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Archive for July, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afterlife

Constrained in that narrow crib
for the turning of many seasons
sleepless he lies: Covered with unkind dust
which palls the hollow sockets and heedless grin,
haunted by an anxious wakefulness.
What went so badly wrong? Here’s coin in mouth
ready for the boatman, a yellowed warning
“Don’t drink the water”,  Clothes sober for the judgement….
He learns too late, and cruelly
that the memory of clods falling will re-echo
through the succession of rustling days
unmarked by the timepiece nestling in his ribs.
Still more unbearable the thought, how,
after such painful patience, to give up  hopes
of hearing the promised notes blast through his cell
to end this irremediable fever
filled with the memories of persistent senses –
belated taste for life,
sight, smell, sound and touch….
His cry’s silent reverberation,
“Too much.”

 

 

 

 

Dia Tsung

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is my attempt at a Spanish translation. Readers are invited to point out mistakes and make corrections.

 

 

La vida futura

Restringido en esa estrecha cuna
durante el paso de tantas estaciones
inerte yace: cubierto de un polvo cruel
que rellena las órbitas vacias, la sonrisa inadvertida,
poseido por un exasperante desvelo.
¿Cuál fue el gran error cometido?
Aquí llevo la moneda en la boca,
listo para el que me conduciría a través del río,
una nota añeja y amarillenta
“no bebas el agua,”
Sobria vestimenta para el juicio –
Aprende demasiado tarde, y cruelmente
que el recuerdo de los terrones cayendo
resonará a través de la sucesión
de los días susurrantes,
que el reloj anidado en su costillas
no puede medir…
Aún más insostenible el pensamiento,
cómo luego de tanta paciencia que hiere
abandonar la esperanza de escuchar
el estruendo de aquellos sonidos prometidos
que resquebraja su celda para dar término
a esta fiebre  irremediable,
llena de recuerdos que despiertan los sentidos –
tardía el gusto por la vida
vision, audicion, olfato, tacto….
escapa la reverberación silenciosa de su grito
“Es demasiado.”

 

Dia Tsung

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One night, when I was in my mid-thirties, I dreamed that I was in a graveyard. The sky was dull, the light fading, the time dusk. The graves were overgrown, rank with shrubs and scrub, green as holly, tangled and dark and resembling a labyrinth.

Owls nested high in the cottonwood and oak trees, and swooped down to carry away any creature which moved below. I examined the charred remains of a fire upon the surface of a grave, and pondered its effect on the thing buried within it. Immediately I  ‘saw’  through the surface of the ground, and through the wooden box. I gazed at its contents. The remains inside resembled a wax effigy. Its original definition and clear delineation seemed to have been slightly blurred from the heat of the now extinguished fire, which had recently burned above-ground. The folds of the grave-clothes, which were the muted, earthy saffron of a renunciant’s robe, fell in the slightly unreal arrangement of a medieval illumination.

The wearer of these clothes did not seem like anything which had ever been alive, or fashioned of human flesh. It was a person unknown to, and unrecognised by me. I looked at the dark hair and skin the colour of an unbleached almond. I thought it was perhaps a woman. Perhaps it was myself.

I wonder that this dream habit of mine, (which seems to have been shared by  the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi) of  ‘seeing’ into graves, is not that unusual. Only in my case, I seemed to be in some sense the occupant as well as the observer. I wrote several poems predicated upon the persona of someone who is not completely dead (and even perhaps excruciatingly alive) and who has been inappropriately, prematurely, unwillingly or unwittingly interred, and then in some mysterious way, resurrected.

I have always loved graveyards, They retain a marvellous echo of life to my inward ear. “Graves, after all,” as Rita Mae Brown observed, “are our only permanent residences.” Nevertheless, the thought of burial has always been repugnant to me. Even the naturely metaphor of returning to the ‘earth womb’ has done little to diminish my revulsion. I  still quail at the thought of inhumation. I remember, as a young child of perhaps six or so, imagining and envisioning what it might feel like to be dead.

Since I grew up with my grandparents, I was aware from a very early age, of living with the nagging anxious and very realistic fear, they would die long before I did, and that I would be left destitute of all love and care. My solution to the terror induced by these secret, never-communicated and very real thoughts, was to create in my mind a scenario in which I would not outlive my grandfather.  I would close my eyes at night, and watch the two of us lying side by side in the  silence of the grave, hands clasped, turned to two human-shaped piles of fine dark dust.  From where we lay, I  remember watching the midnight sky above me through the transparent earth, wrapped in a vast and palpable silence, both internal and external. I sensed I inhabited a realm of timelessness, a place of absolute stillness, of soundless thoughts. Years later, after I learned to meditate, and to describe the experience to myself as “entering the silence”, I began to sense the similarities between that past and the present.

With age, my concept of death became less idealised, and more real. When I was a child, my young ayah repeated to me fragments of Buddhist sermons with graphic descriptions of decomposition she referred to as “the opening of the nine doors.”  Ever year during Wesak (the annual commemoration of the Buddha’s birth, life, enlightenment and death) I gazed avidly at the graphic dioramas  mounted on ‘floats’ which passed our home, which vividly  illustrated these phenomena, and there began to form in me a mistrust for the illusion of  the wholeness and wholesomeness of life. The Buddhist description of the human body as “a cage of corruption” during life, which only worsened after death, offered a much more repellent image than the peaceful one of my earlier devising and gave me a permanent horror of the prospect of burial.

I remember the eerie sense of familiarity which came over me when I saw the movie Dr. Zhivago, which began, I think, with the burial of his mother, when Zhivago was a child. As I remember it, the camera provided a grave’s-eye-view of the burial, and I immediately identified with the corpse, which I felt to be sentient, lying there helplessly in her coffin, watching and hearing the clods rain down and shutting out her last earthly glimpse of light from the small glass ‘window’ above her face.

I also have a vivid memory, as a young child, of listening to  Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher on the radio.  All these things separately and accumulatively began to blur the line drawn by others to stand between what it meant to be alive and what it was to be dead. My mind had made the vague, but still very convincing, formulation that even after I was dead, I would continue to know what was going on around me as I did while alive.

One winter, when I was in my early thirties and living in an apartment building, I awoke one night, perhaps from a dream, with the unshakable conviction that the apartments were really burial vaults, and we the inhabitants were entombed, row upon row, layer upon layer, entrapped forever in our adjacent silences, in a post-mortem hallucination of life. It terrified me, since the conviction persisted long into my subsequent ‘awakened’ lucidity. I remember that in order to quiet my sense of terror I reasoned myself into the conclusion that in order to be ‘alive’ one had to live with a moment to moment conviction that one was not separate from life – that oneself and one’s life were one and the same.

It was around this time too that I wrote several poems inspired by the Muse as Persephone. Persephone, above all others offered me an understanding of the kind of  love which satisfied the conditions of my experience, and though it has proved to be a tangled thread, I still cherish the conviction that certain myths are potent tools, and have the virtue of being able to lead to a deepened understanding of my intuitive self.

Ever since I was a young child, I was drawn to the myth, related to me by my aunt, of Orpheus and Eurydice.  I gazed with rapt attention to the reproduced  engravings in the illustrated encyclopedia of Eurydice’s wraith-like form retreating back into the darkness of the underworld, while a startled Orpheus stood frozen in his backward glance.  I thought I could sense the reverberations, coming through the thin gloss of the pages and seeping into my fingers, of his feelings of mingled love and loss and remorse and horror.

But we are never quite dead – are we? We seem to  persist as a halved onion does, when it is carelessly left on the kitchen table, on a summer night and is  seen the next afternoon to have forced the section of  its decapitated shoot through the heart of its body, greening already with the defiant hope, the unquenchable expectation of a continuing life.

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Robert Graves (July 24 1895 – December 7 1985)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Pinch of Salt                       

When a dream is born in you
With a sudden clamorous pain,
When you know the dream is true
And lovely, with no flaw nor stain,
O then, be careful, or with sudden clutch
You’ll hurt the delicate thing you prize so much.
Dreams are like a bird that mocks,
Flirting the feathers of his tail.
When you seize at the salt-box,
Over the hedge you’ll see him sail.

