The clock has just struck midi: five poems by Mario Scalesi

The clock has just struck midi: five poems by Mario Scalesi

Carlo Massimo

Paraphrasis
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Les Minarets


Ô minarets, si beaux au-dessus des boutiques,

Cris de pierre jaillis du cœur de l’Orient,

Blanches tours qui guettez, sentinelles mystiques,

Les frissons de l’espoir au fond du ciel riant;
Phares dont les clartés sont faites de prières,

Phares où la foi luit ainsi qu’un foyer pur,

Et qui montrez de loin la route de la Terre

Aux Voyageurs du ciel cet océan d’azur;
J’aime à vous voir dressés sur le couchant qui brûle

Comme des gardiens au seuil d’un pays d’or,

Quand devant l’horizon splendide, au crépuscule,

On rêve de jardins qui fleuriraient la Mort!
L’appel des muezzins, ouï même des tombes

Semble une question de vous à l’éther bleu,

Et quand viennent sur vous se poser des colombes,

C’est pour vous apporter le réponse de Dieu.
Quand ma douleur en vain cherche une croix, je lève

Vers vous mes yeux lassés des livres et du jour;

Mon âme se confond à votre antique rêve,

Mon cœur sent un peu moins l’atteinte du vautour.
Mais hélas! Je ne puis, à l’ombre des mosquées

Me soustraire longtemps au doute européen

Et les illusions ardemment invoquées

Disparaissent avec le rivage élyséen.


Car j’entends s’élever l’injure de mes frères,

Foule dont l’athéisme irrite le cerveau,

Ils clament, en heurtant aux murs des sanctuaires:

«Nous venons chercher Dieu pour le mettre au tombeau!»
Je pense à ce Vieillard aux longs cheveux de neige,
Du haut des minarets contemplant leur fureur,
Comme un baron vaincu que la révolte assiège
En ses donjons…
Et j'ai pitié du Créateur.

Minarets


You lovely minarets, high above the shops
Stone cries thrown from the heart of the East
Sleepless white towers, mystic sentinels
You shiver of hope in a laughing sky;
Pharos beacon, burning prayer,
Pharos burning pure faith in the night
Showing from afar the path of Earth,
The dark sea, to Heaven’s travelers –
I loved to watch you burning up at dusk
Like soldiers at the golden world’s door
When the fading splendor of the close of day
Brings dreams of gardens where Death might flower!
Even the dead can hear a muezzin’s call!
Is that the question that you asked the sky?
If doves should come to perch upon your roof
They are God’s envoys, bringing His response.
When in my grief I cannot find a cross
I raise my sun-tired eyes to you;
My soul dissolves into your ancient dream
No longer frightened by the vulture’s maw.
But God! I can’t, in the shadow of the mosques
Subtract me from my European doubt
And all my ardent dreams, the sun dissolves
Like mists around the Islands of the Blessed.
For I can feel my brothers’ fever rise,
Maddened by their swelling of the brain;
They dig their fingers in the sacred walls –
“Find God, find God, so we can bury Him!”
I think of Vieillard, calm with snowy hair
Who watched their rage from up a minaret,
A vanquished baron cornered by his serfs
In his keep… and I pity the Creator.


Midi


Sous la tourelle où loge
Un pigeon engourdi,
L’horloge
Vient de marquer Midi.
De l’or, des étincelles
Pleuvent du soleil fou.
Des ailes
Bruissent tout à coup.
Dans l’azur où s’érigent
Les délicats piliers.
Voltigent
Colombes et ramiers.
Et leur bande se pose
Autour du vieux pigeon
Qui n’ose
Défendre son donjon.
Dans un repos très sage,
Chacun lustre son blanc
Plumage
De son bec indolent.
Partout c’est du silence
En feu. Sou la claret
Intense,
Déserte est la cité.
Je médite mes crimes
De rimeur. Et voici
Mes rimes
Qui s’envolent aussi
Vers la tourelle où loge
Un pigeon engourdi,
L’horloge
Vient de marquer Midi.


Midi


Under the tower
Where the limp dove nests
The clock
Has just struck Midi.
The sun, gone mad
Rains diamonds and gold:
A noise
Unexpected, of wings.
In the azure, pierced
By delicate columns:
A flutter
Of pigeons and doves.
The flock swarms round:
The torpid old dove
Dares not
Defend his own fort.
Solemn at rest:
Each indolent beak
Dips down
To shine his white feathers.
The silence hangs
And burns in the air:
The city
Is clear as a desert.
I think of my crimes
As a poet. And look!
Even they,
My poems, fly off –
Up toward the tower
Where an old dove nests:
The clock
Has just struck Midi.


