di Chiara De Luca*
Michael Schmidt doesn’t have only a life to speak of, he doesn’t have only a story to draw from to enrich his poetry, which is so loaded with experience and so wisely chiseled. Born in Mexico City and now living and working in Manchester, founder and editorial director of the well-known publishing house Carcanet Press and of the prestigious poetry magazine PN Review, biographer, literary critic, translator and poet, Schmidt is no doubt a versatile artist. Moreover, as the majority of the best and most open-minded poets, he doesn’t only concentrate on his own literary creation and its promotion, but also engages actively in exploring, studying, publishing and promoting other artists’ works. This is one of the reasons why Schmidt’s “stories” don’t just belong to him, and it’s not just his own life that the poet wants to speak of. In fact, The Stories of My Life is a choral work, in which the individual experience is deeply rooted in the historical and cultural background of all of us. Schmidt’s poetry originates from a confluence of different cultures and traditions and is permeated by an international breath, while constantly confronting literary and cultural tradition which nevertheless doesn’t form its superstructure, but, on the contrary, a solid foundation for the poet to build on, following a very personal plan, in which the inheritance of this tradition is internalized and reworked in a highly personal and original way.
What immediately strikes reading one of Schmidt’s poems, is the flawless equilibrium between form and content that characterizes the whole of his vast poetry production. The poet chooses every single word with immense care and arranges it as the score of a song which never breaks, but rather follows a constant rhythm revealing the tenseness of each single verse and tight sound texture interweaving with one another. However neither Schmidt’s great linguistic skill, nor his mastery of rhythm and form, nor his awareness of the polysemic potentiality of words and syntax ever aim to make a mere show of themselves, nor to simply surprise or impress the reader/listener. In fact, his poetry always sounds winding and involving, the poets’ attitude always appears friendly, while inviting the reader to follow his steps, or even to walk at his side while he retraces his own stories and the stories of the people he met, of the ones he lost, of the ones whom death has stolen away from him, but go on living in his memory, in his verses, in the air surrounding him. In fact, one of the main tasks Schmidt assigns to poetry is that of digging in the past, bringing memories to the surface of the present, where the poet converses with the beloved lost ones, who are alive and extraordinarily present in words which evoke and even embody them. This way, the poet can look at their evanescent faces, listen to their whispering voices and avoid their stories being broken. Schmidt’s poetry is also alighted by the inspiration of a faith which is never dogmatic, but rather offered with the naturalness of a gift, in an attempt of restoring dialogue with the Absolute while providing an isle of silence and slowness, where God is a discreet presence, a silent voice and a travel companion, rather than a far destination to aim to, or a distant interlocutor. In the same way, the beloved ones, though having already reached Him, go on living among us, accompaning us through the path of everyday life. The poet doesn’t want anyone of them to fade away and poetry helps him to stay in secret contact with them.
from The Stories of My Life, Michael Schmidt, Smith/Doorstop, 2013
What is it like in heaven, Agatha?
I see you in those tight scuffed shoes, now dangling
Not over the playground wall (and your sharp knees
And the frayed serge skirt of your school uniform)
But off a black cloud hard against the blue.
They swing to and fro, to and fro, what can you see
So high above my head, and the tree and the hill?
Am I down here, is your house, is your lame cat Dorcas
With whiskers on the left side of her face
And a broken tail? Can you see us, do you want to now,
Recalled by the school alarm, the smell of asphalt
Softening in the sun, and the effulgent haze,
Or is all this fading, faded, faded out? If so, if your
Eyes have been able to uproot themselves from us,
Do they feed on the entire firmament, is it blue,
And is this as though it never had been at all,
Where I stand, where you used to sit on the wall?
What is it like, dear skinny Agatha,
With your sharp ribs under a stained singlet, your flat
Chest with nipples stuck on like round plasters,
Like valves, like coppers tipped slightly on smooth sand?
(We walked on the level shore at Capistrano
Gathering dark sand dollars and coolie-hat shells;
First we were five and six, then six and seven.)
What is it like, your straight lips pursed, your grey eyes, Agatha,
Gazing at a sky you’re new in and new to?
And what is it like, dear Agatha, without me?
What colour is your hair now, how do you wear it?
Still in braids, or piled up high, in a bun or pony-tail?
I stand beneath your cloud and ask and ask.
Com’è in cielo, Agatha?
Ti vedo in quelle strette scarpe lise che non dondolano
più dal muretto del parco giochi (e le ginocchia aguzze
e la lisa gonna in saia dell’uniforme della scuola)
ma da una nube nera impressa sull’azzurro.
Oscillano a destra e a sinistra, a destra e a sinistra, che vedi
da tanto in alto sopra la mia testa, e gli alberi e la collina?
Ci sono io quaggiù, c’è la tua casa, e il gatto zoppo
che ha vibrisse sul lato sinistro del muso soltanto
e la coda mozza? Puoi vederci, vuoi forse sapere,
rievocato dalla campanella della scuola, l’odore d’asfalto
che si scioglie al sole, e la fulgida foschia, o tutto questo
è sbiadito, dissolto, svanito? Se così e se
è riuscito ai tuoi occhi di svellersi da noi,
si nutrono di tutto il firmamento, è azzurro,
ed è come se mai nulla fosse stato,
dove stavo in piedi, dove tu sedevi sul muretto?
Com’è, Agatha, scricciolo mio,
con le costole affilate sotto la maglia macchiata, il petto
piatto coi capezzoli aderenti come tondi cerotti, valvole,
monete premute sulla liscia sabbia lentamente?
Raccogliendo scuri dollari di sabbia e coolie di conchiglie;
(dapprima avevamo cinque e sei anni, poi sei e sette.)
