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Translator's Note: Sonnet of the Seven Chinese



Many writers populate their desks with pictures and quotes, as if to make their work seem less solitary by giving them the feeling of being watched or addressed. When I was growing up, my father had a scrawled Machado quatrain (in Bly's translation) taped up over his writing desk:

Mankind owns four things
that are no good at sea:
rudder, anchor, oars
and the fear of going down.

Though I didn't fully grasp its meaning, I sensed that it contained a prodigious truth, and I understood that my father had it there as a kind of reminder, even a goad. My wife is also a writer, and ever since I've known her she has worked facing a faintly menacing newspaper photo of Salman Rushdie, feet propped on a desk in the foreground, arm and index finger outstretched toward her as if from a godly distance, seeming to say: "Get busy—and make it good." Writers love such talismans. Some are words, some images. William Styron had a Flaubert quote: "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." Raymond Carver (ever the minimalist) had three words: "TELL THE STORY." And according to Franco Fortini, Bertolt Brecht (the "Augsburg poet") had a Chinese allegorical figure of the Man of Doubt. Fortini's own talisman is a fleshed-out variation of Brecht's.

Some critics have called Fortini's poetry "political," but as Fortini himself argued in 1991 (in the introduction to Summer Is Not All, Paul Lawton's English selection of his work), those critics "err somewhat, and that somewhat is important." He did say that he believed in "a kinship, and a close one, between how we comprehend the lives of wageworkers and how we understand a Petrarch sonnet," but he never wrote the kind of poetry that marches in lockstep beneath a partisan banner. "I have always distrusted politically committed poetry," he wrote, adding that to avoid it one should "follow Brecht's advice and switch on all the stage lights; in the stark glare, the sense of statements is changed." His 1975 poem "Sonnet of the Seven Chinese" follows that advice. It's not a poem that requires much commentary, and it has not in fact generated much in Italy. Nor has it generated many translations, despite the fact that Fortini included it in his late selected poems (Versi scelti: 1939-1989).

I wonder if some readers are turned off by a quality—I'll call it ethical earnestness—that may be mistaken for didacticism. I too dislike didactic poems (though I love learning things in poems), but "Sonnet of the Seven Chinese" has never seemed didactic to me; it seems, rather, a caution against the didactic impulse. Further, it neatly expresses a double vision typical of Fortini's best work: an awareness both of the wide gulf that divides, say, an Italian intellectual from a Chinese worker and, just as important, of the human continuum that connects them. Navigating between those poles is an uncertain business, one for which "doubt" may prove more useful than rudders or oars. The workers in the picture (and the poem) are not poets, perhaps cannot read, certainly cannot read Fortini's poetry. And he has trouble reading them. Yet they seem to speak to him in the way Fortini wished poetry itself to speak: "in a language partly unknown to me, of something that preoccupies me prodigiously (a life or death matter) but which, as in dreams, I'm unable to grasp fully." The moral? As he wrote in his (often translated) poem "Translating Brecht": "Nothing is certain, but write."

It is a quiet, plain-spoken, almost prosaic poem, which in the original (and I hope in my translation) inhabits the sonnet form casually, like an old, loose-fitting sweater. But it speaks eloquently about the role and value of a writer's talisman, and I've found it to have a persistent stickiness I didn't expect on first reading. Indeed I come back to it so often that it must have become a talisman of sorts for me.—GB


This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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