The Shiny Surfacenof Obscuritynby Cosma SianinMottetti, Poems of Love: ThenMotets of Eugenio MontalenTranslated and Introducednby Dana GioianSaint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press;n77 pp., $14.95na obody would write verse ifnN poetry were a question ofn’making oneself understood’; indeed, itnis a question of making understood thatnquiddity which words alone fail tonconvey.” This much-quoted statementnby Eugenio Montale, the Nobel PrizewinningnItalian poet who died in 1981,nmay serve as an introduction to thesenMotets, a sequence of 20 short poems,nas well as to the most acclaimed style ofnhis poetry as represented in his collectionsnCuttlefish Bones (1925), ThenOccasions, which includes the motetsn(1939), and The Storm and OthernThings (1956).nBut how does that principle work innMontale’s own creative writing? Andnwhat is it that words may “fail tonconvey”? The tiny book under review,nequipped as it is with a short essay ofnMontale’s himself (“Two Jackals on anLeash,” in Jonathan Galassi’s version)nand with an introduction by the translator,nDana Gioia, provides us withneverything we need to find a way out ofnan otherwise vague and even crypticnassertion.nAn example will best demonstratenthe poet’s assumption. Here is thenautobiographical report of a strollnaround a town in Northern Italy (in thenpassage, the poet calls himself Mirco,nwhile Clizia is a fictitious name for thenAmerican Dante scholar Irma Brandeis,nwhom Montale met in Florencenin 1932):nOne summer afternoon Mirconfound himself at Modenanwalking in the galleries. Anxiousnas he was, and still absorbed innhis “dominating idea,” itnastonished him that life couldnpresent him with so manyndistractions, as if painted ornreflected on a screen. It was toongay a day for a man who wasn’tngay. And then an old man inngold-braided livery appeared tonMirco, dragging two reluctantnchampaigne-colored puppies onna leash, two little dogs who atnfirst glance seemed to be neithernwolfhounds nor dachshunds nornPomeranians. Mirco approachednthe old man and asked him,n”What kind of dogs are these?”nAnd the old man, dry andnproud, answered, “They’re notndogs, they’re jackals.” . . . Clizianloved droll animals. Hownamused she would have been tonsee them! thought Mirco. Andnfrom that day on he never readnthe name Modena withoutnassociating the city with his ideanof Clizia and the two jackals. Anstrange, persistent idea. Couldnthe two beasts have been sentnby her like an emanation? Werenthey an emblem, an occultnsignature, a senhal? Or werenthey only an hallucination, thenpremonitory signs of her fall,nher end?nSimilar things oftennhappened; there were no morenjackals, but other strangenproducts from the grab-bag ofnlife: poodles, monkeys, owls onna trestle, minstrels. . . . Andnalways, a healing balm enterednthe heart of the wound.nThe setting is ordinary and so are thenevents—a microcosm of commonplacenthings and everyday gestures. The onlynunexpected detail is the two jackals on anleash; but it, too, would have been lostnin the flow of perceptions, had the poetnnot stopped and talked to the old man.nHere the poet is trying to frame innplain words an utterly subjective train ofnthought: the link, in other respectsnundetectable, between the person whonis his “dominating idea” and somenmicro-events falling within the scope ofnhis experience. And he is successful innexplaining because he meets our logicalnexpectations. But has he managed toninvolve us at an emotional level, and tonmake us feel the incident the way he feltnit? This is perhaps what the explanatorynwords fail to achieve, and what thenpoem inspired by the Modena episodenis supposed to produce:nI had almost lostnnnhope of ever seeing you again;nand I asked myself if this thingncutting me offnfrom every trace of you, thisnscreennof images,nwas the approach of death, orntrulynsome dazzlingnvision of younout of the past,nbleached, distorted,nfading:n(under the arches at ModenanI saw an old man in a uniformndragging two jackals on a leash).nThe readers’ puzzlement over the literalnmeaning of the poem is an indicationnof their involvement. The lack of anframe of reference becomes an elementnof attraction, and even an unintentionalnstrategy. We are faced with the challengenof reconstructing the poet’s statenof mind. It is a method that puts a greatndemand on its reading public.nThe motet above and the Motets inngeneral are probably not the finestnexamples of Montale’s excellence innthis method, of his mastery over thenselection and blending of words andnimages to conjure up an atmosphere ornto suggest vanishing nuances. (My favoritenspecimen is “The Storm,” theneponym piece from the 1956 collection.)nHowever, the task of translatingnthe sequence, now for the first timenavailable in English in its entirety, hasnsurely not been an easy one for DananCioia. How has he coped with it?nBeing a poet in his own right, he hasnclaimed space for himself, and decidednto offer versions that “would movennaturally as English-language poems.”nAccordingly, he has tried “to set annEnglish cadence that would integratenthe transposed elements tightly into annew whole,” the outcome being “annimitation” as opposed to mere paraphrase.nAs comparison in this bilingual editionnshows, the most remarkable libertynhe has taken is in rethinking the lineationnof the originals; we often havennumerous half-lines where Montalenhas used a longer measure patternedninto more compact stanzas. Yet therenare instances where Dana Gioia cannget close to Montale’s rhythm andnJUNE 1990/41n