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Review: The Night Fountain, by Salvatore Quasimodo

Jamie McKendrick, The Warwick Review, September 2009

To the exclusion of much else of merit, Ungaretti, Montale, Saba and Quasimodo are, at least in Britain, the four best known Italian poets of the twentieth century. Despite his 1959 Nobel Prize for Literature, Salvatore Quasimodo, born in Modica, Sicily in 1901, would seem to be the one whose popularity has most receded, and his is the slenderest oeuvre. His first collection, Acque e terre, was published when he was twenty-nine and like his next book Oboe sommerso, (Sunken Oboe) only two years later, already showed him to be one of the leading exponents of Hermeticism. The Night Fountain is a gathering of his first poems, written between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, forgotten, it seems, by the poet himself, but piously preserved for years by a school friend and finally handed over to the poet's grandson who had them published. As some poems from this early period found their way into his first collection, it's fair to assume that these others are ones the poet had deliberately excluded. Though they display many characteristic symptoms of juvenilia - soft-focus melancholia, hushed languor and dolcezza - there's still enough promise in the writing to argue for this venture. He has also been fortunate in his translators, the poets Gerald Dawe and Marco Sonzogni who show an empathy with Quasimodo's poetics, even at this early stage, and their restrained and rhythmic versions highlight the strengths of the originals with accuracy and sureness of touch. Only occasionally, in the more ragged and risky enjambments of the Italian and Quasimodo's use of an extended line, can the originals seem a shade more modern than the translations.

Dawe and Sonzogni do what they can with the ethereal eroticism of a poem like Anima (Soul):

you have to love her with a pure eye,
when her naked feet skim the earth
and the sun burns the silk of her hair.

In a similar mood, the poet wonders What will my poem be tomorrow, / woman born from my mystic dream. - Much improved, is, luckily, the answer. This poem, Purity, sets up a conventional opposition between spirit and flesh and its most engaging effect is the final line: per non toccarti con febbre sensual (not to touch you with its sensual fire) where the fever of desire seems, in imagination, already to have overleaped the negative hurdle. These negative constructions abound in the poems and the word senza - without - is one that recurs to interesting effect, especially in the poem Withering (Sfioritura):

withered in the smokey
evening, without the metallic trill
of the nightingales,
without the flights
of the blackcaps,
without the trembling
of opal bells
in the sky-blue, dark
bodice of a mysterious lady! ...

The ending doesn't entirely avoid comic bathos, but the way the sentence extends itself, making present what it claims to be absent, gives some glimmer of the far more interesting poet Quasimodo will become.