Yes, but Slowly

Paul F. Gehl, Curator Emeritus at The Newberry Library, reviews Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa, a translation by Dominic Siracusa.

Mark Rothko at the Whitney Museum of American Art (© Jérôme Decq/CC BY 2.0)

Poetry is notoriously difficult, some say impossible, to translate. But what does it matter, really? If a reader finds a German Dante, an Arabic Wallace Stevens, or a Quixote in Tagalog that speaks to her, moves him, enlightens us, then why not embrace it? And if a publisher gives us a bilingual edition, all the better. It cannot distract anyone too much nowadays and may well allow a deeper understanding of the original to see how another reader has interpreted it in a second language. Moreover, the bilingual Italian/English Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa (1914-2003) translated by Dominic Siracusa (New York, Contra Mundum Press, 2014) has the considerable additional merit of introducing an under-appreciated twentieth-century Italian master to the Anglophone public. Bilingual in this case is only a manner of speaking, since Villa’s originals are also in idiosyncratic classical Greek, Latin, French, English, Portuguese, Provençal, and Milanese with a free-handed sprinkling of words in other languages.

Admittedly, there is a long tradition of disparaging or at least claiming ambivalence about bilingual editions. Aldus Manutius at the turn of the sixteenth century performed typographic contortions to create parallel Greek/Latin editions that could be read on facing pages but also sold as separates (or separated after the fact), apparently because he felt his substantial audience of native Greek readers would find a Latin crib insulting. But Aldus’s noblest goal was to transmit Greek learning to a new, Western European public, even to translate an entire ancient civilization for his own modern age. It is an ideal we need more than ever in our own, all too centrifugal age. Certainly, Emilio Villa, a vatic poet if ever there was one in the twentieth century, deserves an English translation for the twenty-first. Dominic Siracusa and his collaborators have given us a fine and useful one.

The model of Aldus is particularly appropriate to cite in the present case, since Villa’s always-experimental poems often depended in part on a particular sort of typesetting. It was necessary for Siracusa, publisher Rainer Hanshe, and designer Alessandro Segalini to translate the graphics as well as the words. Siracusa opines in his introduction to this substantial, seven-hundred-page anthology that Villa was not interested in typographic experiments for aesthetic reasons after the manner of the Futurists or shaped-poetry avant-gardists like Apolllnaire. Villa, that is, was not looking for striking visual effects. Siracusa tells us (and the poems in this volume confirm) that Villa’s eccentric typography was intended to emphasize “the indeterminate nature of language.” He adds, “One could say that the blank spaces that perforate Villa’s pages are almost a reaction to and not a continuation of the experiments [of earlier poetic radicals].” This attitude toward language, this impulse to destabilize, is a constant in Villa’s poetry and informed his art criticism. He indulges in word-play incessantly but even at his most playful he is dead serious about disrupting our usual sense of how language works.

It is clear that this attitude toward language derived from Villa’s study of ancient languages, particularly the pre-Hellenic and pre-Hebraic languages of the Mediterranean and Middle East. We might even see in this another echo of the Aldine project, at least to the degree that it looked to the ancient world for wisdom embodied in little-known languages. Here again, Siracusa’s introduction is a valuable guide, emphasizing as it does Villa’s life-long project to translate the Old Testament in a manner that would strip away all the theological interpretations that assigned narrowly specific meanings to the ancient texts and return them to some semblance of their original force as open-ended, multivalent, mythic narratives. One of the advantages of the present anthology is that it includes a short passage from Villa’s translation of Genesis, a retelling of the Fall that goes a long way toward explaining why language was the creative force for Villa. For Villa both gods and men — and indeed the rest of the universe — were created by language, what he himself called the Verbum naturans or Verbum operante. His account of the Fall has everything to do with the power of language to create knowledge and morality and to disrupt them.

