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Q & A: Geoffrey Brock

The poem begins in a very abstract way in the first few lines. Though we usually think of “image” as visual information, we’re not told what this particular image looks like. Could you say more about this abstraction?

The phrase “immagine tesa” is as slippery and abstract in Italian as I hope it is in English. It’s unclear, for example, whether the image in question is the speaker himself (his own expectant countenance, perhaps) or something he’s contemplating (a crucifix, maybe; or an image, real or imagined, of a lover). But it’s clearly full of latent energy: it’s tesa (tensed) with longing, and one feels intuitively that it is also protesa (literally “outstretched,” figuratively “fixed on,” “intent on”), as if craning to reach something.

Arguably the major uncertainty here is whether this is a love poem or a religious poem. The short answer, unsurprisingly, is both. It was written when Rèbora was an atheist, several years before he converted and became an explicitly religious poet. Despite that fact, it’s now usually read in religious terms, as a poem that foreshadows his conversion. And for me, the word “image” here does call to mind God’s creation of man “in His own image”—in which case the speaker’s image, as he waits for God, is also God’s image as He approaches (if He approaches). But there is, too, an erotic aspect to the waiting.

Rèbora himself, as poets are wont to do, gave contradictory explanations of his intentions. Late in life he wrote that the title phrase referred to “the expression on my face, intent [proteso] not only on an arrival long passionately desired, but also (confusedly) on the Dulcis Hospes animae”—i.e., Jesus. Yet when a friend asked him if the poem was about waiting for faith, Rèbora replied, “No, I wrote it while waiting for a girl!” (In the original, the poem elegantly omits the gender of the “awaited one”; I, alas, had to choose.)

 

So how do you come down on this question: Is the final figure a lover, a savior, or something even more complicated than either of these?

What is more complicated than a savior—especially an absent one? It does seem primarily a savior figure to me. I can read it as a lover, too, but I have to say that, even as an atheist, I find the savior reading more compelling, because it makes the speaker’s crisis more acute. And because saviors, and good poems about them, are harder to come by than lovers. (I suppose this is why, when forced by English to choose a pronoun, I picked “he” instead of “she.”)

 

The “space/place” couplet near the center is striking, not least for its seeming allusion to Frost. What is your sense of its significance—either in the original poem, the translation, or both?

I suppose you could say its significance is to illustrate the enormity of the absence of the “awaited one.” It’s as if the room is so enormously empty that the walls themselves, the structures that delimit and contain the emptiness, are astonished by it.

Rèbora’s poem appeared a dozen years before Frost’s. If Frost had read it, one might think he was alluding to it in “Desert Places,” but I’m sure he hadn’t. The only real connection between the two poems is in the minds of readers who know both, and for such readers the connection is easy to make. Not simply because “spazio” sits right on top of “deserto,” but also because there is a similar kind of radical “absent-spirited” emptiness in both poems (though Rèbora seems more hopeful than Frost that it will soon be filled).

So it just seemed right to me to have Rèbora’s poem allude to Frost’s, despite the anachronism of it. And I confess I’ve often slipped such allusions into my translations. For example, when the chance presented itself to include the phrase “what work is” in one of my Cesare Pavese translations, I couldn’t resist. Philip Levine has written about and alluded to Pavese on several occasions, and it seemed fitting to have Pavese nod back. I’ve also had Pascoli nod to Wilbur, and so on. And why not? These poets have things to say to each other, and I don’t mind putting them in touch.

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This poem originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2010

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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