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Phil Simmons


After Petrarch

Peter Hughes: Quite Frankly (Like This Press, 32pp, 2013) & Regulation Cascade (Oystercatcher Press, 24pp, 2012)

Two pamphlets of translations from the Tuscan Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), a.k.a. Petrarch for some long-unaccountable Latinate-English reason, inventor of the sonnet, and author of  some 360 Canzoniere, of which these volumes contain 48,most dedicated to his hopelessly idealised, married crush, one Laura, who may or may not have existed. These are unashamedly modern reimaginings:

I haul up the energy to glance
at the danger zone where she & innocence
do all the damage you read about
imagine or Christ help us write

(Occhi miei lassi, mentre ch'io vi giro)

Petrarch never sounded quite like this. Of course he didn't. For one thing, he was Italian. For another, he lived in the 14th century. Peter Hughes has taken on, head-on, the twin impossibilities of poetry translation: the well-known one of language, and the lesser-acknowledged, but equally important, element of historical sensibility. It isn't just that the words and their subtleties shift irreconcilably between idioms, but also that the things we can say with them change, sometimes radically, over time.

If we look at the above example, we can see this process in action.  In the original, unsurprisingly, there's no 'hauling up' of energy, but rather a pair of occhi lassi - weary eyes. There's certainly no 'Christ help us', which would have been unconscionably blasphemous in 13-something, but there is the standard sospiro - sigh - of love. None of which is to say that, cliched as these images may appear to us, they didn't at the time convey a visceral sense of passion in conflict with existential frustration. Legend has it that Petrarch's muse, was married to someone considerably above the poet's social station - about as dangerous an amatory situation as they came. But of course, needing this information to make sense of it automatically puts the contemporary reader in academic, literary-historical mode. It's the perennial GCSE teacher's problem of making something archaic and overquoted appear fresh and (Christ help us) 'relevant.' And it's here that Hughes demonstrates something of genius, not merely by finding contemporary language to render the intoxication, despair, ambiguity and dead-ends of the Petrarchan subject-matter, but by deftly relocating it into a frame of reference which makes instant contemporary sense.

I suppose it would have been possible to render these sonnets in something like a more neutral form, blathering on about love and disappointment, beauty and frustration in an abstract, adolescent fashion. I suspect there will still be enthusiasts for medieval Tuscan poetry who think it should be done this way. But Petrarch didn't write like that, and there's no real reason, therefore, why his 21st century translator should either. Because, remember, we're talking about translation - the transforming of one thing into something else that's both the same and different - not the mere substitution of translinguistic synonyms. Thus in the 1320s Love (capital L)  'takes up his bow', presumably with Classical, Cupidic intention; in 2013, in lower- case

forever love slid a needle in my vein

(Per fare una leggiadra sua vendetta)

The damage is the same; only the method changes between medieval Southern Europe and contemporary Eastern England.

This last point isn't flippant. As Petrarch was explicitly concerned with a doomed relationship, so Hughes introduces hints and fragments of his own narrator's futile, damaged love. There's a Skegness fairground, a hovercraft, 'a pair of discount shades' - the tacky furniture of a cheap holiday that might be the bathetic setting of his "grand'amor", or a cynical correlative of such affairs in general. These sonnets claim a stand-alone force independent of their Petrarchan originals, through localisation and specificity:

I'll polish off this amazing sequence
which will be classy but bang up to date
& could find acclaim as far away as
Norwich or the rougher parts of Cambridge

(S'amore o morte non da qualque stroppio)

For all their worldweary humour, and knowing fun with Petrarch, they are tight little meditations on the grandeurs and follies of love, which would work even if one had never heard of the Italian. Their imagery is dense, quick, surprising, and surprisingly delicate, often two or more of these things at the same time:

moonwalking to the edge of the abyss
a six-foot bruise wrapped around hollow bone
I wish I'd never met you cancel that
you're the very air that flows through my flute

& the great wide world of sweet-peas & cake
regional cuisines & impulsive dogs
the love that fleeting life can never hold
launches it's flock of spasms in the heart

(Io mi rivolgo indietro a ciascun passo)

I'd even say that, for a non-medievalist whose Italian is as defective as mine, they're as good as the originals. That may be taken as a recommendation.


copyright © 2013 Phil Simmons