Once we leave behind Siracusa’s excellent, succinct introduction, which is complemented by a useful bibliography, we set sail upon the choppy seas of Villa’s poetry. It is an exciting, rewarding voyage but not always easy going. The Selected Poetry is presented with minimal apparatus in roughly chronological order following dates of publication. In this Siracusa departs from the practice of earlier Italian collected editions and from that of the excellent critical edition of Villa’s Opera poetica that appeared in the same year (Rome, L’Orma, 2014) edited by Cecilia Bello Minciacchi, which used a chronology based primarily on presumed dates of composition. Villa often worked on a given piece for decades before publishing it or simply left things unpublished. Composition dates are hard to determine; Villa often included or added them in his manuscripts, but mostly retrospectively and in many cases after the stroke that debilitated him in 1986, so they are often just guesses. Then too, several important collections of verse were published after his stroke, when he was no longer writing new poems and while his literary affairs were supervised by Aldo Tagliaferri. Siracusa has included a generous selection of these, and he returned to manuscript copies for some texts. He also included two pieces hitherto unpublished, for which he relied on manuscripts; wisely, he does not hazard a date for either.

There are wonders here on almost every page. The early poetry is easier to approach — it is a calmer sea than later work, though deceptively so since the waters definitely run deep. Villa’s love for incantatory diction was evident from the very start. Siracusa gives us several poems from a collection, Adolescenza: Liriche, that was published when Villa was barely twenty years old. These poems are not great; in fact, Bello Minciacchi relegates them to an appendix as examples of Villa’s precocious but derivative “compositional technique.” Even the title of the collection suggests some (at least false) modesty on young Villa’s part. Still, in the very first poem on offer in English, Villa addresses “My Poetry” as “Virgin air created,” and “Virgin breath.” Almost every poem thereafter partakes of this kind of insubstantiality — airy or liquid or aflame. At the risk of overdoing my analogy to an excursion on the ocean, it is as if the reader sets out on the waters with a net that never captures the sea-substance itself but only the creatures, living and lovely or grotesque, that float close enough to the surface to be brought up into sight. We can only imagine what lies around or below.

But honestly, I should leave my own poor similes aside. Siracusa at one point compares himself to Melville’s Ahab, but Villa provides plenty of better images that apply directly to his poetic labors. You do not even have to go far to find him in a piscatorial mood:

fish the moon in the ditch with the rake
quick wise eager hand, and what a moon! that
of the great popular nights and the grey

fog in the unique heart of the bat,
of the lovers in public gardens,
or maybe the big moon of the well of cats of ditches?

or that of the stokers and engineers
of tides? or that of the evening
in the glass of grappa and at roof level?

from no. 13 of the “17 Variations on Themes Proposed for a Pure Phonetic Ideology,” 1955

In such a world, created by a grammatical anarchist like Villa, every poem repays multiple readings.

Villa’s first great poems appeared in Oramai (“By Now,” 1947) which is richly excerpted here. These are still early, straightforward pieces, but Villa has found his voice and it is already a powerful one. Many of these poems reflect the darkness of the late Fascist period and a few are obviously political enough that they could not have been published before the end of the war, parts of which Villa spent in hiding. One of the most impressive takes its title from the Latin version of Job 14:1, “Man that is born of woman is of few days.” Siracusa leaves the title in Latin (Natus de muliere, breve vivens), but follows Villa directly to the point, which has as much to do with Genesis as Job: “Without a doubt man in nature / was invented like a point-blank scream: hate, / wrath, garments…” And this poem’s conclusion has everything to do with the suffering of Italy during the war: “…the soul / escapes, reckless, vile, / strong taken by national / pleasure: and maybe it’s that / just maybe here we need a change of scenery, / everybody: it’s a suggestion, / a conclusive argument.” This is a particularly nice bit of translation, for the start-and-stop rhythm of the English does full justice to that of the original.