Amour bilingue


O piccina, nel franco idioma
per te sciolsi il canto d’amor;
adornai la tua bruna chioma
de’ rubini cadenti dal cuor.
Dans mes fleurs, ces fleurs illusoires,
Captivant ton sourire aimé
J’ai béni tes prunelles noires
E la notte che versavo in me.
Ô le doux jargon de folie
Qu’égayait ton accent moqueur!
Qu’as-tu fait, mon lis d’Italie
Des rubis tombés de mon cœur?


Bilingual Love


O piccina, nel franco idioma
per te sciolsi il canto d’amor;
adornai la tua bruna chioma
de’ rubini cadenti dal cuor.
Among my illusory flowers
Which capture your tender smile
I blessed your eyes’ black pupils
E la notte che versavo in me.
Ah, sweet strange language of madness
That so delighted your scorn!
My lily of Italy, what have you done
With the rubies that fell from my heart?


Orgueil


Je puis rêver de toi sans craindre qu’en mon rêve,
Ce fleuve cristallin, se limpide miroir,
J’aie en me souvenant l’amertume de voir
S’ennuager l’azur où mon amour t’élève.
À cet amour qui fut ma félicité brève,
Je puis trouver encore une odeir d’encensoir,
Et le délicieux renoncement du soir,
Et l’orgueil blanc de lis fleuris sous les pieds d’Ève.
Comme la remembrance, à des yeux aveuglés,
Des roses, des joyaux, du soleil et des blés,
Ta mémoire est divine à ma mélancolie.
Car malgré ton beau corps luxurieux et cher
Et tes yeux de charbon où brûlait l’Italie,
J’ai toujours ignore que tu fusses de chair.


Pride


I could dream of you and not be scared,
My crystal river, my limpid mirror;
Of bitter visions of the sky gone gray,
Clouded where my love erected you.
Of this love, which was my brief, brief joy
I still recall the fading incense scent:
Hot rejection of the close of day
Pride of lilies at Eve’s foot.
The memory of you, to eyes like mine,
Like roses, jewels, suns, fields of wheat
Will always be a goddess to my grief:
For all your rich, luxurious white form
And burning eyes, which hold all Italy,
I never guessed that you were made of flesh.




Communion


Autrefois, autrefois, mon âme en un soupir,
Volait jusqu’à tes pieds t’offrir ses fleurs naïves,
Seigneur! J’avais la foi des ères primitives
Et je te pensais bon, ô Dieu qui fais souffrir.
Judas, en te vendant, t’apprit l’art de trahir,
Ton beau ciel, ton soleil et tes douceurs fictives
Nous rendent son baiser du jardin des olives…
Je crois encore en toi: j’ai besoin de haïr.
Envié par Maria et sac our séraphique,
À la table où l’on sert le pain eucharistique,
Je t’attendrai, sournoisement agenouillé.
Ma bouche recevra l’hostie au teint de neige,
Ed dût ton sang rougir cet instant sacrilège,
Mes dents broieront ton corps comme tu m’as broyé.


Communion


My soul once flew to Heaven to Your feet,
Oh Lord: a flower of innocence! I had
The faith of primitives, and thought
(as my fathers did) that You were good.
Judas who sold You taught You to betray.
Your sky, Your sun, Your lovely lies all show
The imprint of the kiss that gave You up…
I still believe in You: I need to hate.
Envied by Our Lady and the saints,
Before the service of the Eucharist
I’ll be waiting, blandly on my knees
Mouth open to receive Your pure white flesh
And chew it bloody with Your own red blood,
Breaking Your body as You broke my own.



There was a time when, in the Sicilian port of Trapani, a crowd would gather at the docks once or even twice a week to greet the steamer from Africa. The ship came and went from Tunis.

From the middle of the 19th century a vast community of Italians — mostly Sicilians from Trapani province and the isle of Pantelleria, but also Calabrians, Sardinians, Maltese, and others — had settled in North Africa to work in construction in the modernizing cities, or in fishing crews on the Strait of Sicily, where the deep currents run west to east and the surface currents east to west. None of them are left. Those who stayed through the world wars fled the revolutions of the 1950s and 60s, away from their homes and off to their place of citizenship. The singer-songwriter Franco Califano was born in Benghazi; film star Claudia Cardinale, of La Goulette, did not master standard Italian until adulthood; sculptor Paul Belmondo of Algiers would father Jean-Paul in Paris.

But to arrive in the French protectorate of Tunisia from Marsala or Mazara del Vallo, in 1890 or in 1950, was to step into a mirror. There were obvious differences, of course: minarets and calls to prayer, windows with bright blue shutters, the purr and cough of Arabic and French. But the square, offwhite houses and their intricate tilework would be more than familiar. The sea, the countryside, the palms and cactus, the fields of durum wheat, the wild cane, the wood doves and vultures, the eerie sirocco and violent sunsets, would have been identical.

