BRIEF HOMAGE TO PLUTO  and other poems

Fabio Pusterla trans Will Schutt

ISBN 978-0-691-24509-6   Princeton  £16.99

Forty-five poems, dual-language, all left-justified, some prose-poems, no strict forms and little use of rhyme. Pusterla was born in Switzerland but doesn’t like the label Swiss-Italian. He is well-known and highly regarded in Italy. The poems here were written between 1994 and 2019. 

He is a poet of great tact and subtlety. Not all the poems are easy to interpret, yet none seems deliberately obscure. He keeps his poems away from rhetoric , even when they deal with highly political matters. History of Language (Storia della lingua) for example, evokes Italy’s fascist past through children’s games. It’s a beautiful example of his capacity for allusion, his extraordinary skill in decorum: 

                                    In Chiasso, in an anonymous
courtyard at the close
of the ‘50s, kids
small voices shout
we’re monkeys

                                    beautiful brown apes orango-tangos
tiny monkeys doing the Petash….
“Petacci”, they’re corrected…

                                                                                    And remember
she wasn’t the only one
to hang.” 

His vocabulary is generally simple and his style high conversational. He can embrace the ugly side of human nature with great seemliness, as in Testimonies:


                                    Two thuds. It could have been anything:
a chair knocked over, a book dropped.
After that I heard a cry
and figured it was the dog next door… 

                                    The scariest part was the sheet
when they carried the body down the stairs. 

He has the true poet’s  capacity to keep his ego at bay. The excessive subjectivity in poetry of which Holub complained is absent. Even when a poem is rooted in personal experience he has the natural courtesy not to intrude: 

                                    Having happily made the decision years ago
to do without television, we will not see
the bombs dancing over Baghdad… 

                                    Sitting beside the radio, in silence…
everything will be clearer, more unbearable.


He is always interested in something other than himself, nor has he any desire to display his literary skill. The poems don’t draw attention to themselves. Their skill is quietly present. The translations, of course, have to make choices. The parallelisms which pull the poems together in the original aren’t always easy to replicate in English:


                                    Qui piove per giorni interni, talvolta per mesi
I sassi sono neri  d’acquate
i sentieri pesante


                                    It rains all day for days here, sometimes months.
The stones are black with rainwater,
the trails heavy-going. 

Pusterla’s poems are replete with these graceful, unobtrusive yet powerful poetic means. Schutt does an excellent job overall, but there are one or two questionable renderings: Signora al bar becomes Woman at Café. Perhaps this works in American English but it sounds odd in the UK; desolata davanti al lutto is rendered as rattled by her grief (desolated in the face of the struggle might work); che arrivi da non si sa dove, da ponti/che non esistono più becomes you who come from nowhere, from bridges/ that have given way (perhaps from who knows where/from bridges which no longer exist); se i padroni/decidono disgrazia in the English is if the masters/court disgrace (why not if the bosses/ decide on misfortune ?); la cui estrema negazione finale becomes its final extreme string of no’s which, leaving aside the greengrocer’s apostrophe, might be more readily whose extreme final negation; the final line of the book is Un’ultimissima cosa which Schutt makes One more one last thing which could be one absolutely last thing. These and others may be quibbles, but Pusterla is such a careful writer it’s probably better to err on Nabokov’s side and render the meaning clearly. Literature in translation, even the rumbustious prose of Balzac, is always an approximation. Dante is a case in point: most of the translations mangle his work.  

The final piece is a long poem in six sections, Dragonfly (Libellula). It’s partly an exploration of our place in nature: 

                                    How hopelessly cut off from words,
the green eye of the little lake, so green
its green appears improbable… 

Amongst the capacities which define us as human, language is arguably the most salient. It’s ours alone and no more than about fifty thousand years old. Everything which preceded it is, in a way, “hopelessly cut off from words”, which works both ways of course: we are cut off from  our pre-linguistic ancestors and their world.


                                    Is equilibrium found
in the absence of meaning, in the wise
surrender to the uncertain winds…?


We are part of nature, our human capacities pre-determined by it, but unlike other creatures we are our own problem because along with language come abstract thought and reflexive consciousness. Part three of the poem pulls it back to disturbing contemporary social reality:


“We’re doing a survey,
you got a minute?”


What do I think…
About all these foreign criminals seeking asylum?
Do I agree it’s time we clean house,
Build a beautiful wall for these Black and mongoloids? 

The interpolation of this section with its sudden foregrounding of human conflict, ignorance and prejudice brings sharply into focus the odd status of our species; nature may be red in tooth and claw but no other creatures let themselves down by failing to realise their endowments. Granted the capacity for reason, we deny it for the sake of delusions of supremacy. 

There’s a lovely, tender poem, Sand: 

                                   You don’t know this, but often I wake at night.
I lie next to you a long time in the dark
and listen to you sleep..


an exemplar of Pusterla’s modest, extraordinary poetic skill and the simple fastidiousness, dignity and elegance which are his hallmarks.