A few years ago, hiking in Japan, I fetched up in a mountainside village. After some rice wine at my inn, I set out to feast my eyes on essential Japan. I walked down a narrow road, turned its corner ... and feasted my eyes on essential Provence. Cobbled square, shops, a patisserie. What was in that wine? But the place was not a mirage, just faux-houses one-brick deep, shops merely facades. The single real building announced its purpose: to memorialize the life of the aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Count Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince. Every Japanese child devours it.
This unlikely museum featured clothing, photographs, the reconstruction of an open cockpit biplane, copies of The Little Prince in all its languages. A wealthy citizen had built the museum and donated it to his country. I resolved to memorialize it, for a travel rag. But though I stuffed my backpack with notes on the museum, I knew too little about the man who'd inspired it. I needed a biography. The one I found back home was Saint-Exupéry, by Stacy Schiff, famous now for her later studies of Véra Nabokov and Cleopatra, but then unknown to me. I read her book out of workaday necessity.
What time-out-of-mind delight I found. "No one who met him ever forgot him," writes Schiff as introduction. She then makes this complicated Frenchman unforgettable to us. An aristocrat-turned-postman, he spent his happiest years flying for Aéropostale in North Africa. Patriotic, he hated de Gaulle. He was sociable, courageous, fond of risk and women, fondest of airplanes. He flew countless reconnaissance missions during World War II, serving with the French battalion 2/33. St.-Ex, they called him.
Stacy Schiff's balanced sentences, which casually incorporate a bon mot as if it were another comma, build into paragraphs with climaxes, into chapters with yet stronger climaxes, and build finally into the tragic climax of St.-Ex's mysterious plunge into the sea on January 31, 1944.
What a threesome: the melancholic Prince, the heroic flier, and the compelling biographer. I had to travel to the other side of the planet to discover a need for Schiff's first book; I had to return in order to satisfy that need. The round-trip was worth every yen.
The fresh garlands draped over Giacomo Leopardi's Canti (thanks to a new translation by Jonathan Galassi) recently stirred me to return to another Italian maestro, Andrea Zanzotto, widely considered Italy's most original living poet. Unlike the tragic figure cut by Leopardi, languishing in a Southern backwater until his early death, Zanzotto has enjoyed a long life (he turns ninety this year) happily tucked away in the small Northern town of Pieve di Soligo, the setting and subject he revisits obsessively throughout his career.
Repetition and accumulation are the rhizomes of his work: "There's no telling how much green / is buried under this green / nor how much rain under this rain / many are the infinities ..." For Zanzotto-like Ammons, probably his closest American counterpart-life is an "anancasm" of seeing and ideating, which the poet breaks down to its constituent elements. "Li(fe)," he writes, "id-vid." The result is a pixelated plenitude that rapidly spins outward to the horizon.
"I have never 'aspired' to anything having precise edges when considering poetry," he writes in one of the thirteen essays included here. Indeed, reading these poems, culled from fourteen of his major books, one senses the poet steadily gliding toward opaque clairvoyance: "World, vague term, Spring, you call to me in your thin psychoid." As they near language's ultima Thule, Zanzotto's later poems, self-described "works adrift" and "uncertain fragments," yahoo toward a precariously private language that incorporates primitive scrawls and playing card icons, reinforcing the point that words themselves belong to a mysterious set of barely decipherable signs always on the brink of vanishing.
Patrick Barron and his colleagues have rendered these poems into smooth, vivid English, subtle at the risk of sounding subdued, yet never stiff or mannered, and have compiled an impressive heft of endnotes, drawings, photographs. Yet the acme of Zanzotto's achievement is the very singularity of his idiom, and one watches in awe as he builds a language at once untranslatable and universal in its "artful earth-flesh," forcing his translators to transcribe and footnote: "Topinambùr / to to torotorotix / augellini lilix / distant insects of / waspified yellow / Ur-yellow lilix." YAHOO!
Winner of the Barrow Street Prize, Gold Star Road often feels as if it were written by a dissident poet of the Eastern Bloc, someone like Szymborska, whom Hoffman quotes in the opening poem. Much like her, Hoffman mixes lyricism with ironic aphorism in these meditations on the nature of war, and violence in general. For example, he writes in the title poem, "Our enemies proved their superior / brutality by torturing their children, // starving them, refusing them medicine, / raising them in ignorance and executing // them for crimes they could not understand. / We had no choice. We would have lost // had we not followed suit."
Those familiar with Hoffman's Half the House, a memoir about being abused as a child, will see the same brave, empathetic mind at work in Gold Star Road. Here, however, that clear-eyed compassion is brought to a global canvas as he takes on subjects ranging from the Iraq War to Bosnia to stem cell research. Through them all, Hoffman circles around the human ability to ignore others in pain (as though "asleep"). He writes, "You have a right to ask if I tried to awaken, / or if I was among those paid to devise new ways / to remain asleep, or if I remained asleep myself. / (I am not sure, today, how I would answer.)" On the back of the book, Afaa Michael Weaver dubs this somnolent state "the nightmare of now," and Hoffman's critique of it is undoubtedly political. Yet the simple label "political poetry" is a disservice. Hoffman sidesteps didacticism through his wryness, through his self-questioning stance and, always, through the joy he finds surviving in the rubble. To read Gold Star Road is to find that the world-though dark-is not all nightmare.
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