from Camillo Sbarbaro’s Pianissimo (1914)
Translated by Natalia Nebel and Paola Morgavi
Camillo Sbarbaro was born in Santa Margherita Ligure in 1888. He made his debut as a poet in 1911 with a collection titled Resine. In 1912-13 he began collaborating with Italy’s most important cultural magazines, La Voce, Lacerba, and Riviera Ligure. This collaboration allowed Sbarbaro to become part of the Florentine literary intelligentsia and in 1914, when he published Pianissimo with La Voce, his circle grew to include some of Italy’s well known intellectuals: Ardengo Soffici, Giovanni Papini, Dino Campana.
Sbarbaro spent almost his entire life in the region of Liguria. After serving as a soldier in World War I, he established himself in Genoa where, in addition to teaching Greek and Latin, he collected and catalogued lichens. Sbarbaro’s herbaria can be found in European and American universities and museums, including the Field Museum of Chicago where his discoveries are still considered valuable.
In Genoa, Sbarbaro developed a warm and lasting friendship with Eugenio Montale. From 1931 to 1939 he was one of the editors of the influential Genoise magazine Circoli. Towards the end of World War II and immediately afterwards Sbarbaro worked as a translator, translating classics from ancient Greek and French into Italian.
He won several major literary awards: Saint Vincent, Etna-Taormina, and in 1961, under the auspices of Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, one of the four Feltrinelli prizes. He lived in Spotorno with his sister from 1951 to his death in 1967.
from Pianissimo (1914)
Sometimes, while I’m walking alone under the sun
watching the world with innocent eyes so everything,
the air the light the blade of grass the insect,
seems fraternal, a sudden iciness grips my heart.
I feel like a blind man
sitting on the bank of a vast river.
Beneath him whirling water flows,
but he doesn’t see it: blissfully
he basks in the pale sunlight.
And if the water’s voice
reaches him sometimes, he mistakes it
for the buzzing of dreaming ears.
Indeed, as I live my unhappy life
I feel I’m brushing against another one
as when I sleep and that sleep
seems my real life.
A sort of bewilderment grips me,
a childlike fright.
all alone on the edge of the road,
I look at my sad cramped world
and caress the grass with trembling hand.
I wake from a light sleep alone
in the dead of night.
The house surrounding me
is silent as though empty, and beneath me
a silent port glitters in its lights.
But so cold and distant are those lights
and so immense is the silence in the house
that I lean on my elbows and listen.
Unexpected terror cuts off my breath
and forces my eyes wide open in the dark.
My life is separate from the rest of the house,
separate from the rest of the earth
and I’m alone in the world.
Then the memory of familiar streets
of names and daily faces
returns to me in sleep
and I lie back down, laughing at myself.
My fear vanishes with sleep,
yet deep inside my soul an iciness remains.
I walk among crowds watching
everyone closely with my eyes,
curious, but distant as a stranger.
I have no one in whose hands
I can trustfully place
my hands and abandon myself.
If the water, trees and all the inanimate creatures
that surround my earthly life didn’t exist,
I think I’d die of loneliness.
Walking among strangers,
living surrounded by emptiness,
and knowing it will last forever frightens me.
Despite this, my eyes are cruelly tearless
I leave lust behind.
The paving stones echo as I walk in the night.
I feel neither remorse nor restlessness.
I’m alone, profoundly calm.
something inside and outside me is different.
I feel as though the city has become empty and vast,
an uninhabited mass of stone
where only bare Necessity drives
the carriages and the hours.
I’m like these symmetrical deserted streets,
these silent dwellings.
I take part in their indifference
deaf and dull like them,
made of stone like them.
My father and sister are
far away, as though dead for years,
and already buried in my memory.
The word friend is meaningless:
my sin stands, an immovable boulder between us.
If I found out that my father had died,
when just being apart from him,
thinking of him and the few days we had left together
would break my heart,
if I were told that my father had died,
now I feel I couldn’t cry.
I’m an outsider,
I’m a machine that obeys,
necessary as the carriage and the street.
Yet I’m unable to care.
I keep walking –
the paving stones echo in the night.
