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  • Europe:The Way I See It
  • Erri De Luca (bio)

Translated from Italian by Jim Hicks

Twentieth-century poetry incited me to commit literature. No other literary form could render the century that killed, imprisoned, and emigrated more massively than any other moment in human history.

Poetry alone was able to answer the question Can you describe this?

Anna Akhmatova was asked that question. And she was up to the challenge, rising to an unprompted, impromptu truth.

During the fifties, in a city then called Leningrad, in line on the sidewalk standing before the barred entrance to a prison: these are the conditions necessary for such a question.

More details: it is winter, and a column of family members waits hours for fortune or misfortune in response to their petition to visit.

A woman standing stiffly in line finds out that behind her someone has recognized a poet.

The poet stands there, not to bear witness, but because her own son is locked up inside the bars.

You get put inside the bars, not behind them. Like being between the jaws of a vise.

The frozen woman might never have read any Akhmatova, but she defines what makes someone a poet: the ability to extract words from ice.

Some parts of the world I've visited still have quarriers bringing block ice to market. The woman couldn't care less about that: the existence of the poor is managed through all sorts of bizarre trades—even the larvae of cockroaches get brought to market.

Thus, a poet: to her one can ask the question that true poetry has been able to answer since before Homer was born.

Can you describe this?

Anna answered with the ¡Ole! of a torero slipping his espada en la cruz, the point where the bull's shoulder blades cross the spine. Perfection: in the cruz. [End Page 439]

Before uttering another syllable, Anna answers: I can.

Through her voice poetry takes up the charge given by a woman standing stiffly and firmly in line.

From that moment every reader can learn that at the summit of all literature stands its peak, in verse.


I can: not a will to power, a willingness to serve, to sacrifice. Anna had taught her son that freedom is peril. Now he pays in isolation, for having learned from her, for having obeyed her.

It may seem strange, but that's how it is: freedom doesn't depend on a choice, it comes from inexorable obedience to a commandment.

"Necessity is a sacred storm / that does not listen to human prayer." Hölderlin sees poetry as a tattoo etched by coercion, by the Greek goddess Ananke.

For that reason during the twentieth century the names of poets were heard in the roll call of prisons, concentration camps, and exiles.

I read haphazardly, the only order suitable for readers. Systematizers don't want to read, they want to have read already.

I listened to Lorca on vinyl, cut by an actor's voice that seared it into my ears.

Back then you could buy records without music; the words were enough.

My father bought them; in the evening, he would recite the verses by heart together with the record.

From Lorca, backed up against a wall and shot, I remember only a single nocturnal line: "The streetlights went dark, and the crickets flared up."

In the dark our hearing opens wider.

At night I've climbed boundless, high altitude slopes by the light of headlamps. I know the sound of footsteps sticking spikes in the snow-pack, moving at the interior rhythm of the heart and breath.

I know there is no silence. In such hours, your hearing senses what is very near and what is far.

The twentieth century's poets beat their syllables out at a climber's pace.

I read the fifteen psalms called Ma'aloth, for the ascent of pilgrimages toward the heights of Jerusalem. " We were like those who dreamed," yet immersed in a vigil, intent on the enterprise of breathing out the verses, by syllables, according to the rhythm of the steps moving forward. [End Page 440]

The twentieth century's poets went...


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