Friday, October 2, 2009


Suppose you publish a small book of poems with a legendary small press publisher, say, Jonathan Williams's Jargon Press. Suppose further that W.C. Williams writes the preface, and Alberto Moravia the introduction. Suppose that the cover art is a collage by Pop Art/mail and collage artist Ray Johnson, and the title page has a collage by Jean-Jacques Lebel, whose father was a friend of Duchamp's. And on the back cover, your handsome author photo shows you stripped to the waist, bearded head turned in defiant profile. Suppose further that even the back inside cover is cool, listing books from the same publisher: Irving Layton's A Red Carpet for the Sun, Bob Brown's selected poems with a note by Kay Boyle and drawing by Ben Shahn, On My Eyes by Larry Eigner with photos from Harry Callaghan, Robert Creeley's A Form of Women, along with new Maxiums poems by Charles Olson and poems from the Greek and Latin by Kenneth Rexroth. Suppose the book even earns a positive review in Poetry!

I suppose you'd have a pretty cool book there, eh?

Well, not long ago I found myself a copy of Harold Norse's classic book The Roman Sonnets of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, as described above. I'm kinda thrilled that it comes complete with a price tag from the St. Marks Bookstore: $4.00. Oh, what fun this book is!

Norse, whose work appeared in Poetry over the course of two decades, died earlier this year. The recent publication of his collected poems, In the Hub of the Fiery Force, occasioned Kevin Killian's remark that "If he lived anywhere else but in America, he would have received the Nobel Prize by now," noting that Norse's work was closer to "poets like Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Reverdy, Ungaretti, Marina Tsvetayeva" than to any particular American poet. You'll have to decide for yourself about all this, but for me, the Roman Sonnets is a book to treasure.

Giuseppe Francesco Antonio Maria Gioachino Raimondo Belli (September 7, 1791 – December 21, 1863) was an Italian poet who faced economic difficulties all through his life but always got by, and who is now remembered for sonnets he composed in Romanesco, a Roman dialect. He wrote well over two thousand of them, each chronicling - by way of satire - nineteenth-century Rome. The poems are often obscene, and unflaggingly satirize the corruptions of the Church as he saw it (though he did not intend to be impious). Consequently he had to keep his poems hidden from public view, though he did read them to his friends Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve and Nikolai Gogol. D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce were big fans, and the posthumously published sonnets eventually made their way into English thanks to a number of devotees including, aside from Norse, Anthony Burgess, Miller Williams, and the deeply ingenious sonneteer Mike Stocks; the latter's versions can be found in one of my favorite books, a beautiful and useful dual-language edition of Belli's sonnets (complete with Scots translations by the poet Robert Garioch!) recently published by Oneworld Classics in the UK.

Here's one of Norse's translations:

Who Goes by Night, Dies by Night

How misfortunes are! Here's the story:
With that open inferno of a night
I was returning from the Broken Head
At three in the morning, not a soul in sight.

Just right there in front of the Doria Palace
I'm about to climb the steps toward St. Mary's,
I slip, and I take myself one Christ of a fall,
And bang, but hard, the back part of my skull.

I was on the ground crying as my life leaked out
When a carriage of a gentleman about
Two feet away passed at a snail's pace.

"Stop!" a servant to the coachman cries;
But from inside the carriage a thin high voice
Ordered: "Go on, allons! who dies, dies."



Kevin Cutrer said...

The Norse translation indeed sounds appealing.

I'm intrigued by the picture at the beginning of this post--I visited 9 rue git le coeur in 2002, and couldn't find any such marker. I wonder when they mounted this?

Ms Baroque said...

That poem is amazing. I've read some of Belli's sonnets before but not that one. Thanks!