Italian poet Antonia Pozzi (1912-38) had the kind of abbreviated life that a cadre of feminist scholars might fetishize. A ’30s Modernist, Pozzi wrote clandestinely, scribbling her poems in diaries. She had an affair with a classics professor when she was only 15 years old; later, she opposed fascism and performed volunteer social work, and eventually committed suicide at 26, attributing it (in her note) to “an illness of the nerves.” Her father published the poems from her diaries but carefully doctored her writing so that it remained “pura,” even editing her suicide note. In a sense, her biography paralleled those of Plath, Weil, and Dickinson. The new bilingual edition Breath, edited and translated by Lawrence Venuti, includes a lengthy biographical preface and a selection of letters, to acquaint the 21st-century reader with the tragic figure behind the work.
Stylistically similar to Lorine Niedecker,another unsung Modernist, Pozzi wrote sparepoems that combined the pastoral with an Imagist’s obsessive attention to language. In Breath, the Lombard landscape looms as a haunting motif in her poems: “tonight/arcane flora/will bloom/in the chasms—/oh—might/the tomb/of stars/bereft of glitter be/mountain/flowers—.” Each ascetic line is carved into the page like tracks in a snowy tundra. Her works are also love poems, although the ego here is tenuous, penumbral, as evidenced in her take on Narcissus: “I knotted my red/apron/& now bend over/this stream/mute, immersed/in a womb of mountains:/knowing that/suddenly—noon/will swarm/with cries/finches—/your face/will well up/in the calm mirror,/next to mine.”
Venuti performs archaeological feats to restore Pozzi’s poetry to its original, unbowdlerized form, returning to her original notebooks. Venuti, however, may have become carried away with the Poundian mode of “translation experimentalism.” Although the Italian version is in standard free verse, Venuti chooses to fragment the lineation, literalizing her disjunctive thought process; he tampers with form so that it conforms to the poetic idiom of the American Imagists and Objectivists. Still, Breath‘s understated verses stun like the fields of asphodel and caves of silence that inform her geography.