Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Poetic travelogue of notorious Roman suicide sites
I was deeply saddened this morning by news that Fakhra Younus killed herself by jumping from the sixth floor of the building where she lived in Rome. Ms. Younus, age 33, had survived a vicious acid attack by her then-husband in Pakistan, Bilal Khar, who was acquitted of any crime. Thinking of the beautiful young dancing girl who gets smothered in a repressive marriage and survives horrible disfigurement only finally to end her own life in a grand foreign city like Rome made me wish I had the poetic resources to write an elegy for her. The best I can do is offer this co-translation of the contemporary Roman poet Roberto Gigliucci that I did with Leonard Barkan. It's a poetic travelogue of notorious suicide sites in Rome. (For those who dislike reading longer texts online, I have uploaded the poem as a Word document.)
EASY POEM ABOUT HOTELS
By Roberto Gigliucci
Translated by Chris King and Leonard Barkan
There’s a hotel with a courtyard that stinks,
a hotel that opens out to a narrow street,
almost an alley, and its lobby
is a tunnel of wind, never gets warm,
not even in summer, staircases green,
the rooms modest, not too clean,
with big tall wardrobes and a bathtub
equally majestic and useless. In Room 34
a young man killed himself,
a writer, a poet, I'm not sure,
you could ask the hotelkeeper
but he doesn't like talking about it too much ...
The suicide's room is small
also because – as I have said – the furniture
is overblown and invasive, and the window
faces the courtyard that stinks,
a stagnant pool of scrawny light and odors
which come up from below slowly
miscegenating, ugly odors of cooking
and animal corpses, smelly rags,
underfoot rot, soft wood,
live animals in heat, cats, mice,
rotted ghosts, sweaty souls.
The suicide's room – the poet –
that's what I want to call him, the poet,
because the young man, the handsome young man,
did, in fact, write poetry, in some little
magazine he’d even published a bit,
rather well written, they had substance, even
if they were exceedingly sad, when not positively
gruesome. The poet’s room,
as I was saying, was, and is, narrow, but not
as you might like to think, so sweetly
shadowy and romantic, with a painting
depicting fruit, and, above the bed,
a madonna in the Byzantine style, but tender.
A watermelon split in two might seem
almost jolly, with grapes and bees,
and the tiny bathroom
with that improbable barge of a tub
could even seem touching, if only the poet
hadn't killed himself in it,
the handsome young guy, this poet
who obviously didn't know what to do
with all his youth, his beautiful hands,
his beard of a man at twenty,
his whole body mercilessly young,
a passing gift, precious and defiant,
that he refused to give to anyone.
He took his life with sleeping pills, in a hot
bath where he also drowned, poor guy,
once he had lost his senses; he wasn't naked,
he'd put on underpants and a shirt
and a gold chain around his neck
and a watch that was waterproof (never mind
It's a beautiful winter’s day
and I want to take you to a pensione,
economical but gracious, somewhat
away from the city, facing a simple park
with pines and maybe a palm tree,
where the sun sets behind a hill
that seems like an emblem of unlucky joy,
some small suffering mystic penitence,
a flight for old nighttime gentlemen,
for hard luck dogs and mute infants.
The pensione is called Aurora despite
its position facing the sunset.
The proprietor is a young woman
with a strange accent, half-English,
half-German (who knows?), with two permanent
rings under her eyes always violet, very polite,
delighted to tell you at length
the story of the man who killed himself in his dressing gown
on the terrace of Room 18,
a terrace suspended in front of the park
with the green glow of the suburban, as the poet said.
Not a narrow terrace,
fifteen meters square, without plants,
naked but nice and airy
with a wicker easy chair and table
and pillows with hand-painted roses.
The man in his dressing gown must have been
fifty, had a leather attache case
full of papers, forms, reports,
pens, little aluminum tins
with cigarettes and cigars and some new
socks, some white, some black,
that sort of thing. He shot himself
on the terrace around noon,
tired of his great shock of hair
so silver and magnificent, sick
of the dressing gown and the attache case.
He had on his feet not slippers but shoes,
black, almost elegant, with no socks
(even though he had just acquired some)
and his naked knees were wounded, as though
he had fallen to his knees on brambles or stones
or the thorns of his own thoughts
wading in the thorny lake of bitterness.
He blew himself away at noon.
Some old lady probably reset her clock.
Let's get out of here, let’s get very far away,
because I want you to see this elegant hotel,
right on the main square of a celebrated town
with a beautiful cathedral and a cute little cafe
and a really pretty fountain. We’re talking
the best hotel in town, four stars,
recently built, enviable
lobby, all green with plants
and a marble bar with mahogany and mirrors,
elegant waiters and a liftboy
with flame red hair, a handsome boy
if a bit short and cow-eyed.