 
Old birds are neither caught with salt nor chaff:
They watch you from the apple bough and laugh.
Poet, never chase the dream.
Laugh yourself, and turn away.
Mask your hunger; let it seem
Small matter if he come or stay;
But when he nestles in your hand at last,
Close up your fingers tight and hold him fast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Babylon

The child alone a poet is:
Spring and Fairyland are his.
Truth and Reason show but dim,
And all’s poetry with him.

 

 

 

 
Rhyme and music flow in plenty
For the lad of one-and-twenty,
But Spring for him is no more now
Than daisies to a munching cow;
Just a cheery pleasant season,
Daisy buds to live at ease on.

 

 

 

 
He’s forgotten how he smiled
And shrieked at snowdrops when a child,
Or wept one evening secretly
For April’s glorious misery.

 

 

 

 

 
Wisdom made him old and wary
Banishing the Lords of Faery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Wisdom made a breach and battered
Babylon to bits: she scattered
To the hedges and ditches
All our nursery gnomes and witches.

 

 

 

 

 
Lob and Puck, poor frantic elves,
Drag their treasures from the shelves.

 

 

 

 

 

 
Jack the Giant-killer’s gone,
Mother Goose and Oberon,
Bluebeard and King Solomon.

 

 

 

 

 
Robin, and Red Riding Hood
Take together to the wood,
And Sir Galahad lies hid
In a cave with Captain Kidd.

 

 

 

 

 
None of all the magic hosts,
None remain but a few ghosts
Of timorous heart, to linger on
Weeping for lost Babylon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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These Foolish Things
Eric Maschwitz Lyrics
Jack Strachey Music

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ella Fitzgerald

Pia Beck

Chet Baker

Nat King Cole

Oscar Peterson

Frank Sinatra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These Foolish Things      

                     

A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places,
And still my heart has wings…
These foolish things remind me of you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A tinkling piano in the next apartment,
Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant,
A fairground’s painted swings…
These foolish things remind me of you.

 

 

 

 

You came, you saw,
You conquered me.
When you did that to me,
I knew somehow this had to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The winds of march that made my heart a dancer,
A telephone that rings,
And who’s to answer?
Oh, how the ghost of you clings…
These foolish things remind me of you.

 

 

 

 

 

First daffodils and long excited cables,
And candle light on little corner tables,
And still my heart has wings…
These foolish things remind me of you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The park at evening when the bell has sounded,
The ‘Ile de France’ with all the gulls around it,
The beauty that is spring’s…
These foolish things remind me of you.

 

 

 

 

How strange, how sweet
To find you still,
These things are dear to me,
They seem to bring you near to me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sigh of midnight trains in empty stations,
Silk stockings tossed aside, dance invitations.
Oh, how the ghost of you clings!
These foolish things remind me of you…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These foolish things remind me of you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eric Maschwitz Lyrics
Jack Strachey Music

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The story goes that Eric Maschwitz wrote the lyrics to this classic when he was parted from Anna May Wong, the glamorous American movie star (Maschwitz was British.) Whether the story is true or not is impossible to establish with any degree of certainty. Wong had a long career in Hollywood despite the caustic racism and blatant discrimination of the day. She never married, and is rumoured to have had affairs with Alla Nazimova and  Marlene Dietrich.

Whether or not Wong was involved with Eric Maschwitz, she was the worthy muse of his inspiration. His plaintive lyrics found their perfect match in Jack Strachy’s music, and they collaborated to put the two together in the space of a single day.

I have included six versions of the song in this post, including Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition, which, as always is remarkable for its unlaboured clarity and unforced emotion.

I love Pia Beck’s playing for many reasons, but particularly I think because I grew up listening to recordings of Erroll Garner’s music, and her style reminds me of his. Not that Pia isn’t great in her own right – she is – and the sound of applause you hear could be from the patrons of her own piano-bar in Churriana, Spain, where she and her partner Marga lived since 1965. They died within five months of each other in 2009.

(http://eurout.org/2009/11/26/dutch-lesbian-jazz-pianist-and-singer-pia-beck-dies-84)
The other four artists featured here, Chet Baker, Oscar Peterson, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra,

 

need no introduction. They each infuse this song with their own individual spirit and character, but I think Chet Baker stays the truest to the original sentiment suggested by the lyrics.

I first heard this tune in the late ’50’s, when I was about 5 years old. I lived with my grandparents in Kandy (Ceylon) and my parents would come up from Colombo for the occasional weekend visit. Both my parents played this song on the old black-varnished the piano with the brass candlesticks and ivory keys, in my grandparents’ living-room, but I preferred my father’s treatment of the tune. I would make him play it on every visit. Sometimes I would sit on his lap and place my hands lightly on his, while he played.

I have no exact recollection of how I learned the lyrics of this song, but they always created familiar images in my mind – as if the words came out of my own memory. Tinkling pianos and lipstick-stained cigarettes were familiar to me since both my parents smoked, and both played the piano.

When I listen to this song  now, it evokes a time that slipped outside time for me. The ghost of the ’50’s lives in me somewhere, and when I hear these familiar notes, it comes to stand close behind me, to share the moment.

 

http://lolitasclassics.blogspot.com/2009/08/anna-may-wong-1905-1961.html

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María Elena Walsh (1 February 1930 – 10 January 2011)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El 45

Te acordás hermana qué tiempos aquellos,
la vida nos daba la misma lección.
En la primavera del 45
tenias quince años lo mismo que yo.

Te acordás hermana de aquellos cadetes,
del primer bolero y el té en El Galeon
cuando los domingos la lluvia traía
la voz de Bing Crosby y un verso de amor.

Te acordás de la Plaza de Mayo
cuando «el que te dije» salía al balcón.
Tanto cambió todo que el sol de la infancia
de golpe y porrazo se nos alunó.

 

 

Te acordás hermana qué tiempos de seca
cuando un pobre peso daba un estirón
y al pagarnos toda una edad de rabonas  
valia más vida que un millón de hoy.

Te acordás hermana que desde muy lejos
un olor a espanto nos enloqueció:
era de Hiroshima donde tantas chicas
tenían quince años como vos y yo.

Te acordás que más tarde la vida
vino en tacos altos y nos separó.
Ya no compartimos el mismo tranvía,
sólo nos reúne la buena de Dios.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Nineteen Forty-five

Do you remember, Dear, those far-off days,      
When we learned life’s lessons the same way ?
It was during the spring of nineteen forty-five
When you were just fifteen, and so was I.

Do you remember, Dear, the cadets?
The first bolero? And our tea at ‘El Galeon’?
Sunday when the rain contrived to bring us
The voice of Bing Crosby and a verse of love.

Do you remember the day at Plaza de Mayo
When “The one I told you of” came to the balcony?
So much was changed of our sunny childhood,
And suddenly it was graduation day.

Do you remember those hard-up times,                 
When one little peso could be stretched,
And pay us for an age of playing hooky?
Life then was worth more than a million todays.

Do you remember, Dear, from far away,
That distant scent that made us mad with fear?
Hiroshima was a place where many girls
Were fifteen years-old like you and me.

Do you remember how later on in life,
High heels came along to separate you and me?
Now we no longer take the same tram together –
Now life brings us both together only haphazardly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barco quieto

No te vayas, te lo pido,                                     
de esta casa nuestra donde hemos vivido.
Qué nostalgia te puedes llevar
si de la ventana no vemos el mar.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad.

Todo cansa, todo pasa,
y uno se arrepiente de estar en su casa,
y de pronto se asoma a un rincón
a mirar con lástima su corazón.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad.

No te vayas,
quédate.
que ya estamos de vuelta de todo
y esta casa es nuestro modo
de ser.

Tantas charlas, tanta vida,                      
tanto anochecer con olor a comida
son una eternidad familiar
que en un solo día no puede cambiar.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad.