The Tunis of 100 years ago could claim an Italian-speaking hospital, Italian schools, and an Italian newspaper, the Corriere di Tunisi. There was an Italian synagogue (the other spoke French). In the Petite Sicile a church housed a statue of Our Lady of Trapani, that is a statue of a statue; and I have heard that the men who carried her in procession sometimes included Muslim tuna men, in honor of the captain of some boat.

This forgotten Africa, this sunny, melancholy city of mirrors, has a forgotten poet laureate. His name was Mario Scalesi.

Scalesi was born in 1892 on the edge of the medina of Tunis. His father, born in Trapani, worked as a switchman on the city’s light rail line. His mother was a domestic.

At the age of five, Scalesi fell from a staircase and broke his back. The accident crippled him for life. He grew up small and stunted, with a noticeably twisted spine. This gnome’s body, combined with what must have been odd mannerisms, made him a figure of fun for local boys; and for periods of his life he apparently stayed inside all day to avoid their torment.

But Scalesi left the house enough to win friends in Tunis’ small literary scene, where the feuds of the grand Parisian writers — the Parnassians, the Symbolists, the Naturalists — were followed as closely as the mail would allow. Tunis had its own literary journals, to which Scalesi contributed poetry and criticism. All of it was in French. It’s unclear how well he spoke Arabic, although he possessed a refined Italian, which he must have learned on his own (at home, presumably, he spoke dialect).

He often wrote under pseudonym. “Claude Chardon” was one, entirely French. “Rocca Staiti” was another, not only Sicilian but distinctly Trapanese. His only book, Les Poèmes d’un Maudit (1923), lists his first name as Marius.

As a poet Scalesi favored classical forms, sonnets and overstuffed quatrains. He had no patience for free verse. He did, however, admire the maudit, or damned, current in French poetry, including Rimbaud, whom he adored.

Poe, by way of Baudelaire, was Scalesi’s master. Like Poe, Scalesi’s classicism was a bit of a sham, a kind of verbal costume jewelry. His elaborate, 19th century flourishes — rubies that fall from the heart, mystic sentinels, gardens where Death might flower — are anemic.

They’re anemic because they’re imitations, in more than one way. Scalesi isn’t quite maudit in the way that the alcoholic Poe, the pederast Verlaine, or the delinquent Rimbaud are. Cursed, certainly. But Scalesi’s only vice is self-pity; I don’t think he got out enough to develop any others. He has a hint of that Latin archetype about him, the mammone, the young man smothered and infantilized. His poems are full of women, not least his mother and sisters; and in one of his erotic poems, 'Pride', the speaker tells a girl “I never guessed that you were made of flesh”.

If bad plasterwork and second-hand philosophy were all Scalesi had to offer, if he were just a curiosity, he wouldn’t be worth the effort: Tunisia has accomplished Arabic poets who need translation. But there is a force in Scalesi that no one could have taught him. The blasphemies in 'Communion' have real fury in them, not louche French atheism. His details, too, are marvelous. The poem 'Midi' seems pointless until you see the pun in the title, which means both “noon” and “south.” The appearance in the same poem of columns against the sky — roofless columns that is — is a vision of Carthage across the bay: three thousand years of memory, Punic and Roman, European and African, a ruin, a homecoming, a biography, a burial. That force is in the photograph of Scalesi on the frontpiece of Les Poèmes d’un Maudit. I recognized him beyond doubt when I saw him: the eyes too intense, the dark hair swept unattractively forward, the posture stiff and uneasy. An impossible face; a face incapable of compromise or comfort.

Scalesi suffered from tuberculosis and other lung ailments, as well as severe depression; in an age that classified people as either sane or mad, he was undoubtedly mad. The doctors of Tunis recommended that he be sent to Europe. In 1921 or 22 he was accepted as a patient at the infamous madhouse of the Vignicella, in Palermo — his first visit to Italy, as far as I can tell. There his lungs weakened, and in 1922 he died. He was 30 years old. Although his father had sent a man to Palermo to check on him, he was judged to be without family and buried in an unmarked grave. Les Poèmes d’un Maudit came out a year later, in Paris. It is terrible not to have a country.


I am grateful to Salvatore Mugno of Trapani for the insights in his book, Mario Scalesi: Le poesie di un Maledetto (Transeuropa, 2020)

Carlo Massimo

Carlo Massimo works as a reporter in Washington. A former contributing editor at the Wilson Quarterly, his poetry and fiction have appeared in the Account, Barzakh, Bitter Oleander, and other journals, as well as La Piccioletta Barca. Follow him on Twitter at @CarloMassimo6.

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