Among Villa’s early works, the most attractive to an English-speaking reader is perhaps the long, lyrical meditation on the life of small-town Lombardy which has come to be known by its last line, Si, ma lentamente (“Yes, but Slowly”). Like many of Villa’s poems, it had a tortured compositional and publication history. Apparently written early in the war years, mostly around 1941, snippets appeared in a submission to a poetic competition in 1949; but the whole poem, more or less as we know it today, was not published until Villa returned from a lengthy stay in São Paulo, Brazil (1951-1952), where he encountered an international coterie of avant-garde concrete poets and other conceptual artists. No surprise then that the definitive “Yes, but Slowly” has a retrospective, almost nostalgic quality, even as it stretches language and logic to the limit. It appeared in 1954 as an artist’s-book collaboration with the experimental silk-screen artist Nuvolo (Giorgio Ascani, 1926-2008). Each of sixty copies had this text by Villa interspersed with five monoprints by Nuvolo. Subsequently divorced from the prints, the poem was reprinted several times in Villa’s lifetime and as such is one of his better-known pieces.

“Yes, but Slowly” perfectly displays Villa’s airy, allusive early style and exemplifies as well many of the problems a translator faces. It is composed of impressionistic strings of images from daily life, often minutely localized by reference to small towns in the vicinity of Milan and typically expressed colloquially. In such a poem one might expect a solid, insistent realism like that of other Italian modernists. Indeed, anyone who knows Lombardy will recognize the heavy summer air, slow muddy streams, and the buzz of insects or airplanes; and anyone at all can respond to Villa’s village characters. But Villa layers and overlaps these many fragments of real life so that they wander off into an insubstantial haze punctuated by truculent assertions. Siracusa gets these things just right most of the time, reproducing the line breaks and (mostly absent) punctuation as exactly as English syntax allows:

to the sick mayor, to the parson who reasons crackling
with the jaws of cicadas; to the cyclists,
to the breathing crickets and the panting sown
across the handle of the handlebars, above the fenders: and,
behind, behind everyone in the wholesome
alliance of festive or low resonating
discussions about bovine anatomies
in the crackling of pulleys, of shutters?
who expects words to be heard? or you
expect to hear things among things? or is it that one expects
to hear things and words? but who says things
and who says words, where are they? speak
yes, you can: speech is free: and you speak with whom?
together we’ll say the creations, the things essential
and pressing.

Very occasionally, the translator falters or misses a beat by adhering too closely to the line breaks and stingy punctuation of the original. Typically, this is because the rhythm of the original carries meaning that really requires punctuation in English. For example, Siracusa renders anche le foglie esigue / esigue al soffio esposte as “even small leaves / small exposed to the breath,” which is perfectly correct, but doesn’t have the sinuous rhythm that a gently punctuated English would: “even the leaves, small / small, exposed…”

The appearance of “Yes, but Slowly” in an artist’s book was not atypical of Villa’s production in the 1950s and 1960s, which saw his first hyper-local and ephemeral publications – finely or cheaply printed art editions of only a few dozen copies; copies that were deliberately mutilated, destroyed, or hidden away; installations with texts “published” directly on walls or on flimsy, ephemeral panels. These are also the years that saw his first experiments with shaped verse, though (as Siracusa has warned us in the introduction) we must not see these primarily as visual experiments so much as linguistic ones. In these poems, mostly presented crosswise on the pages of the present anthology (that is, rotated 90 degrees, and so with lines running parallel to the spine), we find the most challenging part of Siracusa’s collaboration with typographer Alessandro Segalini. These are the works that Siracusa so aptly warned us would have “blank spaces that perforate [the] pages.” Segalini’s two-page spreads allow us to see this magnificently and the facing-pages format (which, since the lines are set vertically, are really top and bottom pages) gives the reader the proper sense that these poems are textual landscapes. An additional strategy devised to help the reader let go of normal-page expectations was to eliminate page numbers through most of the book. This makes it a little hard to navigate back and forth through this fat tome (the way, say, a reviewer might want to do), but it effectively keeps the reader in the moment of the present page, disengaged from the anthology (so prosaic a genre!), and forced to imagine the disorienting experience of encountering these poems in their original settings.

These typographic strategies are particularly important in the case of collected poems that were originally published in portfolios, not bound but with individual poems on separate, unnumbered sheets where the sequence was mutable or unstable but the spacing on the page was crucial to the meaning. Thus, while “By Now” and “Yes, but Slowly” appeared in book form, the 1954 collection “Yeah, but After” (E ma dopo) came out as a portfolio. For many sections of this collection, the spacing creates meaning and rhythm, and the individual poems need to be understood as having been printed on broadsides. Consider the opening lines of an insistent poem entitled “Linguistics”:

There’s no more origins. Nor.       Nor does one know if.
If there were origins and not even.
And not even a reason why origins
are born Nor any longer
faith, idol of Amorgos!

who do you say originates origins in the touch in the accent
in the mortal dream of the necessary?