Estos muros, estas puertas,
no son de mentiras, son el alma nuestra,
barco quieto, morada interior
que viviendo hicimos, igual que el amor.
Y afuera llora la ciudad
tanta soledad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quiet Boat

Don’t go away, don’t leave, I beg of you,                           
from this our home, where we have lived.
What nostalgia you can bring about,
If from the window
We don’t look out at the sea –
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

Everything tires, everything passes,
So that one feels a pang to be at home,
And suddenly turns away to face a corner,
To gaze with pity at one’s heart,
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

 

 
So many talks, so much of life…                                       
There were so many evenings, with the scent of food,
For a familiar eternity…
That can’t be changed in a single day –
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

These very walls, these very doors,
They do not lie, they are our souls,
A silent boat, an inner abode,
Where we have lived, as love has lived –
And outside the city cries
So desolately.

Translation Dia Tsung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

María Elena Walsh was a Argentinian writer, who was known and loved for her books, poetry, drama and music.

These songs reveal her singing at its best, her  warm, mellow, expressive voice, revealing the depth of intensity and emotion of her lyrics. She was one of those rarities, someone who writes her own lyrics, composes her own music, and performs it as it was intended.

She was a very popular writer of children’s literature, but under the playful lyrics of her songs, ran a subversive message discernible to adults, which was critical and disparaging of the military dictatorship and excess of the government of Juan Perón.

Walsh was of mixed British, Irish and Spanish descent, and spent part of her life in  Paris, Spain, England and the U.S.
During her self-imposed exile in the ’50s, she and her girlfriend  at the time Leda Valladares made their living singing in clubs in Paris.

She returned to Argentina after the revolution which ousted Perón, and continued singing, composing, writing and performing. She  also made a film called “Let’s Play in the World” in partnership with Maria Herminia Avellaneda.

María Elena Walsh won many honors from her country for her art, and was loved and appreciated for being a voice that never fell silent as long as one was needed to speak out on behalf of her fellow-citizens. Argentinians  recognised and understood her message, even when it came to them under cover of ‘nonsense’ rhymes and children’s songs.

The last 31 years of her life were spent with her partner, photographer Sara Facio.  Walsh died of bone-cancer in January of 2011.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mar%C3%ADa_Elena_Walsh

