Patrizia Cavalli: Inverted Verse, Subverted Expectations, and the Trials of Translation

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The backdrop to my discovery of Cavalli is a common scene from my Poetry as Theory class, taken as part of my first attempt at an Italian Ph.D., for which, fresh out of undergrad, I was woefully unprepared: My handsome, lithe, impeccably dressed northern Italian professor would stride across the classroom, throwing out a hand gesture here, tilting his chin up quizzically there, punctuated by a no-doubt supremely elegant remark on some nuance of poetic theory, and I would sink deeper in my seat, abject in my linguistic confusion. And then one bright day a fellow student did a presentation on Patrizia Cavalli. Cavalli, whose poetry was prosaic in its clarity—clear, and sad, and funny. Cavalli was one of the few poets who let me breathe, who inspired me, when I was drowning in a sea of incomprehensibility. You could surmise, then, that she is a poet I, to this day, want ardently to see translated well. Unfortunately, her genius often evades the grasp of otherwise skilled poets. If poetry is what is lost in translation, the translator starts from a position of defeat. Never has this been truer than with the poetry of Cavalli: often epigrammatic, yet lyrical; colloquial, but finely tuned in its metrical and formal turnings; imbued with a poignant sense of personal tragedy constantly subverted by winking irony. Cavalli’s verse is a deadly serious game that skips nimbly between teasing recriminations towards her flea-bitten cat to vast considerations of death and immortality.

Beloved in Italy and read the world over, Cavalli is a poet whose work begs more comprehensive translation into English. A recent and laudable contribution is My Poems Won’t Change the World, edited by Gini Alhadeff, published in 2013. The collection of selected poems, the product of several translators, is a smorgasbord for the Cavalli-hungry reader of poetry in English. While I read through this worthy attempt at introducing the poet to a wider audience, however, I found myself mentally fidgeting as dissatisfaction began to set in. First, although I am admittedly just one idiosyncratic reader, I was saddened to see some of my favorite poems left out—an inevitability, perhaps, in a sampling drawn from six books published over a more than thirty-year span. Secondly, and infinitely more importantly, the book seemed to prove that, for every worthy translation of Cavalli, there was (at least) one stinker. That is not to say that the authors of the clumsy or straying translations are necessarily bad or condemnable poets. In fact, I suspect that a certain willingness to sacrifice personal style must be present in order to translate Cavalli faithfully; poets too comfortable in their own brand to do away with it for the sake of the poem are ill-suited to this task. Fortunately, in analyzing even the failed translations of Cavalli—whether in terms of lyricism or content—we can simultaneously pinpoint and exalt what is unique and priceless about the original verse.

Rather than a decorated poet, a potential translator of Cavalli must be a daring type who’s also respectful of the playful gravity of both form and content. Take, for example, this short poem from 1981’s Il cielo: “Se tu ci sia o non ci sia / ormai è la stessa cosa, / comunque sia ho la nostalgia.” Now, this isn’t a poem included in the selected translations, perhaps for the difficulty of the rhyme scheme alone, nearly impossible to replicate without betraying the content. The literal reading would be: “If you are there or are not there / by now is the same thing / however it may be I have the nostalgia.” Not only is the internal repetition of “sia” and the final rhyme with “nostalgia” (in which the “i” is stressed in Italian) an essential formal feature of the poem, the word “nostalgia” can also mean missing a still-existing person or place (“homesickness” in English), giving the poem a bivalence which it would lack in English. Further, English does not allow for the subjunctive tense used in the poem (“sia”=hypothetical state of you are and then, in the last line, it may be), to say nothing of the weight “nostalgia” takes on when its phonic presence replaces the “sia.” In essence, the narrative voice expresses that the longing for the love object has come to replace the object itself: love grows as it feeds on its own memory. Attempting to juggle all of these considerations whilst precariously maintaining one’s poetic posture would likely produce a convoluted mess. The poem either ends up as a clunky pile of sounds far removed from the sibilant suaveness of the original, or else a phonically pleasing ditty that leaves aside its logic. What’s infuriating, of course, is that all this language seems so perfectly natural and inevitable in the original. A testament to the poet’s skill.

Even what I would deem “failed” translations in the collection are not necessarily bad poems in themselves. When Jorie Graham writes the following, for example, a reader with no knowledge of the original might have no complaint:

One breath, partial but complete,
so it is a thought emerges, rises,
my thought, partial but complete,
so it is born, so it shall be.

The original, however, is an animal of a different stripe:

Un respiro parziale ma intero
così nasce e si alza un pensiero,
mio pensiero parziale ma intero
così nasce, così è.

Notice how Graham forgoes the A/A/A rhyme scheme of the first three lines, and further, how she chooses to translate “nasce” (is born) differently in its first occurrence. And though she does maintain the metrical force of the last line, she decides, in the same line, to use the future tense for a present verb (“è,” it is). These stylistic decisions end up feeling casual when you recognize the repetitions of the original and the intent behind them.

While Graham may be accused of a few missed opportunities in this collection, it is Mark Strand who, at least once or twice, provokes the involuntary cringe. Strand is a prime example of a very fine poet in his own language—a master of the nuances of tone and versification—whose good intentions somehow go awry when it comes to translating Cavalli. Take, for example, this first line: “I those isotopes don’t want to drink / my thyroid I do not want to lose.” While perfectly literally translated, I’m hard-pressed to call this a poetic translation: such a word order is idiomatic in Cavalli’s Italian, but some approximation of natural speech must appear in the English version. In another attempt, Strand has possibly missed the point of the poem. The epigrammatic “Penso che forse a forza di pensarti / potrò dimenticarti, amore mio” translates to “I think that maybe by constantly thinking of you / I will be able to forget you, my love.” Strand’s attempt reads: “Thinking about you / might let me forget you, my love.” He largely ignores the phonetic repetition (forse/forza, pensarti/dimenticarti) and omits the language that subverts the sense: the poet thinks that thinking will allow her to forget; she juxtaposes “force” (forza) with “maybe” (forse). Much as in “Se tu ci sia o non ci sia […],” we know that the speaker is fixated on the “you,” still rapt even in the mere thought of the beloved. She’s a nostalgia addict who thinks she will beat her addiction through overdose. Strand’s poem instead inadvertently reduces the poem to kind of fortune cooking-phrasing. Cavalli, poorly translated, often ends in banality.

