“But that day I thought only of the loneliness of dying”

It’s strange how you find yourself sometimes wandering into the public version of your own private thoughts. I was considering the newest in a long line of case studies in Dalton McGuinty’s provincial government’s history of campaigning from the left and governing from the whoever-will-have-them. For those not up on local Ontario politics, that’d be this decision that elementary school children are not ready to process the innocence-blasting idea that some people are gay and some people are not. One of the surprising truths about Canadian culture is that the religious right here is worse than it is in the States. Having had dealings with both, I’ll tell you that the American version is loud and proud, willing to proclaim their hatreds and anachronisms in any public forum. This makes them susceptible to what, in honour of the optimisms I’m celebrating this month at The Torontoist, I’ll call the “national scrutiny”. The Canadian version, however, is sneaky, having decided to forgo any public practice of ideology for backroom intimidation and pocket-lining. They’re like the pharmaceutical lobby, except with Jesus.

Specifically, I was considering the problems of the direct approach. Very few good poems have been written in which the poet attacks, in the first person, the targets s/he finds him/herself incensed by. Any element of the rant is aesthetic poison, unless a rant is specifically what you’re writing. And if so, good luck, as you’ve chosen the hardest of all literary forms to do well.

So imagine my elation when I tuned into CBC radio today and found the program Tapestry broadcasting the public reading of the poem Campo del Fiori given annually by an Italian atheist community named after that poem’s primary image, the sculpture of Giordano Bruno found in the titular Roman piazza.

Milosz’s poem is a master class in the dance of approach-avoidance between political poets and their charged material. His being a life full of politics so incendiary it’s hard for me to even understand them from my vantage point, it is something he grew quite practiced with. Here, he spends his eight stanzas lifting threads from the various civic tributaries that gather around his statue of the martyred philosopher, poet, and (by 16th century Italian standards) anti-papist. There’s an appeal to the humanism and emotionality central to any engaged political statement, but to my ear, shaped as it was by those concerns of directness listed above, it seems only half-intended. He lets the passage “Someone will read as moral/ That the people of Rome or Warsaw/ Haggle, laugh, make love/ As they pass by martyrs’ pyres.” sit in a kind of third-person purgatory, divorced from the immediacy of other material (the girls’ skirts, the passage that was excerpted from the title of this post). In the end, he takes his anger as his subject, not as the poem’s vehicle, focussing on the inherent impotency of poetic rage in the final incendiary image: “On a great Campo dei Fiori/Rage will kindle at a poet’s word.”

Anyway, this is not intended as a close reading of Campo del Fiori. Though feel free to have one of your own (it’s posted below in its entirety). This is just my Sunday happening, a report on the occasional intersection between worries old and new, personal and national, directed and internal.

Sorry the flow of posts have been light, lately. I have reasons. But don’t worry, more are coming soon.



by Czeslaw Milosz

In Rome on the Campo dei Fiori
Baskets of olives and lemons,
Cobbles spattered with wine
And the wreckage of flowers.
Vendors cover the trestles
With rose-pink fish;
Armfuls of dark grapes
Heaped on peach-down.

On this same square
They burned Giordano Bruno.
Henchmen kindled the pyre
Close-pressed by the mob.
Before the flames had died
The taverns were full again,
Baskets of olives and lemons
Again on the vendors’ shoulders.

I thought of the Campo dei Fiori
In Warsaw by the sky-carousel
One clear spring evening
To the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
The salvos from the ghetto wall,
And couples were flying
High in the cloudless sky.

At times wind from the burning
Would drift dark kites along
And riders on the carousel
Caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
Blew open the skirts of the girls
And the crowds were laughing
On that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.

Someone will read as moral
That the people of Rome or Warsaw
Haggle, laugh, make love
As they pass by martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
Of the passing of things human,
Of the oblivion
Born before the flames have died.

But that day I thought only
Of the loneliness of the dying,
Of how, when Giordano
Climbed to his burning
There were no words
In any human tongue
To be left for mankind,
Mankind who live on.

Already they were back at their wine
Or peddled their white starfish,
Baskets of olives and lemons
They had shouldered to the fair,
And he already distanced
As if centuries had passed
While they paused just a moment
For his flying in the fire.

Those dying here, the lonely
Forgotten by the world,
Our tongue becomes for them
The language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
And many years have passed,
On a great Campo dei Fiori
Rage will kindle at a poet’s word.

Warsaw, 1943
translated by Louis Iribarne
and David Brooks

Explore posts in the same categories: Citizenship, Poems in the Wider World

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