Translator's Note: The Shadow
BY GEOFFREY BROCK
Carlo Betocchi qualified as a land surveyor in 1915 and after a brief stint in the military worked for several decades in the civil engineering field. Though without a university education, he read widely in French, English, and Italian poetry and became part of a flourishing literary scene in Florence, where, in the late twenties, he helped found Il Frontespizio, an influential Catholic literary magazine that over the next decade would feature work by leading Italian poets, as well as some of Betocchi’s own early poems. Because of his association with that journal, which became a hotbed of the movement known as Hermeticism, and his friendship with many of the so-called Hermetic poets, he is sometimes wrongly linked with that movement. His true kin, however, are poets such as Giovanni Pascoli, Umberto Saba, and Clemente Rebora.
Betocchi is a genuinely religious poet and also something of a populist. “Dell’ombra” (“The Shadow”), a lovely anthology piece from his first collection, Realtà vince il sogno (Reality defeats dreams, 1932), bears several hallmarks of his early work: what Pasolini has called his “mystic clarity,” what Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo has called his “cultivated naiveté,” what almost everybody has called his “Franciscan” vision of a natural world steeped in the divine. This poem’s charming, almost childlike formal simplicity contrasts markedly with the increasing technical dazzle of Betocchi’s mid-career verse, particularly the poems—including “D’estate” (“Summer”)—of Tetti Toscani (Tuscan roofs, 1955). But it is his sparer subsequent work, and particularly his treatment of senescence, that is now widely regarded as his highest achievement. “Diaretto invecchiando” (“Little Diary of Getting Old”), from L’estate di San Martino (Indian summer, 1961), is exemplary of this latter, more personal mode, which tends toward a darker emotional palette and more muted formal effects. I can’t help but see the sudden paring-down from the lushness of a poem like “Summer” to the relative austerity of “Little Diary of Getting Old” as a sort of formal kenosis, though the shift is probably not as radical or as sustained as that word implies.
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This poem originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Poetry magazine