Alda Merini’s linguistic and thematic passion, intensity, and mysticism made her one of the major Italian poets of her generation. She was born in 1931, and by the time of her death in 2009, had published more than 60 collections of poetry and an autobiography, L'altra verità. Diario di una diversa (The Other Truth: Diary of a Dropout) (1986) in which she explored madness in creative expression.
She was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature, once in 1996 by the Académie Française and again in 2001 by the Italian PEN Club. Her work is well-loved in Italy but is only beginning to be known in the English-speaking world, most especially with the recent publication of Susan Stewart’s Love Lessons: Selected Poems of Alda Merini (Princeton, 2009).
Jensen has a partner in this work, Chiara Frenquelluci, who was born in Rome and has been teaching language and literature for over twenty years. She has published articles on Italian theater, fiction, opera and poetry, a critical edition of 17th c librettos, as well as textbooks and multimedia eBooks. The translation below is by Frenquellucci and Jensen and appeared in tearsinthefence (U.K.) #63, Spring 2016, p. 57.
Quando ci mettevano il cappio al collo
e ci buttavano sulle brandine nude
insieme a cocci immondi di bottiglie
per favorire l'autoannientamento,
allora sulle fronti mandide
compariva il sudore degli orti sacri,
degli orti maledetti degli ulivi.
Quando gli infermieri bastardi
ci sollevavano le gonne putride
e ghignavano, ghignavano verde,
era in quel momento preciso
che volevamo la lapidazione.
Quando venivamo inchiodati in un cesso
per esser sottoposti alla Cerletti,
era in quel momento che la Gestapo vinceva
e i nostri maledettissimi corpi
non osavano sferrare pugni a destra e a manca
per la resurrezione degli uomini…
When they would slip a noose around our necks
and throw us on naked cots
along with filthy bottle shards
to push us toward self annihilation,
then on drenched foreheads
appeared the sweat of sacred gardens,
of those damned olive gardens.
When the bastard nurses
would lift our putrid skirts
and sneer, sneer green,
it was in that precise moment
that we wanted to be stoned to death.
When strapped onto the crapper
to undergo the Cerletti,*
it was in that moment that the Gestapo won,
and our goddamned bodies
dared not strike to the right and to the left
for the resurrection of mankind…
*Cerletti invented electric shock treatment.
KAROLINE VON GÜNDERRODE
Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806) was born in Karlsruhe to an impoverished family of the lesser nobility. Her meditations on love and death drew upon and advanced mythological scholarship. She wrote abundantly, often publishing under a male pseudonym, and had three loves in her life, each ending badly. After the third she killed herself on the banks of the Rhine.
The poem below was translated by Jensen and Monika Totten. Totten is a retired scholar whose doctorate is from the Harvard Department of Germanic Literatures and Language. The translation appeared in Tears in the Fence (U.K.), no. 57 summer 2013.
Vorzeit, und neue Zeit.
Ein schmahler rauher Pfad schien sonst die Erde.
Und auf den Bergen glänzt der Himmel über ihr,
Ein Abgrund ihr zur Seite war die Hölle,
Und Pfade führten in den Himmel, u zur Hölle.
Doch alles ist ganz anders nun geworden,
Der Himmel ist gestürzt, der Abgrund ausgefüllt,
Und mit Vernunft bedekt, und sehr bequem zum gehen.
Des Glaubens Höhen sind nun demolieret.
Und auf der flachen Erde schreitet der Verstand,
Und misset alles aus, nach Klafter und nach Schuen.
THEN, AND NOW
Once earth seemed a rough, tight path.
And in the mountains Heaven glowed,
And at earth’s side, a deep abyss was Hell,
And paths led up to Heaven, and to Hell.
But now everything’s entirely altered,
Heaven has collapsed, the abyss filled in
And paved with reason, and very easy walking.
The heights of faith have been demolished.
And knowledge strides across the smooth flat earth,
And measures everything, in fathoms, cords, and feet.