Even when the grammar and syntax are straightforward and “normal,” Villa chose to disrupt the too easy flow and enforce new rhythms on a non-traditional page, as in “Geography”:

backbones of essential estuaries
and of devices soaring in large patterns in the continental

ring and of the coefficients
of vile roots barely

visible in the blossoming synopsis, and the bewildered sex of the Pleiades,
gentle nostrils sotto voce.

“Yeah, but After” is one of the last collections of Villa’s poetry composed almost entirely in Italian. Even before then he employed insertions from other languages, but his poetry became more and more multi-lingual after the mid 1950s until in 1981 he declared, “I have nothing to say in Italian nowadays.” Thus, although he published almost entirely in Italy, his readers from the 1950s onward were presented with many macaronic passages and entire poems in ancient or other modern languages, effectively verbal puzzles for a substantial part of even the limited public of cognoscenti for whom he wrote. Siracusa and his colleagues decided to preserve this mysterious quality as much as possible, leaving French and Latin and Greek untranslated. This practice has a certain logic since the resulting “English translation” then partakes of the multi-lingual nature of the originals. It is highly effective in the case of texts where only a few of the original words or phrases are in these languages or in more exotic ones like Portuguese or Milanese, or again where the switching from language to language is rapid fire.

Some of the later poems are so multilingual that a translation in one direction is really impossible. A case in point is the “Litany for Carmelo Bene” (composed in the 1970s, published 1996) which switches back and forth from mostly French to mostly English with large doses of Latin thrown in, playing with all three languages all the way. It’s hard to quote a short passage of a poem that never seems to have a complete syntactical unit, but let’s try this play on Carmelo Bene’s name:

Bene! good! Bene dicas illud Benebene
in venis ultimis, in vanis ultimis, in ultimatis vocibus:
Bene is the
un-caused, l’histrio aeternalis, from Eleusis,
yet causing pluvial memory judged
in conference, in sections, in meetings, in secret rotating
menisci, jovenile ever-lasting heifer

This poem was not intended for publication; it was a gift from one poet to another that existed for twenty years and more in a single copy. Only after Villa became incapacitated did Bene contact Villa’s editor Tagliaferri and suggest that the poem be published, which they accomplished in a handsome, small fine press edition in 1996. The publisher, Vanni Scheiwiller, in Milan, was devoted to experimental and avant-garde artist’s books, and he allowed Bene and Tagliaferri to present the manuscript pages in facsimile, each followed by a typographic transcription. As polished as the result is, it is also a reminder that Villa himself published only a fraction of what he wrote, considered many things private, provisional, or incomplete, and surely never intended what we now think of as his corpus to exist. The flurry of scholarship on Villa that has taken place since his death in 2003 has given us a collected Villa who never existed.

Of course, a translated poet is already a mythical creature. And in the case of a myth-maker like Villa we are constantly confronted by the calculated unreality of his language. “Macaronic” does not even begin to describe his multilingualism. An occasional Latin phrase dropped into an Italian poem does not feel uncomfortably macaronic when left in the English translation even when the intention is to discomfort the reader (“corpses, in statu prisco”) and Siracusa provides brief explanatory notes in many such cases. When he does not, however, the reader is left wondering if it is really impossible to translate the original or merely that the translator has given up. In one case a line in Spanish from Garcia Lorca is remarked but not translated and since substantial variations on it reappear throughout the poem, the reader (any reader) can get lost. And of course, this practice also leaves the monolingual English reader completely in the dark about some of the content, an effect that necessarily will vary from reader to reader. This reviewer, for example, can manage the untranslated Latin pretty well and much of the Romance material, but I sure could have used some help with the extensive Greek!

