#RivetingReviews: Anna Blasiak reviews WITH THE SWEET NOISE OF LIFE: SELECTED POEMS by Sandro Penna

Sandro Penna (1906-1977) was openly gay and his poems reflect that. He is led by Eros, his poems full of young men presented to remind us of ancient Greece (‘O the ancient / And gilded boys’). Which does not mean that there is no mention of pissoirs and other meeting places for gay men, of the struggle resulting from being gay in a traditional society and the abuse and repression that comes with it, including gay-bashing.

‘I was going home. A stream of blood
Smirked in the dust of my face

Now I am not going home. In the dust
My soul’s been trampled, and with
it my smile’

Penna’s poetry is always filled with light, the incomparable Italian sun, the warmth of it, but also with the hum of the shimmering sea or a river. But Penna, though born and raised in Perugia, spent most his life in Rome. And the city – its outdoor cafés, sunlit evenings in tavernas and osterias, train stations and cemeteries, everyday urban life – also has a strong presence in his verse.

‘Drowsy autumn arrives. Sparkling
Behind shining glass two
Shining eyes’

His is a very light hand, elegant and precise. His poems, often as short as just two lines, are deceptively simple, almost aphoristic at times, sometimes mysteriously sphinx-like. They are little snippets, fleeting moments captured with a masterful skill. Moreover, Penna’s poems often have the clarity of popular songs, but again, that straightforwardness can be misleading. These are not loud, shouty poems, they are soft-spoken and intimate, as if whispered.

‘Awash in light the bike awaits
The dishevelled boy without a voice’

Penna is also very conscious of form. There is not a word that could be spared here, everything is perfectly balanced. He also dabbles in traditional prosody, there is some rhyming and a lot of striking alliteration.

‘Lullabied I’d like to live
Within the sweet noise of life’

This is one of many translations of Penna’s work in English: This Strange Joy (Ohio State University Press, 1982), Confused Dream (Hanuman Books, 1988), Remember Me, God of Love (Carcanet, 1993) and A Boy Asleep Under the Sun: Versions of Sandro Penna (punctum books, 2014). Within the Sweet Noise of Life is a selection from the poet’s complete oeuvre, spanning the his whole life – the earliest poems taken from Poesie 1927–1938 and the most recent from Penna’s posthumous collection Il viaggiatore insonne from 1977.

The Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg said: ‘I believe that one day, in another age, if there is another age, the poetry of Sandro Penna will be read by all and his greatness recognised by all.’ Well, this reader can only agree with Ginzburg. Sandro Penna deserves a prominent place in the pantheon of twentieth-century Italian poetry. And more translations into English.

Reviewed by Anna Blasiak


by Sandro Penna

Translated by Alexander Booth

Published by Seagull Books (2021)

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Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books, as is Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak. annablasiak.com.

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