Bruce Merry

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Mario Luzi is now one of the most fertile Italian poets…. He has gradually become the most discussed of the so-called 'second generation' of Italian hermetic poets, which includes Sereni, Bigongiari and Parronchi among others, and centred around the city of Florence in the late '30s and '40s. He has always been a difficult and esoteric author who seemed to write as much for himself as for any reader. His first six collections … are now conveniently gathered in a single volume called Il giusto della vita (… 1960). Since that date there have been three more…. [The first of these, Nel magma,] is a harsh collection of reminiscences: quarrels, dialogue and meditation set in daringly free verse, suspended, like much of Luzi's thought, on a thin metaphorical wire in a hostile environment. The second is Dal fondo delle campagne, but these poems were written before the poetic break-through of Nel magma, and are better excluded from under the heading 'Luzi's recent poetry'. Third … come the three short poems and three long poetic meditations of Su fondamenti invisibili (… 1971). Although Luzi had always been at the centre of modern Italian poetry, this most recent volume is so striking as to call for a re-evaluation of his poetics and an inquiry as to how the author of Il giusto della vita was metamorphosed into the poet of Su fondamenti invisibili. (p. 333)

Luzi is constantly tempted into a sumptuous use of metaphor, which is, after all, poetry's most drastic tool…. Some of these early metaphors verge on the gauche and inapposite…. His verbs are invariably set in the third person of the present tense, so they fall past the reader like a series of fixed photographs for him to observe…. But when we pause to make allowances for the precious word order and audacious metaphors, we are still faced by a poet drawing on all his resources of eloquence in an attempt to offer definitive statements about the world…. Often the definition is strong and decisive, but the conclusion that closes off the poem is weak in comparison with it…. The contrast of two possible attitudes to life—the cosmos-defining self-assured individual set against the speculative, self-questioning thinker—is actually made explicit in one of the closing poems of Onore. Two different types of passers-by are seen across wind and rain by a chosen 'just man', who is leaning against a pole, 'expiating the migrations of the world'…. It is not too bold to see this tableau as the first sign of real change in Luzi's poetics. One arm of the signpost is the fisher of eels who 'strides decisively through the quilt of damp'; it points backwards to the first six volumes from La barca to Onore del vero. In these Luzi has always been the principal citizen in a universe which is beautiful but basically familiar. His utterances have issued from a friendly Delphic oracle round the corner, invariably a Florentine street corner, with a spring or summer wind blowing up the road, roses and blossom dangling from the walls, and bright maidens chatting from first-floor balconies. But the other arm of the signpost points diffidently onward to Fondamenti, to the tentative, hesitant world of the 'uomo nuovo del posto'. This new Luzi is the inhabitant of a difficult and alienating world, a world where love affairs crumble into accusation and jealousy, where there are quarrels between old friends at the café and cars race across the polluted suburbs of a big city and stop on high river bridges while their driver contemplates the running water under the parapet.

Perhaps at this point one can borrow two terms from Barthes's S/Z, and say that the Luzi of this recent poetry is contemporary and essentially scriptible, in contrast with classical, lisible poetry, with its set modes and vocabulary, from which the reader is to draw limited permissible inferences. Luzi's recent work is scriptible (in the Barthesian sense) in that it tacitly invites the reader to collaborate in the arduous task of deciphering human experience on the page. The reader's own hesitations, his pauses to guess or interpret, if only to check a previous meaning or look ahead, are already paralleled in the writer's undogmatic presentation and informal technique. (pp. 334-36)

[His earlier poems] were varied and elegant, but ultimately bound by the author's fascination for saying the last word: by rich metaphorical declamation and the conflict of hard and fast categories such as youth/age, dolore/speranza, and life against death. They were eminently lisible, hermetic poems par excellence. Therefore to readers who knew this writer's work well there was a clear shock in, for example, the first four lines of 'Tra notte e giorno', the fifth poem in Nel magma…. Everything in these opening lines is an invitation to the reader to grasp an active role while the poet's own ego is presented as forlorn and insecure; this authorial aporia can be felt as it piles up in the swelling and contracting, concertina-like clauses of 'Ménage', the seventh poem in Nel magma, where the uneven progress of the lines effectively portrays the poet's intellectual grappling with an inscrutable adversary…. (pp. 336-37)

In Fondamenti … diffidence towards verbalization is turned into a positive asset of the poetry. (p. 337)

Yet this afasia invades the heart and the sleeping mind as well as the writer's intellect: it is not just an inability to coordinate tongue and brain. The supremely beautiful opening of the first long poem, 'Il pensiero fluttuante della felicità', brings this out clearly…. What is new is the relaxed syntax of the constructions. The lines and half-lines are put together with studied casualness, suggesting the free-associating characteristic of neurosis and the onslaught of fresh ideas couched as pangs of doubt. (pp. 337-38)

There is a kind of poetry which says what it means explicitly, and another which conveys its meaning by rhythm, structure and sound. The recent Luzi falls uncompromisingly into this latter category. Allied to his diffidence towards authority and definition, in Fondamenti there is displayed a profound distrust for semantic functions, a vote of no-confidence in the mere power of words as a repository for meanings. Thus when Luzi wishes to express the casualness of his love relationship, or rather its air of provisional openness, his frank disponibilité to any intellectual direction which may be imposed by a speculative mind, he keeps using what might be termed Eliot's 'specification' 'not A etc., but B', a construction in which the air of speculative exploration is emphasized by the locking together of nouns without main verbs…. But the device will undergo an injection of intensity: in Fondamenti it has been transformed into a triumphant literary evasion, which colours all the phrases that are passed through it with the idea of alternativeness and hence renewed potentiality. Far from being an authority, the poet is a balancer of possibilities. He offers a scriptible verse, and it is the reader who discriminates and holds the scales…. (pp. 338-39)

[Fondamenti] is held in precarious tension, an effort to follow the golden thread and unravel the matassa of an equivocal world. His text lays no claim to any metaphysical jurisdiction over the direction and quality of this thread. Any sensitive human has an equal chance with the poet of achieving the balance between alternatives. Luzi's style in Fondamenti, with its brooding rhythms and fluctuating lines, with its unsyntactical or verbless constructions and Eliotesque 'specification', is a final renunciation of any oracular aspiration. The inclusive disjunction and recurring doublets (which are so far from being hendiadys) cast a wide net to contain a narrow truth. No word or experience is outside the poetic domain: harsh foreign terms …, inconclusive meditation and parenthetic exclamation are all drawn into the verse…. (p. 342)

Although the mystic thread is easily mislaid, India is diseased, the planet polluted, and all the while bazookas crash through the 'carbonized jungle' of Viet-Nam, although broken marriage, mental clinic and emotional chaos are the life expectation of twentieth-century Everyman, yet Luzi holds out one single consolation where the thread may be grasped and a vivifying meaning extrapolated from the surrounding uncertainty. This is the self-drowning, the Sartrean 'leap into the abyss', of momentary love…. Luzi's verse at last breaks into harmony and euphony at the point where the thread breaks into love. (p. 343)

Bruce Merry, "The Anti-Oracle in Mario Luzi's Recent Poetry," in The Modern Language Review (© Modern Humanities Research Association 1973), April, 1973, pp. 333-43.




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