Literary Yard

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Review: ‘Allegria’ by Giuseppe Ungaretti, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock

By Thomas Sanfilip

Literary form collapses under the pressure of social upheaval. In the process, a natural progression from one state of consciousness to another makes cultural continuity impossible. In the intervening period, when all has collapsed under the weight of global conflict, there are individuals who, with miraculous courage and will, live through the inevitable fragmentation and express striking, new poetic form that offers glimpses of the real beyond the smoke of destruction. Italian poet, Giuseppe Ungaretti’s Allegria written during and after WWI between 1914 and 1919 is one such work that achieved such renown for its sparse, compelling expression of the disintegration and hope born in the aftermath of the senseless waste of WWI. In Allegria, Ungaretti salvaged the fragments of human consciousness put under assault by the conflict, and in the process achieved a poetic vernacular that still resonates, even in translation, over a hundred years after its writing.

Geoffrey Brock’s translation of the complete work, published by Archipelago Press, with facing Italian text, achieves an impressive rendering of Ungaretti’s minimalist poetic expression, shaped into a cohesive work of succinct expressionism that loses very little from the Italian. Brock skillfully navigates the tricky, impressionistic aspects of Ungaretti’s vernacular, and manages to retain the striking quality of each poetic line throughout the work. In the process, he successfully keeps the work intact, allowing the reader to appreciate the larger picture, while still retaining the uniqueness of all its individual elements that gives the work such exceptionality.

There are any number of instances of this wherein Ungaretti trims back extraneous elements of poetic coloring, and sketches images in the sharpest possible outline to evoke their poetic essence as in “Chiaroscuro.”

Even the tombs have vanished.

Endless black space dropping

from this balcony

to the graveyard

He has come looking for me

my Arab friend

who killed himself the other evening

Morning again

The tombs come back

crouching in the gloomy green

of the last shadows

in the murky green

of first light

Brock’s translation keeps the poet’s language tight and consistent, and the distinct outlines of the work as a whole drawn sharp and distinct, achieving a cohesiveness that, given its concentrated expressionism, is a remarkable achievement of poetic approximation given the challenges of maintaining fidelity to the original Italian. He captures the emotional transitions embedded in Ungaretti’s poetry without any jarring fits and starts, from the intensity of his experience at the front to an easing off into poetic revery in the midst of war’s brutality and death as in the poem “Detachment

Behold a uniform


behold a desert


an impassive mirror

for the world

Sometimes I wake

and join forces

and possess

The rare good that grows in me

how slowly it grows

And when its time has come

how numbly it fades

What is unique to Ungaretti’s work is the homeostasis his poetry retains as senseless death and destruction at the front overwhelms his conscience at their witnessing. I think this critical factor is implicit to appreciating Ungaretti’s poetry for the simple reason that, like any poetry of artistic value, it reveals more about the poet’s values and how they ultimately dictate his own fate, whether in wartime or throughout the normal travails of life. This netherworld between life and senseless death in a war that alters one’s perception of reality is no better articulated than in Ungaretti’s poem ”Why” written on the battlefield of Karst Plateau in 1916.

I gazed at the horizon

pocked with craters

My heart wants to be lit

like this night

at least with the jets of rockets

I carry it

as it sinks into dirt

and bursts and thunders

like a shell

on the plain

but without leaving me

even the trail of its flight in the air

My poor heart

struck dumb

with not knowing

It should be noted that Ungaretti uses no punctuation, commas or periods, only capitalizing the first word of each stanza. This allows for a natural continuity to assert itself above and beyond the discontinuity of Ungaretti’s immediate impressions of violence and death, but still miraculously maintaining poetic integrity. This was radical for its time, but for the rapid transformation of 20th aesthetics, it was a perfect break from the staid quality 19th century Italian verse which made such an impact when the first version of Allegria  appeared as a chapbook in 1916 and to which he subsequently added in 1931 additional poems written in 1916. 

Considering Allegria’s radical break from the standard poetic form of his time, the playwright Pirandello said it best when he asserted that “as long as forms remain alive, that is, as long as the vital force lasts in them, they constitute a victory of the spirit. To destroy them simply to replace them with other forms is a crime. Some forms are a natural expression of life itself. It is therefore impossible for them to become obsolete, or to be replaced without destroying life in one of its true and natural manifestations.”

The truth is all real literature is born out of resistance to anything that would degrade, humiliate or censor the human soul. This is how true progress gains momentum in the world, when all crystalizes on a new integrative light emanating from individuals who brave the darkness of collective stupidity and discover true enlightenment. This always manifests in new literary forms of poetry and fiction wherein a new vision of the human experience and its spiritual evolution in the world is reborn and rearticulated in new light. As long as this realization is ignored, so we sink deeper into the oblivion we fear and seek at the same time. “The everlasting light dwells side by side with this mean world,” said the 13th century Sufic scholar and poet, Rumi. “The pure milk flows side by side with rivers of blood. Take two steps in this world without due precaution and your milk will turn to blood out of contamination.”

But unlike Ungaretti’s time, we are in a cultural free-fall that allows for no faith or assurance in the strength or resolve to face death and disillusionment. Failure to aline such spiritual directedness can only end in self-destruction at a multitude of levels. As Ungaretti’s poetry  illustrates, to deny such engagement is to miss the underlying goal of any serious literary pursuit. The Japanese writer, Ryunsoke Akutagawa, said it accurately—writing literature can spellbound us, rendering our souls static within its own circle of ecstasy–one of art’s terrible charms, thus having the power to emasculate.

This is a bitter pill to swallow as we march lockstep into a post-literary world wherein the individual conscience has come to mean nothing, in spite of the fact that only individuals, not collective bodies, have any real power to save us from complete disillusionment, lies and outright distortions of reality that are a consequence of political and social tyranny. We are, of course, moving backward in time, readopting and reinventing in new guise systems of thought that are long obsolete and archaic. Rather than independent thought, only conformity is encouraged, keeping these systems alive long past their arrival in history. Like war itself, these dead, discarded and poisonous methods of thinking impede the advancement of culture. In the end, we are left with the fragmentary cries of poets like Ungaretti uttered a hundred years ago to remind us of our plight. It is sad that literary polymaths are generally non-existent today, for there is much inspiration to gain from their work, if nothing more than to reinvigorate at some subliminal, cultural level an interest in the universality and hidden metaphysics that underlie any true culture with substance.

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