Com’è, cara Agatha, sporgi le tue labbra dritte, gli occhi grigi, Agatha,
guardando il cielo che ti è sconosciuto e che non ti conosce?
E com’è, cara Agatha, senza di me?
Di che colore hai i capelli ora, come li porti?
Ancora in trecce, o raccolti in alto in una coda o un concio?
Sto sotto la tua nube e pongo domande su domande.
In that child’s I heard your childhood cry
Out again, a protracted yelling.
It made the woman carrying put
The dreadful bundle down and leave it
Squirming on the grass, and stand apart
Breathing deeply by the lake (the swans
Circling) watching the swans. The squirrels
Approach the squalling child and chuckle
Close by its swollen face, their brown eyes
Big, their tails pluming, three squirrels, then four
And your voice in that voice down all those
Years and lawns and lakes. Can I now reach
Your distress and take it in hand, hold
Close at my chest what you were, make some
Kind of peace?
Delivering me red-eyed
At the airport at six this morning
You scalded your lips with a bitter
Costa coffee. Just before I left,
For the first time in years you broke, words
Sharp like your cries were back then. I should
Have stayed with you, whatever. My flight
Was called, we hugged. ‘Back in a fortnight,’
I said and put the dreadful bundle
Down, in its need, in pain, by the lake,
Making my way helpless through customs
As she was then, as we are, fathers,
Mothers, when at last the child knows how
To speak his urgency, and we go.
The flight is called. I wave from the gate.
Atrio delle partenze
Nel pianto di quel bimbo sentii riecheggiare
quello della tua infanzia, strilli prolungati.
Ciò indusse la donna che lo portava a deporre
il terribile fagotto e a lasciarlo
a contorcersi nell’erba, per farsi da parte
respirando a fondo presso il lago (i cigni
volteggiano) guardando i cigni. Gli scoiattoli
avvicinano il bimbo urlante e gli sogghignano
accanto al viso gonfio, i loro occhi bruni
grandi, le code impennate, tre scoiattoli, poi quattro
e la tua voce in quella voce risale tutti quegli
anni e prati e laghi. Ora posso afferrare
la tua afflizione e prenderla in mano, tenermi
stretto alla guancia ciò che eri, stringere una
specie di pace?
Accompagnandomi con gli occhi rossi
all’aeroporto alle sei del mattino
ti scaldasti le labbra con un amaro
Costa caffè. Appena prima che partissi,
per la prima volta dopo anni scoppiasti, parole
acute come le tue grida erano tornate. Sarei
dovuto restare con te, comunque. Il mio volo
fu annunciato, ci abbracciammo. “Tra due settimane sono qui,’”
dissi e deposi il terribile fardello
nel bisogno, nel dolore, presso il lago,
attraversando la dogana indifeso,
com’era lei allora, come siamo, padri,
madri, mentre il bimbo almeno sa come
esprimere la sua necessità, e noi andiamo.
Il mio volo è annunciato. Saluto dal gate con la mano.
‘The Face of Christ’, late fifteenth century, Dutch
Each takes a little, east and south and west,
Diminishes it, like nibbling the edge
Of a sweet biscuit, each takes a kiss of crust,
A lip of sugar, a lick of crumbs,
Each takes until remaining the blank core
Is mere erasure where His face had been.
‘Il volto di Cristo, fine del XV secolo, olandese
Ognuno ne prende un pezzetto, est e sud e ovest,
lo rimpicciolisce, come sbocconcellando il bordo
di un dolce biscotto, ognuno prende un bacio di crosta,
un labbro di zucchero, una leccata di briciole,
ognuno prende finché ne resta il cuore vuoto soltanto
e solo una cancellatura dove un tempo era il Suo volto.
Watching his creatures with a filial sorrow,
Christ, not a shepherd yet, not yet a man,
Propped on a cloud at the edge of things, his hands,
Unbroken, on his hips, wonders who he’ll be
And knows it’s up to Adam to determine
What human pleasure might feel like, and what pain,
To the son of God – Adam who’s in mourning,
Adam whose Maker has withdrawn the Kingdom,
All for a fruit, a serpent and a rib.
The Son of God sees Eve grow plump as a pillow
Bearing a mallet and three nails inside her,
Bearing a spear, a sponge and vinegar.
Guardando le sue creature con dolore filiale,
Cristo, non è uomo ancora né pastore,
posato su una nube al confine delle cose, con le mani,
intatte, sui fianchi, si chiede chi sarà domani
sa che sta ad Adamo stabilire come
avvertirà il piacere umano e il dolore
il Figlio del Signore – Adamo che è nel lutto,
Adamo spossessato del suo regno dal Creatore,
tutto per un frutto, una costola e un serpente.
Cristo vede Eva gonfiarsi come un guanciale
portandosi un martello e tre chiodi nel ventre
portandosi una lancia, una spugna e aceto dentro.
Michael Schmidt OBE is the founder and editorial director of Carcanet Press and PN Review. A high-profile figure in contemporary poetry, his Selected Poems (1997), Resurrection of the Body (2006), and Collected Poems (2009) are all published by Smith Doorstop. His awards include a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation, and he has been shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the New York Times Book of the Year. He is Professor of Poetry at the University of Glasgow.
*Chiara De Luca studied Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Pisa, attended Magda Olivetti’s European Translation Institute in Florence, and Françoise Wuilmart’s Collège Européen des traducteurs littéraires in Seneffe. She has an M.A. in Literary Translation and a PhD in Comparative Literatures and Languages from the University of Bologna. She is a poet, essayist and translator from French, German, English, Spanish and Portuguese to Italian. She is founder and editorial director of the publishing house Kolibris (http://edizionikolibris.net).