As I mentioned in the post that kicked off my mad "let's appreciate poetry because we never properly do week" (more on precisely how mad later), there are a few lines or word couplings that immediately spring to mind when I re-discover poetry every year. The one that always re-presents itself to me, ALWAYS, is the phrase "thieving ditch" from Eugenio Montale's The Storm. I'm not an avid fan of Montale's work. I don't even own a single book of his work. I only have the four poems he contributed to the Against Forgetting anthology, which I mentioned in my last post.
Thieving ditch. What is so powerful about those words? This phrase always struck me as so...odd. It leapt of the page the first time I read it many years ago and I haven't been able to shake it since. How could a ditch be a thief? How could it take from you? And ditch? Such careful selection of the word...not hole, not crevice, not anything other than a ditch. It immediately establishes a vision. The very idea that a ditch could actively conspire to take from you, from others, from something else entirely, always hit me hard because it is so inventive and so specific. After you read it, you can't help but think "Of course! The thieving ditch!" -- but never before would I have imagined those two words together. To me, that is the power of poetry. Especially for a writer of longer works. Inventive use of words that when placed side by side, convey an entirely new, yet fully appropriate, meaning. Thieving ditch. Yes, of course.
To provide context for the phrase, a brief bio of Montale and the full poem is below. Strange that I never remember the rest of the poem, as the thieving ditch has always overshadowed all else.
Bio from Against Forgetting:
"Montale's formative experience came as an officer in the Italian infantry during World War I. Marked by the cultural pessimism that pervaded postwar culture, Montale was an early opponent of Fascism. During World War II, when he was a director of a library in Florence, he joined the 'hermetic' movement of poets; their highly subjective, difficult verse has been described by Joseph Brodsky as 'an act of cultural self-defense -- linguistic self-defense, in the case of poetry -- against Fascism.' Montale was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975."
The storm splattering the tough magnolia
leaves, with the long rolling March thunder
(tinklings of crystal in your nocturnal
nest startle you, out of gold gone
from the mahoganies, on the edging
of bound books, a grain of sugar
still burns in the shell
of your eyelids)
the lightning blanching
wall and trees, freezing them in that
forever of an instant -- marble manna
and destruction -- which you carry sculpted
inside you for your damnation, and that binds you
to me, strange sister, more than love --
then the hard crack, the castanets, the shaking
of tambourines over the thieving ditch,
the stamp of the fandango, and overhead,
some gesture, groping...
As when you turned around and, with your hand, the cloud of hair
clearing from your forehead,
you waved to me -- and stepped into darkness.
-TR. William Arrowsmith