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Luigi Pirandello (28 June 1867 – 10 December 1936)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Is Teresina here?”
The servant – still in his shirt-sleeves, but with his neck already squeezed into an extremely high collar and with his sparse hair carefully dressed and arranged on his cranium  – raised his thick, joined eyebrows, which resembled a displaced mustache that had been shaved off his lips and pasted up there so he wouldn’t lose it, and examined from head to foot the young man stranding in front of him on the staircase landing: a rustic from the look of him, with the collar of his rough overcoat raised up to his ears and his hands-purple, numbed with cold – holding a dirty little sack on one side and a small old suitcase on the other, as a counterweight.
“Who is Teresina?”
The young man first shook his head to get rid of a little water drop on the tip of his nose, then replied:
“Teresina, the singer.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the servant with a smile of ironic amazement.
“That’s her name, just plain Teresina? And who are you?”
“Is she here or isn’t she?” asked the young man, knitting his brows and sniffling. “Tell her that Micuccio is here, and let me in.”
“But there’s no one here,” continued the servant with his smile congealed on his lips. “Madame Sina Marnis is still at the theater and. . .”
“Aunt Marta, too?” Micuccio interrupted him.
“Ah, you’re a relative, sir? In that case, step right in, step right in . . . No one’s at home. She’s at the theater, too, your aunt. They won’t be back before one. This is the benefit night of your . . . what is she to you, the lady? Your cousin, perhaps?”
Micuccio stood there embarrassed for a moment.
“I’m not a relative . . . I’m Micuccio Bonavino, she knows . . . I’ve come on purpose from our hometown.”
Upon receiving this reply, the servant deemed it suitable above all else to take back the more polite ‘lei’ form of address and go back to the ordinary ‘voi.’ He led Micuccio into a small unlighted room near the kitchen, where someone was snoring noisily, and said to him:
“Sit here. I’ll go and get a lamp.”
Micuccio first looked in the direction from which the snoring was coming, but couldn’t make out anything then he looked into the kitchen, where the cook, aided by a scullery boy, was preparing a supper. The mingled aromas of the dishes being prepared overpowered him; their effect on him was like a heady intoxication; he had hardly eaten a thing since that morning; he had traveled from Reggio di Calabria, a night and a full day on the train.
The servant brought the lamp, and the person who was snoring in the room, behind a curtain hung from a cord between two walls, muttered sleepily:
“Who is it?”
“Hey, Dorina, get up!” the servant called. “Look, Mr. Bonvicino is here. . .”
“Bonavino,” Micuccio corrected him, as he blew on his fingers.
“Bonavino, Bonavino . . . an acquaintance of the mistress. You really sleep soundly: they ring at the door and you don’t hear it.  I have to set the table; I can’t do everything myself, understand – keep an eye on the cook, who doesn’t know the ropes – watch for people who come to call . . .”
A big, loud yawn from the maid, prolonged while she stretched and ending in a whinny caused by a sudden shiver, was her reply to the complaint of the man servant, who walked away exclaiming:
“All right”
Micuccio smiled and watched him depart across another room in semidarkness until he reached the vast, well-lit ‘salon’ at the far end, where the splendid supper table towered; he kept on gazing in amazement until the snoring made him turn once more and look at the curtain.
The servant, with his napkin under his arm, passed back and forth, muttering now about Dorina, who went on sleeping, now about the cook, who was most likely a new man, called in for that evening’s event, and who was annoying him by constantly asking for explanations. Micuccio, to avoid annoying him further, deemed it prudent to repress all the questions  that he thought of asking him. He really ought to have told him or given him to understand that he was Teresina’s fiancé, but he didn’t want to, though he himself didn’t know why, unless perhaps it was because the servant would then have had to treat him, Micuccio, as his master, and he, seeing him so jaunty and elegant, although still without his tailcoat, couldn’t manage to overcome the embarrassment he felt at the very thought of it. At a certain point, however, seeing him pass by again, he couldn’t refrain from asking him:
“Excuse me . . . whose house is this?”
“Ours, as long as we’re in it,” the servant answered, hurriedly.
And Micuccio sat there shaking his head.
By heaven, so it was true! Opportunity seized by the forelock.
Good business. That servant who resembled a great nobleman, the cook and the scullery boy, that Dorina snoring over there: all servants at Teresina’s beck and call. . .  Who would have thought so?
In his mind he saw once again, the dreary garret, way down in Messina, where Teresa used to live with her mother . . . Five years earlier, in that faraway garret, if it hadn’t been for him, mother and daughter would have died of hunger. And he, he had discovered that treasure in Teresa’s throat. She was always singing, then, like a sparrow on the rooftops , unaware of her own treasure was always singing, then, like a sparrow on the roof-tops. unaware of her own treasure: he would sing to annoy, she would sing to keep from thinking of her poverty, which he would try to alleviate as best he could, in spite of the war his parents waged with him at home, his mother especially. But could he abandon Teresina in those circumstances, after her father’s death? – abandon her because she had nothing, while he, for better or worse, did have a modest employment, as flute player in the local orchestra? Fine reasoning – and what about his heart –  Ah, it had been a true inspiration from heaven, a prompting of fortune, when he had paid attention to that voice of hers, when no one one was giving it heed, on that very beautiful April day, near the garret window that framed the vivid blue of the sky. Teresina was singing softly an impassioned sicilian arietta, the tender words of which Micuccio still remembered. Teresina was sad, that day, over the recent death of her father and over his family’s stubborn opposition; and he too – he recalled – was sad, so much so that tears had come to his eyes when he heard her sing. And yet he had heard that arietta many other times; but sung that way, never. He had been so struck by it that the following day, without informing her or her mother, he had brought with him his friend, the orchestra conductor, up to the garret. And in that way the first singing lessons had begun; and for two years running he had spent almost all of his small salary on her; he had rented a piano for her, had purchased her sheet music and had also given the teacher some friendly remuneration. Beautiful  faraway days! Teresina burned intensely with the desire to take flight, to hurl herself into the future that her teacher promised her could be a brilliant one; and, in the meantime, what impassioned caresses for him to prove to him all her gratitude, and what dreams of happiness together!
Aunt Marta, on the other hand, would shake her head bitterly: she had seen so many ups and downs in her life, poor old lady, that by now she had no more trust left in the future; she feared for her daughter and didn’t want her ever to think about the possibility of escaping that poverty to which they were resigned and, besides, she knew, she knew how much the madness of that dangerous dream was costing him.
But neither he nor Teresina would listen to her, and she protested in vain when a young composer, having heard Teresina at a concert, declared that it would be a real crime not to give her better teachers and thorough artistic instruction: in Naples, it was essential to send her to the Naples conservatory, cost what it might.
And then he, Micuccio, breaking off with his parents altogether, had sold a little farm of his that had been bequeathed to him by his uncle the priest, and in that way Teresina had gone to Naples to perfect her studies.
He hadn’t seen her again since then; but he had received her letters from the conservatory and afterwards those of Aunt Marta, when Teresina was already launched on her artistic life, eagerly sought by the major theaters after her sensational debut at the San Carlo. At the foot of those shaky and hesitant letters, which the poor old lady scratched onto the paper as best she could, there were always a few words from her, from Teresina, who never had time to write: “Dear Micuccio, I go along with everything Mother is telling you. Stay healthy and keep caring for me.” They had agreed that he would leave her five or six years, time to pursue her career without impediment: they were both young and could wait.
And in the five years that had already elapsed, he had always shown those letters to anyone who wanted to see them, to combat the slanderous remarks his family would hurl at Teresina and her mother. Then he had fallen sick; he had been on the point of dying; and on that occasion, without his knowledge, Aunt Marta and Teresina had sent to his address a large sum of money; part had been spent during his illness. but the rest he had violently torn out of  his family’s hands, and now  precisely he was coming lo return it to Teresina. Because money – no! He didn’t want any.  Not because it seemed like a hand-out, seeing he had already spent so much on her; but . . . no!  He himself was unable to say why, and now,  more than ever, there in that house. . .  money, no!  Just  as he had waited all those years, he could wait some more. . .  Because if Teresina  actually had money to spare, it was a sign that the future was open to her, and therefore it was time for the old promise to be kept, in spite of anyone who refused to believe it.
Micuccio stood up with his brows knitted, so as to reassure himself about that conclusion:  once again he blew on his ice-cold hands and stamped on the floor.
“Cold?” the servant said to him passing by. It won’t be long now. Come here into the kitchen. You’ll be more comfortable.”
Micuccio did not want to follow the advice of the servant, who confused and irritated him with that lordly air. He sat down again and resumed thinking in dismay Shortly afterward a loud ring roused him.
“Dorina, the mistress!” screamed the servant, hurriedly slipping on his tailcoat as he ran to open the door; but seeing that Minuccio was about to follow him, he stopped short and issued an order:
“You stay here, let me notify her first.”
“Ohi, ohi, ohi . . . ,” lamented a sleepy voice behind the curtain; and after a moment there appeared a large, stocky, carelessly dressed woman who trailed one leg on the ground and was still unable to keep her eyes open; she had her woolen shawl pulled up over her nose, and her hair was dyed gold.
Micuccio kept looking at her foolishly. She too, in her surprise, opened her eyes wide when confronted by the outsider.
“The mistress, ” Micuccio repeated.
Then Dorina suddenly returned to consciousness:
“Here I am, here I am. . . .” she said, taking off her shawl and flinging it behind the curtain, and exerting her whole heavy body to run toward the entrance.
The apparition of that dyed witch, and the order given by the servant, suddenly gave Micuccio, in his dejection, an anguished presentiment. He heard Aunt Marta’s shrill voice:
“Over there, into the salon, into the salon. Dorina!”
And the servant and Dorina passed by him, carrying magnificent baskets of flowers. He leaned his head forward so he could observe the illuminated room at the far end, and he saw a great number of gentlemen in tailcoats talking confusedly. His sight grew dim; his amazement and agitation were so great that he himself didn’t realize that his eyes had filled with tears; he closed them, and he shut himself up completely in that darkness, as if to resist the torment that a long, ringing laugh was causing him. It was Teresina laughing like that, in the other room.
A muffled cry made him open his eyes again, and he saw before him – unrecognizable – Aunt Marta, with her hat on her head. poor thing! and laden down by a costly and splendid velvet mantilla.
“What! Micuccio . . . you here?”
“Aunt Marta . . . ,” exclaimed Micuccio, almost frightened, pausing to examine her closely.
“Whatever for?” continued the old lady, who was upset. “Without letting us know? What happened? When did you get here?
Tonight of all nights . . . Oh, God, God . . .”
“I’ve come to . . . ,” Micuccio stammered, not knowing what more to say.
“Wait!” Aunt Marta interrupted him. “What’s to be done? What’s to be done? See all those people, son? It’s Teresina’s celebration . . . her night . . . Wait, wait here for a bit. . . ”
“If you,” Micuccio attempted to say, as anxiety tightened his throat, “if you think I ought to go . . .”
“No, wait a bit, I say,” the kind old lady hastened to reply, all embarrassed.
“But,” Micuccio responded, “I have no idea where to go in this town. . . at this hour. . . ”
Aunt Marta left him, signaling to him with one of her gloved hands to wait, and entered the salon, in which a moment later Micuccio thought an abyss had opened; silence had suddenly fallen there. Then he heard, clear and distinct, these words of Teresina:
“One moment, gentlemen.”
Again his sight grew dim with the imminence of her appearance.
But Teresina did not come, and the conversation resumed in the salon. Instead, after a few minutes, which seemed an eternity to him, Aunt Marta came back, without her hat, without her mantilla, without her gloves, and less embarrassed.
“Let’s wait here for a while, would that be all right?” she said to him. “I’ll stay with you . . . Now they’re having supper . . . We’ll remain here. Dorina will set this little table for us, and we’ll have supper together, here; we’ll reminisce about the good old days, all right? . . . I can’t believe it’s true that I’m here with you, son, here, all by ourselves . . . In that room, you understand, all those gentlemen . . . She, poor girl, can’t avoid them . . . Her career, you get my meaning? Ah, what can you do!. . . Have you seen the newspapers? Big doings, son! As for me, I’m all at sea, all the time . . . I can’t believe I can really be here with you, tonight.”
And the kind old lady, who had gone on talking, instinctively, to keep Micuccio from having time to think, finally smiled and rubbed her hands together, looking at him compassionately.
Dorina came to set the table hastily, because there, in the salon, the meal had already begun.
“Will she come?” Micuccio asked gloomily, with a troubled voice. “I mean, at least to see her.”
“Of course she’ll come,” the old lady immediately replied, making an effort to get out of her awkward situation. “Just as soon as she has a minute free: she’s already told me so.”
They looked at each other and smiled at each other, as if they had finally  recognized each other.

