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20 anni di Semicerchio. Indice 1-34
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Visits since 10 July '98

« indietro

The forked mother tongue 

di Charles Simic 


In: Semicerchio LV (02/2016)30 anni” pp. 155-167

Mine is an old, familiar story by now. So many people have been displaced in this century, their numbers so large, their collective and individual destinies so varied, it is impossible for me or any one else, if we are honest, to claim any special status as a victim. Particularly, since what happened to me fifty years ago is happening to someone else today. Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Kosovo, the endlessly humiliated Kurds – and so it goes. Fifty years ago it was fascism and communism, now its nationalism and religious fundamentalism that make life miserable in lots of places. Recently, for instance, I was translating the work of a woman poet from Sarajevo for an anthology and its editors had great difficulties locating her. She had vanished. She was not a young woman, she had plenty of friends, but no one seemed to know what happened to her in the confusion of the war. It took many months to find her sweeping floors in a restaurant in Germany. 

«DPs» (displaced persons) is the name they had for us back in 1945, and thats what we truly were. As you sit watching bombs falling in some old documentary, villages and towns going up in fire and smoke, the ar- mies advancing against each other, you forget about the people huddled in the cellar. My family like many other families paid dearly in this century for just being there. Condemned by history, as Marxists were fond of saying, perhaps belonging to a wrong class, wrong ethnic group, wrong religion – and what have you? – they were and continue to be an unpleasant reminder of all the philosophical and nationalist utopias gone wrong. With their rags and bundles and their general air of misery and despair, they came in droves from the East, fleeing evil with no idea where they were running to. No one had much to eat in Europe and here were the starving refugees, hundreds of thousands of us in trains, camps and prisons, dipping stale bread into watery soup, searching for lice on their childrens heads and squawking in a dozens of languages about their awful fate. 

My family got to see the world for free thanks to Hitlers wars and Stalins takeover of East Europe. We were not German collaborators or members of the aristocracy, nor were we strictly speaking political exiles. Small fry, we made no decisions ourselves. It was all arranged for us by the World leaders of the times. Like so many other who were displaced, we had no ambition to stray far beyond our neighborhood in Belgrade. We liked it fine. Deals were made about spheres of influences, borders were redrawn, the so-called Iron Curtain was lowered, and we were set adrift with our few possessions. Historians are still documenting all the treacheries and horrors that came our way in those years and the inventory is far from finished. 

As always, there were degrees of evil and degrees of tragedy. My family didnt fare as bad as some others. Thousands of Russians whom the Germans forcibly brought to work in their factories and on their farms were returned to Stalin against their will by the Allies. Some were shot and the rest were packed off to the gulags so they would not contaminate the rest of the citizenry with newly-acquired decadent capitalist notions. Our own prospects were rosier. We had hopes of ending up in the United States, Canada or Australia. Not that this was guaranteed. Getting into United States was especially difficult. Most Eastern European countries had very small quotas, unlike the Western European ones. South Slavs, in the eyes of the American genetic experts and immigration policy makers were not a highly desirable ethnic material. 

Its hard for people, who have never had the experience, to truly grasp what it means to lack proper documents. In U.S. we read today about our own immigration officers, using and misusing the recently acquired authority to turn back suspicious aliens from our borders. The pleasure of humiliating the powerless must not be underestimated. Even as a young boy, I could see that was the case. Everywhere there are bureaucrats, the police state is an ideal. 

I remember standing in endless lines in Paris at the Police Headquarters to renew our resident permits. It seems like thats all we ever did when we lived there. Wed wait all day only to discover that the rules have changed since the last time, that they now require, for instance, something as absurd as my mothers parents marriage certificate or her grade school diploma. Every passport office, every police station, every consulate had a desk with a wary and bad-tempered official who suspected us of not being what we claimed to be. No one likes the refugee. The ambiguous status of being called a DP made it even worse. The officials we met knew next to nothing about where we came from and why, but that did not prevent them from passing judgement on us. Being driven out by the Nazis brought out a measure of sympathy, but leaving because of the Communists was not as well received. If the officials were leftists, they told us bluntly that we, ungrateful wretches that we were, had left behind the most progressive, the most enlightened society on the face of the earth, «the embodiement of mans dearest longing for justice and happiness,» as that world was then described in certain quarters. The others figured we were just riffraff with fake diplomas and a shady past. Immigration, exile, being uprooted and made a pariah may be yet the most effective way devised to impress on an individual the arbitrary nature of his or her own existence. Who needs a shrink or a guru when every- one we met asked us who we were the moment we opened our mouths and they heard the accent. 

