Achille Serrao. Cantalesia. Poems in the Neapolitan Dialect (1990-1997).
Cantalesia. Poems in the Neapolitan Dialect (1990-1997) is the fifth book in Legas's "Italian Poetry in Translation Series" that includes translations of Dante and several collections of dialect poetry. Cantalesia offers the English-speaking reader the opportunity to sample an ample selection of poems in dialect written by Achille Serrao. Achille Serrao (b. 1936) published his first collection of poetry in 1968 with the title Coordinata popolare. He has also written narrative works. In 1990 he published his first book of poems in dialect, Mal'aria. Since then he has continued to write in dialect: 'O ssupierchio (1993), 'A canniatura (1993, translated into English by Luigi Bonaffini in 1995), Cecatella (1995), and Semmenta verde (1996). He has also edited Via terra: antologia di poesia neodialettale (1992), now available in a new edition with translations into English, edited by Achille Serrao, Luigi Bonaffini, and Justin Vitiello (New York, Legas, 1999). The work of Serrao has attracted the attention of many of the major figures in the field of Italian dialect poetry including Franco Loi, Franco Brevini, and Giacinto Spagnoletti.
Serrao writes in the dialect of Caivano. The small town in Campania, once an Oscan settlement dating back to the fifth century B.C., lies halfway between Naples and Caserta. Originally a rural farming district, in recent years it has witnessed the increasing presence of industry. Although dialects in Campania mainly manifest a high degree of homogeneity, there are important differences throughout the territory. The language of Caivano is a long way from the illustrious Neapolitan tradition that began to blossom in the late nineteenth century. It is "phonetically much harsher, less harmonious than the Neapolitan standard" (147). Whilst Serrao's verse exhibits a definite musicality, it is a syncopated often harsh melody mirroring the reality he seeks to describe.
Cesare Vivaldi has mentioned T. S. Eliot in relation to Serrao. Perhaps there is something of the earlier Eliot in Serrao's precise description of a mundane, apparently meaningless life that hopelessly trudges onwards without any evident purpose. In one of the epigraphs to the collection, Serrao quotes Ferdinando Russo: "'A vita e chesta! Accumpagnammo 'a morta! [ ... ] Nu muzzunciello 'int'a na pippa corta, / e cammina, e strascina, e vai 'nzeffunno!" ("This is what life is! Keeping death company! [ ... ] A pinch of tobacco in a stubby pipe / and you go on, you trudge on, and in the end you sink" (all translations in this review are by Luigi Bonaffini). In "'A canniatura," the first group of poems in Cantalesia, the world is displayed in its tragic process of entropy. Serrao refutes the classic Neapolitan vista, the land of sun and sea, to meander through a wintry landscape dominated by driving rain and brisk winds, with only the occasional ray of sunlight. Serrao's personal outlook is not so much one of grim pessimism as of profound melancholy, of "pecundria." The poet escapes total dejection by taking refuge in the dayto-day life of his town and the dense mindscape of private nostalgia. Di Giacomo appears in the first poem, "'O puntone." The opening lines, "A nu puntone chiove, stracqua, 'o sole / pe' scagno [ ... ] e chiove schiove," contain an obvious echo of the first sentence of "Marzo": "Marzo: nu poco chiove / e n'ato ppoco stracqua:/ torna a chiovere, schiove, / ride 'o sole cu ll'acqua." Yet, although Serrao shares Di Giacomo's belief in the sad caducity of existence, he is nonetheless a world away from the sublime musicality of the "ariette."
In its unrelenting process of massification and globalisation, industrialised capitalist society has ruthlessly eroded the particular in favour of the homogenous universal. Ancient ways of life are vanishing at an unprecedented velocity. In Italy one of the most evident manifestations of the onslaught of the modern is the gradual disappearance of dialect. At the unification of Italy, the percentage of people able to speak standard Italian was in the low single figures. Now, only a tiny proportion of the population is unfamiliar with the national language. In 1988 a survey in the Bollettino della Doxa reported that 34.4% of the population claims to speak exclusively in Italian whilst 60.4% says it uses Italian at home, at least on some occasions (Martin Maiden, A Linguistic History of Italian, London, Longman, 1995, 9-10). One suspects that amongst those who sometimes speak dialect, many are younger members of the family who employ it in order to communicate with much older relatives who are not at ease in standard Italian. With the passing of time, this practise will obviously tend to disappear.
