric poetry. Having to make such choices must certainly be one of the greatest challenges of the translator’s art . . .

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