The truth is we had no simple answers. Being rattled around in freight trains, open trucks and ratty ships, we ended up being a puzzle even to ourselves. At first, that was hard to accept, then we got used to the idea. We begun to savor it, to enjoy it. Being nobody struck me personally as being far more interesting than being somebody. The streets of Paris were full of these «somebodys» putting on confident airs. Half of the time I envied them; half of the time I looked down on them with pity. I knew something they didnt, something hard to come by unless history gives you a good kick in the ass: in the grand scheme of world events, the mere individual is superfluous and insignificant. How pitiless are men and women who have no understanding that this could be their fate too. 

I stepped off the boat in New York City on August 10,1954 with my mother and my brother. The day was hot, the sky was cloudless, and the streets were full of people and cars. My father, who was already in the United States, put us up in a hotel just off Times Square. It was all incredible, all absolutely astonishing. The immigration officers didnt torment us and rip up our papers. They didnt send us back. Our being here and breathing was perfectly legal. Watching television, ordering room service and taking a shower broke no laws. I was sixteen, old enough to take walks by myself. The city, which I had seen in so many movies, felt strangely familiar. Im a big city boy and all large cities resemble one another in a fundamental way. Walking around confirms what one already knows: heres where the rich live, here the poor. Here is the business district, and here the expensive stores are to be found. Finally, here is the neighborhood where one goes to have a good time. Nobody had to explain to me the difference between the young women I saw on Madison Avenue and the ones hanging around a candy store on the Eighth. It was the same in Paris and in Belgrade. Of course. New York is also unlike any European city. Its bright colors were startling after the grayness of Europe. Men in pink shirts, wearing neckties with palm trees on them, entering yellow taxis on a street of huge neon signs and billboards with smiling, rosy-cheeked faces advertsing toothpaste or cigarettes. That was really something. 

Architecturally, too, the city is full of surprises. A skyscraper in mid-town next to a three-story building with a hot dog stand. A street with dozen movie houses all showing films twenty four hours a day and then a building seemingly made entirely of glass and a park with carriages pulled by horses. The question a newcomer asks inevitably, is where am I going to live? Is it going to be a noisy tenement in Hells Kitchen or one of the brownstones on some quiet and shady side street on the Upper East Side? 

On arrival our worries were few and basic. First, and most importantly, we wanted new clothes and an American haircut to take away that look of a hopeless loser that comes with being a DP. We spent the first few days in New York changing our disguises. Jeans, Hawaiian shirts, cowboy belts, colorful t-shirts, sneakers and other such items, procured cheaply in the vicinity of Times Square, appeared to me to be the heights of elegance. To my great surprise, the natives still gave me funny looks on the street. Unknown to me I had transformed myself from a European schoolboy to a country hick, the kind you often saw around the Port Authority Bus Terminal or outside a 42nd Street movie house showing westerns. 

Then there was the problem of language. I had studied English, could read it more or less, but speaking it was a different matter. I remember asking for directions the 2nd or 3rd day in New York and not being understood. I wanted to know how many blocks to the Empire State Building? A simple question, except that instead of «blocks,» I said «corners». The astonishment and the embarassment of speaking and not be- ing able to communicate are deeply humbling. Every day in America, I realized, I will have a fresh opportunity to make a complete fool of myself. Quickly, I learned to keep my mouth shut except when absolutely necessary. In the meantime, I read the movie marquees, I tried to follow the TV and radio programs. In secrecy I repeated words and phrases I overheard: Crackerjack. Okey-Dockey. Chase butterflies. Hogwash. Hold the phone. Go to the dogs. The claim that an expatriate can never feel at home anywhere again has a nice lyrical sound, but its definitely not true of a sixteen year old. I was more adaptable than a cat or a goldfish would have been. I was eager to exchange my identity the way youd exchange an old, threadbare winter coat. 

To want to be an American, which I certainly desired, made me a stranger even to my own Yugoslavs. 

They eyed me suspiciously. Without the clannish security ones own ethnic group readily provides, what do we have? Its terrible when collective sentiments one is bom with begin to seem artificial, when one starts to suspect that ones exile is a great misfortune, but also a terrific opportunity to get away from everything one always secretly disliked about the people one grew up with. 

I now understand the big choice I made without quite realizing that I was making it. I started avoiding fellow Yugoslavs. Already in those early days, I realized that America gave me a chance to stop playing the assigned roles that I inevitably had to play around my people. All that deferring to tradition, tribalism and machismo with their accompanying airs, I happily gave up. Nor did the role of the professional exile forever homesick, forever misunderstood, attract me. Adventure lay elsewhere. America and the Americans were far more interesting to me and so was the anonymity that came with full-scale assimilation. 

