Throughout the month of May of this year, I had these lines floating around in my head:
When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.
And when I finally opened my college copy of the Inferno to read that first canto again, there was a post-it note, mint green, with messy writing, on the first page of the poem. It was a translation of the first three lines, done by my grandfather, Stephen Brunero:
In the middle of the walk of our life, I retreat for an obscure ________. The direct route was smeared.
I love my grandfather’s translation, especially the idea that the route is “smeared”–not lost– but there, right in front of me, only I can’t make it out.
I also love that blank line. He didn’t translate “selva,” which is a pretty easy word to translate: forest, wood.
My grandfather was a lawyer who worked from a little office off his kitchen. He made wills for old men in the neighborhood and when his office phone rang, my grandmother would run in from the kitchen and answer it, pretending she was his receptionist. But he spoke and wrote Italian–several dialects–and his vocabulary in that language seemed–large. For instance, after I’d come back from a trip to Italy where I’d contracted scarlet fever and had to be hospitalized in Venice in an institution that let cats wander in and out of the sick rooms and that was entirely committed to 19th century EKG machines, he easily deciphered for my mother my Italian medical records. If he could translate phrases like “blood culture,” why couldn’t he translate the word for “forest”?
Did he pause because “selva” reminded him, or tricked him into thinking, of “self”–and “obscure self” didn’t make sense to him? I wouldn’t ask him, even if he were alive right now, because for months I’ve loved thinking of selva as an amalgamation of “self” and “forest.” There must be some sort of ancient relationship between those words. Merwin (yes, ok, this will sort of relate to him now), Merwin writes, “Even the right words if ever/we come to them tell of something/the words never knew.” I love that idea.
And as I was reading Shadow of Sirius, its focus on certain words, while driving me crazy, also pushed me to try to see those words as doing more work, meaning more than they mean. I started interpreting every tree and leaf line in the book as a statement on the Self. It was easy actually. I thought, Merwin must think this too (he is after all a translator of Dante–Purgatorio not Inferno–but perhaps he has been tricked too by “selva”). So I took all the tree lines, pretty much in the order they occur in the book, and made this little poem tonight, a poem in the style (as much as I could muster) of Merwin, a poem that is not a good poem but that may reveal something about Merwin to you, and finally, a poem that let me think, as I wrote it, about my Papa in his kitchen translating Dante for me for a few minutes, before he made my grandmother a martini, or before he gave his cat a bath, both of which are things I like to think about.
The Forest of the Self
Through the trees and across the river remember now
over there among the young leaves autumn
numberless autumn with its leaves some were
falling at the fringe of the forest
in the green heart of the woods
each tree in its own leaves
the cotton-white glare floating over
the leaves when the leaves were still green
before the word for autumn and
before the looking out into the trees
after dark then the heart leaves of the old poplar
bears took their time there under trees
they knew apple trees flowering in another century
with all its leaves the river flowing beyond the big trees
and beyond the landscapes of other times
a wave and an ash tree were sisters each was
sure that the other must be lost descendants of root and water
the color of these leaves those who are gone now
keep wandering through our words
–Charles Altieri wrote that Merwin’s repetitiveness meant that “no specific instance of an image contains its complete meaning.”
–The word for inner self in Italian is “il mio io.”
–The subtitle/alternate title for this post is a Simone Weil line: “If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there.”
–I got the idea to compile Merwin’s tree references in Shadow of Sirius from reading the work of William Walsh, also a KR blogger, whose book Questionstruck compiles every question Calvin Trillin ever published, and certainly “recontextualizes” Trillin, but also along the way makes its own music and meaning, which I’m definitely not claiming I’ve done here. You could, however, in the spirit of sharing writing prompts, try making your own poem with patterns in Merwin’s phrasings…