In addressing the theme of sex and the body in a 2001 interview, Edoardo Sanguineti highlights the importance of paternity in his work, in contrast to a more conventional ‘filial’ perspective in Italian literature:
I poeti sono eterni figli. Il ripiegamento sulla memoria fa sì che domini, e questo anche nelle prospettive narrative, l’esperienza infantile e puerile che si prolunga all’infinito. La mia posizione risulta invece opposta. Non è che le figure parentali siano assenti nella mia scrittura, ma quella che domina effettivamente è una prospettiva paterna. Non è la tematica di un eterno figlio alle prese con il classico problema edipico e dintorni, ma una prospettiva invece in cui davvero il problema della responsabilità, del farsi adulti, è portato in primo piano. (Galletta 103–4)
While acknowledging that his poetic representations of both the paternal theme and related conjugal-erotic motifs have a direct basis in his personal life, Sanguineti stresses that they function in his work primarily as ‘emblemi culturalmente rilevanti’ (Galletta 104), in the context of a historicized conception of corporeal experience and as part of the ‘costruzione di un personaggio’ (106). In this article, I will investigate the forms and emblematic functions of these representations, as well their cultural and ideological ramifications in the poetic context of the Italian Novecento.
The centrality of a constructed personaggio-io is well attested in scholarship on Sanguineti: Pietropaoli sees an ‘autorappresentazione parodica’ (Unità 102) in the poetry of the 1970s; Lorenzini describes the soliloquizing voice of those years as that of ‘un io grottesco e oggettivato’ (Il presente 175), a self increasingly dominated in the following decades by ‘la presenza allucinatoria del corpo’ (La poesia italiana 169); while Baccarani sees his io as a ‘persona’ in the Latin sense of the term, a mask whose authenticity lies in its very ‘estroversione’ rather than concealing some hidden self (175–7). Existing scholarship has often referred to the recurrence of conjugal and broadly domestic themes as part of the representation of this social and corporeal io: Fausto Curi underlines the importance from the early 1960s of ‘un filone di poesia familiare’ where wife and children are ‘personaggi e interlocutori’ (La poesia 277); Lorenzini characterizes Sanguineti’s long-running diaristic vein as ‘poesie-resoconto di vicende visualizzate dal coté familiare, domestico ed erotico’ (La poesia: tecniche 206). What is lacking, however, is a systematic analysis of Sanguineti’s representations specifically of paternity and of the io as father. This article undertakes a comprehensive investigation of these aspects of his work. After an initial survey of how similar elements are used in the works of some other Novecento poets, we will examine Sanguineti’s use of paternal motifs and perspectives from the late 1950s onwards, how this projects his ideological and aesthetic concerns, and ultimately how it contributes to the gendered construction of a specifically masculine self whose representation brings together elements of both authority and abjection.
Poetic filiality and the legacy of Pascoli
It is easy to find examples of a ‘filial’ perspective in the literary tradition, both in Italy and elsewhere: at the very origin of the Italian canon we see the essentially filial posture of Dante’s pilgrim-narrator towards his guide and mentor Virgil; and Sanguineti himself alludes, albeit ironically, to an interpretation of Petrarch’s Laura as a ‘fantasma materno’ (Gnoli 130). From Oedipus to Hamlet, sons in particular have long been written against fathers or father figures. In the early Novecento canon, we see the transparently oedipal impulses of Svevo’s protagonist in La coscienza di Zeno, the journey to the mother in Vittorini’s Conversazione in Sicilia, or the filial stance adopted in Montale’s allegorical dialogue with the sea-father in Mediterraneo, the ‘antico’, whose voice and ‘law’ inspire both submission and resentment: ‘E questa che in me cresce / è forse la rancura / che ogni figliuolo, mare, ha per il padre’ (Montale 55). The investigation of memory and childhood recurs throughout Montale’s work, and indeed is a common motif in much of the poetry of the period, from Saba’s evocations of the childhood self in relation to both maternal and paternal figures, to the memorial obsessions of the hermetic generation. The adoption of an infantile or filial stance resonates also with the figure of the inetto, which Sanguineti sees as a defining archetype of the modernist period, as reflected in the works of Montale, Svevo, Gozzano, and others (Sanguineti, ‘Montale’ 227–40). Gozzano’s filial and memorial perspective can be seen, for example, in the poem ‘Cocotte’, in which Sanguineti reads ‘un clamoroso esempio di frustrato complesso edipico’ (Sanguineti, Guido Gozzano 123).
Before the turn of the twentieth century, Giovanni Pascoli had played an influential role in establishing the infantile and/or filial perspectives as central components in modern Italian poetry. In Pascoli we find the poet as orphaned son, in dialogue with the ghost of his mother in poems such as ‘Casa mia’ or ‘Mia madre’, presenting his own voice as that of a child: ‘Tra i pigolìi dei nidi, / io vi sentii la voce / mia di fanciullo’ (Poesie 585). He evokes the trauma of his father’s violent death in ‘La cavalla storna’ and in ‘X Agosto’, where the father is above all felt as an absence in the fragile ‘nest’ of the family home: ‘Ora là, nella casa romita, / lo aspettano, aspettano, in vano’ (Poesie 72). Beyond his own tragic family circumstances, Pascoli’s adoption of the child’s perspective assumes a wider significance for his theory of poetry in the essay Il fanciullino (1897–1903), where an immutable essence of ‘poesia’ is attributed to the vision of a poet’s inner child, ‘il fanciullo eterno, che vede tutto con meraviglia, tutto come per la prima volta’ (Prose 16). This childlike stance will resonate through much Italian poetry of the following decades, from its almost parodic expression in the crepuscular Sergio Corazzini (‘io non sono che un piccolo fanciullo che piange’; 77) to the many iterations of filial piety in texts addressed to mothers and fathers. In this male-dominated canon, poems by sons to mothers have a special prominence, although texts addressing the father, often post-mortem, are also a recurring feature of the period.1
In a number of critical essays spanning the 1960s, Sanguineti analyses the historical and sociological basis of the poetics set out in Il fanciullino and considers some of their ideological implications. In ‘Attraverso i Poemetti pascoliani’ (1962) he argues that Pascoli’s vision is based on ‘l’accettazione serena […] dei limiti storici e sociali, come limiti naturali’ (Sanguineti, ‘Attraverso’ 16), giving rise to a poetics whose ultimate aim is to ‘fondare un sublime ad uso delle classi medie’ (19). In ‘La tragedia familiare nella poesia di Giovanni Pascoli’ (1967), he contends that the filial viewpoint of Pascoli’s fanciullino, especially that of the orphan-child, is part of a petit bourgeois aesthetic of pathos and tears focused on the dead parents. This is rooted in an ‘etica piccolo borghese’ which interiorizes an ‘implacabile Super-Ego’, an ‘etica familiare tutta naturalmente dominata dalla figura paterna, unica figura portatrice di ogni norma morale’ (Sanguineti, ‘La tragedia’ 16) – a figure whose untimely death in Pascoli’s life and poetry produces supreme effects of poetic pathos. Sanguineti rounds off this decade of critical attention to Pascoli with his introduction to the 1971 Einaudi edition of the Poemetti (which he edited). Tracing the historically determined roots of the ‘Homo pascolianus’ in the ‘condizione psico-sociale’ (‘I Poemetti’ 171) of the piccola borghesia in the late nineteenth century, Sanguineti highlights how Pascoli’s vision in Il fanciullino produces a drive to ‘censor’ both erotic desire and economic realities:
Pascoli respinge donne e amori, […] spietatamente censurando il sesso, […] esattamente come ha intanto censurato, sopra l’altro versante, il denaro. I padri e le madri di famiglia della piccola borghesia non potevano sperare di più e di meglio, pedagogicamente parlando, di una tanto ferrea copertura dell’erotico e dell’economico, come delle più torbide e ‘impoetiche’ realtà del mondo. (Sanguineti, ‘I Poemetti’ 174)
These are precisely some of the ‘unpoetic’ realities that Sanguineti brings to the fore most memorably in his own poetic approach to paternity. Pascoli writes in Il fanciullino that poetic sentiment provides ‘un soave e leggiero freno all’instancabile desiderio’ (Prose 23). Sanguineti instead sees his own work as underpinned by ‘il riconoscimento della libido come movente fondamentale della condizione umana’, in reaction against a ‘cultura sublimante e censoria’ (Galletta 102). For him, ‘il tema dell’amore coniugale e la tematica famigliare’ (103) go hand in hand. They converge in his work through representations of a corporeal and historicized masculine subjectivity that challenge critically the surrounding alienation.
Some paternal tropes in the Novecento tradition
Notwithstanding Sanguineti’s assertion regarding the ‘filial’ character of Italian literature, poems with a paternal voice and viewpoint do occur in the works of various Novecento poets, ranging from delicate representations of innocence and fatherly love to texts that dwell on a melancholy awareness of childhood’s (and life’s) transience, to the raw expression of grief on the death of a child. Before examining Sanguineti’s paternal texts, we will briefly consider the forms and implications of some of these representations.
