Poem: The Storm
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
This poem is a “translation” of Eugenio Montale’s ‘La Bufera’. The English can be found side-by-side with the original at the very bottom of the document here (PDF link). Hill recites the poem himself here (though the recording cuts off the first few words).
I confess to not getting much from this poem. Right from the start I dislike the choice of ‘batters’. Hill, usually so judicious in his choice of words, here chooses a somewhat brusque and brutal word. The storm “batters” the leaves—why would someone so good at describing rain choose this? Likewise, ‘dure’, which apparently means ‘hard’ or ‘tough’ (I know no Italian), becomes “impermeable,” a strengthening of the word for which I don’t see the necessity. One more: an Italian phrase that (per Google translate) means something like, “the castanets, the thrill of tambourines,” becomes “bashing of castanets and tambourines.” Like “batters” earlier, “bashing” here seems needlessly strong, as if Hill himself is bashing me with the poem. To be clear, my objection is not that these lines are inaccurate as translation. I am happy for Hill to change the poem however he likes to make a new English original. My objection is that he has failed to do so in compelling ways.
This is not to say that no lines capture me. I like the following especially:
lightning that makes stark-white the trees,
the walls, suspending them—
interminable instant—marbled manna
It is fruitful to compare “interminable” here to “impermeable” earlier. Both suggest an absolute: the impenetrability of the leaves, the unendingness of the instant. But whereas the poetic work done by “impermeable” is lacking in comparison to the grandeur of the word, describing the instant of a lightning strike as “interminable” captures something real about the instant of it, namely the way lightning’s illumination “suspends” its objects, seeming to take them out of time. Following this, “marbled manna / and cataclysm” plays off the notion of suspension further (“marbled” suggesting both the “stark-white” color and the idea of a statue, which is a different kind of suspension). The contrast of manna and cataclysm captures well the sustenance and danger that commingle in the experience of lightning. Finally, it feeds into what is to follow: “deep in you sculpted…”
So, yes, there are well wrought lines as there will be in any Hill poem. On the whole, however, I cannot say the endeavor is well sounded.