When Alhadeff’s collection succeeds, however, I let out an inner cheer for both the translator and Cavalli herself, who is given as a gift to her new readers. One of her dense epigrammatic poems, which Alhadeff herself has translated, claiming it as her first attempt, is a coup on the part of the translator:

Here I am, I do my bit,
though I don’t know what that may be.
If I did I could at least let go of it
and free of it be free of being me.

The original poem, much like “Se tu ci sia o non ci sia […],” hinges upon an A/A/B/A/A rhyme scheme—in fact, the word “parte” (part) is repeated three times, and ultimately becomes “disparte” (to the side, out of the way—i.e., not part). The last few lines of the poem, translated literally, would read, “If I knew / I would be able to step out of the part / and thus released from me to enjoy it on the side.” Hardly a rousing ensemble of sounds in English. By writing in iambic meter and honoring the spirit of the rhyme scheme (if not its exact form), Alhadeff breathes her own spirit into the poem without sacrificing any of its cleverness or compromising its colloquial quality. The heavy assonance of the “e” sound in the final lines in some ways mimics Cavalli’s own repetitions, in addition to the A/B/A/B rhyme scheme. The linguistic turns are not precisely the same—how could they be?—but they let us hear Cavalli’s words and melody.

Alhadeff is not alone in this method; Geoffrey Brock, in his handful of translations, often takes the same tack when he slightly manipulates the sense and word order in service of a poem that pays homage to the formal features of the original. A lovely, jazzy last few lines of the poem “I cut my hair” can’t help but touch the reader with their playfulness: “But no love-talk— / I can’t take it. / As for love, I just / want to make it.” Brock does not literally translate what Cavalli has written, because what kind of creativity springs from slavish replication? He and Alhadeff instead bring a certain sprezzatura to these tricky epigrammatic moments that the rest of their poetic posse generally lacks.

Despite my insistence on the Herculean effort required to produce a respectable Cavalli translation, I should qualify my analysis with a word about her less epigrammatic poems, which are no less engaging, if they are in fact easier to translate. An outstanding example is her “Now that time seems all mine,” translated here by Judith Baumel. In this fifteen-line poem, largely free of the strictures of rhyme and meter found in many of her shorter poems, Cavalli begins a series of phrases with “Adesso che […]” (Now that…). In this anaphora, the speaker exults in the freedom felt only in the aftermath of the dissolution of a suffocating relationship: the choice of how one spends one’s time not having to consider the desires of the beloved. It seems a languorously contented tone until we reach the lines,

now that what waits for me every day
is the unlimited length of a night
where there is no call and no longer a reason
to undress in a hurry to rest inside
the blinding sweetness of a body that waits for me […]

We are therefore somewhat prepared when, a few lines later, the speaker announces, “now / I would suddenly like that prison.” The “adesso,” which seemed so promising at first, is in fact a repetition full of eternity and emptiness. Although the past relationship to the lover is alluded to as a “prison,” the real prison has become the limitless and now unfilled time facing the lonely speaker.

You’ll have noticed that I’ve strayed from an examination of the translation—the translator’s word choice, her choice of meter, etc.—and that I have been drawn in by the larger thematic features of the poem. I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for this one, and not because it is pithy or playful (like much of Cavalli’s other work). It isn’t. Full disclosure: this is one of the only poems by Cavalli I’ve ever attempted to translate. I’m neither humbled nor boastful when I say that my version looks very similar to Baumel’s; I suspect that most translations of this particular poem bear a striking resemblance to each other. The phrases are so naturally ordered, their meaning so clear, and the turn at the end of the poem so graceful that it would hardly behoove the translator to worry the words.

This, finally, is what is beautiful and terrible about translating Cavalli: a “gateway” poem like this makes you want to understand, and to make others understand, what’s difficult to translate, but therefore most worthy of translation, in her work. In my third year of my Italian Ph.D.—the one that would be at long last completed!—as I assembled the list of works for my general exams, my professors cautioned me against the nine collections of contemporary poetry I’d included. Although I understood that they themselves felt ill-versed in the genre, I insisted on keeping my Patrizia Valduga, my Antonella Anedda, and my Patrizia Cavalli. There is something so urgent, so necessary in the poems of these women who should be reaching a much wider audience. But diffusing the obscured word demands the voices of the faithful. Alhadeff, in her introduction to My Poems Won’t Change the World, describes her initiation into translating Cavalli with a line from the poem “The Keeper”: “It wasn’t science, it was devotion.” Though I long to see even more ambitious, more inspiring translations of Cavalli into English, I do hope her future translators, before crossing into the sacred space, will contemplate these words.


Patrizia Cavalli (b. 1949) is an Italian poet with seven collections of poetry: My Poems Won’t Change the World (1974), The Sky (1981), Poems 1974-1992 (1992), The All Mine Singular I (1992), The Forever Open Theater (1999), Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate (2006), and Datura (2013). The most recent and comprehensive translation of her work into English is My Poems Won’t Change the World (2013), edited by Gini Alhadeff. Cavalli lives in Rome.