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Vittorio Sereni. Variable Star.

Vittorio Sereni. Variable Star. Trans. Luigi Bonaffini. Toronto: Guernica, 1999.

In reissuing his first book of poems, Frontiera, Vittori Sereni gave it the more general title Poesie, and explained this choice with reference to the possibility of its being his only book. Critics have given perhaps too much attention to the question of whether Sereni had a notion of writing the book of his career, a sort of canzoniere--something to which a number of hermetic poets aspired--or was, instead, simply expressing the quite understandable anxiety of an Italian soldier in 1942, who knew he might at any moment be shipped off to join in the fighting. Sereni, of course, went on to survive capture by the Allies and two years spent as a prisoner of war, and by the time of his death in 1983, he had published another three volumes of poetry. However, reading his final collection, Stella variabile, one is struck by the almost obsessive return to the events of an earlier period--from the Munich Agreement of 1938 and the war that followed, to a dream that finds him back in an Algerian prison camp, to the years just after the war and the summers spent at Bocca di Magra with Vittorini, Fortini and others--so much so that his comments regarding the possibility of a single book, if meant to suggest a coming to terms with the essential events of a single life, prove in some sense to be prophetic.

As Laura Baffoni Licata notes in the "Afterward" to Luigi Bonaffini's new English translation, Variable Star, it is a collection in which "the poet's discourse centers on 'variations' of a few fundamental themes, among which predominates, from the very first composition, the theme of death" (79-80). Along with this return to familiar themes--which, it should be noted, date back to poems from as early as 1938, when Sereni declared, "Voi morti non ci date mai quiete" (Tutte le poesie, Mondadori, 1986)--one witnesses in Variable Star the reappearance of familiar names, often of friends now dead, and of ambiguous images from the past, like the swastikas he notices in New York: " [ ... ] what are those small swastikas doing here in the Bronx / [ ... ] / but you can also take them to be emblems of old Indian motifs" (11).

In this collection more than any other, Sereni contemplates the process by which a past, unrecoverable in life, is transfigured in the work of poetry. In "Niccolo," a poem addressed to a dead friend, the critic Niccolo Gallo, he writes: "[ ... ] the world is being emptied of you and the truefalse / you of the poets becomes filled with you" (47). When Sereni engages in a dialogue with figures from his past, the result is not merely elegy or nostalgic revisitation, but a meditation on the possibility of poetry itself, on its ability to write the story of life's moments. Unfortunately, this aspect of the poems, their constant engagement with private and public history, which makes them so compelling to readers familiar with twentieth-century Italian literary culture, and with Sereni's life in particular, is also what impedes the access of an English-speaking readership to a translation lacking explanatory notes (though Bonaffini does include Sereni's own brief notes to the collection, and Baffoni Licata's "Afterword" serves as a helpful introduction for those less familiar with Sereni's work).

Of his own process of translation, Sereni writes, "Nessuna decisione preventiva, nessun disegno organico, nessuna ricognizione preliminare a supporto di chissa quali progettazioni e alla base di questa mia attivita, determinata piu dall'emotivita che dal gusto" (Tutte le poesie, 291). In this first complete English translation of Sereni's fourth collection of poetry, Bonaffini proceeds with a faithfulness, one that avoids any imposition from the target language, of which Sereni, who claimed to have little interest in the "problems" of literary translation, would no doubt have approved. These English versions are a pleasure to read. The language is natural throughout, yet does not lose sight of the Italian text behind it, and one never has the sense that Bonaffini has sacrificed faithfulness by going for an effect in the English. In addition to scholars of Sereni's poetry, Variable Star will certainly be of interest to comparativists, who will find in it evidence of a Eurpoean poet engaged in a conversation with Rimbaud and Rene Char, as well as with Pound and William Carlos Williams.

Viktor Berberi, Indiana University, Bloomington
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Author:Berberi, Viktor
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Words:729
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