cover image Cuttlefish Bones: 1920-1927

Cuttlefish Bones: 1920-1927

Eugenio Montale. W. W. Norton & Company, $25 (269pp) ISBN 978-0-393-02803-4

``All my poetry,'' Montale ( The Storm and Other Things ) once said, ``is a waiting for the miracle.'' That miracle began with the extraordinary voice that speaks in this first book, Ossi di seppia , published in 1925 when Montale was 29: an authentic, anti-heroic voice that would compel recognition of Montale as the great modern Italian poet and lead to the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975. This volume disarms readers with simplicity of scene and language: the poem-scapes originate in the rocky, sun-struck seacoast of idyllic Liguria where Montale spent his youth; Montale's precise images are classically spare, and his syntax is linear and lean. But his concerns are neither simple nor spare. Given a modern universe in which existence is uncertain and ``more cruel than futile,'' the poet can no longer dictate or merely feel, cannot retreat to medieval ideology or Romantic posturing. Montale invites the reader, the ``passerby,'' into an intimate relationship in which the poet speaks as a sympathetic but ironic friend; the poet invites his reader to ``find a break in the meshes of the net / that tightens around us, leap out, flee!''but warns of his poetic limitations: ``Don't ask me for formulas to open worlds / for you: all I have are gnarled syllables, / branch-dry. All I can tell you now is this: / what we are not , what we do not want.'' New readers of Montale will appreciate the critical introduction to his oeuvre, with detailed notes including exegeses of the seminal poems, and Arrowsmith's masterful and subtle translation. But critical apparatus is only a pleasing adjunct: these poems stand powerfully on their own and reach straight to the reader: ``Bring me the flower that leads us out / where blond transparencies rise / and life evaporates as essence. / Bring me the sunflower crazed with light.'' (Aug.)