Actually, thats not entirely accurate. Many of my early friends were Italian, Jewish, Irish and other immigrants. One of the invaluable experiences of a city like New York was the exposure to so many other ways of life. The ideal of the times was, of course, the melting pot. Still, what did I know about the Blacks, Chinese, Cubans, Lebanese, Hungarians, Russians, Sicilians before I lived in New York? There is no school as good as the life that takes you one day from a Hungarian butcher on 2nd Avenue, to an Irish Bar in Chelsea, an Italian coffee shop on MacDougal Street, and a jazz Club off Sheridan Square in company of a young woman who hails from Texas. No wonder nationalists of all stripes hate cities. Its hard to remain the faithful and obedient son of your own clan when so many other attractive options offer themselves. One has to be a fool or a hypocrite to sing the praises of ones native customs to the exclusion of every other, after one has lived in New York city. The cities are, indeed, agreeably corrupting. They produce free individuals and that, as every state and religious institution the world-over will tell you, is an unpardonable heresy. 

If the choice then was between deepening my own displacement and trying to belong, I made my situation even more complicated by moving away from home when I was eighteen. In other words, exactly two years after I stepped off the 44th Street pier, I found myself again adrift. My parents were not getting along and life at home was most unpleasant, so I had no alternative. I broke a few more ties I still had to my old identity. 

I had no other relatives or friends. I had no fixed address or purpose. There was no question of college, because my parents were not able to support me and my grades were not good enough to get me a scholarship anywhere. If you imagine that I cried myself to sleep every night over my predicament, you are wrong. It was one of the happiest times in my life. Finding a job and making ends meet - as I discovered quickly - was very easy. Both in Chicago and New York, I could find decent work in a matter of hours. I did everything from being a mail clerk in a newspaper to selling shirts in a department store. I worked in several offices as a bookkeeper. I met all kinds of interesting men and women. Best of all, I felt safe in America from the persecutions we were accustomed to and that was more than enough to make a young man permanently cheerful. 

In the meantime, there were Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Billy Holiday, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Five Spot, Birdland, Rhythm and Blues, Country Music, film Noir, Scott Fitzgerald, Walt Whitman, W.C. Williams, Gothan Book Mart, MOMA, William DeKooning, Jackson Pollock, Partisan Review, Brooklyn Dodgers, Yankees, boxing at Madison Square Garden, The Honeymooners, Sid Caesar, I Love Lucy and literally hundreds of other things to learn about. I was astonished to encounter other recent arrivals who had little or no interest in any of this. 

To fall in love with a country or another human being requires some gullibility, and I had plenty to spare. It took me at least fifteen years to appreciate the full extent of American political corruption and to see the problems and injustices our country is faced with. Early on, I was living a version of the American Dream ignorant of the simple fact that a white boy with an accent is more readily employable than a person of color. There has always been a kind of see-no-evil, lets pretend demeanor about our country. It needs fresh supply of true believers to keep it going, and thats what I was. Still, there was the generosity that I and so many others found there. Every cliché about getting a second chance and reinventing oneself turned out to be true. It gave one confidence - America did that. Who could resist that sudden burst of optimism? I could not. 

I started writing poetry in my senior year in high school in Chicago. I had a couple of friends who were passionate about contemporary literature. One day they showed me some poems they had written. That made me make the attempt myself. I wrote some very bad poems and would have stopped out of sheer embarassment, but luckily I found out that being a poet made an unforseen impression on a certain young lady I was interested in. People asked me years later, how is it that I wrote my first poems in English and never wrote a single line in my native language? The answer is simple. The girls I hoped to seduce did not know Serbo- Croatian. 

Of course, when I started out, I translated myself. Serbian words would pop into my head more often than the English ones, but that did not last long. I realized early on that to make myself a better poet in English, I had to read a lot of American and British poetry. The more I read, the more I immersed myself in the idiom, the less I had the need to seek out Serbian equivalents. It helped, too, that I left home. I found myself at the age of eighteen alone with America, speaking Serbian only when I called my mother or father. Nevertheless, even though I published my first poems in 1959 in «Chicago Review» five years after I came to United States, I did not think of myself as a poet. I wanted much more to be a painter. I painted and worried about my abilities and wrote poems on the side, as it were. 

«Poetry is an exiles art. Anyone who writes it seriously writes from an exiles point of view,» says my friend, the poet Charles Wright. This seems profoundly true to me. Poetry has been my way of making sense of my complicated lifestory. Im a product of chance events, the bastard child of ideologies, the orphan of twentieth century history and an American poet. Did immigration make me what I am? Most probably? I knew guys with identical backgrounds who became engineers. In any case, English is now the language that I know best and the one that I still speak with an accent. As it happens, I am no longer able to write or talk fluently in Serbian. Im like one of those freak animals you see at country fairs: Im a two- headed sheep, a six-legged dog and a horse with three tails. 