Moreover, in some cases, the things left untranslated create linguistic, typographic, or design absurdities, as when long sections of French are “translated” into long sections of French, that is, merely repeated on the facing pages. This is the case for three entire sections (thirteen pages rendered as twenty-six) of “17 Variations on Themes Proposed for a Pure Phonetic Ideology” (1955). Admittedly, this is a particularly oddball poem sequence. Only nine of the seventeen poems were in Italian alone, here rendered straightforwardly in English on facing pages. Besides the three “variations” originally in French, two others were originally in English and these too are “translated” on facing pages into the same English; one in Latin is “translated” into Latin. Surely this is just a waste of paper. In the first edition of yet another poem in the same sequence Villa supplemented his composition in “a sort of Provençal” (per Bello Minciacchi) with an Italian translation on a tipped-in leaf. The solution offered by Siracusa and Segalini in this case is particularly complex and, frankly, confusing at first. They give us the “Provençal” on facing pages with a second copy of itself, followed by the Italian faced by English.

A similar case, the ten Greek poems that made up the “The Walls of Thebes,” were originally published with Greek and Italian together, though the Italian was only a secondary text for Villa, that is, his own translation of poems he composed in Greek. Here it is presented with the Greek straight through first, followed by the Italian and English on facing pages, a more sensible solution than that used for the “Provençal” piece. Interestingly, this “logical” solution also does better justice to “The Walls of Thebes,” for Villa intended the Italian as a concession to the potential public, one he was actually disinclined to make. The Greek poems first appeared written out by hand on Styrofoam panels. These were exhibited with only fragments of the corresponding Italian translation. Later, in sending the poems to the art publisher Artein, Villa made the declaration cited above: “I don’t live in the present; I have nothing to say in Italian nowadays. For your book, I will give you a title and ten poems. Print them as you see them. They are in ancient Greek and this is the translation. It really shouldn’t be published; treat it like a secret.” Villa in his later years simply rejected the notion of language as a straightforward communicative process, a fact that would seem to be a warning to editors and translators too; it must have been on Dominic Siracusa’s mind when he chose to leave so much untranslated, especially these Greek works about which Villa was himself so intransigent.

Sadly, Siracusa did not include a comparable Greek poem, the brief, exquisite Greek/Italian Silenziosa è la percezione in which we are admonished “Silent is Perception / and more silently still happens Thought…” (my translation from the Italian of Villa, not from his Greek), a reminder of how insistent Villa was on the mysteries of language, as well as an exhortation to experience poetry amid silence. But it would be too easy to fault the editors for what they have left out. Villa created so much and so much of it is unique that a “selected poems” could go on forever and never satisfy every potential reader, much less those really dedicated to and familiar with Villa’s work. Fragmentation and incompletion were essential parts of Villa’s life work. It is entirely appropriate that we approach it now in a partial anthology and incomplete translation.

Still, it is hard to understand why so many substantial pieces included here are not translated at all, though as we will see, Siracusa and his collaborators apparently had their (unstated) reasons. The collection of Latin poems composed from Villa’s seminary schooldays forward, which he published partially in 1981 and which appeared fully in 2000 (under the curatorship of Cecilia Bello Minciacchi) as Verboracula, is exceedingly important. These poems demonstrate that Villa owned both a fascination and a familiarity with classical, Biblical and medieval Latin so thorough that he could play on it as wonderfully and sonorously as in Italian. But to offer a thirty-page selection without notes or translation or even much explanation is a strategy bordering on cruelty to the English-speaking reader. The same solution — no translation at all — is provided for six of the Latin poems published in 1995 under the general title Sibyllae. Critics agree that these Latin works are among Villa’s greatest and most inventive products and that they offer a key to his philosophy of language. It seems a pity to present them naked and effectively unreadable, even if that were Villa’s own intent.