Sleep, beloved brother of Death,
you briefly free us from life but then
quickly leave us at its mercy again
like a cat playing with thread;
until my life gives meaning to my sister’s life,
until it leaves a sign showing that I too have lived
I’ll content myself with you and your deception.
Come, consoler of the afflicted.
Abolish space and time for me
and dissolve this self of mine into nothingness.
No baby abandoned at their mother’s breast
was trusting as I
abandoning myself in your arms.
When we sleep we know nothing.
Father, even if you weren’t my
father, even if you were a stranger,
I’d love you for who you are.
I remember a winter morning
when you discovered from your window
the first violet blooming on the facing wall:
you gave us the news, happily.
Then you took the wooden ladder,
carried it outside and set it against the wall.
We children were watching from the window.
I remember too when you chased my little sister,
threatening the stubborn girl
(who knows what she’d done).
But once you reached her crying in fear
you didn’t have the heart to punish her:
you saw yourself chasing your scared little girl
and, wavering, you embraced her tightly
and caressing her, you enveloped her in your arms,
as though to protect her from the nasty man
you were before.
Father, even if you weren’t my
father, even if you were a stranger,
among all men
I’d love you for your sweet, innocent heart.
Sometimes, when I think about my life
that always retraces its ground
with its disgusts and desires following one another
like day following night
or when my miserable contentment
meets desire chattering on a street corner,
then the image of a staircase
on which we run up and down endlessly
like children playing silly games, comes to my mind;
a new clear-sightedness opens
my eyes to Life, and it seems to me that
for the first time I see life as it is.
I see then that nothing
is good or bad, but both
must be equally accepted.
Since necessity levels everything
I think it’s best to give up.
In that moment of seeing clearly I realize
I can’t go beyond the circle
Necessity forces us within,
and since I feel I could never
passively accept all things,
from the tender affection for my sister
to the voracious possession of a woman,
in my heart there blooms a sudden
sincere desire to die.
Now that lust has run its course
I can’t feel anything but emptiness,
I don’t even desire to die.
I don’t know if anyone in the world
still thinks of me or if my father is alive.
I simply avoid thinking about it
for any single painful thought
would now ring artificial.
I feel I’ve gone beyond that boundary
within which to suffer is to be human;
suffering from sin is a blessing,
I don’t deserve that privilege any longer.
I let the breeze caress me,
the lamps illuminate me
the passing crowd jostle me, incurious
like a ship with neither sail nor anchor
that abandons its empty frame to the waves.
So, desireless, without thoughts
I wait for the will to live to return
driven along by life’s eternal cycle.
Waking in the morning, sometimes
I feel such intense revulsion rejoining life
that in that very instant, truly
I’d make a pact with death.
Waking, then, is like being reborn:
the mind washed by oblivion,
returned to a pure state in sleep
peers with curiosity at life’s threshold.
But soon experience emerges
like earth exposed by a lowering tide.
Life’s absurdity is so clearly revealed
that the mind refuses living
and would like to return to the limbo
it’s just come from.
In that moment I feel like a person
waking on the edge of a ravine
who desperately seeks to pull
himself back with his arms but fails.
The morning’s desperate light
fills me with terror like the ravine.
You are silent, my soul. These are sad
days in which one lives without will,
days of desperate waiting.
Like the bare tree in mid-winter
sad in an empty courtyard
I believe I won’t grow leaves again
and I doubt I ever grew them.
Walking the street so alone
among people who jostle me without seeing me
I feel absent from myself.
And I merge with the crowd to listen,
and I stop dazzled by the shop windows,
and I turn at any rustling skirt.
For the voice of a blind ballad-singer,
for the unexpected flash of a nape
foolish tears drop from my eyes,
my eyes are fired by lust.
All my life, in truth, is in my eyes.
All that passes before me moves my being
like a weak wind stirs dead water.
I’m like a resigned mirror
reflecting everything along the street.
I don’t look inside of myself because
nothing is what I’d find.
And, when night comes, I lie down
in my bed as in a coffin.
As a child, when the song from drunken revelers
reached my ear in the night
impulsively, I’d jump up from my desk.
Forgetting my books, I’d open my sealed room
to the night air and lean out the window
to drink that song like strong wine.