Saba’s ‘Ritratto della mia bambina’ (1920) includes some elements that recur to varying degrees in paternal texts by other poets. The opening lines give a disarming portrait of childhood innocence, in simple, direct language: ‘La mia bambina con la palla in mano / con gli occhi grandi colore del cielo’ (Saba 190). After this, the father’s voice explores in more complex lyrical terms various ‘parvenze’ that his child evokes in him, focusing on images of lightness such as ‘schiuma marina’ and the shifting ‘insensibili nubi / che si fanno e disfanno in chiaro cielo’. All these ‘cose leggere e vaganti’, images of disembodiment, involve an almost mystical perception which, notwithstanding Saba’s paternal perspective, resonates strongly with Pascoli’s aesthetic of the fanciullino, the inner child who responds to ‘cose che sfuggono ai nostri sensi e alla nostra ragione’ (Prose 12).2 Some elements of Pascoli’s aesthetic of innocence are also echoed in Attilio Bertolucci’s paternal poems. ‘Per B.’, for his young son Bernardo, from his 1935 collection Lettera da casa, takes up the motif of the child at play: the boy’s ‘piccoli aeroplani di carta’ flying ‘nel crepuscolo’ are compared to the evanescent image of ‘farfalle notturne’, before both become metaphors for ‘i nostri giorni’, destined to disappear in a darker ‘abyss’ (Bertolucci, La capanna 73). A similar quasi-crepuscular melancholy, in counterpoint to the representation of childish innocence, runs through other texts for the sons such as ‘A Giuseppe, in ottobre’ or ‘A Bernardo’, where, in Bertolucci’s world of agrarian ‘immobilità’ (Curi, La poesia 294), the boy’s ‘piede impaziente’ (La capanna 113) is juxtaposed with autumnal images of passing time. Similarly in ‘Bernardo a cinque anni’, the child’s ‘ossatura fragile’ is overshadowed by ‘il dolore dei giorni che verranno’ and fallen leaves bring an awareness of impending winter (Bertolucci, La capanna 131). In all these poems, a sense of impermanence and inevitable loss is associated with the representation of childhood, but this seems to constitute a lesson more for the father than for the child: ‘ora corri / A rifugiarti nella nostra ansia’ (131). Images of childhood fragility go hand-in-hand with the evocation of an innocence to be protected.3
Alfonso Gatto’s poems for his children combine evocations of childhood with a more complex hermetic layering of landscape and subjectivity. The opening of ‘Alla mia bambina’ (from Morto ai paesi, 1933–7) seems initially to offer a language of magical serenity reminiscent of Saba’s vision, but this is immediately undermined by an awareness of mortality: ‘Lo sguardo delle marine / serene fino alla morte’ (Gatto 56). Enigmatic landscape elements typical of Gatto’s hermetic style interweave with an idea of gestation, until in the closing lines the born child fulfils the abstract potential of the opening imagery:
compivi il sereno,
la sua notte incarnata
nel rigoglio del seno. (Gatto 56)
This closing image anchors the text in a bodily awareness of child and mother, but this corporeality is inseparable here from Gatto’s language of hermetic abstractions. In ‘Al mio bambino Leone’ (Osteria flegrea, 1954–61), Gatto’s io-padre also sees his developing son in embodied terms, immersed in a narrative of community, but this is simultaneously de-historicized:
vederti nella storia
di tutti col tuo cuore
innocente che sa,
forse è chiamarti, amore,
mia breve eternità. (Gatto 432)
The emphasis on childhood ‘innocence’ is bound up with the timeless, ahistorical meaning of the relationship for the father. The poem ends with a picture of paternal love and guidance: ‘t’ama / chi ti porta con sé / parlando e rassicura / la tua lieta paura’. Despite the final oxymoron of ‘lieta paura’, these closing lines resolve the poem in a comforting vision of paternity.
One very specific mode of paternal poetry, the lament for a dead child, is mentioned by Sanguineti in his 1967 essay on Pascoli, where he contrasts the vision of filial pathos in the latter’s ‘X Agosto’ with the austere tragedy of Carducci’s ‘Pianto antico’, written on the death of his young son (Sanguineti, ‘La tragedia’ 10–11). In the same vein, some of the best-known paternal poems of the Novecento are those written by Giuseppe Ungaretti for his son Antonietto after the boy’s sudden death in 1939 in Brazil. The trauma of death is manifested in the texts through a marked attention to bodily realities, as seen in ‘Gridasti: soffoco’:
Nel viso tuo scomparso già nel teschio,
Gli occhi, che erano ancora luminosi
Solo un attimo fa,
Gli occhi si dilatarono… (Ungaretti 303)
This poem was conceived as part of the longer sequence Giorno per giorno, but published only later, Ungaretti notes, because of its particular intimacy and rawness.4 However, notwithstanding the directness with which the materiality of death is represented here, equally striking is the way in which that physical reality is transcended, as seen in the rapid shift to the level of the spiritual after the stark image of the boy’s coffin:
Poi nella cassa ti verranno a chiudere
Per sempre. No, per sempre
Sei animo della mia anima, e la liberi.
Giorno per giorno opens with a similar combination of raw pathos and bodily distress: ‘E il volto già scomparso / Ma gli occhi ancora vivi’ (Ungaretti 245). However, the overwhelming impulse in this poem is towards disembodiment too. The son’s remembered voice becomes a ‘voce d’anima’, eclipsing the memory of his ‘martoriato corpo’, until the sequence closes with his consolatory message: ‘Sono per te l’aurora e intatto giorno’ (249).5 Similarly, in ‘Tu ti spezzasti’, the child’s remembered presence is reduced to an evanescent ‘lieve piede di danza’, an abstract ‘soffio e cristallo’ (256). The drive in these anguished poems is towards transcending the bodily reality of the son’s death through memory and lyrical sublimation in a quasi-Petrarchan dialogue with the absent tu.
Giorgio Orelli, a writer closer generationally to Sanguineti (though far from the experimental agenda of the neovanguardia), presents a different kind of paternal voice in ‘A Giovanna’ (from Sinopie, 1977), where the io-padre addresses his infant daughter in an engaging domestic scene:
C’era una gran calma. E poiché
non eri riuscita a mangiare il carillon
né il leprotto né il barboncino bianco
né quell’altro bestiolo che neanche tua madre
sa se sia un asinello o un cavallino
o altro ancora che ai nostri tempi scarseggia,
dopo l’amen del rutto ti portammo un po’ fuori. (Orelli 64)
Orelli presents a miniature narrative of paternity against the background of a ‘realtà trita e banale’ (Bertoni, 111), involving the list-like enumeration of the baby’s toys, the comic foregrounding of bodily functions in a register of informal parlato, and the subsequent inclusion of named characters (Giovanna herself, other friends’ babies), all of which could be seen to resemble some aspects of Sanguineti’s diaristic-paternal manner of these same years, as we will see below. However, this poem, with the all-enveloping fog that subsequently descends on their afternoon walk, also moves ultimately, in spite of Orelli’s early association with the concrete poetics of the linea lombarda, towards a dream-like dimension, where time is suspended, ending on a vision of lyrical evanescence: ‘la nebbia inghiottiva i palazzi / convocava timori intorno a noi’. Here parental anxiety is inscribed in a movement away from concrete reality, which is transfigured into oneiric uncertainty.6
In the paternal poems examined here – often occasional in character – we repeatedly find a focus on sublimation or images of abstracting disembodiment, combined at times with a melancholy-elegiac emotional charge or a consolatory stance. As we will see below, these elements are absent from Sanguineti’s writing of paternity, which is corporeal, ideologically delineated, and systematically embedded throughout the thematic and representational structures of his work.
The emergence of paternity in Sanguineti’s early works
Representations of paternity and the parental perspective can be found throughout the main periods of Sanguineti’s poetry. The ‘tripartizione’ of his work, posited by Pietropaoli and broadly shared by other commentators, distinguishes three major phases: the first, marked by a ‘stile avanguardisticamente sublime’ (Pietropaoli, Unità 60), goes from Laborintus (1956) to Purgatorio de l’Inferno (1964); subsequently, in the ‘fase di mezzo’ from Reisebilder (1971) to Scartabello (1980), there emerges a ‘neo-figurative’ approach with a ‘stile medio-realistico’ (60); while in the long and varied final phase opened by Cataletto (1981), a ‘stile comico’ predominates (60).7 Throughout these phases, paternal tropes shift and develop in their modes and implications, in line with the writer’s evolving poetic and ideological preoccupations.