Despite the embarrassment and the excitement, their souls had found the way to greet each other with that smile.
“You’re Aunt Marta,” Micuccio’s eyes said.
“And you’re Micuccio, my dear, good son, still the same, poor boy!” said Aunt Marta. But suddenly the kind old lady lowered her own eyes, so that Micuccio might not read anything else in them. Again she rubbed her hands together and said: “Let’s eat, all right?”
“I’m good and hungry!” exclaimed Micuccio, quite happy and reassured.
“Let’s cross ourselves first: Here, in front of you, I can do it,” added the old lady in a mischievous manner, winking an eye, and she made the sign of the cross.
The manservant came, bringing their first course. Micuccio observed with close attention the way that Aunt Marta transferred her helping from the serving platter. But when his turn came, as he raised his hands, it occurred to him that they were dirty from the long trip; he blushed, he got confused, he raised his eyes to steal a glance at the servant, who, now the height of good manners, nodded slightly to him and smiled, as if inviting him to serve himself. Fortunately Aunt Marta helped him out of his predicament.
“Here, here, Micuccio, I’ll serve you.”
He could have kissed her out of gratitude! Once he received his helping, as soon as the servant had withdrawn, he too crossed himself hurriedly.
“Good boy!” Aunt Marta said to him.
And he felt carefree, contented, and started eating as he had never eaten in his life, no longer thinking about his hands or the servant.
Nevertheless, each and every time the latter, entering or leaving the salon, opened the glass double door, and a sort of wave of mingled words or some burst of laughter came from that direction, he turned around uneasily and then looked at the old lady’s sorrowful, loving eyes, as if to read an explanation there. But what he read there instead was an urgent request to ask no more for the moment, to put off explanations till a later time. And again they both smiled at each other and resumed eating and talking about their far-off hometown, friends and acquaintances, concerning whom Aunt Marta asked him for news endlessly.
“Aren’t you drinking?”
Micuccio put out his hand to take the bottle; but, just at that moment, the double door to the ballroom opened again; a rustle of silk, amid hurried steps: a flash, as if the little room had all at once been violently illuminated, in order to blind him.
“Teresina . . .”
And his voice died away on his lips, out of amazement. Ah, what a queen!
With face flushed, eyes bulging and mouth open, he stopped to gaze at her, dumbfounded. How could she ever. . . like that! Her bosom bare, her shoulders bare, her arms bare . . . all ablaze with jewels and rich fabrics . . . He didn’t see her, he no longer saw her as a living, real person in front of him. . . What was she saying to him? . . . Not her voice, nor her eyes, nor her laugh: nothing, nothing of hers did he recognize any more in that dream apparition.
“How are things? Are you getting along all right now, Micuccio?
Good, good . . . You were sick if I’m not mistaken . . . We’ll get together again in a little while. In the meantime, you have Mother with you here. . . Is that a deal? . . .”
And Teresina ran off again into the salon, all a-rustle.
“You’re not eating any more?” Aunt Marta asked timorously after a brief pause, to cut short Micuccio’s silent astonishment.
He looked at her in bewilderment.
“Eat,” the old lady insisted, showing him his plate.
Micuccio raised two fingers to his smoke-blackened, crumpled collar and tugged at it, trying to draw a deep breath.
“Eat?”
And several times he wiggled his fingers near his chin as if waving goodbye, to indicate: ‘I don’t feel like it anymore, I can’t.’ For another while he remained silent, dejected, absorbed in the vision he had just seen, then he murmured:
“How she’s turned out . . .”
And he saw that Aunt Marta was shaking her head bitterly and that she too had stopped eating, as if in expectation.
“It’s not even to be thought of . . . ,” he then added, as if to himself, closing his eyes.
Now he saw, in that darkness of his, the gulf that had opened between the two of them. No, she – that woman – was no longer his Teresina. It was all over . . .   for some time, for some time, and he, the fool,  the imbecile, was realizing it only now. They had told him so back home, and he had stubbornly refused to believe it . . . And now, how would he look staying on in that house? If all those gentlemen, if even that servant. had known that he, Micuccio Bonavino, had worn himself out coming such a distance, thirty-six hours by train, seriously believing that he was still the fiancé of that queen, what laughs they would raise, those gentlemen and that servant and that cook and the scullery boy and Dorina! What laughs, if Teresina had dragged him into their presence, in the salon there,saying: “Look, this pauper, this flute player, says he wants to become my husband!” She, yes, she had promised him this; but how could she herself suppose at that time that one day, she would become what  she now was? And it was also true, yes, that he had opened the path for her and had given her the means to travel it; but, there!  by this time she had come so very far, how could he, who had stayed where he was, always the same, playing his flute on Sundays in the town square, catch up to her anymore?  It wasn’t even to be thought of ! And, then, what were those few paltry cents spent on her back then, now that she had become a great lady? He was ashamed merely to think that. Someone might suspect that he, with his coming, wanted to assert some rights in exchange for those few miserable pennies . . . – But at that moment he remembered he had in his pocket the money sent him by Teresina during his illness. He blushed: he felt a twinge of shame, and he plunged one hand into the breast pocket of his jacket, where his wallet was.
“I’ve come, Aunt Marta,” he said hastily, “also to return to you this money you sent me. Is it meant as a payment? As repayment of a loan? What would that have to do with anything? I see that Teresina has become a . . . she looks like a queen to me! I see that . . . never mind.  It’s not even to be thought of any longer! But as for this money, no: I didn’t deserve such treatment from her . . . Where does that come in? It’s all over, and we won’t talk about it any more . . . but money, no way! I’m only sorry that it’s not all here . . .”
“What are you saying, son?” Aunt Marta tried to interrupt him, trembling, pained and with tears in her eyes.
Micuccio signaled to her to be silent.
“It wasn’t I who spent it: my family spent it, during my illness, without my knowledge. But let’s say it makes up for that trifle I spent back then . . . you remember? It doesn’t matter . . . Let’s think no more about it. Here is the difference. And I’m leaving.”
“What! Like that, all of a sudden?” exclaimed Aunt Marta, trying to hold him back. “At least wait until I tell Teresina. Didn’t you hear that she wanted to see you again? I’m going over to tell her. . .”

“No, it’s no use,” Micuccio replied, with determination. “Let her stay there with those gentlemen; it suits her there, she belongs there. I, poor fool . . . I got to see her; that was enough for me . . .No, now that I think of it, do go over there . . . you go there, too . . . Do you hear how they’re laughing? I don’t want the laugh to be on me . . . I’m leaving.”

Aunt Marta interpreted that sudden determination of Micuccio’s in the worst possible light: as an act of anger, a jealous reaction.
By now it seemed to her, the poor woman, as if everybody – seeing her daughter – ought immediately to conceive the meanest of suspicions, that very one which caused her to weep inconsolably as, without a moment’s rest, she bore the burden of her secret heart-break amid the hubbub of that life of detestable luxury which ignominiously dishonored her old age.
“But I,” the words escaped her, “by this time there’s no way for me to stand guard over her, son . . .”
“Why?” asked Micuccio, suddenly reading in her eyes the suspicion he had not yet formulated; and his face turned dark.
The old lady became bewildered in her sorrow and hid her face in her trembling hands, but failed to check the onrush of the tears that now gushed forth.
“Yes, yes, go, son, go . . .,” she said , strangled by sobs. “She’s not for you anymore, you’re right. . .  If the two of you had listened to me. . . ”
“And so,” Micuccio  burst out bending over her and violently pulling one hand away from her face. But so afflicted and wretched was the look with which she begged him for mercy as she put a finger to her lips, that he restrained himself and added in a different tone of voice, making an extra effort to speak softly: ”

“And so,” Micuccio  burst out bending over her and violently pulling one hand away from her face. But so afflicted and wretched was the look with which she begged him for mercy as she put a finger to her lips, that he restrained himself and added in a different tone of voice, making an extra effort to speak softly: “And so she, she. . .  she is no longer worthy of me. … Enough, enough, I’m leaving just the same . . . in fact, all the more, now. . .  What a dumbbell, Aunt Marta: I hadn’t understood!  Don’t cry. . . . Anyway, what  does it matter? Fate . . . fate . . .”
He took his little suitcase and little sack from under the table and was  on his way out when he recalled that there, in the sack were the beautiful citrons he had brought for Teresina from their hometown.
“Oh, look,  Aunt Marta,” he continued. He opened the top of the sack and, creating a barrier with one arm, he emptied that fresh, aromatic fruit onto the table. “And what if  I started tossing all these citrons I brought for her at the heads of those honorable gentlemen?”
“For mercy’s sake,” the old lady groaned amid her tears. once more making a beseeching sign to him to be silent.
”No, of course I won’t,” added Micuccio, smiling sourly and putting the empty sack in his pocket. “I’m leaving them for you alone, Aunt Marta. And to think that I even paid duty on them. . . Enough. For you alone, mind me now. As for her, tell her ‘Good luck!’ from me.”
He picked up the valise again and left. But on the stairs, a sense of anguished bewilderment overpowered him: alone, deserted, at night, in a big city he didn’t know, far from his home: disappointed dejected, put to shame. He made it to the street door, saw that there was a downpour of rain. He didn’t have the courage to venture onto those unfamiliar streets in a rain like that. He went back in very quietly, walked back back one flight of stairs, then sat down on the first step and, leaning his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands, began to weep silently.
When the supper was finished, Sina Marnis made another appearance in the little room, but she found her mother alone crying while back there the gentlemen were clamoring and laughing.
“He left?” she asked in surprise.
Aunt Marta nodded affirmatively, without looking at her. Sina stared into space, lost in thoughts, then sighed:
“Poor guy. . .”
“Look,” her mother said to her, no longer stemming her tears with the tablecloth. “He had brought citrons for you . . . “Oh, what beauties!” exclaimed Sina, cheering up. She clutched one arm to her waist and with the other hand gathered up as many as she could carry.
“No, not in there!” her mother vigorously protested.
But Sina shrugged her bare shoulders and ran into the salon shouting:
“Citrons from Sicily! Citrons from Sicily!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had so many thoughts whirling around in my head when I read this story that it took me hours to simply watch them  pass by. Since there is no chance at all  of my being able to organise them I will just let them appear in their own disorderly fashion.

