Thursday, April 12, 2012

Reading with my father

            These, coasts,
       were the prayers of the age-old boy
       who stood at a rusted balustrade
       and, smiling, slowly died.

       Shores, how much these cold lights say
       to the tormented one who fled from you.
       Blades of water glimpsed between the arcs
       of shifting branches; rocks brown in the foam;
       arrows of roving
       swifts . . .

            O lands,
       if I could trust in you one day,
       funeral trappings, gilded frames
       for the agony of every being.

            Now I return to you
       stronger (or deluded) though the heart
       seems to dissolve in glad-and savage-memories.
       Sad spirit of the past
       and you, new will that calls me,
       perhaps it's time to unite you
       in a calm harbour of wisdom.
       And one day we shall hear the call again
       of golden voices, bold enticements,
       my more divided soul. Think:
       to make the elegy a hymn, to be remade;
       to want no more.

            To be able
       like these branches,
       yesterday rude and bare, alive today
       with quivering and sap,
       for us too to feel
       among tomorrow's fragrances and winds
       a rising tide of dreams, a frenzied rush
       of voices toward an outcome, and in the sun
       that swathes you, coasts,
       to flower again!


It would have been unusual, I think,
if the years after his wife’s, my
mother’s death, which found my father
returning to La Jolla to live among
friends of their youth, did not allow, 
in this adjusted family geometry, a 
deferred rapport between us to unfold. 
As incompletely as I could imagine
how our unexpected family residue 
struck him, I think I can say that
for both of us it did invite an or-
iginal conciliation, more than a 
reconciliation, in its two most dis-
tant members. I know that I am for-
tunate, that our lives allowed my 
natural hunger for a true rapport 
with my father to furnish entire 
vacant quarters of my mind, not 
with inheritance or belief but with 
confidence and ease, in talks we'd 
pursue on many themes after breakfast, 
before I would set out for those day-
time and evening distractions of the 
young bachelor, flying down from 
San Francisco once or twice a month. 

His never-doubted interest in one's 
intellectual growth had never expired, 
and not just as an element of paternal 
duty. What was telling, was how that 
motive brought back so clearly to him 
the education he had been given and 
never laid aside, but also never ex-
ercised in such plain sight in years.
It was almost startling to seem to 
sit with him at Cate (then the Santa 
Barbara School for Boys), and re-open 
Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad; or 
bring him back to Twain to take that 
voyage down the river with me, into 
the "Negro question" as it marked our 
past. I found how a single book we might 
read - Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian as 
much as Lord Devlin on Woodrow Wilson’s 
foreign policy, Too Proud to Fight
could let us appreciate our strikingly 
sympathetic but distinct sensibilities. 
This pleased him, both in the exertion 
and its evidence, and certainly with
less surprise than the same impressions 
came to me. But it did something else, 
that one could see. It comforted him 
in a project of his own. And we had not 
yet done that. Tone of voice, setting, 
time of life played their part, but 
for me they distinguished less an ex-
ception than a stunning, shining rule, 
that texts are meeting places we can

Such a book, I think, has lately been
published and will likely find its way 
into further presentation here, Jonathan
Galassi's new poetry, Left-Handed. I've
already exhibited his translations of 
Leopardi and of Montale, and I've known
him to be one of the great editor-pub-
lishers of his generation. I'd not been 
aware of his poetry.

To anyone who has been interested occa-
sionally in reading this page, I espec-
ially commend these poems, which com-
prise a continuous narrative drawn from
elements of his life. They achieve with 
the reader what Montale foretold for an-
cient intimates, not for self-disclosure
but to unite in a calm harbour of wisdom.
You probably learned it from your father,
that this can be done, and probably you
wish to pass it on.

Eugenio Montale
Jonathan Galassi, translation
Collected Poems, 1920-1954
op. cit. 

Jonathan Galassi
Knopf, 2012©

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