To find oneself between two identities and have to translate between them, is to appreciate the cultural differences and the accompanying associations that make each language distinct. To translate is to become continuously aware of the nuances of connotation, as well as of the existence of the untranslatable. Can the core of our identity and our deepest experiences ever find words in any language? I have my doubts. Language for a translator is the realm of inspired approximations and elusive meanings. 

The problem of translation preceeds the writing of poetry. For example, each time I speak (consciously), I am already translating. If idiomatic means the local, the genius of the indigenous, our consciousness can be regarded as the first untranslatable idiom. Thats what people mean when they say, words fail me. A displaced person can be defined as someone who does not take language for granted, someone who is astonished by the words in his mouth. If that displaced person is also a poet, the whole problem is even more complicated. 

Every true lyric poem, so I believe, is an icon (a holy image) of its mother tongue. Thats what tunes it. I mean by that, the way in which a particular peoples experience of the world and of their own selves is reflected in words. The poet both distrusts language and is its slave. As Brodsky said of poets, «we work for the dictionary.» However, poetry often comes from experiencing the gap between what can be and what cannot be said. Luckily, theres metaphor with its ability to dis- cover similarity in wildly different realities to bridge the gap. Metaphor may be the memory of the Golden Age when all on earth and in heaven were one. 

My mother tongue is forked. Different mothers speak from opposite corners of my mouth. Translation between them is both impossible and possible. That polarity, that paradox is the very essence of my existence. I would not exchange it for another. I always liked the idea of a metaphysician in the dark, in other words, someone in a hopeless philosophical situation. What could be better? Poetry is the place where I go to find out what I truly am, an American, a child of the Balkans, or just a two-headed black sheep trying to blend with the rest of the flock. 

 

 

ANTOLOGIA DI TESTI DALLOPERA DI SIMITraduzioni di Massimiliano Chiamenti e Antonella Francini 

 

 

Prodigy 

I grew up bent over 

a chessboard. 

 

I loved the word endgame.

All my cousins looked worried. 

 

It was a small house 

near a Roman graveyard. 

Planes and tanks

shook its windowpanes. 

 

A retired professor of astronomy 

taught me how to play. 

 

That must have been in 1944. 

 

In the set we were using,

the paint had almost chipped off 

the black pieces. 

 

The white King was missing 

and had to be substituted for. 

 

Im told but do not believe

that that summer I witnessed 

men hung from telephon poles. 

 

I remember my mother 

blindfolding me a lot. 

 

She had a way of tucking my head 

suddenly under her overcoat. 

 

In chess, too, the professor told me, t

he masters play blindfolded,

the great ones on several boards

at the same time. 

 

Prodigio 

Sono cresciuto chino 

su una scacchiera. 

 

Amavo la parola finale.

 

Tutti i miei cugini sembravano preoccupati. 

Era una casetta

vicino a un cimitero romano. 

Aerei e carrarmati 

scuotevano i suoi vetri. 

 

Un professore di astronomia in pensione 

mi insegnò a giocare. 

 

Deve essere stato nel 1944. 

 

Sulla scacchiera che usavamo la vernice 

si era quasi staccata 

dalle pedine nere. 

 

Il Re bianco mancava 

e si dovette sostituire. 

 

Mi si dice ma non lo credo

che quellestate fui testimone

di uomini appesi ai pali del telefono. 

 

Ricordo mia madre

che mi copriva sempre gli occhi. 

 

Aveva labitudine dinfilarmi allimprovviso 

la testa sotto il suo cappotto. 

 

Anche negli scacchi, mi disse il professore, 

i maestri giocano bendati,

i grandi su scacchiere diverse

allo stesso tempo. 

 

Factory 

The machines were gone, and so were those who 

[worked them. 

A single high-backed chair stood like a throne

In all that empty space

I was on the floor making myself comfortable 

For a long night of little sleep and much thinking. 

 

An empty bird cage hung from a steam pipe. 

In it I kept an apple and a small paring knife.

I placed newspapers all around me on the floor 

So I could jump at the slightest rustle.

It was like the scratching of a pen,

The silence of the night writing in its diary. 

 

Of rats who came to pay me a visit 

I had the highest opinion.

They d stand on two feet

As if about to make a polite request 

On a matter of great importance. 

 

Many other strange things came to pass. 

Once a naked woman climbed on the chair 

To reach the apple in the cage.

I was on the floor watching her go on tiptoe, 

Her hand fluttering in the cage like a bird. 

 

On other days, the sun peeked through dusty 

[windowpanes 

To see what time it was. But there was no clock, 

Only the knife in the cage, glinting like a mirror, 

And the chair in the far corner

Where someone once sat facing the brick wall. 

 

Fabbrica 

 

Le macchine se nerano andate, ed anche chi

[le manovrava. 

Ununica sedia dallalto schienale spiccava

In tutto quello spazio vuoto

Io mi sistemavo sul pavimento,

Per la lunga notte di poco sonno e molto pensare. 