If traces of a filial perspective can be glimpsed anywhere in Sanguineti, it is in his first volume Laborintus (1956), where fragments of language, culture, and the psyche are immersed from the outset in the ‘Palus putredinis’ (Segnalibro 13), a swamp that is ‘archetipo del corpo materno’ (Lorenzini, La poesia 138), site and origin of ‘questo linguaggio che partorisce’ Laborintus 10 (Segnalibro 25).8 Gian Maria Annovi highlights effectively the ‘foetal’ characteristics of the language and imagery of Laborintus, a ‘regressus ad uterum’ where ‘la fantasia dell’io di ricongiungersi con il femminile’ coincides ultimately with ‘la dissoluzione stessa dell’io’ (Annovi 158). Here in Laborintus, there may also be traces of the illness and death of Sanguineti’s own mother in 1953, notably in the ‘linguaggio malato’ (Annovi 150) of sections 9 and 21.9 From Erotopaegnia (1956–9), however, the filial-foetal perspective is replaced by that of spouse and father, even as the first tentative glimpses of a more communicative mode appear amidst the ongoing fragmented avant-garde style. From Erotopaegnia 1 with its ‘sala del parto’ and sweaty conjugal ‘abbracciamenti’ (Segnalibro 51), procreation is part of a wider eroticized address by Sanguineti’s io to the figure of his wife. The explicit eroticization of the conjugal relationship is one of the most compelling features of Sanguineti’s work from Erotopaegnia onwards, creating what Curi calls an ‘inaudito ossimoro’ in representing ‘un tenacissimo eros matrimoniale’ (Curi, La poesia 280).10 The child (both before and after birth) is a central element in the direct, concrete representation of this reality, this domestic ‘microstoria’ (Curi, La poesia 276), which emerges in texts such as Erotopoaegnia 4:
in te dormiva come un fibroma asciutto, come una magra tenia, un sogno;
ora peste la ghiaia, ora scuote la propria ombra; ora stride,
deglutisce, orina, avendo atteso da sempre il gusto
della camomilla, la temperatura della lepre, il rumore della grandine,
la forma del tetto, il colore della paglia: (Segnalibro 54)
Just like the conjugal-erotic experience, the representation of parenthood is from the outset stripped of sublimating possibilities, as the pathologizing comparison of the foetus to a fibroma or tapeworm ostentatiously eschews any sentimental component or rarefied representation of the child. With its highlighting of bodily functions the image of the child provides a strong corporeal grounding for the broader experience of the world in time, a world of sensory-material realities and social-historical phenomena:
senza rimedio il tempo
si è rivolto verso i suoi giorni; la terra offre immagini confuse;
saprà riconoscere la capra, il contadino, il cannone? (Segnalibro 54)
As Annovi observes, the transition from ‘io-feto’ to ‘io-padre’ is expressed stylistically in a new ‘facoltà di nominare stabilmente le cose e le persone’ (162), an ability exercised exhaustively in the later works. This is manifested here in the first clear occurrences of the listing or cataloguing trope which will come to be associated strongly with subsequent paternal poems. Further list-forms are found in Erotopaegnia 3, addressed to the woman who will bring the child into bodily existence in time:
e a sei mesi egli potrà raddoppiare il suo peso, vedere l’oca,
stringere la vestaglia, assistere alla caduta dei gravi;
strappalo dunque alla sua vita di alghe e di globuli, di piccoli nodi,
di indecisi lobi: (Segnalibro 53)
In these representations, the nameable physicality of the child’s world is strongly linked to the idea of his existing within a temporal-historical perspective. The child in this poem is given an emblematic value relating to a future ‘correction’ of history, seen as previously nameless, undefined: ‘i suoi occhi di obliquo burro correggeranno questi secoli senza nome!’. In Erotopaegnia 6, where the newborn is seen interacting with the confused materiality of the world, we find also the first intimation that the historicization of paternity is inseparable from considerations of the parents’ mortality: ‘ma nella durezza delle sue ossa lo sorprendiamo esistere, / e vediamo nelle sue unghie crescere la nostra morte’. This foreshadows the future intertwining of the parental strand with representations of the death of the poet’s persona and associated testamentary declarations.
In the following collection, Purgatorio de l’Inferno (1960–3), still within the first broad phase of his work, Sanguineti writes the child as second-person interlocutor in some of his best-known paternal poems. Addressing explicitly his young sons (Federico, born 1955, Alessandro, 1958, and Michele, 1962), these texts introduce another key component of the paternal vein, namely the pedagogic dialogue, with the io-padre guiding the child through a world full of hostile, alluring, or seemingly incomprehensible objects and phenomena, as established from the opening of Purgatorio 1 (addressed to Federico): ‘ti attende il filo spinato, la vespa, la vipera, il nichel / bianco e lucente che non si ossida all’aria / […] e conoscerai la confindustria e la svastica’ (Segnalibro 71).11 The list-form is again a recurring feature, for example in Purgatorio 9:
piangi piangi, che ti compero una lunga spada blu di plastica, un frigorifero
Bosch in miniatura, un salvadanaio di terra cotta, un quaderno
con tredici righe, un’azione della Montecatini:
piangi piangi, che ti compero
una piccola maschera antigas, un flacone di sciroppo ricostituente (Segnalibro 82)
In these poems, the io-padre sets out for his son the varied wonders of late capitalist reality, in a paratactic listing that excludes hierarchies of sense or value while warning the child about the alienating aspects of a world constituted in terms of violence, repression, or economic transactions.12 Similarly, in Purgatorio 10, a bewildering catalogue of visual images shown to the son is underpinned by the hidden power of money (‘ma se volti il foglio, Alessandro, / ci vedi il denaro’; Segnalibro 83); while in Purgatorio 11, we hear Federico’s voice directly, delivering a rudimentary playback of his father’s political teaching, embedded amidst minor domestic dramas and other childhood preoccupations:
se davvero scrivi per me (disse): oh devi metterci che anche il mio fratello
Alessandro piangeva, che ti aspettava, che piangeva tanto
[…] devi scrivere che a Pompei
sono tutti morti;
che i fascisti sono cattivi;
che i numeri non finiscono mai… (Segnalibro 84)
A fuller understanding of these father–child dialogues emerges through the surrounding poems, texts characterized often by disjointed syntactic structures, hyper-punctuation, and fragments of quotations, where Sanguineti’s historical materialist standpoint and the political interpretation of the family motif are gradually made explicit, providing ‘una interpretazione critica del caos, cui si contrappongono, come cellule di resistenza, il microcosmo familiare e la militanza politica’ (Lorenzini, La poesia 139). Thus in Purgatorio 2, amidst cultural debates with Octavio Paz, Calvino, and others, Sanguineti’s persona declares the ideological imperatives behind his roles both as writer and paternal educator:
spiegherò; una poesia (dissi) scriverò: sul
parlerò a mio figlio; dirò: ma di tali insistiti segni
l’ostinata, figlio, riconosci dissimulazione (…); ma spiegherò
come la borghesia (alta) italiana; come non posso amarla; come sogna
(ancora); quel fascismo (spiegherò); (questo); come il figlio deve,
adesso; (di cui ha salvato); essere la figura; (la struttura); (…);
della speranza: (Segnalibro 72–3)
Just as here ‘il figlio deve […] essere la figura […] della speranza’, in Purgatorio 3 he sets out a similar ideological meaning for the conjugal relationship: ‘il costituirsi di una cellula (il matrimonio): una cellula (dissi) / di resistenza’ (Segnalibro 74). In Purgatorio 6, while alluding explicitly to Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Sanguineti’s io declares the political function of the couple in educating their offspring: ‘o tutti (a mia moglie) non preparano (dissi) i BUONI / CITTADINI? (e noi prepariamo, noi, i rivoluzionari…)’ (Segnalibro 79).13 Taken as a whole, Purgatorio de l’Inferno occupies a pivotal position in the development of Sanguineti’s poetry: it draws to a close the first, ‘tragic’ phase, the intense working-through of the legacy of the historic avant-garde, a process Sanguineti described in 1961 as ‘gettare se stessi […] nella Palus Putredinis, precisamente, dell’anarchismo e dell’alienazione, con la speranza […] di uscirne poi veramente, attraversato il tutto, con le mani sporche, ma con il fango, anche, lasciato davvero alle spalle’ (Sanguineti, ‘Poesia informale?’ 204). In a direct citation of that essay, in Purgatorio 17 the poetic speaker refocuses that aspiration onto the image of the children:
ma vedi il fango che ci sta alle spalle,
e il sole in mezzo agli alberi, e i bambini che dormono:
che sognano (che parlano, sognando); (ma i bambini, li vedi, cosí inquieti) (Segnalibro 90)
The children thus embody future development, in a perhaps utopian perspective (‘sognando’) but also (‘inquieti’) with a sense of restless expectation. In these early works, Sanguineti uses the emerging paternal relationship in addressing a historical reality that must for him be understood ideologically and lived politically. Yet as part of his ‘riappropriazione della parola soggettiva’ (Curi, Gli stati 241), in the poems these relationships remain true to their own essence, to the materiality of experience, and to the specificity of individual biography, as reflected not least in the repeated use of the names of the poet’s sons and wife Luciana. Thus, an ideological construction of paternity begins to be inscribed in the texts, as part of the representation of the io as ‘un individuo la cui ‘essenza’ è essenza sociale e storica’ (Baccarani 164).
