Saturday, August 2, 2008

Reading on South Silk Road

I was in Montclair, New Jersey last Wednesday to read translations alongside host and fellow-translator Alexis Romay. The event was at the teahouse Cha Ma Gu Dao, well worth the visit if you’re in the area – and there is now the reading series, hosted by Alexis and his wife, the writer Valerie Block, with readings every Wednesday evening. Many thanks to our lovely and gracious hosts, who accommodated our unruly caravan in style and with unflappable charm. Stay tuned for some of what Alexis read, from his translation of Miguel Correa Mujica’s North of Hell (Al norte del infierno), which is set to be published by Green Integer. Here’s something I read, from my translation in progress of the volume The Arsonist (L’Incendiario, 1910) by Aldo Palazzeschi (1885-1974).

The Festival of the Dead

The poets sing
this festival day:
each one the same way,
whether the day’s black or gray.
(But you can surely sing
an entirely different way.)
They say it never rains
but pours,
that everything flowers from mud
in a spring of muddy spray.
The same foolish old sayings
of the same old folks!
And yet today, it’s not raining,
a glorious sun shines;
the wind brings us its finest.
Black thoughts?
Come find release
in the cemetery.

You can enter, come in,
everybody forward,
the gates are open wide,
even to those with no one to mourn!
Everyone can come
and wander as they wish;
a poet too can certainly mingle
to his heart’s content.
The usual jesters’ shacks
stand outside the gate −
the social class that has the goal,
more so even than the astronomers,
of making men aware
that the world turns.
Monkeys dress as ballerinas
or in military uniform;
one walks off arm in arm
with a little sergeant,
another tries to pull
a corporal into a room;
one dressed as a maid
is busy with the cleaning,
a captain slaps
a petrified private.
Women yell themselves hoarse
about some scientific miracle,
the latest scientific revelation
within reach of the common man,
odd bodies, psychological freaks!
And the well-intentioned fairgoers
stand speechless before them.
Horns, cymbals, tin pans,
everyone shouts like mad:
it’s the festival of the dead!
And the homemade pastry, unforgettable pastry
everyone’s waiting for,
the hot roasted birds
they did not neglect to castrate.

In the taverns they’re playing guitar,
they’re singing songs of the country,
the latest folk tune
or Neapolitan romance.

They hang bleeding at the butcher’s,
the phenomenal, superb fresh hams,
those of All Saints’ Day,
that have already felt the first frost of the dead.
And on the counters, in stacks,
or sinuously linked,
miles of sausage
that seem the heaped diseased intestines
of all the dead.
The deli owners have hung
the new salamini, cotechini,
zamponi, mortadelle;
and an appetizing aroma
of hare and pappardelle
issues right into the street.
Everyone lurches to the feast
and eats till they burst.

The mounted Carabinieri
with their feathered red hats
proudly take up their positions
amidst the heedless throng of fairgoers.

You can go to the cemeteries
with flowers or without,
but even the most insufferable,
remotest relative
can expect a flower on that day
from his kin.

The dead aren’t all the same,
as some believe,
and above all, they’re not mute –
those in the cemeteries at least
are shameless gossips.
On the marbled skin of their faces,
far better than on those of the living,
their character’s features
are clearly revealed.
“Here lies
a man of rare virtue:
Telemaco Pessuto,
fifty-three years of age,
exemplary husband and father.”
If we’d encountered you alive,
who’d have known?

Everyone wanders around, reading,
more or less in a rush,
some sounding out the words.
Don’t you know that what
you’re so blandly reading
are the faces of the dead?
That all those sweet expressions
are the looks on their faces?

Oh! Curious coincidence!
“Celestina Verità
ninety-seven years of age”
and alongside:
three years of age
of the Del Re.”
Strange coincidence!
Which of you two forced your destiny?
Each of you were meant to reach a hundred,
yet, Peppino Del Re,
Celestina Verità,
against your will
you made such brief society
of your lives?
Was it Peppino who came to you, o Celestina,
and unexpectedly took from you
three years of your life?

Or did you, Peppino, at birth,
find your years
already virtually spent
by Celestina?
One of you is the parasite
of the other.

What little space the dead occupy,
far less than seems natural.
And some of you were sole owners
of some plot of land
that had always seemed so tiny!
Those high walls
with all those heads packed in tightly,
no room to budge,
seem the walls of a loggia
for an exceptional emissary.
And everyone wanders around indifferently,
chomping on hot roasted game,
sucking on sweets or mints,
reading distractedly, hypocritically,
the doggerel of those poor souls.
Clever men,
who always walk amongst the living,
and can’t wait for the moment
to walk amongst the dead.
The living have such faces,
so expressive, yet mute,
even a scoundrel’s
can appear sympathetic;
but the faces of the dead
are full of excellent information.
If you meet a thoughtful lad in the street,
how can you tell if he’s virtuous?

At the highest point of the cemetery,
atop a great platform
built for the occasion,
they’re putting the skulls up for auction.
They press around
in the hundreds,
fixed on the athletic auctioneer
who yells himself hoarse, at the top of his voice.
Cops are everywhere.
– Four!
– Five!
– Eight!
– Ten!
– Fifteen bucks!
The first ones sell like hot cakes!
− Think about it, gentlemen!
The impatient ones pay even more
than a buck per skull.
Many wait for competition to die down
and the price to fall.
– Four!
– Six!
– Eight!
Bathed in tears,
a young newlywed
clasps her husband’s arm:
– Buy me that skull.
– Be quiet! the young man says to her.
– Buy me that skull.
– Be quiet silly,
toward evening they’ll be giving them away for nothing.
– Ten!
– Eleven!
– Twelve!
– Think about it, gentlemen!
– Buy me that skull.
– Be quiet I said,
can’t you see it’s a crummy old skull?
– Buy me that skull.
– If you’re not quiet we’re leaving.
– That could be the skull of my own mother.
– What’re you talking about!
– What happened down below?
– The cops are on the run!
– Where are all those people running to?
– They’ve arrested that dwarf
who was selling those second-hand skulls.
And along the roads,
the winding country lanes,
in a pretty sunset full of smoke,
of violets and flame,
the people happily return
from the cemetery.
And every good devil
makes off with a skull under his arm.

(Thanks to the editors of the journal Calque for publishing this translation in their issue #4.)

1 comment:

bustrófedon said...

Thank you, Nick! I had a great time at the reading. Let's plan another another soon!