Translator's notes

The Mother

By DANIELE BERNARDI

‘La Madre’, composed in 2013, is from a collection of poems with central characters that harbour self-destructive traits or with subjects linked to this theme. While personal experience is an initial spur, the poems are not biographical chapters so much as imagined tales. Dramatic, imagistic, surreal, they further the tradition of the tale by telling a dramatic story with artful simplicity and reward us with lasting resonance. While images tax our credulity (Can you cut off your head with a blade of ice? Can you carry your head around when you are dead?) the poet’s bold and arresting figures successfully convey narrative meaning. The lean narrative, advancing through the pivotal events at speed, extends meaning through its imagery.

The older, suicidal brother, who has isolated himself in a hut by the side of a frozen lake, is painting a picture of a fish. This is no ordinary fish. This is a whale of a fish, a mammoth, ‘a landslide shaped like a fish’. Inside the fish, ‘in picture symbols’ he is painting an intricate coded universe. Further, the title of his fish painting is ‘The Mother’, the embodiment of birth, the giver of life which has become such torment for him, he will end it. These are touchstones: hut-ice-fish-mother-tadpoles-ice skates-children-cat; and his younger brother, the ‘artist-poet’ witness who survives to tell the story. As it unfolds, the poem can be compacted into this short chain.

Daniele Bernardi, Swiss Italian and I (American British) met as fellow poets at an Omi International Residency for Writers and Translators, NY 2014. We worked on the literal translation of ‘La Madre’ into English together with Neva Micheva, who translates from Italian into Bulgarian, and Rachel Cantor, an American novelist who lived in Rome as a schoolgirl. Once I had drafted a rendering from our group effort, Daniele and I conferred about particulars in a series of emails and conversations.

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