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Salvatore Quasimodo and his Quest for 'Unity of the Arts'

In the fifty years since the passing of the Nobel-winning Italian litterateur on June 14, poetry continues everywhere to be subjected to ‘the silent siege’ he spoke about.

In his Nobel lecture in 1959, Salvatore Quasimodo (1901-1968) spoke of how, in the 20th century, “…the politician’s defence against culture and thus against the poet operates both surreptitiously and openly, in manifold ways”. The easiest defence, says the poet, “is the degradation of the concept of culture. Mechanical and scientific means, radio and television, help to break the unity of the arts, to favour the poetics that will not even disturb the shadows. The politician’s most favoured poetics is always that which allies itself with the memory of the Arcadia for the artistic disparagement of its own epoch. This is the meaning of Aeschylus’ verse: ‘I maintain that the dead kill the living’….”

Fifty years after his death, when we are well on our way into a new millennium, these words ring quite as true as they did then. In the post-truth world, the politician has an even more fail-proof toolkit with which to ‘break the unity of the arts’, to conjure into existence a new Arcadia, to resurrect the dead so as to liquidate the living. Does the modern-day poet have it in her to not deviate from her “moral or aesthetic path…. (which inevitably binds her to the) double solitude in the face of both the world and the literary militias”?

Quasimodo’s personal quest of the unity of his own art, of how he would confront his own double solitude, was punctuated by some of the most perilous episodes in man’s history – Fascism, genocide and the two World Wars. He had started off in what was known as the Hermetic mould, aligning his craft with celebrated contemporaries such as Giuseppe Ungaretti and Eugenio Montale, and made his mark in the early 1930s’ Italian poetry with anthologies like Acque e terre, Oboe sommerso and Odore di eucalyptus:

Tindari, I know you gentle
in broad hills hung over waters
of the god’s sweet isles;
today you assail me
and lean into my heart……

Exile is bitter
and my search for peace
that ended with you, changes today
to an early wishing for death;
and every love is a screen from sadness,
mute step into the dark
where you have placed
bitter bread for me to break. ………..

– (Wind at Tindari)

 

Desire of your bright
hands in the flame’s half light;
flavour of oak, roses
and death.

Ancient winter.

The birds seeking the grain
were suddenly snow.

So words:
a little sun; a haloed glory,
then mist; and the trees
and us, air, in the morning.

– (Ancient Winter)

The intimate flavours of a very private world, the sometimes recondite symbolism that traces back to the French 19th century poets Mallarme and Valery, and the recurring motifs of the Sicilian isles, religion and death rendered in sparse, personalised but powerful word-pictures – combined to locate Quasimodo at the centre of the Hermeticist genre in Italy. Often, a very personal experience is sought to be verbalised in these poems via a deliberate rarefication of the poetic medium, so that both the experience and the language transcend the boundaries of the traditional, the hackneyed. And yet a richly lyrical voice quite often breaks free of the somewhat idiosyncratic confines of the chosen idiom:

Sometimes your voices call me back,
and what skies and waters
waken inside me!

A net of sunlight tears
on your walls that at night
were a swaying of lamps
from the late shops
full of wind and sadness…..

Alley: a cross of houses
calling out low to each other,
never knowing it is the fear
of being alone in the dark.

– (Alleyway)

With Poesie and Ed e subito sera, Quasimodo’s Hermetic period draws to a close, but not before he had presented us with that unforgettable three-liner:

Everyone is alone on the heart of the earth
pierced by a ray of the sun;
and suddenly it’s evening.

– (And Suddenly it is Evening)

Quasimodo’s poetic journey had begun in the shadow of Italian fascism. His anti-fascist sympathies were well-known, and he was briefly imprisoned by Mussolini’s Blackshirts, too, though he never really associated actively with the Italian Resistance except at its peripheries. Through the 1940s, his poetry veered away from the tightly-packed landscape of the individual’s cognitive and moral preoccupations to human society at large, to the devastating war raging in Europe and elsewhere. His themes continued to revolve around the human condition, but they surveyed that condition now in the light refracted through the prism of catastrophic events, not the mellow light of a crepuscular sky:

Evening falls: again you leave us,
dear images of earth, trees,
beasts, poor people enfolded
in soldiers’ greatcoats, mothers
with bellies dried up by tears.
And snow from the fields lights us
like the moon. Ah, these dead ones! Beat
your foreheads, beat right down to the heart.
Let someone, at least, howl in the silence,
in this white circle of buried ones.

