Insomnia

September 17, 2009

I’ve been suffering lately from a strange pre-dawn restlessness. Insomnia is tough to enjoy, but at least it’s given me some quiet hours to finish translating this poem by Ungaretti about sleepless nights.

ungaretti

Giugno
Campolongo il 5 luglio 1917
[poem by Guiseppe Ungaretti; translation by Dan Stone]

Quando
mi morirà
questa notte
e come un altro
potrò guardarla
e mi addormenterò
al fruscio
delle onde
che finiscono
di avvoltolarsi
alla cinta di gaggie
della mia casa

Quando mi risveglierò
nel tuo corpo
che si modula
come la voce dell’usignolo

Si estenua
come il colore
rilucente
del grano maturo

Nella trasparenza
dell’acqua
l’oro velino
della tua pelle
si brinerà di moro

Librata
dalle lastre
squillanti
dell’aria sarai
come una
pantera

Ai tagli
mobili
dell’ombra
ti sfoglierai

Ruggendo
muta in
quella polvere
mi soffocherai

Poi
socchiuderai le palpebre

Vedremo il nostro amore reclinarsi
come sera

Poi vedrò
rasserenato
nell’orizzonte di bitume
delle tue iridi morirmi
le pupille

Ora
il sereno è chiuso
come
a quest’ora
nel mio paese d’Affrica
i gelsomini

Ho perso il sonno

Oscillo
al canto d’una strada
come una lucciola

Mi morirà
questa notte?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

June
Campolongo, July 5, 1917

When
will this night
die for me
so like a stranger
I can look at it
and fall asleep
to the rustling
of the waves
that end
their tumbling
at the border of thorntrees
around my house

When will I awaken
inside your body
that modulates
like the voice of the nightingale

That exhausts itself
like the shimmering
color
of ripe grain
in the transparency
of water

The gold tissue
of your skin
will frost with darkness

Suspended
on the shrill
sheets
of air you will be
like a
panther

In the shifting
edges
of shadow
you will shed your foliage

Roaring
mute within
that dust
you will suffocate me

Then
you will half-close your eyelids

We will watch our love reclining
like dusk

Then
feeling more serene
I will see my pupils die
on the coal-black horizon
of your irises

Now
the sky is closed up
like
the jasmine
at this hour
in my African country

I have lost sleep

I flicker
on a street corner
like a firefly

Will this night
die for me?

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Wine-tasting in Tuscany

September 16, 2009

Tuscan countryside

One of my closest friends, Sebastian Zutant, is a sommelier at an excellent restaurant in Washington, DC — Proof. Last week he was touring Tuscany with his wife, visiting vineyards whose wine he features at his restaurant. I rode the train up from Rome to meet them for a couple days, and they took me to a private tasting at Ambrogio e Giovanni Folonari Tenute, a gorgeous and massive estate in the Chianti region. The Folonari family has been in the wine business since the late 1700s, and they now own some 900 hectares of vines scattered throughout the area. The particular estate we visited is their largest — it dates back to the year 1300 — and is the place where their operations are headquartered.

grapes ready for harvest

Sebastian’s Italian distributor helped arrange this private tasting, which included a quartet of Texans who happened to show up at the right time and beg their way onto the tour.

tasting room

We began in the tasting room, sitting around a twenty-five-foot table, while our host (the woman you see at the head) presented four of their best wines. I’ve gone tasting in California, but I’ve never been part of such a formal and sophisticated affair. We sampled a Chardonnay from the Chianti Classico district, a Sangiovese from the same area, a Sangiovese/Cabernet mix from a nearby region, and finally a Super Tuscan blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, and Petit Verdot. Everyone took notes. I didn’t even pretend to know what any of meant, so I just doodled and focused on my wine. I do know that it was bloody delicious.

