Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The awaited

(A synopsis of a story, perhaps a screenplay)

The setting: Northern Europe; a small island community on the edge of the sea; sometime before 1700.

The two-dozen or so men and older boys of the community have set off in two boats on a fishing or sealing trip expected to last three or four days. They don't return.

Many of the women have never been out of the village; a few are from other islands or the mainland, but have never gone back. There are a few small currachs, but nothing sturdy enough for a sea voyage.

At first the women and young children hope for the return of the men. After a while — later for some than for others — they realize that this will never happen. They do not alter their routines much, but carry on, as they had been accustomed to doing when the men were away, living off stored food and gathered shellfish, plus milk from their livestock. They eat a little less.

After a hard winter that reduces their numbers by two or three the women begin to address the matter of food. They fish a little from the currachs in the surrounding waters, they work in their stony fields as they have always done but a little harder. There is not enough but they survive anyway. Very occasionally, during the good weather, a fishing boat puts into shore for a visit, but the women have little to trade and no one is willing to get on board with the fishermen and leave. Eventually, though, one of the younger wives does go off with a young fisherman. She is never spoken of again.

After a year or two has gone by, and the women have become thin and drawn, one of them refers in passing to a chore she must see to before her husband comes home. There is cold silence. A few weeks later someone else makes a similar remark, and this time heads are nodded. Before long the imminent arrival of the men becomes the sole topic of conversation. Hands are kept busy sweeping out and tidying the dwellings. There are increasing indications of madness.

The story ends with the prow of a boat breaking around the rocks and into view from shore. We don't see who is on board.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


There’s a new eatery in town, a kind of delicatessen / restaurant specializing in chicken, and we went in to check it out. While we were eating (I had crab cakes, as I rarely eat poultry), I happened to notice the fabric on the cushions of the bench across from me. Not surprisingly, this was decorated with images of chickens; what was more curious, though, was that there were also several lines of Italian verse, written in an antique hand, repeated through the pattern. The more I looked, the more familiar the words seemed. Now I don’t speak Italian, but I can read it to some extent, and the first line was clear enough:
Dolce e chiara è la notte e senza vento
Something like: mild and clear is the night and without wind. The remaining lines I had more trouble with, in part because of penmanship, but I could make out the words “luna” and “lontan.”

My first guess was that they night be from Dante. I’ve read the Inferno in English in its entirety, and much of it in Italian, and bits and pieces of the other two canticles in translation. The style seemed right, but not the present tense. Still, the first line seemed very familiar.

When I got home I Googled a few words and quickly found out why I recognized them. They weren’t by Dante, but by Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). I’ve never read him, but I did know this:

The night is warm and clear and without wind.
The stone-white moon waits above the rooftops
and above the nearby river. Every street is still
and the corner lights shine down only upon the hunched shapes of cars.
You are asleep. And sleep gathers in your room
and nothing at this moment bothers you. Jules,
an old wound has opened and I feel the pain of it again.
While you sleep I have gone outside to pay my late respects
to the sky that seems so gentle
and to the world that is not and that says to me:
“I do not give you any hope. Not even hope.”’
Down the street there is the voice of a drunk
singing an unrecognizable song and a car a few blocks off.
Things pass and leave no trace,
and tomorrow will come and the day after,
and whatever our ancestors knew time has taken away.
They are gone and their children are gone
and the great nations are gone.
And the armies are gone that sent clouds of dust and smoke
rolling across Europe. The world is still and we do not hear them.
Once when I was a boy, and the birthday I had waited for
was over, I lay on my bed, awake and miserable, and very late
that night the sound of someone’s voice singing down a side street,
dying little by little into the distance,
wounded me, as this does now.
That’s a poem by Mark Strand that I’ve always enjoyed, one line of which (“I do not give you any hope. Not even hope”) had, oddly enough, been in my mind just a day or so before I went into the restaurant. I always assumed the poem was an adaptation, but had never come across the original, which, I now know, runs as follows:
XIII - La sera del dì di fiesta

Dolce e chiara è la notte e senza vento,
E queta sovra i tetti e in mezzo agli orti
Posa la luna, e di lontan rivela
Serena ogni montagna. O donna mia,
Già tace ogni sentiero, e pei balconi
Rara traluce la notturna lampa:
Tu dormi, che t’accolse agevol sonno
Nelle tue chete stanze; e non ti morde
Cura nessuna; e già non sai nè pensi
Quanta piaga m’apristi in mezzo al petto.
Tu dormi: io questo ciel, che sì benigno
Appare in vista, a salutar m’affaccio,
E l’antica natura onnipossente,
Che mi fece all’affanno. A te la speme
Nego, mi disse, anche la speme; e d’altro
Non brillin gli occhi tuoi se non di pianto.
Questo dì fu solenne: or da’ trastulli
Prendi riposo; e forse ti rimembra
In sogno a quanti oggi piacesti, e quanti
Piacquero a te: non io, non già, ch’io speri,
Al pensier ti ricorro. Intanto io chieggo
Quanto a viver mi resti, e qui per terra
Mi getto, e grido, e fremo. Oh giorni orrendi
In così verde etate! Ahi, per la via
Odo non lunge il solitario canto
Dell’artigian, che riede a tarda notte,
Dopo i sollazzi, al suo povero ostello;
E fieramente mi si stringe il core,
A pensar come tutto al mondo passa,
E quasi orma non lascia. Ecco è fuggito
Il dì festivo, ed al festivo il giorno
Volgar succede, e se ne porta il tempo
Ogni umano accidente. Or dov’è il suono
Di que’ popoli antichi? or dov’è il grido
De’ nostri avi famosi, e il grande impero
Di quella Roma, e l’armi, e il fragorio
Che n’andò per la terra e l’oceano?
Tutto è pace e silenzio, e tutto posa
Il mondo, e più di lor non si ragiona.
Nella mia prima età, quando s’aspetta
Bramosamente il dì festivo, or poscia
Ch’egli era spento, io doloroso, in veglia,
Premea le piume; ed alla tarda notte
Un canto che s’udia per li sentieri
Lontanando morire a poco a poco,
Già similmente mi stringeva il core.
I haven't had time to make (or better, find) a full translation, though I've looked it over enough to see both differences and similarities between Strand's version and the original. Strange drift and mingling of circumstance, that reveals the source of a favorite poem through the upholstery of a chicken restaurant.

Postscript: The restaurant mentioned above has since closed. However, it fascinates me to know that someone has translated Strand's version back into Italian: La sera è calma e limpida e senza vento / La luna bianca come pietra aspetta sopra i tetti...