Thursday, August 12, 2010

Alda Merini's "Love Lessons"

Love Lessons is a selection of poems by contemporary Italian poet Alda Merini, translated by Susan Stewart. Merini's treatment of love is both intensely erotic and metaphysical. In fact, it does not distinguish between the body and the mind. There is no ironic posturing here, only passionate involvement. Despite the asymmetries of love--love unrequited, unequal, betrayed--the poems give the impression that Merini cannot help giving herself to it. Borne on her surging emotion, the reader is thrown, with her, against the intransigency of male lust. "Roman Wedding" concludes with this ominous, yet exhilarating, image:

Like a rock dividing waters,
a young and raging current,
recklessly, you will break me up
in the arms of a painful delta . . .

Out of this breaking arises self-knowledge, self-definition. The poem "Alda Merini" begins with a gentle ache: "I tenderly loved some very sweet lovers/ without them knowing anything about it." It moves towards self-understanding, that

In me there was the soul of the prostitute
of the saint of the one who lusts for blood and of the hypocrite.

The Italian reads much better:

In me l'anima c'era della meretrice
della santa della sanguinaria e dell'ipocrita.

The whore is indistinguishable from the madonna, the private from the public. Rejecting the labels other people try to pin on her, Merini concludes with humorous self-deprecation, which is also a form of defiance, that she is "only an hysteric."

There are many fine lyrics in this selection, but one of the strongest poems is an extended meditation, written in a looser verse. "The Cry of Death" moves not so much by logic as by repetition and excess of imagery. The reader is swept past the occasional cliche by the torrent of thought, until Merini arrives at a formulation that is at once clear and obscure:

Here on the unhappy veranda, the woman
who is no model and who has no fear lies veiled for-
ever in a popular ovation that already has seen collapse
the doubt of luck and the luck of doubt.

The public, the "popular ovation," may be certain of her luck, but they do not see the unhappy woman on the verandah, who could let herself fall.

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