I have a soft spot for grappa, or perhaps I should call it a hard spot, but anyway I love the stuff. Sebastian’s wife, Lauren, asked a few clever questions that convinced our host to bring out two of their reserve grappas at the end of the tasting. One was made from the Sangiovese wine we had in front of us, so we were able to sip them side-by-side and recognize their parallel qualities.

grappa tasting

Later they took us to the barrel room and the cellar, and we convinced them to sell us a few bottles of grappa before we jumped back in the rental car and wound through the twisting country roads towards Siena, where we spent a night before returning to Rome.

barrel cellar

old bottles

Chianti countryside

La tua luce

September 4, 2009

La tua luce
[poem by Guiseppe Ungaretti; translation by Dan Stone]

Scompare a poco a poco, amore, il sole
Ora che sporaggiunge lunga sera.

Con uguale lentezza dello strazio
Farsi lontana vita la tua luce
Per un non breve nostro separarci.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Your light

The sun disappears, love, little by little
Now that long evening unexpectedly arrives.

With the same slowness,
Your light becomes distant life
Of the sorrow of our drawn-out parting.

September 1, 1939

September 1, 2009

As you likely saw in the news, Germany invaded Poland seventy years ago today, marking the start of WWII. Not only did Poland’s Soviet neighbors fail to come to their aid, but they joined in the invasion, revealing their pact with the Germans.

September 1, 1939 invasion

As night fell in New York, the British emigrant W.H. Auden sat in a dive bar — or so his poem begins — realizing along with everyone else that a world war was inevitable. Here’s his poem about that infamous day. (Arguably one of his best works, Auden had mixed feelings about the poem, even trying later to suppress its re-publication.) The final two stanzas, full of a sort of dark hope, are particularly moving.

September 1, 1939

W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Auden

Marcus Aurelius in the Campidoglio

I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, the personal reflections of the great Roman Emperor who served from AD 161 to 180. Here’s one I came across this morning [Book 2.4]:

Remember how long you have been putting this off, how many times you have been given a period of grace by the gods and not used it. It is high time now for you to understand the universe of which you are a part, and the governor of that universe of whom you constitute an emanation: and that there is a limit circumscribed to your time — if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.

Monte Argentario

August 29, 2009

monte argentario vineyards

Some friends are currently visiting from DC. Yesterday we rented a little yellow car — unfortunately called a Fiat Panda — and drove a couple hours up the coast into the southern part of Tuscany. The Roman heat has been unrelenting in these last days of August, so we decided to dip ourselves in the refreshing waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Once an island, Monte Argentario is now a promontory connected to the mainland by two long sandbars. The landscape is rugged and arid, yet covered with vineyards and olive groves and dark forests stretching down to dramatic coastal cliffs. Here’s a scrap of its history, from Wikipedia: “The promontory, probably already inhabited by the Etruscans, was a personal property of the Domitii Aenobarbi family, who obtained it in return for the money they lent to the Roman Republic in the Punic Wars. The current name stems probably from this origin, since Arganterii was the name of money lenders in ancient Rome. Later an imperial possession, it was ceded to the church by Constantine the Great in the 4th century AD.” Spain owned it for a while in the 16th century, then it came back into Italian hands in the 1800s.

We first stopped in the town of Porto San Stefano for a lunch of frutti di mare (mmm, sea fruits) and local white wine, then drove the Via Panoramica until we spotted a steep, half-paved road descending into the trees. After some admirable maneuvers by the Panda, we found a pull-off just large enough for the car. A few wooden steps led to a rocky trail that followed a dry stream-bed. We hiked and slid downhill until we reached a pebbly cove. There were groups of Italians lounging and swimming, and many more anchored just offshore.

monte argentario beach

You can imagine that it’s hard to feel cool when you’re driving a car called a Panda, but I started gaining confidence after we saw this boat named “Chocolate Dream.”
chocolate dream

The water was exactly what you’d expect in the sparser stretches of the Mediterranean coast — cool, blue, and shockingly clear. It made for a nice afternoon of floating around.

monte argentario cove

We returned to Rome after dark, just in time to grab a late dinner at one of my favorite trattorias.