I fell in love with the poetry of Milli Graffi in 2008, when I was seeking authors to include in a dossier for Aufgabe on “poesia ultima e della ricerca,” or the latest Italian poetry of research. It was immediately clear to me that we had heroes in common—Lewis Carroll and James Joyce in particular.
There’s a section in Finnegans Wake on Anna Liva Plurabelle in which Joyce speaks of “loosening your talktapes.” When he translated this passage into Italian, Joyce himself rendered this phrase as “scioglilinguagnolo,” a translation that likely reveals the matrix of the original notion he had in mind: in English, we speak of tongue twisters, or what we might render in Italian as attorci–lingua, while in Italian one uses the term “scioglilingua,” or tongue-dissolvers, tongue-thawers, tongue untiers. The Italian idiomatic expression might very well have been the origin of the “loosening” that ended up in Finnegans Wake, a book in which all languages converge in tangles of phonemes and roots.
I discovered this point of correspondence in a book of English exercises that Milli Graffi edited for Paravia publishers, aimed at high school students—because Graffi, unstoppable champion of the avant-garde that she is, chose this mind-twistingly complex passage for the teaching volume. When we got together this summer in Milan to prepare for a public chat on translation, on a sultry heat-thickened afternoon further stultified by a city-wide transit strike, Milli told me that she had used the word in a poem, and I knew that I had to try translating it.
The work was published in Mille graffi e venti poesie, 1977-78 (Geiger, 1979), and I soon found that Graffi had rendered Joyce’s phrase even more Byzantine, because she transformed scioglilinguagnolo into sperdilinquagnolo, turning the action of loosening embedded in the original Italian phrase into loss (sperdersi refers to losing oneself; sperdere means dispersal, scattering), and lingua (“tongue; language”) into linqua, some sort of calque tending toward the English “linkage” while containing the heavily deictic “qua” (Italian “here”; Latin “what; as; in the capacity of”). I took other necessary liberties while working with this poem: my translation of ambiscia is a calque of ambassador and ambush, and so on. A proper gloss would proceed word by word, but I’ll leave it up to readers to discover some tripwires of their own.
the palpid culdicurve
The ambashed culdicurve
at the talklossenette wavening
The palpid talklossenette
on the ambashed culdicurve
the palpid culdicurve
la coticurva palpida
allo sperdilinquagnolo tremolo
Il palpido sperdilinquagnolo
la coticurva palpida
Translated from the Italian by Jennifer Scappettone
Milli Graffi is a writer, sound artist, and editor from Milan who has been working at the forefront of contemporary Italian and international poetry from the moment of the Neo-avant-garde through the present. Her studies were based in English literature and culture, with a strong focus on semiotics, linguistics, and psychoanalysis. She is the author of four sound compositions (Salnitro, Farfalla ronzar, and Tralci) and four poetry collections (Mille graffi e venti poesie, Fragili film, L’amore meccanico, and Embargo voice). She has translated Lewis Carroll (the two Alice books and The Hunting of the Snark) and Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol). She has taught in a range of contexts, and has worked for decades to sound and interpret the condition of contemporary poetry. She is Editor-in-Chief of the seminal avant-garde journal il verri.
Jennifer Scappettone works at the crossroads of writing, translation, and scholarly research, on the page and off. She is the author of the cross-genre verse books From Dame Quickly and The Republic of Exit 43: Outtakes & Scores from an Archaeology and Pop-Up Opera of the Corporate Dump, and of the critical study Killing the Moonlight: Modernism in Venice. Her translations of the polyglot poet and musicologist Amelia Rosselli were collected in the book Locomotrix: Selected Poetry and Prose of Amelia Rosselli, and she edits PennSound Italiana, an audiovisual archive of experimental Italian poetry. In 2008, she edited a book-long dossier on Italian poetry of research for Aufgabe. She is Associate Professor at the University of Chicago and archives at http://oikost.com.
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