The paternal motif in the poetry of these years is echoed in some of the hallucinatory dream-narrative sequences of the anti-novel Capriccio italiano (1963). Eschewing any explicitly ideological discourse, Capriccio explores a world of dreams and the unconscious, highlighting psychological anxieties associated with the impending birth of the narrator’s third child, and often representing an io subject to forms of bodily and psychological debasement. The two young sons’ appearances are repeatedly interwoven with the narrator’s bizarre erotic adventures during his wife’s pregnancy, amidst symbolic descents into tombs or cavernous underworlds. A recurring motif is paternal anxiety for the children’s safety: there is an unexplained attack by ‘teppisti’ in which the younger boy’s testicles are injured, after which the child seems to shrink to almost embryonic form in the father’s protective hands (Sanguineti, Capriccio 35); the appearance of the two boys, crying and apparently ill, interrupting one of the narrator’s strange sexual liaisons and causing him a sudden loss of potency (54–5); other appearances of the children crying or afraid of some threat, for example when the sinister figure of a priest appears in their room (111), later becoming a wolf who devours the boys’ mother as the father watches, unable to intervene (116–17).14 The anxiety for the children extends to the unborn third son, whose foetus the father-narrator encounters with many others in an underground ‘grotta’, carrying its own placenta, which it drops, leaving the narrator soaked in blood (109–10). These images of paternal anxiety for the children are linked in part to anxieties over his own persona. Fears over the diminution of the io and his masculine status in relation to paternity emerge clearly in chapter XXXIII, in combination with a scene of paternal teaching:
Mio figlio dice: ‘Ma ce l’hai grosso, tu, papà’. Allora io, che mi sto facendo un po’ la doccia, mi giro un po’ in là, e allora penso che si capisce che adesso gli viene un complesso molto grosso, a quello, e dico subito: ‘Ma ce l’hai grosso anche tu, vedi’. Ma lui: ‘No, no’, dice ‘che ce l’ho un po’ piccolo, io’. ‘Be’,’ dico io, ‘è solo perché sei un po’ piccolo tu, ma che adesso che sei un po’ alto come papà, poi, ti viene un po’ tutto grosso anche a te.’ (Capriccio 40)
After the father responds to further questions with a simple explanation of sexual differences between men and women, the son leaves and his wife enters, observing ‘ehi, ti sta venendo un po’ piccolo, guarda’ – which the narrator blames on the cold shower, turning the heat up only to burn himself in a comic humiliation. There are other scenes in the novel in which the narrator’s sexual potency seems threatened (albeit compensated elsewhere by episodes of fantastical super-virility), but it is telling here that the comic abasement of the io (in the eyes of the wife as well) is specifically linked to his role as father.15 If, on the one hand, the motif of paternity is inseparable from the affirmative corporeal realism of a self-aware conjugal libido, it is, at the same time, intertwined with presentiments of a diminished status for the io and his virility. Elsewhere in Capriccio the paternal-pedagogic motif touches directly on the theme of death. In chapter CVII, where the narrator and his companions are exploring a tomb and his wife and children emerge from inside a painting by his artist friend, the father’s didactic vocation comes to the fore as he insists that his frightened children look at the skeleton of ‘O’ (a woman involved in a previous erotic encounter). Further imposing his will with a slap to each boy, he makes them face the grinning skeleton: ‘Allora ci ho spiegato bene che cosa era una morta, ai miei figli, e quelli si tenevano come abbracciati’ (Capriccio 114). Even in the framework of this fantastical dream-narrative, Sanguineti’s io-padre is driven to ‘explain’ and demonstrate, sometimes brutally, the realities of life, sex, and death. In counterpoint to his contemporary poetic works, Capriccio explores the implications of paternity for the father’s psyche, representing its associated fears, desires, and anxieties through the imagery of dream and the unconscious. The novel concludes, however, with the birth of the third child and his naming as ‘Michele’, bringing the text back from the world of ‘brutti sogni’ (119) to a stance of engagement – including the direct engagement of language, of naming – with the domestic reality that has been emerging in the poems.
The io-padre in the chronicles of daily life
The representation of the io as father is an essential component in Sanguineti’s construction of the self in the poems of Reisebilder (written during the family’s residency in Berlin in 1971) and Postkarten (1972–7), as he develops his ‘modello di ritrovata praticabilità del quotidiano’ (Baccarani 170), through the anecdotal micro-narratives of family life. Thus in Reisebilder 34, where the io is questioned by an East German ‘funzionario doganale in minigonna’, his erotic-ideological reverie of seduction by this ‘beatrice / democratica in divisa’ is interrupted by the concrete figures of his wife and children: ‘hai fatto irruzione / tu, trascinandoti dietro anche i bambini, meravigliosi e meravigliati’ (Segnalibro 138). In the ironic portrayal of his libidinous persona, his paternal status is an integral part of his ‘confession’ to the guard: ‘ho detto che ho un figlio che studia il russo’. This miniature confession and consequent self-ridicule (‘quarentenne sedotto da un poliziotto’) are part of a wider performance of an unashamedly self-revelatory io. Shortly after this in Reisebilder 40, the portrayal of a pathologically degraded self, subject to ‘collassi’ and ‘vertigini’ (specifically in the context of conjugal sexual activity), leads to one of Sanguineti’s best-known meta-poetic declarations:
perché scrivere (scrive il solito Goethe)
è sempre un Mißbrauch der Sprache: e quando uno sopravvive come sopravvivo
io, si fabbrica poi soltanto questi Bruchstücke einer großen Konfession: (Segnalibro 144)
This idea of poetry as ‘fragments of a great confession’, but subject to the estranging ‘misuse of language’ (‘Mißbrauch der Sprache’) in writing, underlies the ways in which paternity is inscribed into all these texts. The estranged fragments of paternal experience can sometimes seem almost incidental, as in Reisebilder 41, 44, or 46 (where the children are ‘vere vespe vive’ swarming around the parental couple), or in Reisbilder 36, where the boys make brief appearances as their parents entertain a journalist friend one evening. The poet here adopts a stance of patriarchal pride, whether at a ‘dotta boutade del mio primogenito’, the ‘bellezza sensibile del mio terzogenito’, or (apparently paraphrasing the guest’s words) ‘la salute di mia moglie’ (Segnalibro 140). Amidst the setting of cultured intellectual chatter here, the appearance of the children is again associated with allusions to pregnancy and birth and to the erotic (the io-padre as ‘Liebling der Frauen’ [‘beloved of women’]). The linking of the father–child relationship to the highlighting of sex in its physical reality emerges also in the portrayal of a family visit to Bahnhof Zoo in Reisebilder 7, where the father-as-educator clarifies a misunderstanding about one of the apes: ‘ma quella vecchia signora, seduta / tra le rocce, grave, grigia – quella vecchia signora è un maschio: guardate / là il suo sesso, bambini’ (Segnalibro 111).
This kind of matter-of-fact realism has a clear ideological underpinning in an unsentimental framing of both marriage and paternity. Reisebilder 19 reiterates the interlinking of the personal and the political in the representation of couple and parenthood. Watching his wife buying Soviet-themed postcards in East Berlin, the father observes:
quando mi torni ragazza proletaria, sei piú tu – e piú mia:
(ma stasera, prima che discutiamo se fare o non fare un quarto figlio,
ti commento due passi del Manifesto:
quello in cui è detto che la borghesia
ha spogliato la poesia del duo Heiligenschein, trasformando il poeta in un suo dipendente
salariato (ein bezahlter Lohnarbeiter): (e ha strappato alla famiglia il suo velo
patetico-sentimentale, demistificandola come un nudo Geldverhältnis): (Segnalibro 123)
Just as bourgeois society has, according to the Communist Manifesto, stripped poetry of its ‘halo’, turning the poet into a ‘wage-labourer’, so it has also stripped any mystificatory veil off the family, now seen as a ‘money relationship’. The personal cohesion of this couple is intimately bound up with their political complicity (as seen in Purgatorio), and encompasses also this unsentimental vision of family and parenthood. It is notable that this is elaborated here in the kind of earnestly didactic posture associated frequently with the paternal role, which spills over more than once into texts addressing the figure of his wife, where the recurrence of verbs of telling, ‘commenting’, and ‘explaining’ can sit incongruously with the discourse of equality underlying a poem such as this.
