Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian Poetry | Daily News

Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian Poetry

Despite living in New York City for more than five decades, my ninety-three-year-old grandfather still doesn’t speak English. No, that’s not quite right. During my childhood, his language did have some English in it.

He used a relatively common, if idiosyncratic, commixture of words from his native and adopted tongues. Linguists have studied this pidgin: the way it grafts Italian endings onto English building blocks, the inflection and pronunciation that come from the speaker’s more intimate regional dialect. For him it was Roccolano, the near-extinct language from his small town in Italy’s Molise region. “R’abbassamend’,” my grandfather calls the basement he never had before New York; that opening “r” is Roccolano’s masculine article replacing both “il” and “the,” the following “a” maybe a logical connection to Italian’s “abbassare” (“to lower”).

This kind of language is a historical phenomenon—the product of migration patterns and economics, schooling and lack thereof. It is born from necessity: urgent speech with a social services provider, with a bus driver, with a recalcitrant young grandchild seemingly deaf to the Italian reprimand she very well understands.

Limits of communication

Of course, it spreads beyond these contours. I vividly remember my confusion and embarrassment when he used this pidgin in Italy, with Italian strangers, family, and friends. Each of his marked words represented both communication and the limits of communication; they spoke volumes about him, what he had achieved, what he had given up.

My siblings and I also spoke a hybrid language, but it had none of the urgency of my grandfather’s. Ours was playfully combinatory and private. We would squeeze Italian roots through the more blunt frames of English structure and sound. It was especially pleasing if the word contained an “r,” the consonant in which Italian and English most diverge. We’d dull our rolls and trills with glee: “Put on your scarps!,” we’d command, instead of shoes. We’d use the “s” prefix that makes a negative of Italian words and introduce it willy-nilly to English ones: the plausible “sfortune” for “sfortuna/misfortune,” the further afield “swalk!” for “stop walking.” But ours wasn’t the Italian-American “gabagool,” because it was important to us that we knew better than that.We could speak real Italian if we wanted to. We always said “capicola.”

But our Italian was marked, too. It was imperfect. One of the things our made-up language performed was our intimacy with family and the place they came from. It also performed our distance. These words in which languages collide were a proxy for the deep and messy relationships between people, places. They were a longing. A particular kind of between-ness.

Interlingual play

Early in his memoirs, the metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico relates an incident from his childhood in Greece in which he revels in interlingual play. Some rascally kids from another neighborhood have developed a strategy for downing the artist’s kites, flying theirs higher to entangle the strings. “In local slang,” he tells us in Margaret Crosland’s translation, “this operation was described as fanestra.” The text then goes on to indulge in a strange linguistic aside: “If I wanted to make a verb out of fanestra, I could say that when I was fanestrated I reacted violently and threw stones at the fanestrators.” What is the purpose of this lexical riff? What does the grammatical exercise add to our understanding of this child throwing stones, this child who feels maybe, linguistically at least, on the outside?

The original Italian text adds a further wrinkle to these questions. “Se da fanestra vogliamo fare un verbo italiano: fanestrare, potrei dire che quando ero fanestrato reagivo violentemente, tirando sassi ai fanestratori.” De Chirico specifies that he is not just making any verb from this foreign word, but an Italian verb. That specificity likely felt both superfluous and potentially obscuring for Crosland, whose task as translator was not to make an Italian verb at all, but an English one. For the sake of sense, then, the English must lose this kernel of de Chirico’s logic: if we wanted to make an Italian verb from fanestra, I could say… Buried in the fragment is the idea that the Italianization of the local Greek word makes it possible for de Chirico to tell his story; with an Italian verb, he might—he does—speak.

For the past five years, I have been translating de Chirico’s Italian-language poems. They make up a relatively slim body of work beside both his heftier corpus of French-language writings—including his 1929 Hebdomeros, which John Ashbery declared the finest surrealist novel—and his prolific output of visual art, for which he is famous. His iconic paintings raucously combine scenes from memory (porticoes and Italian piazzas, smokestacks and trains in the distance), myth (gods, temples, ruins), and imagination (torsos crammed full of buildings or books, topped by the featureless faces of dressmakers’ dummies).

These works operate on the principle of juxtaposition: surprise and longing spring from de Chirico’s placement of unlikely objects side-by-side.

These images clearly have deep meaning for the artist (“We have said nothing about Chirico [sic]” muses Andre Breton at the start of Nadja, “until we take into account his most personal views about the artichoke, the glove, the cookie, or the spool”) and they pop up across his poems as well. Noticing them brings a detective’s rush of satisfaction. But, as Saussure taught us, the signifier is not the signified. How is a painted artichoke related to the word “artichoke,” to the word “carciofo”? What do the textures of language bring to the interrogation of tangible things?

- Paris Review


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