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Contemporary Italian American Writing

Paolo Valesio: Selected Poems

Sal Poeticum | Sakura Park |
The Vulture's Meal| Matins
| The Temptation |translated by Graziella Sidoli

Born in Bologna 1939, Paolo Valesio earned the “Laurea in Lettere” at the University of Bologna (1961), and then the “Libera Docenza in Glottologia” (1969). After teaching at the University of Bologna, he taught at Harvard University and then became an Associate Professor of Italian Studies at New York University (1973-5.) From 1975-2004, he served as Professor of Italian Language and Literature at Yale University where he was appointed for many years as Chair of the Department. After retiring from Yale as Emeritus Professor, Valesio became the Giuseppe Ungaretti Professor in Italian Literature at Columbia University. He has been visiting professor at several universities in Italy, the United States, and Brazil as well as been a Fellow of the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Fellow of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. He served as Honorary President of the American Association of Italian Studies (AAIS) and founded and coordinated, from 1993 to 200,4 the “Yale Poetry Group.” Valesio founded (1997) and has been directing the journal Yale Italian Poetry (YIP) now transferred to the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, at Columbia University, under the new title: Italian Poetry Review. He is the American correspondent of the journal Poesia in Milan. Paolo Valesio has been and continues to be a contributor to various literary periodicals as well as Italian dailies (including: Il Manifesto, the Supplemento to Il Corriere della Sera, Il Giornale, Il Foglio). He has written several hundred essays, articles, poems, and short stories, and published four books of criticism: Strutture dell’allitterazione (1968), Novantiqua (1980), Ascoltare il silenzio (1986), and Gabriele d’Annunzio: The Dark Flame (1992); and a critical-narrative essay, Dialogo coi volanti (1997). He is the author of: two novels, L’ospedale di Manhattan (1978) and Il regno doloroso (1983); a collection of short stories, S’incontrano gli amanti (1993); and one novella, Tradimenti verde (1987).

Paolo Valesio has published fourteen books of poetry: Prose in poesia (1979), La rosa verde (1987), Dialogo del falco e dell’avvoltoio (1987), Le isole del lago (1990), La campagna dell’ Ottantasette (1990), Analogia del mondo (1992, winner of the prize “Città di San Vito al Tagliamento”), Nightchant (1995), Sonetos profanos y sacros (Italian original and Spanish translation, 1996), Avventure dell’Uomo e del Figlio (1996), Anniversari (1999), Piazza delle preghiere massacrate (1999, winner of the prize “Delta Poesia”), Dardi (2000), Every Afternoon Can Make the World Stand Still / Ogni meriggio può arrestare il mondo (Italian original and English translation by Michael Palma, 2002), and Volano in cento (Italian original, Spanish and English translations, 2002). Among other activities, Paolo Valesio is currently at work on the composition of five different, but connected, diaristic novels which together constitute a Pentalogia which has now reached fifteen-thousand manuscript pages, and which is still unpublished save for some excerpts in periodicals. The following poems come from his Selected Poems, © 2005, and are translated into English by Graziella Sidoli in a bilingual text.

Sal Poeticum


The poet is like salt
but not like bread:
not the salt of the earth,
but the salt upon the earth –
that, dispersed and dissipated
on the furrowed terrain, makes it sterile.
And yet, even barren breasts
can be a sparkling seduction.
The poet reveals
the desert to the desert,
revirginizing it and making it ready.

The Theater at Fiuggi

Sakura Park


The most arcane veil of the Virgin
was the one covering her heart.
Only now I know it,
now that my own veiled heart
is forever more the coffer
that guards the words I cannot say;
it is the small blind lantern
resembling the uncovered heart
that is the large stone lantern
gently empty and high above the pillar
at the center of the flower-bed
in the Japanese garden.


Upper West Side, Manhattan
April 20, 2005

The Vulture's Meal

FROM DIALOGUE BETWEEN THE HAWK AND THE VULTURE
(Milano: Editrice Nuovi Autori, 1987)

To die is easy.
But to be entombed: is a philosophic art.
You must be buried
in your wedding frock.
You avow the course of a lifetime
with just one good suit
from wedlock to dust.
Hoping you find --
at the decisive breach, and on that final
blade of the light of consciousness --
the fathers of your forefathers' fathers.
Mothers should survive
their own children to adequately
and solemnly cry over them. They,
sole experts of delicate corruptions,
of tender indulgences
in the sweet spoiling of children,
they are the only benevolent corrupt ones
who know the funereal chant for the body.
To be dressed in tradition
is to be inside a woven trench.
Yet it's not so simple
for a life to die
in this fashion.

Too many earthen roots
are intertwined on the ground's surface.
The hunt is on for available nooks,
piles of corpses waiting their turn.
Earth itself is thus profaned
by greed for posts and stones.
Territory comes from terror.
The sword digs the soil
then it digs right into the neck.

The Parsees say:
the earth is sacred --
therefore it cannot be polluted
with carcasses;
the fire is sacred --
therefore it cannot be profaned
with burning bodies;
the air is sacred --
it cannot be darkened by ashes.
Where, then, is the place for the dead?
In the self-moving tomb that rules out
all the elements, cutting them off
from its narrow black vault:
the vulture.


Sometimes I think the contrary:
earth and water
fire and air --
they are all polluted and soiled,
not one worthy any longer of hosting
the only simulacrum of purity:
the human body.
Yet --
as I walk along the wide avenue
(Bombay below me and the hill)
observing the Towers of Silence
I realize I must return
to the lucid vision of the Parsees:
the vulture.
Confined deep wells
upturned towers
inside the womb inside the earth.
There corpses are discarded.
And upon all the palm trees encircling,
the vultures attend.
Large, coppery, bald,
with necks buried into their shoulders.
The vultures are stripped philosophers
(displaying how incongruous
is the robed philosopher).
The vultures are critics:
they swallow, before any other limb,
the eyes.


In their viscera
death is purified,
the wheel keeps turning.

Matins: Nerio stands by the crack of the bedroom door

FROM THE ISLANDS OF THE LAKE
(Venezia: Le Edizioni del Leone, 1990)


Watery face... Hey, hazy face...
Oh, face framed in downy mistyness,
you allow dawn to lay you bare;
as she cautiously knocks at the glass
of your eyelids with her ring
and she passes on. Yet, she pauses
at the shutters of your templar bones,
sheltering the absence of your soul
until the time when she returns,
spent drifter of dark alleys
tinged in a purple halo
by the lipstick smeared around her lips
at the edges of the mouth
like a wound
ancient musty sealed and withered
that suddenly opens up again --
a beam of light winking --
the dreamy wanderer now
releases a smile pale and weary,
a consumed grimace
skewed like her frayed shawl,
and the heart responds with a smirk
ailing, in sharp retort
to the mischief of her lips, and questions her:
"Where have you been? Whoring around?"
But none of it crystallizes
upon the exquisite facade of your countenance
in reposed mind composed
and locked, waiting serenely
to see your own eyes.

Lake Linsley, Train New Haven/New York

The Temptation

FROM THE SQUARE OF MASSACRED PRAYERS
(Modena: Edizioni del Laboratorio, 1999)

 

It may be that I spent my life
breathing in, day after day, all the scents
of dawns that were not my own.
Then the temptation of desperation
comes upon me:
my life and I, we never met. But then
a thought comes to me:
these dawns were sent to me
by someone, these dawns
must be accepted by someone.

 

Copyright © by Paolo Valesio. Translations copyright by Graziella Sidoli. All rights reserved.

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