A portion of paradise

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The centenarian poet, critic, teacher of writing and translator (from French and Italian to Spanish) Ida Vitale spent the first half of her life in Uruguay, where she lived until a coup d’état gave rise to a military dictatorship in 1973. She and her husband went into exile, spending a decade in Mexico and several more in Texas before she returned to Montevideo upon his death in 2016. Vitale has won many major prizes and written more than twenty collections of poems since she released her debut in 1949, most of them represented in this new volume, which assembles ninety-six poems, including some from her most recent collection, also called Time Without Keys (2021).

Vitale was the last surviving member of Uruguay’s Generation of ’45 (which included Mario Benedetti, Juan Carlos Onetti and Amanda Berenguer). Her poetry employs a wide range of references, especially to other poets, from Nobel laureates Octavio Paz and Gabriela Mistral to less well-known poets of France and Italy (where Vitale’s family originated), including Raymond Roussel, Giuseppe Ungaretti and the great Giacomo Leopardi. Sometimes she is regarded as an essentialist poet; her poems are rich in metaphor, while emphasizing the natural world. An avian theme runs through many of them. References to birds, to flight and to song offer some of the most transcendent moments in her work. In “Nostalgia for the Dodo” (Time Without Keys, 2021), a poem that references Lewis Carroll and rues “a time / of savagery, maybe worse”, she considers the stuffed effigy of a dodo in the Victoria and Albert Museum: “I imagined its feathers swan / white, now the yellowed ivory / of abandoned pianos or lace / from a venerable wedding”.

Loss is another recurring theme. Both leitmotifs date back to her earliest work, such as “Furtherlife” (Given Word, 1953): “Give me night /… / a portion of paradise / your closed blue garden / your songless birds. / … / give me, night, truth / for me alone / time for me alone / futherlife”. The poems frequently offer a beguiling combination of beauty and melancholic longing, what the Portuguese call saudade. To quote Jeannette Clariond, the poet’s Latin American publisher: “Her poetry couples the fragrance of the innovative with the aroma of tradition”.

The choice to weight Vitale’s most recent poetry by placing it first, rather than presenting her work chronologically, follows the lead of the authoritative Tusquets edition of her collected works in 2017, edited by Aurelio Major, who assisted the author and translator with selections for Time Without Keys. This makes for interesting reading: we experience Vitale’s evolution as a poet in reverse.

The collection has been thoughtfully edited, employing different fonts for the Spanish and English texts, which are presented en face. An excellent “translator’s afterword” gives an overview of Vitale’s background and life, and a glimpse of her influences. For a translator, publishing your version alongside the original is a bit like taking off all your clothes on stage: some members of the audience will be struck by the beauty in what they see, while others will notice glaring flaws. Sarah Pollack has collaborated with Vitale for more than twenty years and her translation is faithful to the letter and spirit of each poem, evoking the beauty and emotion of Vitale’s work. On occasion, though, I wished she had chosen to be a little less faithful in the English-language representation of what Vitale refers to in her closing essay as “a certain lyrical sense”. The poems flow well, but the English can sound a little lumpy.

In her closing essay, “Poems in Search of the Initiated”, Ida Vitale writes that “the allusiveness, the metaphors, the nuances that abound in [poetry] require more mental effort. Imagine the work gymnasts dedicate to their bodies to master them satisfactorily! Mastering that ambitious form of language also has its rewards”. Reading this collection of poems, written over three-quarters of a century, is an excellent way to embark on such a project of mental calisthenics; this poetry is challenging yet accessible, offering great rewards. There will always be readers who eschew poetry in favour of writing that is more straightforward and easily digested; yet books like this one give us cause to be thankful that, as the poet writes, “During a time of impatient readers, poetic creation continues on, like a pleasurable mystery that resists resolution”.

Samantha Schnee is the founding editor of Words Without Borders. Her most recent translation is Carmen Boullosa’s Book of Eve, 2023

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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