Siracusa & Co. offer yet another Latinate tease in the case of Geometria reformata (“Reformed Geometry,” 1990). This is a twenty-eight-page photographic facsimile of a facsimile. The “original” was a copy of the 1979 catalog of an exhibition with the same title by the conceptual artist Claudio Parmiggiani (1947- ) that Villa modified by inserting poems by hand on blank pages and around images of Parmiggiani’s etchings. This unique altered book was reproduced by photo-offset in a small number of copies in 1990 together with a new etching by Parmiggiani and an editorial note. Presumably just because all the poetry was in Latin, it is left untranslated by Siracusa. It is not easy to figure out what is going on, however, since the 1990 editorial note is not reproduced, no transcription of the difficult handwriting is offered, and no new notes are provided.

Apparently Siracusa decided that these difficult Latin works were so important that they must appear in a selected English edition of Villa’s work. The Anglophone reader is simply put in the situation of an Italian with no Latin or Greek. Not bad company necessarily, but probably not a simulacrum of Villa’s target audience either except to the degree that his entire life’s work was aimed at disrupting everyday experiences of language. Whether it is entirely fair for an editor/translator like Siracusa (or publisher Hanshe) to indulge in the same obfuscations is debatable. To me, at least, it would really seem better to give the English-speaking reader the necessary context and some good sense of the content and let him (that is, me!) reconstruct or re-experience to some degree the intended mystery. Not a translation; you cannot after all translate a multi-lingual text in any one direction, but some guide to the mystery. A substantial portion of this latter element is going to be lost in translation anyway. No need to make the loss total.

Villa’s late poetry is certainly disruptively mysterious in its own right. And it is wonderful to experience it in the company of Siracusa, Hanshe, and Segalini –and, it must be said, usually of Aldo Tagliaferri too, since he was responsible for getting most of these late-in-life and posthumous publications into print. The difficult but wonderful Sibyllae are a case in point. Tagliaferri chose a dozen of these poems from Villa’s papers to publish in 1996; a similar number of additional ones have appeared in print individually in the years since; and Bello Minciacchi prints twenty in her edition of the Opera poetica. Siracusa gives us eleven, but since they are mostly in Latin he translates only the three that have substantial texts in Italian. What we can read in English, however, is spellbinding:

grandiose molecule aequifocalis
in map and disorder acquificialis
compact polyrat aequivocalis
monad of gargling aequifaecalis
oraculated lady of nests, arule, pages
dens, essence, rowings

from “Sibyl (Widow Vidua In Dividual)”

You do not have to know much Latin to find this chant-like poem enchanting, and the presence of a nonsense English word “arule” is clarified by the fact that the same word appears in the facing Italian original, where it is also made-up.

In the early 1980s, his last productive years, Villa composed a number of poems with the title Trou, mostly in playful French. The author never published them himself, but Aldo Tagliaferri curated a fine press edition of a number of these poems in 1996 under the title Trous, and he included others in a larger, more commercial collection, Zodiaco, in 2000. Siracusa includes the four that appeared in this latter publication without English translation. The title word has as many meanings in French as its usual English equivalent, “hole.” Its referent may be ordinary and everyday but also cosmological, textual, logical, visual and aural, and of course anatomical. Because the metaphor of the hole offers so many possibilities — negative and even destructive as well as generative ones — these poems offer a particularly useful window into Villa’s thinking late in life. The thoughts are often dark: trous figés au fond de la memoire; or Trou tumultueux de l’Horreur ultime. Even at their most playful, there is a questionable if not also querulous dimension (I quote here from Bello Minciacchi’s edtion, Opera poetica):

et au delà du Trou écrit
je vis s’évanouir la bataille.
Nature contra la toute Non-Nature.
Il faillet avavant Tout
ravager ce Trou

Or again:

mais        une bouche
sans trou
sans jour
sans jeu
qu’est-ce que pourrit-elle dire

Confronted with lines like these, penned when Villa was still in possession of his full faculties, it is rather frightening to imagine his mental state for the many years after the stroke robbed him of the ability to speak and write.

