The road was deep that the wind went down certain March nights and woke us unknown like the first time.
That sentence doesn’t quite make sense. It doesn’t seem to want to explain anything, let alone mention roads that are deep, the wind going down certain March nights and then waking us to some moment of unfamiliarity.
For a moment we let time stand still. We feel undecided somewhat about sentences like this one.
But good poetry often causes us to behave that way. Good poetry tugs at our senses, in an attempt to bring out so much goodness that lies deeply embedded in us. Good poetry seeks to find what is pleasantly familiar in us.
The Italian poet and the 1959 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Salvatore Quasimodo, to whom the opening sentence above can be attributed, takes poetry as such. To him poetry reveals those inner and personal sentiments that we as readers recognize as our own.
But, of course, we need only wait for such an explanation from the poet himself before we can be sure about the meanings of certain utterances like the one above.
Further, we get the feeling that with Quasimodo’s we are reading poetry of the deepest kind, even if the descriptions provided us are of the familiar and the simplest in form. There is so much exile in Quasimodo’s poetry, so much talk of rugged landscape, rocky terrain, steep climbs to a brightening hilltop and the wind that can be friendly and mysterious at once.
In Professor Michael Campo’s translation of one such poem of Quasimodo’s (Agrigentum Road) we get the same sort of feeling about the wind and familiar rustic albeit in our PNG terms rural landscape.
“There a wind endures that I remember/kindled in the manes of horses/racing aslant across the plains, a wind/that stains and scars the sandstone.../the sound that drifts toward the sea/where Hesperus trails at early morn/the jew’s harp’s melancholic twang/in the throat of the cart man/who slowly ascends the moon-cleansed hill...”
Even the rural landscape sounds nobler than we can imagine. Note the “twang” of the jew’s harp “in the throat of the cart man.” Ain’t that something to hear and behold of the village scene – aside from carts and horses which we do not as yet customarily have? Or the cart man’s solemn progression upwards, as is always the key practice in human endeavour, towards a “moon-cleansed hill”?
Now storyboard’s purpose in mentioning Quasimodo here is for us to relish once all over again the gentleness of voice found in poetry. And if there aren’t any Papua New Guineans who have heard of this poet before may we be forgiven, as the poet’s relevance to the muse in the making especially in our context can be desirable as much as pressing. How many times do we write poetry only to realize we could use a second opinion? To storyboard, then, Quasimodo’s the best advice there can be not only for poetry lovers but for those who would want to jot down a line or two.
A Quasimodo persona does not explain what goes on in his mind. He says things in a way that we understand what he’s getting at. Where, for example, we could say our piece in a tone of vehemence if fate had denied us a certain sentiment, Quasimodo’s persona would rather do so in the sound of the wind across the drape.
It is unknown to you, that country
where each day I go down deep
to nourish secret syllables...
and every love is a shield against sadness
a silent stair in the gloom
where you station me
to break my bread
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Quasimodo’s poetry is the challenge it offers in translation. This is where the relevance of his poetry to us becomes necessarily pressing. Indeed, reading Quasimodo’s entices us to revisit Allan Natachee’s musings of the 1940s up to the 1970s. There is so much leeway given for the enthusiast to dub in as much imagery as possible in order to come up with a comparative reflection on the works of these two poets, despite thematic variations.
Our own Allan Natachee’s poetry is full of chant, and with it comes colour, brightness of light and ingenuity in traditional choreography. Quasimodo’s appears rich in tapestry of vocab, even if the language is Italian. But the challenge in both poets is how we improvise their work in order to bring out the beauty of their poetry in our lives and in our own languages.
Na ala la omaia
La aveve la veavea?
Na alala omoaia
La aveto la veavea?
Onino ma e atoapia!
Vavato ma e atoapia!
(For a translation of this chant and lamentation by Natachee visit the UPNG bookshop today!) Of course, we do not need thick volumes of appropriate dictionaries to get into the mind of both poets. Modern tech allows easier access to Quasimodo’s work, but to Natachee’s a visit to UPNG’s bookshop and library or literature department would do nicely. Either way we are doing ourselves great service in creativity. Both these poets worked at about the same time in history so they are contemporaneous in that sense. For a PNG literature student this would help in comparative studies, to know what two poets of different cultural settings have thought and have written at a particular time in history.
There are no large scale wars noted in Natachee’s poetry, but the amount of warrior activity is enormous. With Quasimodo the presence of war is overbearing, even though we feel more of its inferred effects on the individual than its stark resemblances through description. Descriptions of war in Natachee are sometimes epic and Spartan whereas in Quasimodo these are eschewed as they probably remind one of too much human suffering.
But both poets strike us as fascinating, colorful and graciously honest in representing human experiences. We search the two, that we do, and we find their poetry, true as ever.
He walks on the road!
In war decoration!
Chants Natachee to which complements Quasimodo:
Return, serene Tindari
stir me, sweet friend
to raise myself to the sky from the rock
so that I might shape fear, for those who do not know
what deep wind has searched me
The opening citation for this article comes from the University of Queensland Press’s publication of Michael Dransfield’s poetry (1973). Allan Natachee’s poetry from Papua Pocket Poets (1968). Excerpted translations of Quasimodo’s Wind at Tindari from PoemHunter.com and Agrigentum Road tr Prof Michael Campo, Trinity College-Hartford CT.