Turning back, I’d look with such eyes
at the sealed room and the home beyond it
where all the lights were already out!
More than once, leaning on the cold slate
the wind passing through my hair
the rain drenching my face,
I cried foolish tears.
Now also that illusion has collapsed.
Now I’ve learned how bitter
is the mouth that sings wide-open to the sky.
Yet, even today, if that drunken street song
rouses me from sleep, I jump up to listen,
suddenly moved, my breath cut off,
and I put my face to the wind
that it may tousle my hair.
I’d like to revive the bitter intoxication
and the subtle shiver along the body
the lost good I no longer believe in
cry as I used to.…
Instead my eyes
shed only silly scant tears.
Sometimes obscure appetites
seethe through my poor blood.
I walk the city alone at night
and in my memory the smell of warehouses
overpowers the smell of grass in the sun.
I brush against myriads of beings
sealed in themselves like tombs.
And I knock on unknown doors. I climb
stairs worn away by generations.
I look with brotherly eyes
at the prostitute waiting at the threshold
for the drunk throwing up against the wall.
And sometimes in the semi-dark alley
where the lights at its end resemble bloodshot eyes
my nostrils suddenly flare, smelling Crime.
Inside me grows the fear of dying
without having the enjoyable enjoyed
without having the sufferable suffered.
The desire to throw away my name,
a useless burden, takes hold of me.
To go about the world lighthearted,
Perdition as companion.
I who walk like a somnambulist
along my beaten every-day streets,
tremble seeing you before me.
You walk ahead of me slowly
like a queen.
Roused suddenly from my sleep,
I adjust my step to yours –
And possibilities of love and glory
come near my heart and swell it.
For a head’s foolish little curls,
for the brim of a hat, I’m still able
to unburden myself of sorrow.
I’m still young, inexperienced,
my heart open to all possible follies.
A light gleams in the half-sleep
of my life.
Everything is suspended as in waiting.
I stop thinking. I’m content and silent.
My heart beats to the rhythm of your step.
At times when I look at my life
and all I’ve lived fades before my eyes,
as an ember covered with ash,
the sudden fear of dying
runs through me with a cold shiver.
If I died tomorrow, if I knew
I were to die, I’d leave home
and wander the streets
to be alone with myself –
the vast and empty sky above my head
the cold and hard earth under my feet –
as I’d be alone facing nothingness.
May some illness not kill me soundlessly
while I’m lying on damp pillows,
in the way a breeze snuffs out a weak flame!
To wander those places
I passed through as a child with my father;
the first and last kiss to friends;
to touch the grass
as one touches a baby’s head
and to know it’s the last time;
to say goodbye to the sweet earth,
never will it have seemed so sweet.…
And then to seal my life.
At the curve of every street I wait for you,
Perdition. I search for you within the eyes
of every passing woman.
I stop at festival grand tents
to look at the snake lady,
the flying girl.…
Oh the pleasure of giving away everything for nothing!
To value life – all we have –
no more than a straw!
The one possessed by everybody,
who laughs easily and doesn’t understand,
the one who, by shrugging her shoulders and swaying her hips,
dissolves me inside of my world,
the most despicable one unaware
of her power,
I pray she cross my path.
I, like a beggar at a river bank,
sneering while throwing away his only penny
would throw away my life for her,
In the high heat of the street sometimes
the song of cicadas captures me.
And suddenly I’m filled with the vision
of fields prostrated in the sunlight.…
And I’m amazed that in the world
there are still trees and water
all goods from the earth
that I could once lose myself in….
With the same foolish amazement the drunk
receives the night’s breeze on his face.
But then when I feel my soul attached
to every stone of the deaf city
like a rooted tree,
I smile to myself mysteriously
and with a strained motion of wings
I lift my elbows.…
Paola Morgavi is a Senior Lecturer in the department of French and Italian at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. Her teaching and scholarship revolve around twentieth century Italian culture and literature with an emphasis on poetry, and second language acquisition.
Natalia Nebel is an editor and fiction writer who lives in Chicago and travels to Italy as often as possible. Her short stories have appeared in a variety of literary magazines including Primavera, ELM and Seems. In 2005 she received a Pushcart Prize nomination.