Siracusa also gives us two poems never before published, and their inclusion suggests that there are still wonderful works of Villa in the archive. (His papers are preserved at the Biblioteca Panizzi in Reggio Emilia.) “Mottos” is a long and diffuse poem but it eventually brings us another fishing simile: “with the net the nets the little nets/ to capture what? (as motherwell).” This reference to the prominent American painter and collage artist Robert Motherwell (1915-1991) might be worth a follow-up. Villa’s friendships with French poets and artists are well known, but relatively little has been written about his contacts with the New York School beyond his friendship with Mark Rothko (1903-1970). Similarly, Villa’s fascination with computers and modern astrophysics (stimulated by his physicist son Francesco) turns up in another image here: “I hold your nascent adventure / your nascent duty / and the incomplete exalted computer / installed in a climate / of perfect inidentification.” It is to be hoped that Siracusa will explicate these poems he discovered somewhere.

For the most part the corresponding typographic “translations” by Alessandro Segalini are both handsome and clear. Some are ingenious and some simply amazing. For the texts that are just bilingual, that is, Italian and English on facing pages, the spacing of the original has been reproduced as faithfully as differing formats permit. It helped Segalini no doubt that Siracusa translated fairly literally and followed the Italian syntax whenever possible; but virtually every page required typographic decisions too. As the colophon explains, Segalini employed the beautiful Adobe Jenson Pro typeface for texts (Italian and other originals and the English translation too) but used a different face for Villa’s own English, namely Lintotype Clarendon, when it appears inside an Italian text. The result is very handsome for those passages where Villa steps into and out of English. In the Italian originals the code-switching is linguistic, but in Siracusa and Segalini’s English it is typographic instead:

the first die like the
last (as Fate)
(hidden sky, hidden blu, hidden black)
being leans
and depends (well, well)
& culminates (well, well)
next to the great exits of life
in prelove smooth unencumbered blind
esse,
dealing with the
parallels of the after
homophonous sex
homomorphorous
(hidden words and hidden all)

from “Mottos,” hitherto unpublished

This is a particularly elegant solution because modern English is generally less friendly to macaronic wordplay than Italian, and when the target language is also the foreign one in the original the only way to get a suitably ironic translation is to use type.

The complexity of such typographic translation is perhaps most obvious in one text that did not require literal translation at all, namely the lengthy English poem sequence that appeared in a 1968 under the title Options: 17 Eschatological Madrigals Captured by a Sweetromantic Cybernetogamic Vampire, by Villadrome (which, following the typographically ambiguous title page of the first edition, most bibliographies entitle Brunt H: Options…). It is one of several elaborately designed and printed artist’s books that Villa created in collaboration with an experimental publishing group, Foglio OG, later La Nuova Foglio. Library catalogers dutifully note that Villadrome is a pseudonym for Villa, that there are twenty leaves, and that the text is in English with some French. The cataloger’s laconic “illustrations,” however, hardly does justice to the visual density of the original book, surely one of the most beautiful of Villa’s many artist’s books. Every page has a background composed of waste computer paper with coded instructions (for games?) that have been altered by the authorial hand to read in sly counterpoint to the seventeen English poems. In the original artist’s book, this background is printed in several shades of green and ochre with the underlying text intermittently clear and very slightly faded or blurred out. The effect is of a densely patterned textile, and one bit of it is reproduced on the cover of Selected Poems, no doubt because the editors felt it would express the deliberate linguistic obscurities of Villa’s larger work perfectly.

The problem facing any reprint of this poem is that what I have called “background” carried a lot of authorial input. The seventeen “madrigals” are distinct, self-contained poems, but their meaning was realized in print by reference to the background. Apparently despairing of reproducing all this, Bello Minciacchi omitted these poems from her anthology entirely. By happy contrast, the ambitious Siracusa and Segalini devised an ingenious typographic solution. Siracusa created a new text of the seventeen poems following not the original printed edition but a slightly more extensive one he found among the author’s papers. Meanwhile, Segalini extracted the background from digital photographs of the original printing and then reproduced it in grey tones behind the vivid black of the newly typeset seventeen poems. The change of format means that the pagination differs from that of the print original, but the multi-layering –a variation of sorts on Villa’s usual multi-linguistic practice — is preserved. This process must have been excruciating, since Segalini had to edit down the dense, complex background to fit a completely new space. Comparing the two versions side-by-side, I could verify that he left out only lines of the computer-generated background that did not have significant authorial alterations and realigned the more meaningful substrate material in close proximity to the pertinent foregrounded text. The ironic effect of text and commentary is preserved nicely; only the vivid color is lacking.