My first encounter with Pirandello was about thirty years ago, when I saw the movie Kaos (meaning Chaos, and named for the village of Pirandello’s birth). I think it was in a run-down art deco theatre on Broadway called The Mayan, here in Denver.  The movie was based on five stories by this brilliant writer and dramatist, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934.  One story in particular stuck in my my mind and that was “Moon Sickness”. “Citrons from Sicily” was not one of the five stories told in Kaos, which centred around rural life, but I wish someday a movie will be made of Pirandello’s ‘bourgeois’  stories, including this one. Pirandello did adapt “Citrons from Sicily” for the stage, (and “Citrons from Sicily” clearly displays his flair for stage drama) but the compromises which had to be made in order to flesh-out Micuccio’s past, did not allow for effective stage direction, whereas in a movie, well-spliced narrative, or even a back-story, would serve the purpose very well.

Pirandello was born in a part of Sicily which had deep Greek roots. The city closest to his village, Kaos, is now called Agrigento, but it used to be called Grigenti. It figures prominently in Tomasso Lampedusa’s classic, posthumously published novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) set in the period of Italy’s risorgimento Italy, which was Italy in its previous incarnation of separate semi-autonomous states. This was when the Bourbons ruled both Naples and Sicily as a single entity, called “The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Pirandello’s life bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and while his literary contemporaries  were experimenting with new forms and ideas, he stuck steadfastly to an older and more balanced and perhaps more effective form of storytelling in which sympathy and irony were put to excellent use in fleshing out the characters. Pirandello created characters who are are fundamentally enigmatic, and whom we can never truly know. So when a character grabs hold of our imaginations, she or he tends to retain an obsessive hold on us, which is never quite relinquished.

I sense in “Citrons from Sicily” a veiled mockery of Dumas and Verdi, or rather their works  – La Dame aux Camélias and La Traviata. Pirandello published “Citrons from Sicily” in two installments in the Italian periodical Il Marzocco in May of 1900. I feel certain that Verdi’s La Traviata (first produced in 1883) and La Dame aux Camèlias (published in 1848) were lurking in the shadows of his mind when he wrote it. But Pirandello’s Teresina is no Camile, and certainly no Violetta. Courtesan she may be, but she possesses the particular weapon that sets her apart from those women – a voice.  She is unwilling to be exploited by the middle-class values – and proscriptions –  from which she could hope to derive no possible benefit. Her voice is her fortune, and in the few fords she has for Micuccio, it would seem that she takes care to not lavish it on him.

Pirandello makes a strong, and I think a very successful bid to divert sympathy form a female role and redirect it towards a male one, when he decides to turn the tables on the conceit of the self-sacrificing heroine, who gives up all for love, and presents us with Micuccio, the man behind Teresina’s unbounded success. Now risen well above her impoverished and seemingly hopeless beginnings as a village girl, who with her widowed mother lives on the very brink of destitution, she is the head of a household, the employer of several servants, and a cynosure of Neapolitan salon society. Her career as a singer has taken off, and she has shed her virtuous antecedents as easily as an old worn-out dress.

Divas in literature (and sometimes in real life) have tended to serve as symbols of a kind of demonic femininity. They disdain marriage because they dedicate themselves first and foremost to their voices and their art rather than to husband and children, and for this reason they are envied and reviled, even as they are venerated. On the stage, and sometimes off, they embody the mythical aspects of womanhood, of virgin, enchantress and whore. They are powerful, profligate, ruthless, solipsistic, superficial, brilliant and destructive They are arrogant, narcissistic, and careless of everyone’s feelings but their own. They are financially independent, beholden to none, beautiful, talented and unstoppable. None of these things endear them to a society in which conventional values are admired and aspired to, hence the powerful feeling of ambivalence divas inspire.

Aunt Marta is the female foil to Teresina. A virtuous widow who is appalled by her daughter’s new-found fame and the anticipated damage to her reputation. Aunt Marta is a fish out of water in the world in which she now finds herself. One might suppose that despite its bitter lessons of destitution and widowhood, she longs for her uncomplicated past, where her station in life was respectable and beyond reproach. Her life has been one of perennial dependence, first presumably, on her father, then her husband, and now her daughter. Her needs, we can safely deduce, have never been anyone’s priority, nor does it occur to her that they should be otherwise – which is to say, she is a ‘good woman.’

Divas are truly freaks of nature. Perhaps this is no longer seen as such in the world today where women are entitled to claim their legitimate position and wield their exceptional talent as they wish, but this was not so in the past.  To claim her own voice, to become the object of public adoration, to acquire and spend her own wealth, and revel in her own power to enthrall the public, were behaviours that ran counter to those approved by convention.  A diva’s voice was a highly sexualised  phenomenon, and the lives of the women who possessed these voices carried with them the whiff of scandal and sulphur. They were reputed to have and loose morals, to be promiscuous, and self-serving. The reversal of male and female roles in a story has the tendency to make us uneasy, and if we are to regain our composure as readers, the abandoning of female virtue cannot be permitted to go unpunished.

Micuccio, despite his strongly masculine character, plays a strangely feminised role in this story. He is really the spurned sweetheart, and young wife, who sacrifices herself to the ambitions of her spouse. He immediately wins our sympathy (as Teresina our contempt) for his faithful love and loyalty in the face of familial and social opposition. His more modest musical talents go unrewarded, and now even his masculinity is threatened by the unnatural diva status of his Teresina. She has usurped the well-established male prerogative of deserting a lover.  We ache to think of Micuccio being condemned to a shredded existence, as in our mind’s eye we watch him fade away into the distance to play his flute in the town square, for the pennies that must sustain him in his landless state for the rest of his bitter life. A ‘real’ Sicilian man might have slit Teresina’s throat – the symbol of her power and of her corruption –  then and there, and society would have thought well of him for it, but instead he sneaks back up the steps in the pouring rain, stranded in a strange city at night, to cry his eyes out in  bitter dejection.

The Citrons, in the story, stand for purity and unsullied virtue, and the values embodied by Micuccio but spurned by Teresina. She has gotten away with usurping the male prerogatives of power and ambition, and is now famous and wealthy. Though there is no explicit mention of her beauty, we can safely surmise that she is a beautiful woman. She is the object of male adoration and desire, and her professional success entitles her to both. In Pirandello’s story, her talent has made her into a monster – an ‘unnatural woman’, whose meteoric rise has commenced.

Pirandello’s Greek roots dispose him to have a predilection for tragedy, and there is a dark hint of a fall in the future in Micuccio’s question “whose house is this?” and the servant’s off-hand answer “Ours, as long as we’re in it.”  Pirandello expects us his readers to take note of this hint. We are unwillingly led to imagine what the future holds for Teresina.  Now we see her in her glittering salon, like the woman in a John Singer Sargent painting, What will happen when her beauty fades and her voice deserts her? The throat with its beauty emphasised and enhanced with jewels and rich fabrics will be emptied and abandoned, and her voice made dumb. Her wealth will be gone, and with it her fickle admirers and her chance of happiness. These are the misgivings that come to disturb us, even though we know that in terms of a literary symmetry we wish it as a counterbalance to allay our unease.

