In Memoria

August 25, 2009

As I mentioned in my previous biographical note about the poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, he joined the infantry when WWI broke out. He was in his mid-20s, full of fire and idealism, surely unprepared for what he would encounter in the Northern Italian trenches. Most of his early war poems, which comprise his first collection, are expectedly dark. There are several that refer to the suicide of a friend, seemingly caused by the horrors of the war.

The poem below was likely written during a lull in the action of Ungaretti’s service. That seems to be true partly because of the poem’s length — most of his war poems are short — but also because of its narrative structure and tone. This is not a fleeting moment, like so many of Ungaretti’s early works, but rather it is a poem that includes a broader passage of time, character development, and even plot.

I haven’t found any biographical information about the subject of this poem, if he is in fact a real person. But considering that Ungaretti grew up in Egypt and lived in Paris before the war, “Mohammed Sheab” could possibly be the poet’s alter-ego, although the character is most likely based on a friend who took his own life.

In Memoria
Locvizza il 30 settembre 1916

[poem by Giuseppe Ungaretti; translation by Dan Stone]

Si chiamava
Moammed Sceab

di emiri di nomadi
perché non aveva più

Amò la Francia
e mutò nome

Fu Marcel
ma non era Francese
e non sapeva più
nella tenda dei suoi
dove si ascolta la cantilena
del Corano
gustando un caffè

E non sapeva
il canto
del suo abbandono

L’ho accompagnato
insieme alla padrona dell’albergo
dove abitavamo
a Parigi
dal numero 5 della rue des Carmes
appassito vicolo in discesa

nel camposanto d’Ivry
sobborgo che pare
in una giornata
di una
decomposta fiera

E forse io solo
so ancora
che visse

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

In Memoriam
Locvizza, September 30, 1916

His name was
Mohammed Sheab

of the emirs of nomads
a suicide
because he had lost
his Fatherland

He loved France
and changed his name

He was Marcel
but he was not French
and he no longer knew
how to live
under the tent of his people
where one hears the incantations
of the Koran
while sipping coffee

And he did not know how
to release
the song
of his abandonment

I accompanied his remains
with the mistress of the hotel
where we lived
in Paris
from number 5 on rue des Carmes
a wilted alley sloping downhill

He rests
in the graveyard of Ivry
a suburb that seems
on a day
that a wild animal
is decomposing

And perhaps I alone
still know
that he lived


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