This heroic effort with Options would be enough to justify the whole enterprise of Selected Poetry, but, as I have tried to indicate, the larger anthology is a major achievement too. It is the first large-scale attempt to present Villa to a broad Anglophone audience. We can hope that it will bring his works –understudied and little understood even in Italy until recent years — to an entirely new public. It is also a demonstration of the plurilingual possibilities of modern publishing. If I found myself a little lost at times, all the better. That was surely the poet’s intention. Moreover, native speakers of English need to be jolted ever so often into the realization that their world view is circumscribed, even stunted by their monolingualism. Who better to achieve this than the superbly subversive Emilio Villa, abetted by Dominic Siracusa, Alessandro Segalini, and Rainer Hanshe?

The eminent critic Paolo Valesio claims that Villa deserves better than his present reputation as a brilliant outsider poet. He opines that Villa’s urge to disrupt language was more than a literary undertaking, that it amounts in fact to a spiritual philosophy of sorts, what he calls an atheology, a nihilistic denial of our ability to achieve truth or even beauty. Villa’s nihilism, he believes, was rooted in his macaronism. As we can see across an anthology like Selected Poetry, this tendency to plurilingual creation was rooted in Villa’s early, philological education, and it increased exponentially in his later work, to the point that some of his work must have seemed like glossolalia to its first readers. Macaronic poetry in the hands of Villa, Valesio continues, is [m]isterica (mysterious and hysterical at once); it combines seriously heterodox thinking with a genial sense of the grotesque (see Valesio, “La Poesia ateologica di Emilio Villa”).

Valesio also suggests that Villa’s macaronic radicalism should prompt a rereading of the entire history of the venerable Italian genre of macaronic verse. In that light, however, it is perhaps not necessary to posit a philosophical stance like the one Valesio claims for Villa, since Villa’s macaronic verse –all macaronic verse– is subversive of language, and especially of the standardization of language. The macaronic poet highlights the fact that some kinds of code-switching are natural reactions to everyday all-too-prosaic diction. Moreover, since the macaronic poet refuses to translate, the verse transforms the reader into a translator, whether he is willing or not and without regard to his competence. Competent readers in both or several languages might code-switch at the same rate and with the same ease, more or less, as the author, but few readers have exactly the writer’s competences, so reading becomes bumpier if not also slower. You might say that the most competent code-switchers feel or “get” the intended discomfort most thoroughly, but that is not necessarily the case. Those who, for lack of learning, are left partly in the dark can be just as uncomfortable or even more so than the learned. Witness Selected Poetry which, as Valesio suggests, is so extreme as almost to redefine the genre.

Phonetic play is often prominent in macaronic verse, and here again, Villa’s practice is radical. He often creates false rhymes and homonyms and he pulls words apart and may or may not clarify the fact of doing it through printed strategies. Of course, this kind of text can be understood or enjoyed just on the level of sound even if the reader/listener does not comprehend all of the meanings. Changing the sounds around also promotes the sense that all language –language itself– is mobile, unstable, unreliable. The reader really wants to hear one language, one clear meaning, but he cannot. In all these subversions, the designer/printer can ease the reader’s discomfort (offering typographical clues to mark the code switching) or exacerbate it. The poet may, especially in modern times, insist on one or the other of these strategies. Taking on Villa provided his editors and translators particular opportunities to participate in this process of printed poetics, one that continues as more and more of Villa’s work reaches the public.

Villa’s poems demand readers who are willing to challenge the tyranny of standard grammar and syntax. For us, now, that also means challenging the tyranny of English as a lingua franca. Emilio Villa may well be the greatest macaronic poet since Teofilo Folengo (1496-1544), that monk whose unwillingness to control his tongue(s) led him to leave the Benedictine order. Of course, Folengo repented in a way, re-entered the order, and went on to be a reformist churchman and largely establishmentarian writer of religious verse. Villa offers a more modernist career, a more radical stance, and a greater challenge to us.