from A Greener Meadow, selected poems by Luciano Erba, tr. by Peter Robinson (Princeton University Press)

THE PUBLIC AND THE PRIVATE
[“Il Pubblico e Il Privato”]

April came inside with the blackbird
whistling above washing lines
wind came into the city and went
over yellower fields, below bridges
of iron, like the gambling flight
of a first aviator’s biplane.
On parapets of the overpass
where men in blue have fixed
some long cement boxes to plant
greenery and a few flowers
and make the big city more human
(but if not even a wild tuft of grass
cares to take root and to flower
in vases of the socialist mayor!)
the wind’s made a clean sweep
uplifting the dust and the earth
and now raises banners high on the poles
down at the international fair.
Much later when the markets close
and women go home with fresh greens
(they’ll shell peas on balconies
between plants the color of violets
flowering in pans enameled with blue)
it seems to me the sun’s disc wheels
between a quite other city’s roofs.

***

Luciano Erba’s first book, Linea K (1951), immediately attracted readers. In 1952 his verse was anthologized with that of other prominent poets associated with Milan. Erba’s translator, Peter Robinson, says that the so-called “Linea Lombarda” poets shared “a poetry of objects, of understatement, irony, and self-criticism, which included social commentary and cultural commitment – but only if mediated through a skeptical grid of humanistic intelligence and aesthetic detachment. The more politically engage class-based poets snubbed him. Robinson adds, “So Erba, whose poetry is of no convenient party, and who speaks by means of a wry intimacy for the survival of neglected and unconsidered ways of life … has been seen as an apologist for a Catholic conservatism.” He remained committed to his own perspective of the world. As for his relationship to other major poets of his time, Robinson notes, “Erba’s strategy may have been to seem like a minor epigone of Montale’s high cultural snobbism, crossed with a quotidian Milanese adaptation of Jules Laforgue’s or Guido Gozzano’s irony.” But Erba was an original; his uniqueness was camouflaged by the simplicity of his lines and material and the slightly amused ironical tone, counter-elements to the turbulent partisanship of post-war Europe.

This collection samples from 50 years of work selected from nine volumes of poetry. The book also includes an essay, “On Tradition and Discovery,” the first line of which reads, “Poetry’s adversarial role is best preserved by poets most cautious in the face of innovation.”

Born in Milan in 1922, Erba taught at several Italian universities and also abroad. He has translated the work of Thom Gunn, Pierre Reverdy, Francis Ponge, Blaise Cendrars, and Henri Michaux, all representative of aspects of his own approach. He has also written stories, published as Françoise (1982). He won many of Italy’s top prizes, including the “Pasolini” in 2005.

[Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation, 270 pp., 2007, $17.95 paper]