who will quell our intense desire  to solve
Photo Credit: Yvonne Böhler

Language: Italian
Poet: Donata Berra
Translator: Charif Shanahan

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who will quell our intense desire to solve

Four poems by Donata Berra with an introduction and translations by Charif Shanahan

Donata Berra’s work came to me by chance. I had just moved to Switzerland for love. I had just begun studying at the University of Berne, where Donata teaches. I had wandered, at random, into the Romance Languages building, bumped into a nice man in the Italian department who, I would later discover, was a poet, too, and found myself enrolling in an Italian course. Course: Advanced Italian Syntax and Grammar. Instructor: D. Berra/Staff.

After two weeks, longing already for literature to complement the linguistic focus of the course, I asked Donata if she could make recommendations of Italian poets to read in addition to the course work. She obliged, indicating that she was actually a passionate reader of poetry. She told me she loved many of the same English-language poets I loved, though she had only read them in translation. She told me that it would be her pleasure to help; in fact, she would bring me her personal copies of the books she recommended so I wouldn’t have to navigate the library stacks. She never mentioned she was a poet.

Each week, Donata brought me books, and each week, I took them home, devoured them, and gave them back to her in class, where we discussed compound reflexive pronouns and the passato remoto.  To the final class, Donata brought a thin, red collection of poetry, which lay, face down, on the desk next to her. I was surprised: I didn’t know that I would see her again after this class and therefore hadn’t been expecting a book. After the lesson, she handed me the collection, her own, with humility and graciousness, saying only that she hoped I liked it.

I say with embarrassment that A memoria di mare /As the Sea Remembers sat on my bookshelf for two years before I opened it purposefully. I discovered a collection marked by a palpable sensuality of language, arresting imagery, and a tremendous sensitivity to the human condition—to the great tragedies that unite us, and to the nuances of even our smallest interactions. Moved, without thinking, I found myself translating Donata’s most powerful poems. I deliberately stayed as literal in my translations as possible, wanting to preserve, and to transmit, the clarity of voice, scene, and affect in these poems.

—Charif Shanahan

Donata Berra is the author of four poetry collections, most recently A Memoria di Mare / As the Sea Remembers (Casagrande 2010). Born and raised in Milan, Berra lives in Switzerland, where she teaches Italian language and literature at the University of Berne. Berra has also translated the work of many Swiss and German authors into Italian.
Charif Shanahan is an M.F.A. candidate in poetry at NYU and a graduate of Princeton University and Dartmouth College. His poems, translations, and critical essays have appeared in The Nassau Literary ReviewTroubadourThe CLD: A Journal of Comparative Literature, and Explosion-Proof. Originally from the Bronx, he lives in Brooklyn.

Tsunami

Quando sull’arco del giorno si schiaccia la notte
e abbruna la linfa alle nostre membra sfatte

passa la mano dell’onda e subito
abbiamo tutti lo stesso nome

i giochi le reti gettate gli sguardi la compiacenza
il lungo, faticoso metterci in scena
                                          niente più appare

sotto il cielo ragnato da un inutile sole
come se il tempo si trovasse altrove

calma è soltanto la voce
nostra, che dice – in fondo noi
                                   lo sapevamo.

Vieni, riposa, voglio accarezzarti di buio,
buio sulla tua pelle, a piene mani ti accarezzo
di buio
che renda cieca la voce.

Tsunami

As the night presses onto the arc of day
and darkens the lymph in our undone limbs

the hand of the wave passes and instantly
we all have the same name

the games the cast nets the gazes the complacency
the long, tiresome staging of ourselves
                                 nothing appears anymore

beneath the sky spidered by a useless sun
as though time itself was somewhere else

 only our voice is calm,
it says – in our deepest selves,
                              we knew it.

Come, rest, I want to caress you with the dark,
dark on your skin, with both hands I caress you
in the dark that blinds the voice.

[Apri la porta a quello sconosciuto]

Apri la porta a quello sconosciuto,
ti reca in dono odore di mare
e un cesto di ricci, di granchi,
proprio a te, che ne hai paura,
non lo guardi negli occhi e nel suo caldo
ma chini il capo fidando nell’aiuto
degli orecchini della nonna, lunghe
gocce di perla che dai rosei
lobi pendono, sfiorandoti le gote.

[Open the door to that stranger]

You open the door to that stranger
who gifts you the smell of the sea
and a chest of urchins, of crabs,
just for you, and you fear it,
you don’t even look him in the eyes

or consider his warmth,
but bow your head trusting the help
of grandmother’s earrings, long
drops of pearls that from rose lobes
hang, grazing your cheeks.

Al porto

Al porto, uno

A ridosso dell’onda, preso
tra le maglie della rete, perso
al finisterre sguardo, e le passioni:
fermo, aspettando che calino le nasse

 

Al porto, due

Senza apparente scopo
come la lenta risacca

ma con visibile fastidio
per le frasi che non la riguardano

sta la bella donna
seduta al bar Blu Mare

attorcigliando il fumo
cilestrino della sigaretta.

In the Harbor

At the first harbor

Close to the wave, taken
between the mesh of the net, he is lost
in the endless glance and the passions:
standing still, waiting for the creels to lower

 

At the second harbor

With no apparent purpose
like the slow returning undertow

though visibly annoyed
by the words not concerning her

the beautiful woman is
sitting at the Blue Sea bar

twisting the bluish smoke
of the cigarette.

Questioni

I.

Chi ci terrà premuto il capo che cerca di rialzarsi,
chi non vorrà tener conto che il tempo era breve
                                               e non spersi
chi schiaccerà l’estrema nostra voglia
                                              di tentare
l’ancora irrisolto, di interrogare il vuoto
chi spengerà quest’ultimo fiato che, ci avevano detto,
                                                          era forse
                                              il soffio divino
chi oserà tacitare la voce, l’ultimo coraggio
chi avrà l’ardire dell’oltraggio,
                                              chiunque sia, sappia:
lo guarderemo, prima o poi, direttamente in faccia.

 

II.

Dopo tante maledizioni

sapersi persi, non cedere
lasciando l’ultima riva
giocarsi tutto rischiare
compromettere la salvezza

esasperati di stare all’oscuro
spingere a fondo la domanda
che ci riguarda
ché di altro non sapremmo chiedere

e prendere atto piano piano
di una nota scura
cupa insistente
come di bordone

era la voce di Dio che diceva
è niente.

Questions

I.

Who will keep their head down trying to get up,
who won’t want to consider that time was short
                                                and not scattered
who will quell our intense desire
                                                to solve
the still unresolved, to interrogate the emptiness
who will extinguish this last breath which, they had told us,
                                                             was maybe
                                                the divine one
who will dare hush the voice, the last courage
who will brave the outrage and insults,
                                    whoever you are, know this:
we will look at you, sooner or later, directly in the face.

II.

After many curses

knowing ourselves lost, not yielding
leaving the last shore
gambling everything at risk
compromising salvation

exhausted of being in the dark
pushing firmly into the question
which must be all about us
for we’d not know how to ask it

and realizing little by little
a distant note
dark insistent
as a drone

was the voice of God, saying
it’s nothing, it’s nothing–