Una gabbia da uccelli vuota pendeva da un tubo del vapore. 

Ci tenevo una mela e un coltellino da frutta.

Mettevo giornali tuttintorno a me sul pavimento

Così potevo sobbalzare al minimo fruscio. 

Era come il graffio di una penna,

Il silenzio della notte che scrive il suo diario. 

 

Dei ratti che venivano a farmi visita 

Avevo la più alta opinione.

Stavano ritti su due zampe

Come pronti a fare una garbata richiesta 

Su una questione di grande importanza. 

 

Capitarono tante altre cose strane.

Una volta una donna nuda salì sulla sedia

Per prendere la mela nella gabbia.

Io ero sul pavimento a guardarla agire in punta di piedi, 

La sua mano nella gabbia svolazzante come un uccello. 

 

Altri giorni il sole sbirciava furtivo dai vetri polverosi 

 

Per guardare lora. Ma non cera nessun orologio, 

Solo il coltello nella gabbia, luccicante come uno specchio, 

E la sedia nellangolo lontano

Dove una volta qualcuno sedette volto verso il muro 

[di mattoni. 

A. F. 

 

 

What The Gypsies Told My Grandmother While She Was Still A Young Girl 

War, illness and famine will make you their favorite 

[grandchild. 

You ll be like a blind person watching a silent movie. 

Youll chop onions and pieces of your heart into the same 

[hot slillet. 

Your children will sleep in a suitcase tied with a rope. 

Your husband will kiss your breasts every night as if 

[they were two gravestones. 

 

Already the crows are grooming themselves for you and 

[your people. 

Your oldest son will lie with flies on his lips without smiling 

[or lifting his hand. 

You ll envy every ant you meet in your life and every 

[roadside weed. 

Your body and soul will sit on separate stoops chewing 

[the same piece of gum. 

 

Little cutie, are you for sale? the devil will say.

The undertaker will buy a toy for your grandson.

Your mind will be a hornets nest even on your deathbed. 

You will pray to God but God will

hang a sign that He

[not to be disturbed. 

Question no further, thats all I know. 

 

I was stolen by the gypsies. My parents stole me right 

back. Then the gypsies stole me again. This went on for 

some time. One minute I was in the caravan suckling the 

dark teat of my new mother, the next I sat at the long 

dining room table eating my breakfast with a silver spoon. 

 

It was the first day of spring. One of my fathers was 

singing in the bathtub; the other one was painting a live 

sparrow the colors of a tropical bird. 

 

Quello che gli zingari dissero a mia nonna quando era ancora una ragazzina 

Guerra, malattia e fame faranno di te la nipote preferita. 

 

Sarai come una cieca che guarda un film muto. 

Triterai cipolle e pezzetti del tuo cuore nello stesso 

[tegame bollente. 

I tuoi figli dormiranno in una valigia legata con lo spago. 

Ogni notte tuo marito ti bacerà i seni come fossero due 

[pietre tombali. 

 

I corvi già simbellettano per te e la tua gente. 

 

Il tuo figlio maggiore giacerà con mosche sulle labbra senza 

[sorridere o alzare la mano. 

Invidierai ogni formica che incontrerai nella vita e ogni 

[erbaccia sulla strada. 

Il tuo corpo e la tua anima siederanno su scale diverse 

[masticando lo stesso pezzo di gomma. 

 

Bellina, sei in vendita? dirà il diavolo.

Il becchino comprerà un giocattolo per tuo nipote.

La tua mente sarà un vespaio perfino sul letto di morte. 

Pregherai Dio, ma Dio appenderà un cartello perché non 

[deve essere disturbato. 

Non chiedere altro, è tutto ciò che so. 

Fui rapito dagli zingari. Subito i miei genitori mi rapirono 

di nuovo. Poi gli zingari mi rapirono ancora. Si con-

tinuò così per un po. Un minuto ero nella carovana a 

succhiare la mammella scura della mia nuova madre, 

quello dopo sedevo al lungo tavolo della sala da pranzo a 

far colazione con un cucchiaio dargento. 

Era il primo giorno di primavera. Uno dei miei padri 

cantava nella vasca da bagno; laltro colorava una 

rondine dei colori dun uccello tropicale. 

A.F. 

 

Cameo Appearance 

I had a small, nonspeaking part

In a bloody epic. I was one of the 

Bombed and fleeing humanity.

In the distance our great leader 

Crowed like a rooster from a balcony, 

Or was it a great actor

Impersonating our great leader? 

 

Thats me there, I said to the kiddies

Im squeezed between the man

With two bandaged hands raised

And the old woman with her mouth open 

As if she were showing us a tooth. 