And when it comes to tragedy, Micuccio also must be given a fatal flaw. In his case it is a certain obdurate idealism which makes him ignore the crass suspicions of his more realistic family. He ignores their pragmatic warnings, and brushes aside all the evidence of Teresina’s lack of reciprocity for his love. He barely notices that her communications with him are trivial and impersonal, and her professions of affection vague, dilute and insincere. He believes implicitly in the promises he received, and expects that they will be kept, despite the inducements to Teresina (which he should have at least suspected) of money, success and vastly elevated social standing. He expects that despite being surrounded and immersed in change, Teresina will stay the same in relation to him. But Micuccio’s flaw is that of loyalty, trust and idealism and not blindness, and it is for this reason that he gains our sympathy. His loyalty and devotion and all the sacrifices he makes, despite the fact that he can ill-afford them, the purity of his male pride in not accepting money from a woman even when it is to save his life, endears him to us in way that makes us want to ignore or deny the implications that could show Teresina to us in a sympathetic light. In this sense Pirandello (who joined, and then repudiated the Fascist party a few decades after this story was written) is a revisionist and a reactionary.

At some point in my ruminations, I asked myself what other choice Teresina  could have made. What would have happened if she had married Micuccio instead of devoting herself to her talent? She might have been a typical Sicilian wife, living a meagre existence on a small stony piece of land, and her voice restricted  merely to sing lullabies to the children she would unavoidably have to bear. If Micuccio was fated to fall ill, (as he did) and there was no money to secure his care, he would have died, and Teresina would have been left a widow with no means of support, as her mother was when her own father died. She would have been a prisoner of dire circumstances, in that most patriarchal of cultures, and she would never have been able to contend with the oppressiveness it exerted in all that was rural as well as all that was Sicilian.  And what a reservoir of resentment and anger would have then accumulated. Sina might have to pay for her choices, but at least they would first pay her, but more importantly they would be her own choices.

Had she not received her musical training and instead become Micuccio’s wife, Teresina could never have realised her own potential. Now she seems willing to have repudiated marriage with him – or for that matter marriage with anyone –  in order to be her own woman. That she also seems to have lost some of her humanity in the process seems to have been an unfortunate collateral, but, at the time of the story she is still a young girl, and it is possible that some balance might be restored as her life continued to unfold.  Though she revels in being treated in society like a lady, she is not. She is a performer and a courtesan, two roles  associated with female promiscuity that the society of her time delighted to deride, and retribution is bound to follow as the price she must pay in the future for her present autonomy. She must conceal her mean provincial beginnings, and the sense of inferiority implicit in them. Beauty and talent even the odds, but only for the present. Seen in this sympathetic light, her subversion in defying social convention would appear to be amply justified,but at the same time we might feel pity or compassion for her, because we know what it will lead to.

But there is sufficient fateful condemnation for all in this story. Life is a punishing business, and none is exempt, and the piper must be paid in full. Now it is Micuccio’s turn to pay (there is the small irony that he is a flute-player). Aunt Marta,  despite her incongruous finery and new-found opulence, still continues to pay. She is a fish out of water, and is uneasy with the changes in her life .  Teresina pays as well, though she is oblivious to the fact, and she will pay still more in the future. Though Aunt Marta could not possible have foreseen the brilliant change in Sina’s and her fortunes which was to come, she had some presentiment that her daughter’s ambitions would have a dark side. She shares with Micuccio the feeling that despite appearances, all is not well, and that all will not be well in the future either.

Three poems I posted elsewhere in this blog, seem to me to express the rancour of rejected men, who perhaps incurred losses similar to Micuccio’s.  They are by Propertius, Francisco de Medrano and the other by Giacomo Leopardi, whose “Sopra il ritratto di una bella donna” unfolds such a scene as might exactly have played itself out in Sina’s salon.  I wonder that Micuccio too, will not later succumb to even an greater bitterness than he is now experiencing. Neither was the subject of ruin ever far from Pirandello’s life. His family wealth was lost when their sulphur mines flooded, and his wife’s dowry, which was invested in them, was lost as well. Her health was ruined, and her sanity forfeit, and Pirandello was compelled to commit her to an asylum. Though it is to our benefit that he was forced to earn his living by his pen, he could not have relished his lot in life.

In  Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, the hero Hoffmann falls in love with a diva who is a mechanical doll. He discovers the reality behind her appearance only when her squabbling creators smash her to bits. The siren-like soul-stealing spell of the diva can only be broken by a similar act of destruction. Micuccio’s suffering has only begun. We leave Sina as she is still wearing her crown. The village lass Micuccio loved is lost, gone forever, never to return, but this is not his loss alone. Sina’s dual personality consists of two halves which can never come together on their own. Only a third, larger self could ever integrate them. We have no way of knowing if that will happen, and she has only her art to redeem her. Will she go on to have a brilliant career, to break the rules of the stage as Maria Malibran did when she sang the role of  Otello? Or will she be like Olimpia the loftily named mechanical doll-diva in whose artificially brilliant voice was found the perfect exaggerated mingling of the natural and unnatural?  Will she too be a plaything of male passions, then to be cast down from her lofty height?

“He went back in very quietly, walked back back one flight of stairs, then sat down on the first step and, leaning his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands, began to weep silently.”
Micuccio’s female ‘virtue’ is in stark contrast to Sina’s male ‘vice’. He went back in. Did he re-enter the house?  And did he then overhear the humiliating exchange in Sina’s conversation? What happened the next day? Did he wander abjectly through the rain-drenched city and find his way back to the train station to go back home?He must have choked to swallow the bitter dose of reality which must have extinguished forever his youthful idealism. He was severely punished for his foolishness, his, naivety, his passivity and his love. He has only his pride left, and we hope he will succeed in retaining it in the days to come. I remember an old aunt repeating the axiom that “love and pride don’t mix” – so when love is forfeit pride must step in to serve as redemption, however false it might be.

This is, in a way, a story that sticks in the craw, as I am certain Pirandello intended it to be. I fantasize a sequel, which combines elements from Lampedusa’s  Il Gattopardo,  Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover and parts taken form the time Leopardi spent in Bologna and his ill-fated ‘romance’ with Fanny Targioni. I persist in hoping that there is an alternative to ruin, that is neither simple nor moralistic and which can satisfy the rigorous requirements of a good story. Pirandello has supplied us with sufficient grist for the mill, and were I a competent writer of fiction and a good researcher, I would be tempted to try.

The period of transition and dissolution of “The kingdom of the two Sicilies” is as Lampedusa has shown, a particularly fertile setting for a story in which change pervades everything, and past and present overlap in a dense cloud. Despite Pirandello’s apparent reservations, (in this story) the empowerment of women is not an intrinsically evil thing – far from it. The re-writing of a new script for old social roles  in the context of historical change can be the subject of fascinating drama. There is no need to stay stuck in the moribund dictates of social stratification and expectation, and above all, there is no need for every tale to always be either overtly or covertly cautionary. And this perfect story need not always be the only perfect kind of story.

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In lieu of an image of Francisco de Medrano, (1570 – 1607) this portrait by El Greco.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know not how or when or what it was

I know not how or when or what it was        
I felt, that me replete with sweetness made.
I know but to my arms such beauty came
To partake with me of bliss so avidly.

 

 

I know she came, although with shrinking look,
Almost, I could not then withstand her face,
So stunned was I, as one in obscure night
Loses his bearings, and dares not take a step.

 

Following this great bliss, astonishment – or dream –
I knew not when, nor how, nor what had been
That made all sense and senses quiescent seem.

 

 

 

 

To know nothing at all is yet to know,
So slight is that which merely sense can grasp –
A compass which the soul alone could fit.

 

 

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No sé cómo, ni cuándo, ni qué cosa

No sé cómo, ni cuándo, ni qué cosa         
sentí, que me llenaba de dulzura;
sé que llegó a mis brazos la hermosura,
de gozarse conmigo codiciosa;

 

 
sé que llegó, si bien, con temerosa
vista resistí apenas su figura;
luego pasmé, como el que en noche oscura
perdido el tino, el pie mover no osa.

 

 

Siguió un gran gozo a aqueste pasmo, o sueño;
no sé cuándo  ni cómo  ni qué ha sido,
que lo sensible todo puso en calma.

 

 

 

Ignorarlo es saber; que es bien pequeño
el que puede abarcar solo el sentido,
y éste pudo caber en sola la alma.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I set out to attempt the translation of a poem, I usually resort to pen and ink. The keyboard does not connect with my brain as when my hand accepts the task of forming letters. The liquid ink seeping into the paper, the angle of the nib, and even the necessity of coaxing the pen, all play their part in how my mind is enabled to enter the poem. The movement of the hand, helped by the pen, the ink and the paper, forms a system of communication with the mind, as it simultaneously tries to work on several levels.  As the stream of one language flows in, it is welcomed by a different one, and words are exchanged and greeted – or asked to leave. The sound and rhythm is a music provided by an invisible conductor and musicians in the back of the room, and a helpful adviser of sorts sits off to the side at a desk and  busily sorts out the words, explaining  their meanings and deciding on their suitability.