In Postkarten (1972–7), poems revolving around the children and the paternal status of the io recur regularly as part of what Sanguineti would call his ‘pseudo-autobiografismo’ (Gambaro 83). Everyday family domesticity is interwoven with the construction of the poet’s persona as public left-wing intellectual, as he recalls (Postkarten 15) his appearance at a Communist Party election rally in Salerno watched by his son: ‘io rivedevo ancora Federico, sotto il palco, al comizio / di chiusura a Portanova, con il fazzoletto rosso al collo’ (Segnalibro 175). The poem, addressed to a tu (presumably his wife) who is reading Gramsci, concludes with the io citing his own speech at the meeting where, with a flourish of regionally inflected parlato, he bluntly linked politics and paternity: ‘io voto per il PCI perché tengo tre figli (ecc. ecc. ecc.)’. Paternal domesticity also arises in poems relating to Sanguineti’s wife’s fourth pregnancy. In Postkarten 19, musings on buying a maternity dress seem to provoke a moment of paternal anxiety reminiscent of Capriccio italiano; but this is dispelled following the birth of their daughter, in the playfully alliterative Postkarten 29 (1973): ‘che razza di ragazza verrà fuori, un giorno, da questo breve bruco / femminile, qui, di raso rosa!’ (Segnalibro 189). Family realities can also, however, involve more problematically embodied aspects: these include concerns in Postkarten 47 (Segnalibro 207) regarding the ‘genitourinary’ health of both his son (‘un funicolo spermatico ritorto’) and wife (‘una minaccia di menopausa’); and, on a darker note in the ‘canzonetta’ of Postkarten 48, set in a ‘reparto speciale’ of a Genoa hospital, the illness of a son whose eyes are mirrored in the ‘burning’ eyes of his father (Segnalibro 208).16
In Postkarten rare glimpses of a ‘filial’ Sanguineti also appear, with three poems recalling the figure of the poet’s own father (who died in 1972). However, these brief appearances of his father are in fact focused on his own children, as he regrets (Postkarten 23) that they did not witness their grandfather’s last moments, or as he teaches them how to remember him in Postkarten 24:
ho insegnato ai miei figli che mio padre è stato un uomo staordinario: (potranno
raccontarlo, cosí, a qualcuno, volendo, nel tempo): e poi, che tutti
gli uomini sono straordinari:
e che di un uomo sopravvivono, non so,
ma dieci frasi, forse […] (Segnalibro 184)
The familiar pedagogic stance is seen again here in this paternal lesson on impermanence, combined with a view of cultural transmission through succeeding generations. Recalling the death of his father years later, Sanguineti stresses again its importance as a moment of learning for his children, the transmission of a model of behaviour and understanding: ‘così sapranno come comportarsi quando morirò’ (Galletta 116). This motif of generational transmission is echoed in Postkarten 65 where, in tape-recorded phone calls from a decade earlier, his father’s voice is heard conversing with ‘i miei tre maschi bambini’ (Segnalibro 225). The recorded voice of the grandfather passing his homespun wisdom on being ‘content’ to the grandson Federico – a ‘passaggio fulminante’ for the io listening now – seems, however, to exclude any real embodiment of the self as son in the text. His own father is overheard and remembered but not engaged in direct dialogue.17
Still in the ‘fase di mezzo’, with Stracciafoglio (1977–9), the representations of father–child relationships seem to have entered a new phase (Sanguineti’s eldest son is 22 years old in 1977). The longstanding portrayal of the father as teacher and guide is subject to challenge in a number of texts where the relationship with the sons seems difficult or combative, involving elements of ideological debate and/or personal discord, along with indications of a son’s mental health problems. A more fraught father–son relationship was prefigured already in Postkarten 66, where the father’s emotional vulnerability was exposed: ‘adesso che mi hai scoperchiato, sei soddisfatto? mi bolle un molle brodo, / soltanto, qui dentro’ (Segnalibro 226). The opening poems in Stracciafoglio introduce a similarly tense dialogue with one son, which underpins the whole collection and in which there is embedded a densely packed network of references to shared readings, ranging from Marx to the work of Lukács, Foscolo, and Rousseau. Since Postkarten, the model of poems as quasi-epistolary texts from io to conjugal tu is well established (Baccarani 173–5). But here the epistolary interlocutor becomes the absent son, from whom the io-padre now feels ‘esiliato’; yet still he tries to play the role of cultural guide, promising in Stracciafoglio 1 to enclose photocopies (presumably of Marx’s text), musing ironically in Stracciafoglio 2 over the efficacy of his son’s education (‘non dovevo educarti sopra i classici, / forse, per questo mondo di rospi’; Segnalibro 232), and in Stracciafoglio 3 avowedly ‘preaching’ an ideological lesson on living authentically: ‘ritorno a predicarti che il precetto è: nuotare naturalmente dentro / la storia: (ossimoricamente detto, dunque)’ (Segnalibro 233). All of this exchange in the opening poems is framed by repeated images of self-abasement or unstable identity (‘doppio anche me’; ‘vivo da topo […] (mi aspetta, me lo sento, la mia trappola)’), as well as indications of the emotionally fraught experience of separation.18
In Stracciafoglio 7, the sense of a difficult period in personal and domestic events is reinforced, even as the io-padre again assumes the role of pedagogue, discussing the function of poetry in a challenging historical context:
aber, te lo dico io, figlio mio, che siamo arrivati nel momento culminante, o quasi
(per starci qui cosí, in questi finsteren Zeiten, come si deve): e che quello
che siamo tenuti a sopportarci, adesso, è un troppo pieno di realtà, invece:
e che se un poeta ci sta a fare un qualche cavolo di cose, per caso, di questi tempi
oscuri e vuoti, sarà un poeta spretato, in borghese: (e un borghese): (va bene, ma uno,
intanto, che ci dice che cosí stanno le cose come stanno): (Segnalibro 237)
Setting out a down-to-earth vision for his own art in these ‘finsteren Zeiten’ (‘dark times’), the io-padre underlines here in suitably colloquial language the demystification of poetry and the poet. He goes on to apply this to his own persona, noting his renunciation of the ‘Lustprinzip’ (pleasure principle), preferring the modest self-definition of ‘aspirante materialista storico’. However, the ideological and meta-literary focus is displaced in the final lines by an emotive, pragmatic paternal voice:
(ti scrivo su due piedi da uno standa, mentre tu giri impregnato,
imbottito di psicofarmaci, da un capolinea all’altro, sopra i bus): (e io ti dico:
aber, soppòrtati un po’ la tua vita, almeno):
(e pígliatele, su, le tue pastiglie, tu)
Sanguineti’s poetic io is always ready to lay bare his own infirmities, but here this principle of revelation is extended with unsettling frankness to the son as interlocutor: the recipient of his touching but unsentimental advice is another infirm, embodied individual.19 Furthermore, this is a two-way dialogue, as emerges in Stracciafoglio 12 where it is the io whose psyche is dulled by medication: ‘i rari sogni me li spegne il tavor* (1,0), già, in testa, dentro: (e Alessandro / mi dice che mi spegne anche i miei versi, a milligrammi […]’ (Segnalibro 243).20 This adds further to the sense of difficult personal experiences and relationships that pervades much of this collection, associated also with an increasing awareness of mortality (as glimpsed in the ‘odore di cadavere’ in this same poem).
Elsewhere in Stracciafoglio, the tense dialogues with the eldest son Federico lead to further representations of a degraded paternal subject. Thus in Stracciafoglio 32, the io as politically engaged intellectual frequenting ‘Feste dell’Unità’ is also ‘un uomo / debole come tuo padre / che per me, in quanto me, non ho niente da perdere’ (Segnalibro 263). This self-deprecation of the io as father is even more marked in the closing Stracciafoglio 47, the longest poem in the collection, containing an intense interweaving of ideological and personal travails:
il mio monologo esteriore (scriverti ancora è abominevole, dopo le stressanti precisazioni
telefoniche, filologiche e filosofiche) è finito: (è una postilla, appena, questo mio
espresso (…), una superfetazione d’occasione (…) e,
per il mio stracciafoglio fallimentare, e per me, terminale): parlarti è cosa superiore
alle mie poche forze, troppo: e ti fu detto tutto, già, da me, quando tu sei contro-
emigrato al sud: (quando ti ho regalato la Scienza nuova: ‘gli uomini hanno essi fatto
questo mondo…’): (non so aiutarli, i figli miei, depresso dentro le loro depressioni):
(massimamente, poi, se depressi lontano, dentro aree depresse): pessimo me, povero me,
come padre: (Segnalibro 278)
The recipient of this ‘espresso’ is again Federico, and the poem recapitulates several of the recurring concerns of this collection, including the difficult father–son relationship and tensions around mutual communication. The ellipses here are Sanguineti’s: a rarely used device, adding further tension to the fragmented formal texture of his verse. This poem also joins the extensive strand of Sanguineti’s meta-poetic commentaries, offering the incisive self-referential formula of ‘monologo esteriore’, along with the reductive ‘stracciafoglio’ (which will become the title), and flaunting an idea of self-revelation (‘ti fu detto tutto’). But with the term ‘superfetazione’, it also suggests that the poetic discourse has become excessive, redundant – while hinting simultaneously at the metaphor of writing as procreative fertilization, poet as father of the text. In counterpoint to all of this, the declaration of his own paternal inadequacy brings a familiar note of ironic self-abasement. The rest of the text includes a disenchanted glance at the contemporary historical and cultural scene, the ‘rotting’ conscience of Europe, before returning to the failed father–son dialogue:
ho percorso i miei mille chilometri, a settembre,
per suggerirti questo: per raccontarmi, e per spiegarmi, a te (ma non ne ho avuto il modo,
e il tempo, piú) (Segnalibro 278)
Verbs associated with communication and didactic guidance abound in this poem: ‘scriverti’, ‘parlarti’, ‘aiutarli’, ‘raccontarmi’, ‘spiegarmi’, and even ‘predicare’; but are all frustrated or negated by their context. In this impasse, Sanguineti declares a utoptian aspiration to ‘lavoro vero, e amore vero’ (for the son), and the hope that healthy ‘cells’ (metaphorically) can survive amidst ‘impazzite metastasi’, before closing on a further self-portrait (this time depicting his role as parliamentary ‘deputato’):
ma io resisto qui a stento, adesso, credimi, in questo albergo
di via di Pietra, a due passi da Montecitorio, dentro questa specie di ombelico molle
della nazione, dentro questo suo tempo ombelicale: come te (come tanti, spero), io spero
di essere ‘lo stupido antifascista’, non altro:
un professore, un deputato, un vetero-:
So this collection ends on a note of uncertain survival, of the father as poetic subject clinging to his threatened identity (undermined also perhaps by an image of quasi-uterine regression in this ‘ombelico molle’), even as he offers his offspring a continuing voice of paternal authority and ideological guidance.