Since the seventies there has been a dramatic increase in Italy of what is sometimes called "neodialect" poetry. A fundamental reason for this cultural event is the general recognition on the part of Italian writers that local dialects are for the most part destined to vanish within the near future. (It would be wholly erroneous to suggest that the purpose of the new writers in dialect is to reach a wider, less educated public. Indeed, the language and style they employ can be of such a rarefied or antiquated nature that the text may be as abstruse to residents of the particular area as it is to the general Italian reader). Serrao's verse is pervaded by nostalgia for the ancient "lengua." This is especially apparent in several poems from the second section fittingly entitled "'E pparole." Language is a precious resource that the people have conserved for what seems an eternity: "[...] piula si chiamma / 'e ccose, fa mill'anne / che sta caterbia pe' ll'annummena / 'nzerra crastule 'e lengua [...]" ("they warble when they call things, / for ages this multitude has been saving / shards of tongue to name them [...]") ("Vide che d''a muntagna ..."). In "Na rosa rosa" dialect is described as a shirt to be worn during the cold season of oppressive massification. The subject emphasises his deep reliance on it and exhorts: "sona chitarra sona nc'e rummasa / na corda" ("play guitar play we still have / one string left").
"'O ssupierchio," the third section, is pervaded by a sense of the past. It contains some moving poems dedicated to family members and, in particular, to the poet's dead father. "'A cantalesia d''e criature nove," partly an ironic rendition of St Francis's "Laudes creaturarum", shows Serrao at his darkest best. As the other birds fly away, a fledgling muddies its wings. Unable even to lift its eyelids, it implores its maker: "Signo ca staje lla 'ncoppa / accussi luongo [ ... ] ca staie accussi luntano ... / Signo, na mano ..." ("Lord who are / so high, so far away [ ... ] who are so far away ... / Lord, a hand ..."). In his introduction, Pietro Gibellini describes the fourth section, "Cecatella," as "marked by a more meditated, disenchanted reflection that only the poet's heuristic bewilderment prevents one from defining gnomic" (14). Indeed, Serrao's verse shares with many recent writers in dialect a willingness to go beyond "traditional" themes of dialect verse (the old ways of life, the common people, nature) and affront issues of an existential or metaphysical character more typical of poetry in standard Italian.
The original poetry in Cantalesia concludes with the fifth section, "C'era na vota." The title of this section reiterates the value Serrao attributes to nostalgia, a central theme of all his poetry. Serrao demonstrates his imaginative virtuosity in his description of classic poetic icons like the moon. If "Chill'anno" reads: "munnata e na cepolla 'a luna" ("peeled onion of a moon"), in "Semmenta verde (Sunatella a ddoje voce)" the moon becomes far more sinister: "janara e 'a luna cu' ll'uocchie lupegne" ("the moon is a witch with wolfish eyes"). The final section of Cantalesia presents translations into the dialect of Caivano of some of the best-known poems by Catullus and Giuseppe Gioachino Belli. (One suspects that Serrao identifies particularly well with the pessimistic outlook on life of the latter). The book ends with a short biographical note on the author, a pronunciation guide, and a glossary.
Since one of the principal raisons d'etre of recent dialect poetry is to immortalise a specific language and its inherent musicality, it is inevitable that any attempt to translate it will always be to some extent a failure. Luigi Bonaffini, an experienced translator of modern Italian-language poets such as Campana, Luzi, and Sereni, is well-known for his work in the field of dialect poetry, including translations of Achille Serrao and Giose Rimanelli, and important anthologies such as Dialect Poetry of Southern Italy (New York, Legas, 1997). In his latest translation of Serrao, Bonaffini makes a laudable effort to preserve something of the original whilst manifesting a great degree of flexibility in his poetic solutions. In a note he explains: "To try to render into English the inherent phonic resistance of most of Serrao's poetry (which however does offer many notable exceptions, in verses of great elegance and lightness) would entail a forced search for consonantal sounds and broken, antimelodic rhythms, resulting in an artificial--and non-existent--English. I have tried instead to capture the underlying basic tonality of the text, the intense melancholy that subtends the (only) apparent impersonality of the poetic voice" (147). On occasions Bonaffini permits himself a considerable liberty. In "Accussi trase vierno ...," the translation of "mmane chiare" as "gossamer hands" may seem rather free although Bonaffini might justify the adjective "gossamer" by the appearance of "'e ffelinie" ("cobwebs") at the beginning of the poem. However, leaving aside such minor observations, Bonaffini provides an excellent translation of some difficult texts. Cantalesia. Poems in the Neapolitan Dialect (1990-1997) will be of interest both to those who follow recent trends in Italian poetry and to those concerned with Italian dialects. It is to be hoped that both its writer and its translator continue their admirable work.
John Butcher, University College London