Over all these, there hovers an unseen, but powerfully-felt presence, who draws in all the participants, placing them in accord with each other, while containing the indispensable sense of wholeness  and protecting the atmosphere within  where all things seem to flow within a suspended space.

In order for any of this to happen, the original work must first cast its spell on me, place my mind in accord with its own frequency. I feel this as an indescribable  sensation, which seems to make itself felt in a soundless buzzing behind my forehead, and a feeling of ‘lifting up’ on the top of my head. My hair feels somewhat detached, and there is a tingling along the outsides of my ears.

First drafts, with all their flaws, create the most excitement. All the collaborators work hard to play their parts, and then come the second and third, and as many drafts as are needed in order to feel that there is a ‘fit.’  Then sometimes there has to follow a hiatus – a time of separation and detachment, since the synthesis of all the players makes  further discrimination impossible at that moment.

After that there is a return. The words have determined their places on the page, and have been able to work out their differences, and they have made decisions about where they wish to be placed. Some must leave, and there is a flurry of rearrangement, and some newcomers arrive.  The musicians again begin to play, and the lexical entities determine if they are in accord with their vocable counterparts.  A sober schoolmistress is invited to sit at the head of the classroom, and the students present themselves to her. Sometimes she is pleased, and gives them her nod.  Sometimes she shakes her head and says nothing, and sometimes she comes up with a suggestion, but sometimes she walks out without a word.

Without the Muse there are no acceptable translations – that is if her presence has been evoked in the original work to begin with. Only the Muse can help the translator to mediate between two languages without falling  away from chastity into falsehood. Her stern insistence on clean hands and devoted mind are the only assurance that no lies will  spoken, and no infelicities permitted to  intrude.  The translator must humbly, yet willingly, enter this liminal space, or the result will fail to satisfy.

Besides the presence of  two languages, a third is required – and that is the language of poetry itself. This is the holy trinity. This is the language the original poet and the translator must have in common. If all this sounds like so much presumptuous nonsense, experience must provide the only possible veto.  In my case, there is no other way that can lead me to my desired destination.

When I first read this poem by Francisco de Medrano, it drew me instantly in. I saw and heard and felt some essence of observing the unfolding images which passed before my inward eye, which is how the conviction came to me that the poem was real. The feeling and images lingered in the back of my mind for three or so years, until last night the moment came when they reasserted themselves, and I took up the task of translation.

Medrano, who was born in Seville in 1570, was a Jesuit priest, who gave up religion for poetry, which of course is the more divine vocation of the two.  I wish more people could do this, but alas the inferior requirements of religion are much more easily satisfied than those of poetry, which might account for the greater popularity of the former.

Despite his initial clerical misstep, de Medrano did find his way out of the darkness of the church. He spoke of love in a way that is clearly not merely mystical hocus-pocus. That he felt the influence – or presence – of St. John of the Cross seems evident in the subject and circumstances of the poem, as well as its imagery and vocabulary, yet it is very different from the poetry of St. John.  The locutions suggest to me (perhaps it is from the gender of the nouns) that de Medrano’s Muse, unlike St. John’s, was adamantly female.   This makes his poem more have for me a greater feeling of conviction – of genuineness.  de Medrano’s choice of the last three words of the poem, which include the choice of ‘la alma’ over ‘el alma’ (alma is generally a masculine noun which turns feminine in the plural)  not merely as a preference for the sake of how it sounds, thereby changing the gender of the (singular)  soul to female, seems to affirm this.

When I first read this poem, I felt it was a little creepy – as the suggestion of night visitants are apt to be.  It has the sense of a nightmare, one which had the ambivalent elements of both horror and bliss. Who was this presence who came to Medrano’s darkened room in the obscurity of the shadow-steeped night? Jungians no doubt would say it was his Anima, and that his soul’s shocking encounter with its oppositely gendered part, accounts for the events related and emotions felt.

I cannot refute such an argument, because however she is named, this presence attends all the uncanny states which accompany genuine poetic experience.  I have to stress the word ‘genuine’, because so much twaddle is passed off as poetry as to make the separation of wheat from chaff an onerous job, for the quantity of chaff is vast in comparison to the few grains which might appear at the end of an exhaustive winnowing.  What convinces me that de Medrano’s poem is genuine, besides my own vicarious experience, is that it follows the steps beginning with a feeling of infiltration which then goes on to overcome, and ends with a lysis (not in the pathological sense, or the priggish pederastic sense of Plato, but as the wall or barrier which breaks to permit access to a meaning which can be accessed) that feels true and right.

Genuinely inspired works stand out  brilliantly from among their dull pretenders. When one comes across the former, one feels a sense of wholeness, as when one is swept in the glissando of a well-structured drama which faithfully follows the structure of  rising action, crisis, denouement, and then leaves one with the small grain of resolution that endow it with the power to linger on in the mind, resonating with a persistent tenacity  for months and even years. de Medrano’s lips are sealed about the identity of his visitor – but  of course he knew who she was:  he really did. She was never a stranger to him.

Synchronicity can sometimes be made to serve as evidential proof that one has stumbled across a bit of contagious magic, and so it was last night. My search for a copy of this poem to cut and paste in this post took on a life of its own. Quite by chance (?) I came across a lesbian writer and singer from Argentina, María Elena Walsh, whose work is bound to make a future appearance in this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herewith a brief biography of de Medrano for those who can read Spanish, which I found at this site.

http://www.apoloybaco.com/Francisco%20de%20Medrano.htm

 

Nació en Sevilla hacia el año 1570. Perteneció a la orden de los jesuitas, hasta que en el año 1602 decidió abandonarla y retirarse a disfrutar de una vida sosegada, donde la poesía fue su principal actividad. Se sabe que estudió en Córdoba y Salamanca cuando aún pertenecía a la compañía.

Era un poeta que cultivaba una poesía clásica, de características muy similares a la de los poetas salmantinos del siglo XVI, basando su obra prácticamente en las traducciones de obras clásica, y realización de poesía a imitación de autores del mismo corte, principalmente Horacio. Así el crítico Adolfo de Castro lo refleja, dictanimando que Medrano es, sin duda alguna, el mejor de los imitadores españoles de Horacio.
 
Su escritura era correcta, huyendo del estilo gongorista que se impulsaba en la literatura española de aquella época. Escribió cincuenta y dos sonetos, dotados de una especial sensualidad, además de diversas odas y romances. Entre sus poemas más conocidos se encuentra la oda de La profecía del Tajo -que aquí les muestro- muy similar a la que escribió Fray Luis de León con el mismo título.
 
La muerte pronto vino a visitarle; murió en el año 1607.
Era un poeta que cultivaba una poesía clásica, de características muy similares a la de los poetas salmantinos del siglo XVI, basando su obra prácticamente en las traducciones de obras clásica, y realización de poesía a imitación de autores del mismo corte, principalmente Horacio. Así el crítico Adolfo de Castro lo refleja, dictanimando que Medrano es, sin duda alguna, el mejor de los imitadores españoles de Horacio.
 
La muerte pronto vino a visitarle; murió en el año 1607.

 

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Just because we sometimes fall short of our ideals it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them.

Happy 136th Birthday America, and Many Happy Returns of the Day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These words were written by our wonderful lesbian fore-mother Katherine Lee Bates. She was inspired to write them when she stood at the top of Pike’s Peak, right here in Colorado.   Many Americans would choose “America the Beautiful”  as our our national anthem in favour of the more bellicose “Star Spangled Banner.” It is not in the least bit jingoistic, and this is how most of us feel about our country.

This  should have been our national anthem, and for me it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“America the Beautiful” complete text.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassion’d stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
O beautiful for heroes prov’d
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country lov’d,
And mercy more than life.
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine.
O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

 

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_the_Beautiful

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