Paternity, death, and the testamentary vein
The contemplation of mortality has been an implicit element in the familial strand in Sanguineti from the early stages (see Erotopaegnia 6), and it emerges more prominently in connection with paternal themes through the collections of the 1970s, culminating in the poetic text as a posthumous statement of paternal guidance, which will take explicit form in Novissimum Testamentum (1982).
The image of the father looking explicitly beyond his own death can be seen as early as Reisebilder 20, as he leads the youngest son Michele by the hand through a display of prehistoric human remains in a Berlin museum:
i due cadaveri nella bacheca interrata (che se corri e salti cosí,
sprofondi in una tomba: è meglio che mi dai la mano) sono assolutamente
preistorici: (se vuoi, ti leggo dove sono stati scoperti): (Segnalibro 124)
The familiar pedagogic posture is again apparent, though this text is not focused on any historically determined interpretation of the world but rather presents a simple, universal memento mori in juxtaposing the child and his vitality with the display of the ‘cadaveri’, which are specifically placed outside of historical time.21 The austere lesson for the child is one of impermanence: ‘ma è molto improbabile, Michele, che anche per noi, un giorno, sopravviva tanto / interesse’. In the final lines, though, the focus shifts to a different self-portrait, where the io identifies himself in the more exuberantly macabre and culturally resonant image of a ‘Totentanz’, a medieval ‘dance of death’ fresco in Berlin’s Marienkirche: ‘cercami dove sono: nella Totentanz in sfacelo della Marienkirche, / l’ultima figura verso l’interno, nascosto per sempre sotto l’intonaco bianco’. The io prefers to see his own image in this painted figure whose ‘sfacelo’ and partial illegibility chime with his recurring representations of the culturally constructed self as degraded, debased, or defunct.
The portrayal of the io as husband or father is linked repeatedly to the presentation of a moribund self, for example in Postkarten 50, addressed to ‘moglie mia, figli miei’ (Segnalibro 210), where an exhausted io takes his leave (‘vi lascio cinque parole, e addio: / non ho creduto in niente’); or in Postkarten 67: ‘non essendo più vivo davvero, non ho più niente da dire, ecco’ (Segnalibro 227). These valedictory statements can be seen to foreshadow the explicitly testamentary discourse that will soon emerge in Novissimum Testamentum. Indeed, as Cortellessa notes (262), there are numerous hints and sketches of the testamentary form throughout Sanguineti’s works, not least in his predilection for the eclectic list, which we have already seen associated closely with the paternal vein. One such list-legacy is sketched out in Scartabello 6 (1980), addressed to the youngest child Giulia:
ti lascio le stufe elettriche, le calze, le costellazioni, i bassotti […]
i nodi ai fazzoletti, i coniglietti, gli ideogrammi, gli epigrammi, la tosse,
gli occhiali, le scale mobili, la vita: (Segnalibro 288)
Discussing this poem, Sanguineti underlines his fascination with the testamentary form, which can oscillate between ‘l’ironico e il patetico, il grottesco e il drammatico […] il parodico e il satirico’ or can, preferably ‘rimescolare tutto quanto insieme’ (Genova 35) – one of the hallmarks, in fact, of his mature comic style.
In Postkarten 64, an idea of writing as a kind of legacy again appears as part of a paternal dialogue:
a uno dei miei figli, l’altro giorno, ho detto che uno scrive specialmente
perché un altro possa scrivere, ancora, poi dopo: (perché cerchiamo un po’ di scrivere,
ormai, le opere complete del genere umano, tutti insieme, noi, in fondo): (Segnalibro 224)
The implicit testamentary element here is then extended in scope through the response of another son: ‘e poi, ieri, quest’altro mio figlio mi ha detto che uno vive / specialmente perché ecc.’, which the father dismisses as ‘troppo banale, troppo tremenda’ before giving his son ‘uno schiaffo d’amore, tremendo’. Again in this poem, the paternal-didactic motif is inscribed within the quasi-diaristic recording of the everyday, complete with details of location, address, and so forth, and in a texture of repetitive wordplay.22 The paternal, testamentary, and playfully meta-poetic strands are combined again in Stracciafoglio 19:
chi scrive, scrive, Federico caro, e riscrive, il proprio testamento, tutto il tempo:
ricatta, ritoccandone le clausole, i suoi destinatari ereditari:
(e tu lo sai,
che perfeziono il mio dettato, soltanto, aggiungendo disposizione a disposizione,
di norma): (e dico che una poesia si corregge con un’altra poesia, un corollario
con un codicillo): (faticando fino all’item conclusivo, a fare fine, finalmente): (e io,
che quel che ho scritto ho scritto, te l’affido):
il mio lascito è questo stesso rogito:
Part of the ongoing, fraught dialogue with Federico, this 1979 poem identifies the text itself as an explicitly testamentary form. It also foregrounds the cumulative structure of Sanguineti’s poetic opus, and in doing so prefigures the titles of two subsequent volumes (Corollario and Codicillo). But above all it focuses on the poem as legacy, which both addresses the heirs and is bestowed upon them, while ambivalently expressing the speaker’s authority and his indecisiveness.
This idea of a lascito-rogito comes to full fruition in 1982 in Novissimum Testamentum, whose forty-three stanzas of mock ottava rima constitute, for Pietropaoli, ‘la summa del lavoro poetico sanguinetiano’ (Unità 148).23 The text echoes on one level the apocalyptic outlook of Laborintus, but now in a ‘serio-comic’ key, with an io-pagliaccio delivering ‘serissimi messaggi buffoneschi e sarcastici’ (Curi, La poesia 283). The poem moves between parody, pastiche, and self-mockery as the io, echoing Villon’s Petit Testament (Cortellessa 261), formally renounces life (‘pubblicamente dichiaro e certifico / che per sempre rinuncio all’universo’), styling himself as someone who ‘poco ha da perdere’ (Il gatto lupesco 129). It is a stylistic and comic tour de force, presenting the apotheosis of Sanguineti’s degraded, moribund io, flaunting ‘in piazza’ an exhausted self, with nothing of substance to leave his wife or children:
alla vedova mia non lascio niente:
cosí incomincio, che ci parlo chiaro:
neanche niente ai miei poveri orfani,
tre sono i maschi, e la femmina è una: (Il gatto lupesco 130)
Sanguineti’s stylistic ‘sprezzatura’ covers a wide spectrum, bringing together elements of ‘sottoparlato di origine popolaresca’ (Pietropaoli, Unità 151), alongside areas of high literary pastiche in a ‘sintassi balorda e sghemba’.24 In this rich verbal mix, the representation of the paternal and conjugal io is unstable in tone and style, at times almost peremptory (as seen above), elsewhere tenderly affectionate, notably towards the youngest child, imagined as a fatherless ‘piccoletta derelitta’ (Il gatto lupesco 130).25 Here the io-padre plays the ironic patriarch, unable perhaps to bestow a conventional dowry, but reassured by his personal ‘patrimonio’ of ‘bellezza infernale’ that she bears:
la cocca mia, la tanto coccolata,
che ho generato con la mia signora,
purché continua come è incamminata,
non finirà, per me, credo, in malora:
tanto è gentile, e tanto pare onesta,
che a lei la vita le sarà una festa:
se, fresco morto, mi verrà a cullare,
tutto allegro io mi corro a addormentare: (Il gatto lupesco 131)
Here one of the most touching moments of paternal tenderness in Sanguineti is also suffused with textual irony, as the affectionate familiarity of ‘cocca mia’ collides both with the matter-of-fact ‘generato con la mia signora’ and a highly literary pastiche-fragment from Dante’s Vita Nuova. The result is a stylistic and formal estrangement of the paternal io, who goes on to lay bare the inventory of a vigorous conjugal libido (‘dopo, ancora, i succhiari e i pompari, / dopo i fellari e dopo gli irrumari’) only to record its passing and the persistence, as legacy for his widow, of mere words, which are ultimately ‘più niente assai che, dentro un’acqua, il buco’ (Il gatto lupesco 132). The heirs are left with a superabundance of words, the ‘catalogue’ of the world as ‘grande magazzino’, in extended enumerative sequences which take Sanguineti’s paternal list-mania to new heights:
lascio, a chi resta, aurore boreali,
e re di topi, e donne barbute:
lascio i cavalli di Frisia e di Troia,
la Juve, i virus, la Nato, le virgole:
e così lascio lotterie e locande,
rebus, rosari, apriscatole e scatole: (Il gatto lupesco 133)
In a process familiar since the paternal list-poems of Purgatorio de l’Inferno, the anarchic catalogue leads on to an overt ideological lesson for the heirs (both offspring and readers), about a world subject to economic imperatives above all else, where ‘il verso giusto è il verso alla rovescia’, and about the inverted ‘alchemy’ whereby ‘gold’ can become all other things, even allowing ‘il falso’ to become ‘vero’ (Il gatto lupesco 134–5). In this apocalyptic scenario of ‘gare mondiali, guerre nucleari’, the moribund io-padre can leave only the worthless physical legacy of his own degraded body, unsuitable even for recycling, with a mock-pathetic focus on his spent reproductive organs: ‘ci fosse almeno la banca del cazzo’ (Il gatto lupesco 135). Following further images of bodily decay, his legacy set out in the final lines is a meagre one:
altro, per oggi, né dico né scrivo:
lascito magro avete rimediato,
ma magro è l’uomo che l’ha rilasciato:
congedo prendo, più morto che vivo: (Il gatto lupesco 138)
The overall sense is of an io exhausted by the creative and procreative process. This exhaustion must be read, Cortellessa argues, ‘in chiave […] metastorico-letteraria’ (262), as the record of an ‘esaurimento storico’, amidst the ruins of modernity, the end for ‘uno come Sanguineti’ (263). For the figure of the poet-father-writer here, the exercise of writing the self is faced with extinction, and yet the fact of writing this extinction inscribes its own vitality: in fact the poem ends with a recurrence of the rhyme scrivo-vivo, even if both terms are negated here – and as Weber observes, the use of Sanguineti’s trademark final colon is especially ‘scandalous’ (256) at the close of this text, denying the closure inherent in the testamentary form. Writing the death of the self, however, facilitates a vital form of parental instruction in this poem: the pedagogical impulse persists here, both in the explicitly ideological interpretation of an apocalyptic reality and in the unflinching, tragi-comic representation of bodily decay and death as ineluctable realities underpinning the paternal/filial relationship. In this representation, any descent into pathos is forestalled also by the stylistic and formal estrangement characterizing this public performance of the paternal self, in a poetic voice that is a travestimento, a ‘costume clownesco’ (Weber 245).