It's great talking to him, going from floor to floor,
hearing him, young and a little cruel, tell the story
of the lady who slashed her veins
in the toilet of Room 49.
A lady unlovely but refined
with money and a heavy unhappy face,
face enough to make you scratch
your balls, he said, but he exaggerates
to seem callous and virile;
a lady alone on a final vacation
in a bubble of ultimate emptiness,
desperately bejewelled, useless
in the elegance of the moribund
like a solitary noble mummy (I translate
the words of the liftboy into verse).
With a razor blade the lady sliced
her veins, then managed to swallow
the blade after breaking it in half;
the liftboy swings his big boy hands,
frantic while speaking, he never stands still,
when he smiles it is life itself that smiles,
hot life full of blood and fiber
which speaks of death and rotted blood shed.
I believe the lady was flirting
with this boy, this brutally cheerful boy,
at least he suggested that,
their courtship graceful and funereal,
glances, smiles, glances, wind
surrounding towers, bunches of flowers,
petals strewn at the feet, imaginings of roses,
how beautiful on the mountain are the feet of the messenger!
(I believe he wears Size Eleven Double E).
The lady left a note with a few last words: I have lived
little, not even seventy years,
I die young, and I feel selfish
because I've never given anything to anyone,
and I feel generous because no one
has ever tried to take anything away from me.
The boy recites her testament from memory,
forcing a smile, but his stupendous
wet nowhere eyes reflect
a shapeless helpless sadness.
We're on the ground floor, light
glares off the piazza, sour
odor, a burst of spring,
so let’s go, let’s go toward the sea
to a marvelous terrace facing the gulf,
a hotel with a view where you drink lemonade
and navigate, myopic, the tepid air.
Beneath it cliffs, gentle not scary,
cliffs that are not cliffs but precious stones,
almost mirrors, or emeralds, or fantasies.
It’s difficult to think that from this balcony
a blond girl threw herself down,
in autumn as brilliant as this spring
but more shining and moody, three years ago,
a pale girl, blond and crazy
on a brief October holiday
with parents who were dead with fear
for her. She must have hit the cliffs
the way a scarf falls on glassy gems,
bright, gold, and mad. Perhaps
there wasn't any blood, only
waves and splintered light. Surely
it was unexpected; the girl
passed quickly through the lobby
flew to the terrace and into the gulf,
her father and mother on the edge
of the pool frozen
like statues that never feel the sun.
Best to get away from this sky too
and from these waters, hit
the highway and wait for night,
stop at that motel which in the moonlight
doesn't look all that squalid after all.
There, in a room green and yellow,
light soft, a television even,
minibar and a big bright vanity,
a boy and a girl, numb to hope
and perhaps desire, abandoned life
by gulping pills, wrapped up together
in a yellow wool blanket, drunk on bad wine
and sweet tears mixed in a glass,
having sung so many songs together,
no guitar but keeping tune,
“shiny happy people holding hands,”
barely adults, incomprehensible,
sacred perhaps, perhaps beloved of God, who knows,
maybe even airborne and transformed into stars.
To me, terrifying wastrels of beauty,
of flesh, love, sense, and emotion,
hard sinners against youth.
Wait, before I end up all rhetorical, let’s
take shelter at the Pensione
Regina, ignoble hostel of derelicts,
where in a puddle of dementia and shit
an old painter hanged himself.
His canvases he stained with colors,
with tomato sauce and ink,
threw on there coffee and wine
then even pissed on it, if the mood took him;
he was an ape, filthy shadow
of a painter, and finally was evicted;
so he found a room at the Pensione Regina
and decided to end his existence there,
terminate everything in Room 21.
He was loathsome, filthy, raging; not a soul
will regret him, so his lament is mine
to tell, against my will. He had
with him his last painting, which he spat on,
which he shat on, and which he vomited on twice;
he also painted it with toothpaste
and drops of gum blood.
When they told him to get going
from the pensione, he took a belt
and attached himself to the window clasp,
falling seated, half-drunk,
who knows how he managed to die that way
but it's certain that he did. Room 21
got disinfected, the last painting
burned. I’m an abysmal
biographer, but perhaps it is enough to sing
the life and death of an artist
who never sought the admiration of anyone,
least of all himself.
He will get from me some limited
admiration, a little esteem,
a little disgust.
I could lead you on
to a hotel in the mountains where a very rich
man offed himself in a suite,
swallowed poison like an old
school suicide (he died in hospital),
or else to the pensione in the city
where two women died together,
one lovely, one vile, or else
to the Hôtel de la Ville where a madman
dropped lead into his wife and then
slammed his head against the wall (you don't believe me?),
or else, or else, or else, or else – but enough.
This translation appeared in TriQuarterly issue 127 (Northwestern University, 2007).