Kendrick Smithyman in Italian (1999)

Landfall 197 (1999)

Kendrick Smithyman in Italian

Michael Radford, dir.: Il Postino (1994)

Somehow I don’t think Kendrick Smithyman would have approved of Il Postino. The humble pieties, and rather simplistic view of the poet’s vocation expressed in this little Italian film, where a Postie asks amorous advice from the great exile Pablo Neruda, would seem unlikely to appeal to such a devotee of the twentieth-century, urban muse. And yet, and yet … he was a keen cinema-goer, fan of Westerns and Musicals (the title of that 1987 collection Are You Going to the Pictures? seems entirely appropriate, in retrospect). Can sentimental unreality go any deeper than that?

Where Smithyman and the Neruda of the movie differ most, perhaps, is in their attitude to love. For Smithyman, after the early passions commemorated in “Lady as Swan” and Seven Sonnets (1946), it appeared that:

We figure as points, loci, lines or currents
of intersecting. This is what marriage is
about, mutual comfort
– “Beginnings” (Auto/Biographies)

This is subtle, and possibly true, but not really in the same league as Neruda’s “Desnuda eres tan simple como una de tus manos” – “Naked, you are simple as one of your hands,” the poem used to such great effect by the film’s writers.

When I learned, in 1996, of the existence of a large body of unpublished Smithyman translations from Quasimodo, Montale, Ungaretti and other Italian modernists, I was at first curious to see how he had dealt with the mechanical difficulties of transferring them into English. On examination, however, these “Versions from Italian” – written in 1993, and arranged in two large groups: “Quasimodo” and “Campana to Montale” – revealed a simpler, more passionate poet than any of his other books might have led us to expect:

The gusts grow stronger, the dark is torn to bits
and the shadow which you cast on fretwork railings
creases and curls. Too late

if you want to be yourself. From a palm tree
a rat catapults, a flash of lightning plays about
a transformer,
about the so very long lashes of your glance.

This is “Promenade by the Sea,” his version of Eugenio Montale’s “Lungomare” (1940):

Il soffio cresce, il buio è rotto a squarci,
e l’ombra che tu mandi sulla fragile
palizzata s’arriccia. Troppo tardi

se vuoi esser te stessa! Dalla palma
tonfa il sorcio, il baleno è sulla miccia,
sui lunghissimi cigli del tuo sguardo

This “little madrigal” – Montale’s own description (The Storm, 167) – is, admittedly, no standard love lyric. The images intersect in characteristically oblique fashion. What, for example, does “il baleno è sulla miccia” actually mean? Literally, it means “the lightning is on the fuse.” But in context? Nobody ever claimed that Montale was easy …

Let’s turn for pointers to another translation of Montale, the bilingual version of La bufera ed altro [The Storm and Other Things] (1956) – alas, that choice of title already gives us pause – by the American William Arrowsmith:

The air quickens, the darkness is shreds,
and your shadow falling on the frail
fence curls. Too late

if you want to be yourself! The fieldmouse
plops from the palm, lightning’s at the fuse,
on the long, long lashes of your gaze.

Here we begin to see what the poem is doing – how the coming storm echoes the nascence of passion: “lightning’s at the fuse, / on the long, long lashes of your gaze.” I don’t much like “plops from the palm” – too excremental – and while “sorcio” is definitely a mouse rather than a rat, “fieldmouse” sounds a little too cosy. For all that, when I first encountered them, Arrowsmith’s beautiful grey-backed volumes of translations looked like the best Montale could hope for in English.

Back to Smithyman’s version. At first sight, all seems strange. The seascape is there, but the fuse has become the intensely quotidian and concrete “transformer.” Is that really correct? Isn’t the fuse meant to be more abstract here? No matter, the clichéd “long lashes of your glance” (so much better than “gaze”) are now justified by the precise details preceding them (the rat catapults – yes!), and by the consciously awkward “so very long lashes.” To put it crudely, Arrowsmith’s is a translation which sends us back to the original with new insights; Smithyman’s is a poem unafraid to depart from that original to give a more vivid sense of this literally electric scene.

Special pleading, do you think? After all, Kendrick spoke little or no Italian, and his typescripts for these translations are consequently a nightmare of industry – each line of the unknown language was written out painstakingly with a literal version underneath (dictionary definitions in the margins). A page like this was succeeded by an English text, which was then worked on until it began to find the shaping and line divisions of the poem within. Paradoxically, I would claim that this very distance from the poets he was interpreting forced him to rely more on his own vision, his own self-expression through the poems.

I have quoted so far from Montale, my own favourite among the many Italian poets Smithyman translated – or used as departures for his own poems – but his own predilection was for Salvatore Quasimodo, a far less urbane figure. There is a dark, bloody directness about Quasimodo which must have been liberating for this more analytical inhabitant of our “remote farflung archipelago” (a phrase from Quasimodo’s “Another Answer”). But that was not his only tone of voice:

You have bent your head, you eye me.
Your dress is white,
one breast flowers from the lace
lying loose from your left shoulder.
– “Your Dress is White” [E la tua vesta è bianca]

You will not find anywhere else in Smithyman’s own work this direct, lyrical intensity – this shameless celebration of the sensual and passionate.

So what claims am I actually making for this book of translations from a half-understood language? I feel that they liberated a side of Smithyman which was at times obscured by the conscious artifice, the ironic masks of so much of his poetry. They are, I would suggest, best read thus – as a substantial addition to the canon of his own work, rather than a window on the Italians.

I once referred to Smithyman in print, half facetiously, as a “Northcote Neruda.” What I had in mind was not the latter’s poetry of political commitment, nor even, strictly, his reputation as an expert on the passions. It was the unwavering balance he maintained between the two which inspired the analogy. That comparison can now be seen to be less paradoxical, more appropriate to the large spirit of Kendrick Smithyman – even if so much of the evidence must remain in an as-yet-unpublished, posthumous collection of Versions from Italian.

Works Cited:
  • Montale, Eugenio. The Storm and Other Things. 1956. Trans. William Arrowsmith. New York: Norton, 1985.
  • Montale, Eugenio. Tutte le Poesie. A cura di Giorgio Zampa. 1984. Milano: Mondadori, 1991.
  • Neruda, Pablo. 100 Love Sonnets / Cien sonetos de amor. Trans. Stephen Tapscott. 1986. Austin: U of Texas P, 1995.
  • Ross, Jack. “Kendrick Smithyman’s Northland.” The Pander 1 (1997): x-xiii.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. Auto/Biographies. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1992.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. [Unpublished]. Versions from Italian (Quasimodo / Campana to Montale). (134 & 83 poems, respectively).


Landfall 197 (1999): 70-73.

[1194 wds]

Landfall 197 (1999)

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