Man at Leisure, Alexander Trocchi (Oneworld Classics) $16.95
It’s unusual to read an afterword that admits “the verse collected in this book is of variable quality,” but refreshingly honest, and Stewart Home goes on to contextualize both Trocchi’s poetry on the page and his Situationist “poetry of living.” John Calder, in his preface, accounts for some of the variation of poetry within, explaining it was written over the course of two decades, slightly edited then published by Calder only once it had been illegally obtained from Trocchi’s desk drawer. William’s Burrough’s introduction has been preserved from the original edition; no dount history will prove his comparisons of Trocchi to Donne exaggerated in execution if not vision. Vision is evident in manifold poems. In “A Little Geography Lesson for my Sons and Daughters,” perhaps my favorite poem of the collection, Trocchi gathers his loose (and occasionally dead-on) imagery and ad hoc rhyming with proper names and places:
The wise men came from the east.
its wisdom is dried up,
a fig with its many seeds;
its sayings (deeds)
inscribed on tablets
endures as stone endures,
but they are not precisely statements;
they are elliptical as the thighs of its women.
consult the sufis, the masters of zen.
remember Li Po, Saladin.
The east is a great beast at bay
in the desert, a mongol caravan.
distances are far.
there is snow in China.
there is whiskey at Kandahar.
The west is electric trains
a brass figure on a cross and
supply & demand
profit & loss. there is no prevailing
colour in the west
unless we speak of that dictated by Schiaparelli
and that is for spring or autumn only.
Elsewhere, as in “Did I meet You in Persepolis?” he more plainly exercises the humor of his considered hedonism:
When you speak of the “cannabis problem”,
he sd then,
placing the wee green-
black ball of hashish
upon her gleam-
ing, creamsweet abdomen,
I take it you refer
to the garden of my uncle, the emir,
where the problem
is the manner in which you prefer
to absorb it…
Burroughs is correct when he says that Trocchi writes about more than just flesh, but “flesh and death and”—this is where I think he is right—“the vision that comes through the flesh.” Trocchi’s poetry suggests a poet much like his “Man at Leisure,” which begins with the indented triplet:
his world picture was
his word picture and
his vocabulary, obscene
Sepulchres, Ugo Foscolo, tr. J.G. Nichols (Oneworld Classics) $13.95
Again, in an unusual display of honesty, translator J.G. Nichols writes in his post-poetry “Extra Material” that “Foscolo’s poetry is uneven in quality.” In tone—and indeed in century as well, having been born in 1778 and having died in 1827—Foscolo is quite distant from Trocchi, much more formal and generously appointed with allusions to the classics. Born on the Ionian Island of Zante to a Greek mother and a Venetian father, Foscolo engaged his passion for the not-yet nation of Italy in his professional and poetic lives, both serving in Napoleon’s army and later writing poems decrying some of his edicts. The poet eventually settled in English, where he made a living writing essays. In his spare time he translated Milton—an excerpt, retranslated into English, is included here—and wrote at least one poem in English, included as an appendix. My favorite poem in the collection, which is certainly not as accomplished as the fragmentary “The Graces” or long title-poem “Sepulchres,” is “Against Lamberti,” which reminds me of the bureaucracy and opportunism that breeds within government-funded arts initiatives:
“What is Lamberti doing,
That learned man?”
“Printing a Homer
He works hard upon.”
“Does he comment?” “Oh no!”
“Does he translate?” “Oh! Oh!
He is revising his first proof,
And issues every month one leaf;
We’ll see it end with the decade;
Unless Bodini is already dead.”
“That is a work undying!”
“The Government is paying.”
It is difficult for me to critique the translation of work from this period, but it seems Nichols has done well to preserve Foscolo’s poetic high speech, often employing the Anglicized constructions of the Romance languages to a formalizing effect. While I at first found his capitalization of each line—which Foscolo doesn’t himself employ—annoying, I came to understand and then admire its use as another subtle formalizing device. As an example of Nichols’ translation, as well as a more representative example of Foscolo’s work, the first five lines of “Sepulchres” follow:
All’ombra de’ cipressi e dentro l’urne
confortate di pianto è forse il sonno
della morte men duro? Ove più il sole
per me alla terra non fecondi questa
bella d’erbe famiglia e d’animale…
Shaded by cypresses, and kept in urns,
Consoled by weeping, is the sleep of death
Really not quite so rigid? When the sun
For me at length no longer fills the earth
With such a family of plants and beasts…