 

That hurts badly. The hundred times 

I rewound the tape, not once

Could they catch sight of me

In that huge gray crowd, 

That was like any other gray crowd. 

 

Trot off to bed, I said finally.

I know I was there. One take

Is all they had time for.

We ran, and the planes grazed our hair, 

And then they were no more

Aswe stood dazed in the burning city, 

But, of course, they didnt film that. 

 

Comparsa deccezione 

Mi toccò una piccola parte muta

In una dannata epica. Ero uno

Degli umani bombardati e in fuga. 

In lontananza il nostro grande duce 

Gridava come un gallo dal loggione, 

O era un grandattore 

Nel ruolo del nostro grande duce? 

 

Quello là sonio, dissi ai bambini, 

Stretto fra luomo

Con due mani fasciate e alzate 

E la vecchia con la bocca aperta 

Come se ci mostrasse un dente. 

 

Che fa male. Centinaia di volte

Ho riavvolto il nastro, neanche una

Riuscirono a scorgermi

In quellimmensa folla grigia

Che era come ogni altra folla grigia. 

 

Svelti, a letto, dissi infine.

So che cero. Non ebbero tempo

Che per una ripresa.

Corremmo, e gli aerei ci sfiorarono i capelli,

E poi non cerano più

Mentre, stupiti, ci arrestammo nella città in fiamme 

Ma di certo questo non lo filmarono. 

A. F. 

 

Paradise 

In a neighborhood once called «Hells Kitchen» 

Where a beggar claimed to be playing Neros fiddle 

While the city burned in mid-summer heat; 

Where a lady barber who called herself Cleopatra 

Wielded the scissors of fate over my head 

Threatening to cut off my ears and nose 

Where a man and a woman went walking naked 

In one of the dark side streets at dawn. 

 

I must be dreaming, I told myself.

It was like meeting a couple of sphinxes.

I expected them to have wings, bodies of lions: 

Him with his wildly tattoed chest;

Her with her huge, dangling breasts. 

 

It happened so quickly, and so long ago! 

 

You know that time just before the day breaks 

When one yearns to lie down on cool sheets 

In a room with shades drawn?

The hour when the beautiful suicides 

 

Lying side by side in the morgue

Get up and walk out into the first light. 

 

The curtains of cheap hotels flying out of windows 

Like sea gulls, but everything else quiet…

Steam rising out of the subway gratings…

Bodies glistening with sweat... 

Madness, and you might even say, paradise! 

 

Scalinger turns deadly pale at the sight of water-cress. Tycho Brahe, the famous astronomer, passes out at the sight of a caged fox. Maria de Medici feels instantly giddy on seeing a rose, even in a painting. My ancestors, meanwhile, are eating cabbage. They keep stirring the pot looking for a pigfoot which isnt there. The sky is blue. The nightingale sings in a Renaissance sonnet, and immediately someone goes to bed with a toothache. 

 

Paradiso 

In un quartiere una volta detto «Cucina dellInfemo» 

Dove un mendicante diceva di suonare la viola di Nerone 

Mentre la città bruciava nel calore di mezzestate; 

Dove una parrucchiera che si faceva chiamare Cleopatra 

Brandì le forbici del destino sopra la mia testa 

Minacciando di tagliare orecchie e naso; 

Dove un uomo e una donna andarono a spasso nudi 

Allalba in una delle viuzze oscure. 

 

Sto sognando, mi dissi.

Era come incontrare una coppia di sfingi.

Mi aspettavo che avessero ali, corpi di leone: 

Lui con il petto selvaggiamente tatuato;

Lei coi seni immensi, cadenti. 

 

 

Accadde così velocemente, e tanto tempo fa! 

 

Conosci quel momento appena prima del giorno 

Quando si anela a stendersi su freschi lenzuoli

In una stanza con gli scuri chiusi?

Lora in cui i bei suicidi 

 

Distesi fianco a fianco nellobitorio 

Si alzano e escono nella prima luce. 

 

Le tende di poveri alberghi svolazzano dalle finestre 

Come gabbiani, ogni altra cosa quieta…

Vapore che sale dalle grate della metropolitana... 

Corpi scintillanti di sudore... 

Follia, e potresti anche dire, paradiso! 

A. F. 

Lo Scaligero diventa pallido come un cencio alla vista di un ciuffo di rughetta. Tycho Brahe, il famoso astronomo, muore alla vista di una volpe in gabbia. Maria deMedici si sente subito stordita alla vista di una rosa, anche in un quadro. I miei progenitori, nel frattempo, mangiano cavolo. Continuano a rimestare il pentolone in cerca di un piede di porco che non c’è. Il cielo è blu. Lusignuolo canta in un sonetto del rinascimento, e immediatamente qualcuno va a letto con il mal di denti. 

