For the original Italian

For Brian's translations of Pablo Neruda in this issue.

For a feature on Brindin Press in Fall 2002

For Brian's translations of Circe Maia in Fall 2002


For more Poetry

Bartolo Cattafi

Translated and introduced by Brian ColeBrian Cole

Cattafi was a poet who flourished in the very lively post-war Italian cultural scene, but who has not been much translated into English. He was born in Barcellona, near Messina in Sicily, in 1922. Inevitably he had to serve in the war, but was a very reluctant soldier. After the war he graduated in law and settled in Milan, where he worked in industry, publishing and journalism. He travelled extensively in Europe and Africa, and his travels were paralleled by a spiritual odyssey, continually seeking some sense in life. In 1967 he returned to his roots in Sicily, where he remained until his death from cancer in March 1979.

Poetry was a spare time activity during his career, but he was very prolific and successful — he was awarded the prestigious literary prize, the Premio Cittadella, in 1959. There is an unexplained gap from January 1963 to February 1971 when he seems to have written nothing, and in 1974 and 1975 he wrote no new poetry, but spent a lot of time editing his papers. After his death a considerable quantity of work, largely unpublished, was collated in collaboration with his wife, Ada, by Giovanni Raboni, and a collection of over 300 poems was published in 1990.

Although Cattafi was a Sicilian, he was regarded in the '50s as one of three poets called the linea lombarda — the others being Luciano Erba and Nelo Risi. This group were part of the “Hermetic Revival” which was concerned to maintain continuity with the poetry of the hermetic tradition, in which, according to the critic Anceschi, “objects (were) intensified and charged to such an extent as to turn the language into a symbol with some references to reality and familiar situations.” According to the poet Alan Marshfield “hermetic” came to refer to ancient lore, especially alchemy, and also to anything sealed, mysterious, cryptic. So the purified image was also a code to be deciphered.” These poets were published especially in the magazine Esperienza poetica which stressed the traditional line of poetry. Ideology was rejected, and they aimed to link the new poets with traditional trends by a revision of poetic and cultural values.

On the High Seas

Then problems and dangers disappeared,
we saw things in the clear
atmosphere, precise, enumerated, in file
along the lines which from the window
stretch as far as the horizon.
To move waters, to smash molecules,
to rend the air were easy gestures,
to pass from motion to rest
and vice versa was a game.
The circle of the future was heavy in the sky
refreshed sometimes by the celestial
perfume of ozone
from a squall of rain.
Earlier in summer — sirens ran through the quarters —
we thought of clear images of fire.
There were no fires there.
But ships are noisy in the wind
and rustle in the plane trees in the blankets in the courtyards,
ships that bring us back to the open
sea from where we came, where
a hand's-breadth of blue costs a great deal
and everything is uncertain, even the azure.


Dry hard chalky
seemed to be the design of the country.
There we brought our
laws, systems
of weight, of currency, of measure.
The world is bounded by a frontier
of dazzling stones,
we did not see that other world outside:
vigorous, victorious
when it overwhelmed us.
We roamed afar
in lost regions.
The country appeared to be in motion,
fertile, fluid, changing,
rich in laws and in merchandise,
a store and entrepot for many regions.
Dry hard chalky
often is the eye,
the hands, the chisel support it,
fashion things in our likeness.


Those wild bees
from unknown frontiers
that you often see vibrate headlong
into yellow blossom
a swarm born outside
every ordinance and law
like the stubborn flowers
which it prefers and protects
— the honey that results is an intractable honey —
vehement shameless violators
of spaces reserved
for model colonies
message of a strong something
shining with arrogance
that still puts eggs and larvae
in the pockets of the Saints
and dies on All Souls' Day.