Day & Night

Posted on April 27, 2010

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I was invited by the Poetry Daily folks to select a poem-of-the-day to be delivered to Poetry Daily readers by e-mail each weekday during the month of April, along with my comments on the poem. Needless to say, I had a very hard time whittling my selection down. So here are my poems & commentary:

Mattina

by Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888-1970)
translated by Gian Lombardo

I illuminate myself
with immensity

Mattina

M’illumino
d’immenso

“And suddenly it’s evening”
by Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968)
translated by Gian Lombardo

Everyone’s always alone on the earth’s breast
pierced by a ray of sunlight:
and suddenly it’s evening

Ed è subito sera

Ognuno sta solo cuor della terra
traffito da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera

Commentary: A good poem spins me out into a web of other poems, as well as into the world. A good poem sends me deeper into a discovery of this thing called self, as well as into that nexus of “other” or “others.” These two poems are inexorably wedded in my mind. Aside from the fact that they are both opposite sides of the same coin (day and night), I also was introduced to them in short fashion. I remember my Italian professor doing his best imitation of Ungaretti, reading “Mattina” exuberantly drawing the words from deep inside himself and expelling them as an unabashed declaration of love for the world. Given that Ungaretti had experienced so much horrific sorrow in his life, that he could invest four words in Italian with so much joy and wonder was revelatory. This fact about our insignificance—that each of us is no more than a tiny speck on the consciousness of the world—should engender despair or detachment. And yet Ungaretti was reveling in it. He targeted Leopardi’s infinità and made it less abstract, less annihilating and more alive. The world gained depth, weight and breadth—substance. And this weight, instead of burdening the poet or beating him down (and down into himself), opened up the world to the poet (and the poet to the world) and charged him—the world shone from deep inside out.

And then there was Quasimodo, who was read by that professor in a hush. Immensity calling us back in whispers. That coin now life and death. That call back to immensità electrifies our souls, making them shine bright. That surge—as we all know too well—is not infinite. But Quasimodo makes us aware that this solitariness becomes extinguished in the night of our souls and we are reborn into a unity with that immensity, that infinity. Without that transfixing bolt of sun, there’s nothing. And his cuor della terra evokes, for me, the association with nel mezzo del cammin—that in one sense, Quasimodo speaks of this earth’s breast (literally, “the heart of the earth”), but also that phrase carries the meaning of being in the midst of this world.

When I was in college, I was struggling to achieve some sort of adult identity. Aside from these poems, both Ungaretti’s and Quasimodo’s lives resonated for me. Ungaretti, although Italian, grew up in Egypt. Quasimodo was born in Sicily and for him to survive as a poet and an intellectual he had to migrate to northern Italy. Both had the aura of exiles, of detachment from the cultures they spent their mature lives in. I identified with that sense of “otherness” since both sets of my grandparents had emigrated from Sicily. The history and literature I had been taught at school did not feel mine. The only time I saw myself in history books was in the narratives about those explorers who left their homeland to labor for other realms in helping them exploit yet other realms. Although I felt some identification with, and curiosity about, my (adopted by my grandparents) country, when we, for example, learned about the Civil War, it was merely an exercise in intellectual curiosity for me (in learning contexts for current politics). My ancestors were not involved in that horror; instead, it would be years before I learned that while one country was being torn asunder at that time, another was being formed.

The same goes for language and literature. The sound and sensibility of English did not match the Sicilian I heard at home. The amount of figurative language (read: clichéd), as well as abstraction, did not match up with what I encountered on the outside. If I attempted to write a poem in English where I was “alone on the earth’s breast,” I would have been called out for the cliché, for sentimentality, for sounding too much like a translation. If I tried to write a poem about immersing myself in immensity, it would be castigated as not being concrete enough. Suddenly, when I was listening to these two poems, I was encountering a poetry, a language, where these things could happen. And while I was connecting to another language, another culture, I was seeing how I could bring it into what I inhabited—for example, how important economy is since at that time I considered myself a formal poet, writing to set forms, and found it both terrifying and liberating to let the poem itself dictate length, to permit no unnecessary word and not to be afraid to let words carry their own immensità.

In the end, I can’t think of the one poem without the other, as well as the web of other poems that these two poems create and that I have only hinted at here (Leopardi and Dante). I use these two poems as guideposts to bring light and depth into my life. After all, it’s Ungaretti’s point that the individual has to do it (“I illuminate myself”). These poems point me the way on how to live: to embrace joy no matter what until the energy to do so suddenly vanishes. There are two no better poems upon which to shipwreck consciousness.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Poetry Daily Newsletter on
April 27, 2010. Click to subscribe to the Poetry Daily Newsletter.
Posted courtesy of Don Selby, Diane Boller and Poetry Daily. My thanks
to them for inviting me to participate.
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