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Eric Fishman

Eric Fishman

Eric Fishman is an elementary school teacher, writer, and translator. His bilingual collection of André du Bouchet's poetry, Outside, will be released in Spring 2020 (Bitter Oleander Press, with Hoyt Rogers). Eric is currently translating a selected volume of the Martinican poet Monchoachi. For more about Eric's work, see www.ericjpfishman.com.

Todd Portnowitz is an editor and translator based in New York City. He is the translator of Midnight in Spoleto by Paolo Valesio (Fomite, 2018), Go Tell It to the Emperor: The Selected Poems of Pierluigi Cappello (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019), and Long Live Latin by Nicola Gardini (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2019), as well as of two young-adult novels with the Italian publisher Mondadori. He has received honors from the Academy of American Poets (Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship, 2015, Affiliated Fellow at the American Academy in Rome) and the Bread Loaf Translators Conference.   

Eric Fishman reviews "Go Tell It to the Emperor: The Selected Poems of Pierluigi Cappello" by Pierluigi Cappello, translated by Todd Portnowitz

Go Tell It to the Emperor: The Selected Poems of Pierluigi Cappello
Go Tell It to the Emperor: The Selected Poems of Pierluigi Cappello
by Pierluigi Cappello, translated by Todd Portnowitz

182 pages
Spuyten Duyvil Publishing

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In his autobiography Questa libertà (This freedom), the Italian poet Pierluigi Cappello (1967-2017) describes a visit to a school:

At some point, to explain to the children how poetry works, I invite them to close their eyes while I say a word. The word "tree," for example. Then I ask them to tell me about the image of a tree they made in their heads: beaten by light or in shade, leafless in winter or flourishing in summer, in wind or rain, framed in a clearing from afar or close enough to hear its whisper. There is never one tree like another. (p. 8)

As a teacher, I can't resist quoting this passage, when the presence of children elevates the prose to a spontaneous ars poetica. Yet this pedagogical demonstration also provides insight into the workings of Pierluigi's poetry. His poems are built from precisely these kinds of visualizations, when a single word blossoms into memory. And, as in his explanation to the students, it is often a particular image from the natural world that provides the seed:

The sky was green with cold between the pine needles
and no one's around, the dampness risen off the snow
weaves itself into the smell of our wet clothes ("In Which Forest," p. 5, ln. 1-3)

The images themselves are striking—green cold, woven dampness—and are beautifully sculpted in English by Todd Portnowitz. What is equally remarkable, though, is the lightness of these observations, seemingly unencumbered by the burden of analysis. As Pierlugi asserts in "Notes in the Margin": "It's not a question of filling but one of letting the emptiness have its say" (p. 135, ln. 1-2). This feeling of spaciousness, almost innocence, is perhaps one reason why children make such frequent appearances, populating his poems both literally, as in the poem "Letter to a Newborn" (p. 35), and figuratively: "his eyes the blue of a sky a child would paint" (p. 67, ln. 14), "like in a children's drawing,/an amateur watercolor" (p 131, ln. 7-8).

One of the great successes of Portnowitz's translations is how he builds this spaciousness. This happens on the level of diction, first of all: he chooses words that are evocative without being overly intellectual. This can be a particular challenge for translators of Romance languages. Unlike the Germanic roots of English, Latinate words (and thus Romance language cognates) entered English through the Church or Norman ruling classes, and tend to occupy higher registers in English than in their original languages. The Romance translator who overuses cognates in order to stay "close" to the original words can therefore end up with overly complex verse. Portnowitz is agile in his avoidance of this trap. He also manages to capture the gestalt of how Cappello's verses move, such as in the conclusion of "In Which Forest":

quando ti sei voltato e mi hai detto, dio, quanto sole
così lontano, diverso, quanto ad uno ad uno i giorni
stringono il cueore e separano. (p. 4, ln. 9-11)

when you turned to me and said, god, how much sun
and so far off, so other, how steadily each day
wrings the heart and goes its separate way. (p. 5, ln. 9-11)

The Germanic "wring" is evocative, a good example of the "concrete" diction discussed above. The end rhyme in Portnowitz's translation (day/way) isn't present in the Italian, which might lead some critics to squirm. But, of course, Italian is generally so dense in assonance that its weave of vowel echoes are impossible to capture in English; thus the end rhyme in the English isn't out of character for Cappello. Most importantly, however, Portnowitz has succeeded in capturing the way these lines move. It's not the rhythm, per say, more the way it gathers momentum as it proceeds: a series of halting phrases, followed by one long breath which snaps to a close at the end. He transmits the feeling of the phrase on your ear, in your body.

