from Issue #4: Writings in Memory of Seamus Heaney – Marco Sonzogni

Photo (CC) Andy Rogers @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Andy Rogers @ Flickr

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Bye Bye Blackbird

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……………………………………I know noble accents
……………………………………And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
……………………………………But I know, too,
……………………………………That the blackbird is involved
……………………………………In what I know.

……………………………………—Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen Ways to
……………………………………Look at a Blackbird’ (VIII)

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……………………………………I’ve seen the waterdipper
……………………………………rise from the lightning rod:
……………………………………I knew him from his pride in flight,
……………………………………by his flutelike trill.

……………………………………—Eugenio Montale, ‘From a Tower’

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…………………………………..Pack up all my care and woe
…………………………………..Here I go, singing low
…………………………………..Bye bye blackbird

…………………………………..—Mort Dixon, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’

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SINCE HIS DEATH on August 30, 2013, tributes, memories, readings, poems and translations in memory of Seamus Heaney have been continual and rightfully so. Yet, one wonders what the man himself would have made of such attention. His “mixed feelings” about the celebrations for his 70th birthday—the sense of “elevation” and “obligation” weighed upon him—suggest he would shun this appreciation, distancing himself from the attention, reminding himself and others that the Antaeus in him could be outsmarted any time by Hercules.

Now, among the sincere praise and grateful remembrance, off-key notes have also been heard—the echo of a karaoke rather than a keening.

So here I remember Heaney as a gifted literary translator from Irish. The original text is a “weird little scrap of Irish syllabic verse” (Ian Sanson) probably from the IXth century. Consisting of just three syllables for each of the eight short lines—Heaney referred to its “staying power”—it epitomizes the challenges of writing and translating poetry:

……………………………………Int én bec
……………………………………ro léc feit
……………………………………do rind guip
……………………………………………glanbuidi

……………………………………fo-ceird faíd
…………………………………..ós Loch Laíg,
…………………………………..lon do chraíb
…………………………………………..charnbuidi
 

There are many modern interpretations of this poem by Seamus Heaney, John Hewitt, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and more recently Ciaran Carson (who chose ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ as the emblem for the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queens University of Belfast). This is Heaney’s version, with my literal—but longer (five syllables per line)—translation into Italian:

……………………The small bird…………..Un uccellino
……………………chirp-chirruped:……….trilla e ritrilla:              
……………………yellow neb,……………….dal giallo becco
……………………………a note-spurt.……………..fiottano note.

…………………..Blackbird over…………..Eccolo il merlo
…………………..Lagan water.…………….
sul lago Lagan
…………………..Clumps of yellow……….Spruzzi di giallo

……………………………whin-burst!………………..della ginestra!

The blackbird features regularly in Heaney’s poetry. In Field Work (1979: 52), for example, the title-poem opens with a landscape snapshot where we find both “the small bird” and the “whin”:

…………….Where the sally tree went pale in every breeze,
…………….where the perfect eye of the nesting blackbird watched,
…………….where one fern was always green

…………….I was standing watching you
…………….take the pad from the gatehouse at the crossing
…………….and reach to lift a white wash off the whins.

The blackbird appears several times in Sweeney Astray (1983: 37, 43, 82), where the maddened king-turned-bird describes “green watercress in thatch on wells / where the drinking blackbird goes” and admits to preferring “the elusive / rhapsody of blackbirds / to the garrulous blather / of men and women”; and “the blackbird singing on the hill / and the stag loud against the storm / to the clinking tongue of this bell”.

Also, the ghost of Terry Keenan—the young missionary priest whom Heaney had met in his youth and whom he reencounters on his purgatorial stations in Station Island (1984: 69)—is likened to the shining black livery of the blackbird:

……………….I saw a young priest, glossy as a blackbird,
……………….as if he had stepped from his anointing
……………….a moment ago.

Heaney was clearly very familiar with the blackbird and its behaviour, taking notice of both its “composure” (‘Drifting Off’, Station Island, 1984: 104) and its “dart and dab” (‘Alphabets’, The Haw Lantern, 1987: 2).

It is thus no surprise that the blackbird is the protagonist of two of Heaney’s key-poems: ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ (The Spirit Level, 1996: 20-21) and ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ (District and Circle, 2006: 75-76). Heaney describes the extraordinary, miraculous story behind ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’ in his Nobel Lecture, Crediting Poetry (1995: 20-21):

“Anyhow, as Kevin knelt and prayed, a blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree. Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry which is true to all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.
………..St Kevin’s story is, as I say, a story out of Ireland. But it strikes me that it could equally well come out of India or Africa or the Arctic or the Americas.” 

The ordinary, autobiographical genesis of ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’—set in his home at Glanmore Cottage, where he “found a blackbird nest in the hedge at our gable”—is described in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll collected in Stepping Stones (2008: 198, 408):

“The last poem in the book, ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, contains a memory of my young brother Christopher. The first time I came home from St Columb’s College, when he was just about two or three, he actually frolicked and rolled around the yard for pleasure. That stayed with me forever and came up more than fifty years later in the poem.”

When translating Heaney’s translation of ‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ I was mindful of all these associations and especially of Heaney’s definition of himself as “something of an earth man”, “somebody with his poetic feet very much on local ground”. So when the multisyllabic nature of standard Italian made it plain obvious that it would be impossible to match the three syllables per line of the Irish original and of Heaney’s translation, I went back to my home ground—to its landscape and its language.

The water of the Lagan—river-water as well as lake-water (Belfast Lough or Lagan: Loch Laoigh in Irish; Bilfawst Loch in Ulster-Scots)—thus became the water of the Cavone, the stream that winds its way across Cergnago, the small village in North-western Italy where I grew up. The curt clusters of syllables of both the Irish and the English texts matched the staccato of my dialect (cergnaghese). And the sight and sound of the blackbird, black feathers and yellow beak, gold-yellow like the flowers of the whin (or gorse or furze or broom) are familiar presences in Cergnago—and in the Italian literary turf too.

This little exercise in literary translation exemplifies what translation is expected to do: to shift words and meanings from one place to another.

So here is my version in dialect, in grateful and loving memory of the Bellaghy Bard:

…………………………………Cip-cip-cip
…………………………………fa l’uślìn:
…………………………………spüda nòt.
…………………………………………..’l bèch giald.

…………………………………’n mèral
…………………………………sül Cavón.
…………………………………Sprüss d’or dla
……………………………………………ginestra!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marco Sonzogni (born in 1971) lives in Wellington, New Zealand. He holds degrees from the University of Pavia (Almo Collegio Borromeo), University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Auckland. He is a widely published and award-winning editor, poet and literary translator, now Senior Lecturer in Italian with the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University of Wellington, where is also the Director of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation. His literary translation projects include Swiss-Italian poets (Oliver Scharpf, Alberto Nessi, Pietro De Marchi, Fabiano Alborghetti, Giorgio Orelli), New Zealand poets, and the collected poems of Seamus Heaney (Meridiano). 

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