Paternity in the later works
Sanguineti’s reporting of his own demise in 1982, at the age of fifty-two, is rather premature, in terms of both biographical reality and poetic writing. However, there are significant changes in his poetry from the early 1980s onwards: alongside a recurring posthumous stance in the ongoing diaristic-autobiographical vein, there is an opening-up to a more prominent stylistic diversity, with for example in Senzatitolo (1992), texts involving formal play, occasional pieces dedicated to other artists in homage or polemical opposition, parodic reworkings of canonical forms; creating a work that is ‘composito, plurimo, scheggiato’ (Pietropaoli, ‘Sanguineti Angelus’ 424). In this work, and in the subsequent Corollario and Cose, the paternal motif begins to fade from the repertoire, while there is an even greater level of ‘dissacrazione del personaggio-autore’ (Curi, Epifanie 142), often centred on the conjugal-erotic sphere. A slight variant on the paternal theme appears in Rebus 19 (1984), written on the birth of his first grandchild, whom he greets with ‘esercitati effetti (e affetti) vocali, / sperimentati, ora fa un secolo, pare, sopra il suo padre’ (Il gatto lupesco 59). However, the relatively rare occurrences of the io-padre from this point involve primarily the figure of the poet’s youngest child Giulia, seen for example in Codicillo 17 (1983), where she is ‘la fantolina arlecchina, fatina minutina, tutta di plastilina’ (Il gatto lupesco 27), or in Codicillo 25, as she runs up high scores in the home videogame Astrosmash: ‘mia figlia è meglio non parlarne, che spara cifre vertiginose, siderali, / astrosmashtiche’ (Il gatto lupesco 35). Here the father’s bemused stance at his daughter’s prowess with computerized ‘astronavi’ is combined with the portrayal of his own ineffectual attempts, couched in comically sexual imagery (‘mi sborro e mi spappolo / una cannonata di orgia computerizzata’) before ending with the reprise of a familiar rhyme (‘chi vive vive, e scrive’). One of the 1986 Mauritshuis sequence based on paintings in the eponymous museum in the Hague is also addressed to ‘figlia mia’: in keeping with the thematic strand of teaching the children about physical realities and death, the poem describes meticulously a still life by Pieter Claesz, a memento mori piece whose ‘repertorio trito’ includes a ‘morto cronometro’, ‘ossame molto umano’, and a ‘penna semiesausta, muta’ (Il gatto lupesco 179), resonating inevitably with the repeated images of the moribund poet in this phase. After this, in Corollario (1992–6) we find just one passing instance of parental address in poem 19, where his gift of a jigsaw puzzle from Jerusalem for the now grown-up daughter leads to yet another ‘didactic’ speech, this time inveighing against religions. Subsequently, in Cose (1996–2001), there are no further identifiable instances of texts involving paternal concerns or dialogues (although the conjugal-erotic theme is as strongly present as ever).
There is, however, a late recurrence of the paternal theme in the posthumous collection Varie ed eventuali (published in 2011, a year after Sanguineti’s death), in the sequence ‘Tre sonetti verdi’ (dated 2004). The sonnet form, which appears at intervals throughout this final volume, had typically been used by Sanguineti in previous works as part of a more playful or occasional vein, in pieces such as acrostics dedicated to artistic and literary friends.26 However, a notable feature of this posthumous collection is the presence of sonnets in which the examination and representation of the self is the primary concern, involving varying degrees of stylistic irony or pastiche. In the first poem in ‘Tre sonetti verdi’ – a dialogue with the self, with the ‘heart’ – the speaker’s paternal status is a defining characteristic:
cuore mi sei di padre, e così, a scatti,
e a salti, e a sbalzi, in vampe di calore
mi scappi in scoppi, e ti storci e ti sbatti,
bello bollente in bolle di vapore: (Varie 38)
The playfully alliterative texture within a canonical verse form recalls Novissimum Testamentum, as does the exaggerated display of emotion: his ‘caro cuore’ gives rise to ‘lacrime di languido liquore’, exuding an ‘amaro amore’. The tension in these last words is echoed in the second sonnet (addressed to a ‘figlio’), which is striking for its strong physicality (images of sleep, death, ‘membra storte’) and its contradictory emotions reminiscent of paternal poems from Stracciafoglio in the late 1970s, but resolved finally in a passage of unaccustomed paternal humility:
perdona il genitore: e con assorte
voci io ti cullerò: dolce, amoroso,
placida pace, in ninnenanne accorte,
odi, filastroccando, io, doloroso,
ecco, a te porgo: e busso alle tue porte: (Varie 39)
Here, as the gravitas of the sonnet form is undermined in the comparision to a lullaby or a filastrocca, the note of paternal tenderness recalls if anything elements of the address to the daughter in Novissimum Testamentum.27 This echo is reinforced in the third sonnet where her figure again takes centre stage: ‘il mio universo è in te, florida figlia’ (Varie 39). In a further display of hyperbole, she is superimposed on a range of female figures (‘madre a me sei […] mi sei sorella […] quasi sposa mi sei, mia meraviglia’) culminating in the self-ridiculing portrayal of a lovesick io-padre: ‘a te ti faccio l’occhiolin di triglia’. In the closing lines, the tone shifts as the self is represented in less comic terms:
tu non sai, cara, quanto ho trepidato,
quanto ho sofferto: io sono la conchiglia
in cui, volendo, ascolti, in concertato,
come si franse, in mare uraganato,
in mille pezzi la fragile chiglia
del mio arcaico naviglio navigato: (Varie 39)
In this, his last appearance in Sanguineti’s verse, the figure of the io as father is reduced to an empty, resonating shell, to a broken thing, the shattered hull of a wrecked ship. In his stance of trepidation and exaggerated humility, the father is now a fragile, diminished, almost vanishing io, in keeping with the further generalized abasement of the self in this posthumous collection.28
Paternal realism and the construction of Sanguineti’s masculine self
Our analysis of the texts brings to light two salient and, in the wider literary context, distinctive aspects of Sanguineti’s extensive use of the language, imagery, and postures of paternity. Firstly, there is an overarching concern with material realities, whether bodily, economic, or political, in representing and addressing the child from a paternal perspective; secondly, paternity is a key component in his construction of a contradictory, sometimes fragmented, but distinctively masculine self.
Discussing the term ‘realism’ in 2005, Sanguineti states that its efficacy lies in the emphasis it places ‘sul rapporto concreto fra gli uomini, sulla loro storia, sulla loro esperienza’ (Galletta 63); and he concludes with the avowedly ‘paradoxical’ claim that, in the twentieth century, ‘l’unico vero atteggiamento realista, nel senso che ho cercato di indicare, sia stato quello delle avanguardie’ (68). In a similar vein, Lucia Re asserts that a key element in the work of the neoavanguardia in general was ‘the urge to “demystify” and “demythify”’ (Re 137): in this sense, a realist impulse can certainly be seen to underpin the role played by paternal themes and images in Sanguineti’s poetry. Describing aspects of his cultural formation in the immediate postwar years, Sanguineti stresses the importance of ‘Marx e Freud come due punti di riferimento essenziali, soprattutto colti in quello che è l’atteggiamento di demistificazione e di critica’ (Galletta 93). The demystification of the family, seen in the poems with reference both to the conjugal and the parent–child relationship, is rooted on the one hand in Sanguineti’s Marxist position, as elaborated clearly in the 2006 essay ‘Come si diventa materialisti storici?’ Here he recalls how, according to the Communist Manifesto (a passage already cited in Reisebilder 19), capitalism itself destroys ‘valori familiari’ and ultimately exposes the naked economic mechanisms underlying family relationships (‘Come si diventa’ 20). In the same essay, he links his own earliest awakening of class consciousness with an acquisition of a sense of sexual awareness, recounting how, as a child in Turin, a chance encounter with a slightly older working-class boy gave him his first direct contact with an individual from what then seemed ‘un altro pianeta’, the world of the proletariat. It is telling that a key part of the memory involves the other boy’s uninhibited attitude to sexual matters, on which Sanguineti, as a ten-year-old with a bourgeois education, held ‘un’idea favolosa’ (25). The essay goes on to identify a similar conjunction of sexual and socio-political discovery in Moravia’s novel Agostino, which Sanguineti praises for its ‘realist’ dimension as ‘un grande libro politico’ in its representation of a young bourgeois boy who discovers ‘in piena coincidenza, la differenza sessuale e la differenza sociale’ (28). However, if Moravia’s representation of that discovery embraces the filial perspective of the child, in Sanguineti it is through the io-padre that this same critical revelation of the political and the corporeal-sexual is given voice.