Cappello spent his childhood in the small village of Chiusaforte, in the far northeast Friuli region, close to Italy's borders with Austria and Slovenia. The Friulian language plays an important part in Cappello's poetry. As Italian critic Maria Rosa Tabellini asserts in her obituary for Cappello: "He was a bilingual poet ... and he wielded the two expressive tools in a pendular movement between things that ask to be said in Friulian and things that ask to be said in Italian." In this collection, Portnowitz has selected poems from five of Cappello's volumes, giving us an ample cross-section of his work: The Height of Grass (1998), In the Walls of Jericho (2002), Diptych (2004), Go Tell it to the Emperor (2010), and State of Calm (2016). Yet we are given only a brief glimpse of Cappello's Friulian poetry in these selections. Space remains for future translators to explore the ways Cappello moved between his two languages.

Cappello's life was shaped by two major traumas. The first was the 6.5 magnitude earthquake of 1967, which resulted in nearly a thousand deaths and over a hundred thousand destroyed homes. As a result, Cappello's family spent the remainder of his childhood in a prefabricated campo for displaced people. Yet despite its desolation, this camp ended up being "a haven for children," as Portnowitz describes in his introduction (p. xii). Cappello's second trauma was a teenage motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Frustrated by critics who suggested he used his injury as his major poetic inspiration, however, he always insisted that he was able to write poetry despite this injury, not because of it. As he asserted in a 2013 interview: "writing passes through a biological unity of head and body. Having entire regions that you do not command requires enormous effort" (interview with Cristina Tagletti).

Where do these traumas manifest in Cappello's poetry? I began this review with a description of the lightness of Cappello's poetry. But this is not to suggest that the poems are naïve. "The Highway" ("L'Autostrada"), for example, begins with a pastoral memory similar to the one that begins "In which forest":

Just now it was spoken
look, a hare
in the thickest path of forest where it was—
only the hunch of a reflection ... (p. 7, ln. 1-4)

But the memory is soon laced with the threat of violence:

... Around these parts
a few lynxes have been spotted. I saw one
years ago, in the dead of night, near an ammunition depot. (ln. 7-9)

As Checkhov famously noted: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired." The ammunition isn't accidental. Portnowitz's choice of "dead of night" for "cuore della note" adds to the aura of foreboding. And the violence is soon made explicit, although perhaps not in the way we would have expected:

... Meanwhile, we can all see
how the highway sliced the valley's gut
and the throats of anyone left (ln. 17-19)

The highway is the Autostrada A23, opened in 1966, which Portnowitz notes "stands as a dividing line of two epochs," a figurative stand-in for the "scars of modernaization" (p. xiii). But it's also a representation of the violence of time, of a past wrest away:

... the way things were true for the first time, inside innocence
and the cerulean of September days
sinks in the throat, the kickball fallen from the clouds,
it seemed, so high had the father punted it,
and the smell of hay gathered before the rain
and of course the scattered houses and nothing tampered with,
all of it, still untouched—
yet it sticks in the throat, beyond speech. (ln. 24-31)

In the end, Cappello's verses are attempts to restore this inaccessible past through acts of memory. But the poet also knows that this is impossible, that his lines are elegies:

and inside these crude meters we live our lives
and to live is to carry what's been shed,
to one day at a time compose its name. (p. 8, ln. 25-27)


References

Tabellini, Maria Rosa. "Pierluigi Cappello, il poeta che sapeva cogliere il 'centro delle cose.'" La Letteratura Enoi, 2 Aug 2018.

Tagletti, Cristina. "L'intervista al poeta Pierluigi Cappello." La Lettura. 14 Sep 2014.

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