– (Snow)

Here, far from everyone
the sun beats down on your hair, kindling its honey,
and now from its bush the last cicada of summer
and the siren deep-wailing
its warning over the plain of Lombardy
remind us we are alive.
O air-scorched voices, what do you want?
Weariness still rises from the earth.

– (Written, Perhaps on a Tomb)

The tonal asymmetries with the Hermetic period are palpable here, and even the form takes on sharper contours, the hard narrative element enters the canvas which, till recently, was suffused in a softer light. The calamitous allied bombing of Milan of August 1943, for example, draws the poet out in this bitter lament:

In vain you search in the dust,
poor hand, the city is dead.
Dead: on the heart of the Naviglio
the last hum has been heard…..
Dig no wells in the courtyards,
the living have lost their thirst.
The dead, so red, so swollen, do not touch them:
leave them in the earth of their houses;
the city is dead, is dead.

– (Milan, August 1943)

“The poet is the sum total of the diverse ‘experiences’ of the man of his times”, Quasimodo said in his Nobel acceptance speech. “His language is no longer that of the avant-garde, but rather is concrete in the classical sense”. At the same time, “(h)e may seem to destroy his forms, while instead he actually continues them. He passes from the lyric to epic poetry in order to speak about the world and the torment in the world through man, rationally and emotionally”.

Quasimodo’s own poetry is a fascinating account of this transformation, as witness the almost graphic, rather than impressionistic, picture of the dead Mussolini and his cohorts hung upside down from meat-hooks in Milan’s vast Piazzale Loreto on April 29, 1945. What is truly extraordinary, though, is that the poet manages to invest even this lurid spectacle with basic human concerns by engaging a mother-son duo in a passionate examination of all that was at stake here:

SON:
Mother, why do you spit at a corpse
hanging tied by the feet from a beam, head down?
And the others dangling beside him, don’t they
disgust you?…………..
…………………..No, mother, stop! Shout
to the crowd to go. This is not grief but leering
and joy. The horseflies are glued already
to the knots of veins. Now you have aimed at that face:
mother, mother, mother!

MOTHER:
We have always spat at corpses, son:
hanging from window-bars and masts of ships,
burnt at the stake, torn to pieces
by hounds on estate bounds for the sake of a little
grass. An eye for an eye, a tooth
for a tooth, turmoil or quiet no matter:…..
…….. They have gouged your eyes, maimed
your hands, just for a name to be betrayed.
Show me your eyes, give me your hands:
you are dead, son, and because you are dead, my son,
you can pardon, my son, my son.
The son responds to his mother by noting “(t)his sickening, sultry heat, this smoke / of ruins, the fat green flies bunched on the hooks”, and goes on to cry out in anguish:
tomorrow they will pierce my eyes and hands
again. All down the ages pity
has been the howl of the murdered.

– (Laude, April 29, 1945)

Thus, when writing about human dignity, mortal aspiration or man’s inhumanity, Quasimodo does not treat these as general themes, but as closely felt personal experiences. For, to him this was what poetry is all about. “From his night, his solitude, the poet finds day and starts a diary that is lethal to the inert. The dark landscape yields a dialogue”. The politician, on the other side, “judges cultural freedom with suspicion, and by means of conformist criticism tries to render every concept of poetry immobile”.

Ever wary of political establishments, Quasimodo – who greatly admired what the October Revolution stood for—had joined the Italian Communist Party at the end of the war, only to leave it soon after, when the party wanted him to harness his talents for producing ‘political’ poetry. “An accord between poet and politician will never be possible”, so he believed, “because the one is concerned with the internal order of man, the other with the ordering of men”. He could visualise, though, how “(a) quest for the internal order of man could, in a given epoch, coincide with the ordering and construction of a new society”. In the time of great social change, the general also becomes personal, the image coalesces into the object. It is perhaps at such times that, in the words of Leonardo da Vinci, “every wrong is made right”.

Was it in the great struggle against fascism that Quasimodo himself stole a glimpse of that rare ‘human time’? May be he did, or he maybe dreamt of that time. Either way, he did not fail to record that vision for posterity:

In the wind of deep light she lies
my loved one of the time of doves.
Alone among the living, love,
you talk of waters, leaves and me,
and your voice consoles the naked
night with shining
ardours and delight.

Beauty deluded us, vanishing
of every memory and form,
the lapse and slide revealed to feelings
mirroring the inner splendours.

But from the deeps of your blood with no
pain, in the just human time
we shall be born again.

– (In the Just Human Time)

Anjan Basu freelances as literary critic, translator and commentator. ‘As Day is Breaking’ is his book of translations from the Jnanpeeth award winning poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay. Basu can be reached at [email protected]

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