In his 1927 essay The Future of an Illusion, Freud declares: ‘Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into “hostile life”. We may call this “education to reality”’ (Freud 49). Sanguineti’s io-padre is frequently represented in a pedagogic posture that resonates closely with this Freudian imperative. Unlike other paternal poems seen earlier where the corporeal is attenuated symbolically, sublimated, or simply avoided, Sanguineti’s poems repeatedly present the io-padre actively promoting awareness and understanding in his offspring of the bodily nature of human experience. From early representations of the physicality of the foetus and newborn child to admonitions delivered to the young sons about a hostile material and socio-economic world, from matter-of-fact discussions of sex to the exploration of the pathologized body and contemplation of death, Sanguineti’s paternal poetry is focused on stripping away illusions and idealizations. This demystification also bears directly on his politicized view of linguistic choices, for example in Glosse 17: ‘amo così, quella grande politica / che è viva nei gesti della vita quotidiana, nelle parole quotidiane (come ciao / pane, fica, grazie mille)’ (Il gatto lupesco 125).
Sanguineti describes historical materialism as ‘l’idea che gli uomini siano delle belve umane aggregate, che partono da bisogni elementari – produzione e riproduzione della vita – e che tutto il resto è dato come possibilità di scegliere la migliore strada per riorganizzarsi e sopravvivere prima di tutto come gruppo, come classe, come specie’ (Gnoli 195). The materialist and corporeal vision of the human subject, including the child, is concomitant with a concern with the individual’s initiation into culture. For Sanguineti, ‘l’esperienza corporea non è un’esperienza naturale’ (Galletta 105): it is based rather on cultural and historical modalities, and the task of ‘humanizing’ the ‘bestiola bambino’ (Gnoli 112) is a difficult one. An essential part of this task is teaching the child about death:
Si potrebbe dire che l’unica cosa che si trasmette culturalmente o, almeno, il nodo centrale della trasmissione culturale sta nell’insegnare all’animale uomo che dovrà morire. Cosa che l’animale ignora e che l’uomo sa. Ma che non sa il fanciullino: l’infante non nasce certamente con questa idea, deve esservi educato. (Galletta 115)
Sanguineti’s use of the term ‘fanciullino’ here brings us back to his earlier commentaries on Pascoli. While erotic and economic realities were seen to be ‘censored’ by Pascoli, the theme of death was nevertheless important. In Pascoli, however, death was a focus of filial and memorial pathos, whereas Sanguineti’s paternal texts locate it in the framework of present and future bodily reality, where it is, he says, ‘guardata molto dal basso, come morte di un corpo e non come separazione tra spirito e carne’ (Galletta 117). It is ostentatiously displayed, along with the full range of corporeal experiences. One text where the contrast with Pascoli is underscored further is Sanguineti’s conjugal-erotic pastiche of Pascoli’s L’ultima passeggiata (1982), in which, Curi notes, ‘a sventare il rischio del patetico [è] principalmente il linguaggio della corporalità’ (Curi, Gli stati 219). We can make a similar but broader claim for the treatment of the themes associated with paternity throughout Sanguineti’s work. The poems of domesticity do not so much offer ‘alternatives’ to ‘degraded scenarios’ as suggested by Peterson (72), rather they embrace the realities of animal existence in all its degradation. The language and imagery of corporeality, of the quotidian and of historical materiality are what anchor the paternal poems in a demystified present perspective. Rather than looking backwards in filial nostalgia, pathos, or regret, these texts look forwards as they offer a clear-sighted personal and ideological legacy of realism to the children and the reader.
Sanguineti’s texts also present a shifting, sometimes contradictory or unstable, but assertively masculine construction of the paternal self. In an essay on fatherhood in American confessional poetry of the mid-twentieth century, Brian Glaser suggests that the poetry of fatherhood (particularly poems addressing daughters) can cast a new light on the specific experience of American masculinity in that period, as writers explore ‘a relationship that made their own masculinity into an occasion of loneliness’, reflecting ‘a tension between their identities as fathers and their identities as men’ (27). In Sanguineti, in a very different socio-cultural and ideological context, the paternal self is often degraded and problematized (notably in terms of his physical or sexual vigour), but there is little sense that these problematic figurations involve a fundamental challenge to his masculine identity. Indeed, the subject that Sanguineti constructs is avowedly masculine, albeit one in which elements of gendered self-effacement or degradation coexist with manifestations of libido, authority, and pedagogic certainty.
Lucia Re argues convincingly that Sanguineti and the other members of the male-dominated neoavanguardia were largely ‘oblivious or indifferent to the ideology of gender in their own discourse’ (145). Nevertheless, their challenges to linguistic and expressive norms led them to explore ‘an alternative language, which in many ways meant somehow moving towards a non-masculine, “feminine” type of discourse’, one that challenged ‘patriarchal bourgeois culture’ (Re 169). In the case of Sanguineti, especially in Laborintus, this sees the writing plunged into what Re calls ‘the irrationality of a generically “feminised” unconcious’ (171), involving an ‘appropriation of the feminine’ and ‘the usurpation of a vast metaphoric field which includes images of giving birth, giving life, nourishing, etc.’ (172). With regard to Laborintus, I would argue that this is in part a distorted reading: the various figures or textual presences in that poem (io, tu, Ellie, Lazso) are unstable and shifting in their identities and functions (Risso 22), and the focus on the feminine is at least in part concerned with using figurations of maternity to represent the filial-foetal stance of a dissolved, multifaceted subject.29 It is certainly true, as we have seen, that Sanguineti’s subsequent poetry makes widespread use of a ‘metaphoric field’ associated with birth, parenthood, children, and nurturing, but it does so in a distinctively masculine-gendered perspective. In fact, with the gradual development of his diaristic-communicative manner from Purgatorio onwards, the representation of a specifically male experience of parenthood is one of the most original elements in the construction of Sanguineti’s textual persona.
We have seen how the paternal poems are a vehicle for the promulgation of Sanguineti’s ideological vision through the adoption of a pedagogic stance. While this is grounded in representations of practical, quotidian experience and coupled repeatedly with a tender or protective posture, it also involves the assumption of a position of authority, indeed of dogmatism at times, giving rise to notable ambiguities of tone and emphasis.30 The political lessons delivered by the io-padre are peppered with verbs of telling and ‘explaining’ and are often peremptory in giving the children his historical-materialist analysis of family life or of everyday cultural objects. At times the paternal stance becomes overtly authoritarian, as embodied in the slaps delivered in Postkarten 64 and Capriccio italiano or in the more confrontational arguments in Stracciafoglio. However, from an early stage the paternal discourse is also associated with representations of the io as weak, degraded, confronted by his own mortality specifically by virtue of his paternal status, and in turn driven by a paternal-didactic impulse to impart the knowledge of this to his offspring as explicit or implicit addressees of the poems. Some of these ambiguities are echoed in a personal testimony by Vittorio Coletti, an academic colleague in Genoa, who stresses Sanguineti’s almost ostentatious emotional and physical ‘pateticità’, whose focus lies in his family relationships in all their contradictory aspects: ‘È nella famiglia che il poeta è corpo debole e invadente, indifeso e protettivo, fastidioso e desiderato. […] Il corpo-famiglia è scudo e ferita dell’individuo’ (Coletti, 37–8).31 As we have observed, ambiguities such as these are central to Sanguineti’s paternal poems.
The representation of paternity in Sanguineti is complex and original, opening perspectives previously unexplored in the modern Italian poetic tradition. In contrast with other poets’ paternal representations where the language and imagery tend towards displacement of the corporeal in symbolic or abstract terms, Sanguineti writes fatherhood as an embodied experience, anchored in a historicized present, lived and understood politically. Meanwhile, his paternal poems are characterized by a shifting and contradictory construction of the poetic io as both a pathologically degraded, even abject self – a self diminished in part by his very paternity – and as an assertive patriarchal figure who leads and teaches the children, dispensing practical and ideological guidance and embodying an authority represented in gendered masculine terms. The image and voice of the father in dialogue with his offspring offer a unique key to the contradictions inherent in Sanguineti’s broader construction of the poetic self as by turns strong, uncompromising in his opinionated certainties, and elsewhere declaredly weak, impotent, or empty. Thus, Sanguineti constructs a masculine self riven by ambiguities and tensions, between the ultimately anarchic messages of demystification associated with the avant-garde, the authoritative and at times authoritarian stance of the pedagogue delivering them, and the often vulnerable, diminished, or sometimes tenderly protective persona of the flesh and blood parent.