M. C. 

 

Paper Dolls Cut out of a Newspaper 

Four of them holding hands like a family. 

Theres war on this morning

And an advertisement for heavenly coffee 

Next to a picture of a murderer. 

 

Hold them up, little Rosie.

Hold them up a bit longer.

Watch them dance, watch them shake 

And make us laugh. 

 

The coffee is boiling, its steam 

Rises. The printers ink comes off 

On your fingers, on your face 

When you cover your eyes, Rosie. 

 

Bamboline di carta ritagliate da un giornale 

 

Quattro di loro si tengono per mano come una famigliola. 

C’è una guerra in corso stamattina

E una pubblicità di caffè sopraffino

Accanto alla foto di un assassino. 

 

Tirale su, Rosa.

Tirale su per un po.

Guardale ballare, guardale agitarsi 

E farci ridere. 

 

Il caffè bolle, il vapore

Sale. Linchiostro della stampante viene fuori 

Ti tinge le dita e anche la faccia

Quando ti tappi gli occhi, Rosa. 

M. C. 

 

Men Deified Because Of Their Cruelty 

Is it true tyrants have long fingers?

Is it true that they set their own traps 

Beneath paintings of the Madonna

In gloomy palaces turned into museums? 

 

We all love her feverish eyes to heaven. 

We all love the naked Venus too.

Shes watching us from an unmade bed 

With a smile and her hand on her crotch. 

 

She can see the master lurk behind our backs. 

 

Hes old, hes cadaverous, he is dressed

As a museum guard, and he wears gray gloves, 

Because, of course, his hands are red. 

 

Uomini deificati per la loro crudeltà 

È vero che i tiranni hanno le dita lunghe? 

È vero che piazzano le loro trappole 

Sotto ai dipinti della madonna

In palazzi lugubri trasformati in musei? 

 

Noi tutti amiamo i suoi occhi febbrili mirati al cielo. 

Noi tutti amiamo la Venere nuda

Che ci osserva da un letto disfatto

Con un sorriso e le mani sulla fica. 

 

E lei che vede il manipolatore che si aggira dietro alle nostre 

[schiene. 

Vecchio, cadaverico, vestito

Come un custode, indossa guanti grigi, 

Perché naturalmente le sue mani sono rosse. 

M.C. 

 

The Clocks Of The Dead 

One night I went to keep the clock company. 

It had a loud tick after midnight

As if it were uncommonly afraid.

Its like whistling past a graveyard, 

 

I explained.

In any case, I told him I understood. 

 

Once there were clocks like that

In every kitchen in America.

Now the factory's windows are all broken.

The old men on night shift are in Charons boat.

The day you stop, I said to the clock,

The little wheels they keep in reserve

Will have rolled away

Into many hard-to-find places. 

Just thinking about it, I forgot to wind the clock. 

We woke up in the dark.

How quiet the city is, I said.

Like the clocks of the dead, my wife replied. 

Grandmother on the wall, 

I heard the snows of your childhood Begin to fall. 

 

Gli Orologi dei morti 

Una notte andai a tener compagnia allorologio.

Dopo la mezzanotte il suo ticchettio diventava più forte 

Come per un improvviso spavento.

Devessere un pocome quando si fischietta nei pressi di 

[un cimitero 

 

Mi dicevo tra me e me.

Ad ogni modo gli dicevo che capivo. 

 

Un tempo cerano orologi di questo tipo

In ogni cucina dAmerica.

Ora le finestre della loro fabbrica sono tutte rotte.

I vecchi del turno di notte sono sulla barca di Caronte. 

II giorno che ti fermi, dissi allorologio,

Tutte le rotelline che ora tengono di riserva

Saranno rotolate via

In molti luoghi difficili da reperire.

Nel pensare a questo, dimenticai di caricare lorologio. 

Ci svegliammo al buio.

Com’è tutta tranquilla la città, dissi.

Come gli orologi dei morti, rispose mia moglie. 

Nonna sul muro 

Sentii le nevi della tua infanzia 

Che iniziavano a cadere. 

M. C. 

 

Raskolnikov 

Philosophical murderer, times are propitious 

For your edifying experiments.

Even in the sunlight the world looks evil.

Every building on every every street 

Has most of its windows boarded up.

With a hard smile the old woman pushes 

Her shopping cart slowly through the rubble, 

 

Men and women - sleeping five or six to a room - 

Who have come to such despair,

Words fail them.

They are beyond remedy 

And therefore not to be talked about. 

And yet, there he is in the playground 

Pint in hand, peeing in silence

In full view of the elevated train. 

 

He is as real as he is expendable,

Says someone who d like to stir things up a bit. 

The weathers hot. Every night the crowds

In afoul mood roaming the streets late,

Their hearts already consenting secretly. 

