Teresa Kennedy

title.none: Cirigliano, trans., Cavalcanti: Complete Poems

identifier.other: baj9928.9504.008 95.04.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Teresa Kennedy, Mary Washington College

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Cirigliano, Marc, trans. Guido Cavalcanti, The Complete Poems: A New Translation. New York: Italica Press, 1992. Pp. 46 + 156; with index. ISBN: ISBN: 0-934977-27-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.04.08

Cirigliano, Marc, trans. Guido Cavalcanti, The Complete Poems: A New Translation. New York: Italica Press, 1992. Pp. 46 + 156; with index. ISBN: ISBN: 0-934977-27-5.

Reviewed by:

Teresa Kennedy
Mary Washington College

Perhaps the easiest way to begin this review is to try and get over the heavy ground as lightly as one can. In short, Marc Cirigliano's recent translation of the complete poems of Guido Cavalcanti is, in the tradition of some of his predecessors, a failure; although perhaps a noble one.

The nobility here rests in the attempt itself, indeed in the very standards Cirigliano sets as the measure for his success. I can think of few Italian poets more difficult to render into English than Guido Cavalcanti, whose powerful yet strange combinations of formal structure, intellectual difficulty, and allusive vocabulary create formidable roadblocks for the most gifted translator. Part of this difficulty, of course, is driven by the very span of time one needs to bridge simply to approximate the then spontaneous, contemporary, and radical style that Cavalcanti helped to invent. In fact, it can be agued that lyrically at least, Guido succeeds where even Dante fails; he accomplishes more fully the agenda of the vernacular project embraced by the school of the dolce stil nuovo, a poetic language that suggests truth through fracture, what Kenneth Burke in a different context aptly calls the oxymoronic of the symbol. The goal of these poets is to achieve in lyric form a poetry that uses the vernacular as an intellectual category of knowledge that remains fluid and dynamic; that is, a poetry that represents individual, uninterpreted, historical moments. Naturally this particularizing of history leads to a rapid loss of context, since the goal of the poetry is not social in a conventional sense, but remains in fact somewhat narcissistic. The difficulty for the translator, then, is particularly acute: how does one render a historicized immediacy that has become a cultural category of knowledge that attempts to foreclose language?

Certainly this difficulty is well understood by Cirigliano, and is at the center of his introductory remarks. Indeed, as he explains in his first paragraph: This translation of the poems of Guido Cavalcanti is intended for people who love to read. I hope to make Cavalcanti accessible for an English-reading audience. A particular hope is that readers take my translation with Robert Haas' advice, "It is listening that I am interested in—in writers and readers—and the kind of making [of poetry] that can come from live, attentive listening. There is, alternatively, a danger that such reading might possibly lead to over-intellectualizing Cavalcanti's poetry to the point that it, like any utterance in a tavern, becomes merely a socially produced text for critical dissection. So I ask that the reader remember that this translation was done with that dictum of Benedetto Croce always in the back of the translator's mind: "The understanding of poetry goes straight to that poetic heart and feels it beat within its own; and where that beating stops, he denies that it is poetry...."Fair enough; and I can attest that the verses contained in this volume have some truly excellent aesthetic moments. I am less sure they would be recognized by Cavalcanti as his own. Here in fact, to a certain extent, scholar must resist artist, even if one attempts to wear both hats. Cirigliano, clearly a gifted art historian and great lover of art—his discussion of the relationship of Cavalcanti to the Dada movement is fascinating—has perhaps allowed his aesthetic impulse to overcome the original. Had these verses been entitled Improvisations on the theme of Cavalcanti they would surely find their way into any class interested in the study of intertexuality. Translators, however, need to achieve a middle ground somewhere between Homer's Odyssey and Joyce's Ulysses.

Part of the problem here lies in the other translations Cirigliano invites us to consider. His critques of Rosetti and Pound are acute, and he clearly understands that translations need freshening in a way that originals do not. However, in a certain way he has created some straw men. Conspicuously absent, outside of a footnote, is any consideration of the late Lowrey Nelson, Jr.'s excellent edition and translation of 1986, written off here as worthy only apparently for its extensive bibliography. That silence is deafening. Perhaps Nelson's work did not appeal because it is exceptionally lexically and syntactically conservative with respect to the original.

Cirigliano's response, in my view, errs in the opposite direction; some would call it trendy; I find it more e. e. cummingsesque. Often ignoring critical punctutation in the original, for example, to the detriment of its sense and perhaps unintentionally in service of anachronism. To be sure, some of this license is acceptable in order to gain the violent juxtaposition of imagery that characterizes Cavalcanti's verse, but syntax remains, like it or not, a critical part of Cavalcanti's formal creation of meaning. Tense and reference are also too often similarly sacrificed. Omitting an if (17) does in fact change the sense, as does the use of the past rather than present in a sustained meditation (11). Most troubling however is the habit of sometimes rendering Donna as "woman", completely shifting the social register of the text, especially in the famous Donna me prega. Similarly translating accidente in the same poem as "something extraneous" forecloses the nuance of the work's Thomistic connotations. Fresca rosa novella rendered as "My young blossom" (2) is equally disturbing, not least because of the aesthetic appeal of the translation. The fact is, Cavalcanti is no longer new nor radical and without some lexical reserve to approximate his distance from our own century, readers are not encouraged to attempt to escape a purely modern sensibility.

Finally, the introduction, which sketches Cavalcanti in historical context is seriously flawed. Not to belabor the point, but as excellent as they they might have been in their generation, Croce, Petrocchi, and C.S. Lewis are now well outside the conversation current in late medieval Italian studies. More modern studies, cited in the notes, should have been given greater prominence in the discussion. Even more puzzling is the absence of reference to Petrarch and other lyric poets closer to Cavalcanti's own era to assist in the historical grounding. At any rate, there are errors of representation, if not of technical fact. In a volume like this one, presumably intended for use by undergraduates and students of Italian, clarity is important and a reasonable expectation. Certainly, for example, Giorgio Petrocchi emphasizes the importance of Cavalcanti to Dante, but is should be clear in the context of the introduction that Dante is not depicting Guido in Inferno, but discussing his mentor with Cavalcante Cavalcante, Guido's father, in front of his father-in-law Farinata. Nor is it generally accepted, at least in discussions of that vexed passage, that Guido is consigned as an atheist by Dante. A concrete discussion of the epicurean heresy might have been more helpful.

Nevertheless, Cirigliano has moments of true lyric brilliance. In Tu m'hai si piena di dolor la mente for example, particularly in this last stanzache si conduca sol per maestriae porti ne lo core una feritache sia, com'egli e morto, aperto segno which is rendered as crafted by her masterywith a wounded heartactive mortality, an open sign evocatively represents the trope of the eaten heart at the center of Cavalcanti's anguished lyricism. Simultaneously this exemplifies how Cirigliano creates his own allegoresis, too quickly forsaking the particularity of Cavalcanti's predication. Therefore, regrettably, this text may be best reserved for good readers of Italian interested in strictly modern interpretative emphases, or else in those interested in a kind of poetics of accommodation between the post-Romantic imagination and the medieval.