 

In the meantime, is he the one with the clipped skull 

Talking to himself? Or the one

With the Seeing Eye dog and the white cane? 

 

Or perhaps the one in the policeman's uniform 

Speeding through the red light? 

 

Raskolnikov 

Assassino filosofico, i tempi sono propizi

Per tuoi esperimenti edificanti.

Anche alla luce del sole il mondo appare malefico. 

Ogni edificio di ogni strada

Ha tutte o quasi le finestre barricate.

Con un sorriso indurito la vecchia

Spinge il suo carrello lenta tra le macerie, 

 

Uomini e donne - dormono cinque o sei per stanza -

Giunti a tale disperazione

Privati di parola. Sono casi irrimediabili

Perciò di loro non si deve parlare. 

E tuttavia, eccolo lui li in cortile

Con la birra in mano, piscia in silenzio

Bene in vista per chi passa col treno soprelevato. 

 

Tanto reale quanto sacrificale

Dice qualcuno che vorrebbe smuovere un pole acque. 

Fa caldo. Tutte le notti la folla incattivita

Vaga per le strade fino a tardi,

Già daccordo tutti, nel segreto dei cuori. 

 

E nel frattempo, è lui quello con il teschio crivellato 

Che parla con se stesso?

O è quello con il cane dallOcchio Veggente e il bastone 

[bianco? 

 

O è forse quello in divisa da poliziotto 

Che accelera al semaforo rosso? 

M.C 

 

Charons Cosmology 

With only his dim lantern 

To tell him where he is

And every time a mountain 

Of fresh corpses to load up 

 

Take them to the other side

Where there are plenty more

Id say by now he must be confused 

As to which side is which 

 

Id say it doesnt matter

No one complains hes got

Their pockets to go through

In one a crust of bread in another a sausage 

 

Once in long while a mirror 

Or a book which he throws 

Overboard into the dark river 

Swift and cold and deep. 

 

Cosmologia di Caronte 

Solo la sua fioca lanterna

Per dirgli dov’è ora

E ogni volta una montagna

Di cadaveri freschi da ammassare 

 

Portarli poi allaltra riva

Dove ce ne sono molti molti di più 

Credo che debba ormai avere dei dubbi 

Su quale sponda sia quella sponda 

 

Direi che fa lo stesso

Nessuno si lamenta

Lui cià le loro tasche da razzolare

In uno una crosta di pane in un altro una salsiccia 

 

Una volta ogni tanto uno specchio 

O un libro che tira giù dal vascello 

Nel fiume scurissimo

Rapido freddo e fondo 

M. C. 

 

The Friends of Heraclitus 

Your friend has died, with whom 

You roamed the streets,
At all hours, talking philosophy. 

So, today you went alone, 

Stopping often to change places 

With your imaginary companion, 

And argue back against yourself 

On the subject of appearances: 

The world we see in our heads 

And the world we see daily, 

So difficult to tell apt

When grief and sorrow bow us over. 

 

You two often got so carried away

You found yourselves in strange neighborhoods 

Lost among unfriendly folk,

Having to ask for directions

While on the verge of a supreme insight, 

Repeating your question

To an old woman or a child

Both of whom may have been deaf and dumb. 

 

What was that fragment of Heraclitus 

You were trying to remember

As you stopped on the butchers cat? 

Meantime, you yourself were lost 

Between someones new black shoe 

Left on the sidewalk. 

An the sudden terror and

At the sight of a girl

Dressed up for a night of dancing exhilaration 

Speeding by on roller skates. 

 

Gli amici di Eraclito 

Il tuo amico è morto,

Quello con cui camminavi le strade

A tutte lore parlando di filosofia.

Così oggi te ne sei andato solo 

Soffermandoti spesso per scambiarti il posto 

Col tuo compagno immaginario

E ribattendoti da solo

Sul tema delle apparenze:

Il mondo che vediamo nelle nostre teste

E il mondo che vediamo giorno dopo giorno 

Così difficili da scindere

Quando il dolore e langoscia ci prostrano. 

 

Voi due spesso eravate così rapiti

Che andavate a finire spesso in strani vicinati 

Perduti tra gente ostile.

Dovendo chiedere indicazioni

Proprio sullorlo di unappercezione suprema 

Ripetevate la domanda

A una vecchia o a un bambino

Che potevano benissimo essere sordi o muti. 

 

Ma qual era quel frammento di Eraclito 

Che cercavi di ricordare

Mentre inciampavi sul gatto del macellaio? 

E intanto entrambi eravate persi 

Accanto alla scarpa nuova, nera, di qualcuno 

Abbandonata sul marciapiede

E il terrore e la risata improvvisa

Alla vista di una ragazza 

Vestita a festa per il ballo 

Che sfreccia sui pattini. 

M. C. 


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