I’ve been having a ball learning about Roman poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791-1863). Belli is, from first glance, a striking writer, and at second glance even more captivating. The Internet offers a good deal of information about him and examples of his work; while I hesitate to add to that considerable accretion, I do so in an access of enthusiasm and a desire to proselytize: Belli is a writer worth getting to know and too little known. The attention paid to him seems undeservedly piecemeal despite his having had prominent and ardent admirers including, to name but a few, Anthony Burgess, James Joyce and Nikolai Gogol, who likely heard the poet recite his poems in one of Rome’s taverns. Save for a single sonnet, Belli was unpublished during his lifetime, but apparently developed a significant reputation through publicly reciting his poems. Here are a couple:
A Miraculous Relic (Mike Stocks, translator)
This much I know: among the rare sensations
and relics that the Popes have gathered for
the prefect of the Sacristy to store
in holy shrines with the authentications,
Christ’s foreskin – plus his other little bits
and vital members – is the pride and joy;
as relics go it’s just the real McCoy,
and any other relic looks like shit
compared…Now then, my dear good sir, don’t say
this holy foreskin also seems to hail
from other countries which lay claim to it;
have faith my man, have faith, a little bit.
there could be eighty foreskins? Fine, okay -
perhaps it grew and grew, like fingernails.
What Might Have Been (Anthony Burgess, translator)
There’d be, if Adam hadn’t sold our stock
Preferring disobedience to riches,
No sin or death for us poor sons of bitches.
Man would range free, powerless to shame or shock,
And introduce all women to his cock,
Without the obstacles of skirt and breeches,
Spreading his seed immeasurably, which is
To say: all round the world, all round the clock.
The beast would share the happy lot of men,
Despite a natural plenitude of flies.
There’d be no threats of Doomsday coming when
Christ must conduct the dreadful last assize.
Instead, the Lord would look in now and then,
Checking our needs, renewing our supplies.
Though sonnets like the above may initially appear to share some of the “shock value” of Antonio Beccadelli’s The Hermaphrodite, Belli, writing 400 years later, is as a poet by magnitudes more serious, talented and, perhaps surprisingly, devout. Despite an acidic wit aimed at the church in many of his poems, they contain an undercurrent of piety and faith. Though Belli mercilessly mocks Pope Gregory XVI in a number of sonnets, he later defended the Pope against a political challenge and even, towards the end of his life, worked for the church as a theater censor, redacting racier passages from Shakespeare and Italian opera. In a life marked by traumatic family losses and mercurial swings in solvency, Belli was a devoted husband and father. Belli did, though, resemble Beccadelli in one aspect: he too came to renounce his verses, even ordering that his oeuvre be burned. Fortunately for posterity, the friend and confessor with whom he entrusted his manuscripts ignored this request.
Belli wrote copiously in standard Italian throughout his life, including many religious poems and his own zibaldone – a collection of encyclopedia-type essays about all manner of phenomena – that stretched to more than 11 volumes. However, his renown comes almost entirely from the sonnets he put into Romanesco, the Roman dialect, after having been inspired by the Milanese dialect poetry of his contemporary Carlo Porta. Setting out with no less a project than to recreate the Rome of his time in sonnets, Belli wrote 2,279 of these dialect poems. They spread across a vast range of subjects of daily life, not just “the six P’s” for which Rome was famous - “popes, priests, princes, prostitutes, parasites, and the poor” - but also dogs, cats, colds, religious relics, butcher’s shops, advertising, graffiti, empty rituals, lecherous sextons, public executions, winter, beautiful weather, seduction, secrets, small talk, gossip, circumcision, the callous rich, lonely beggars, the annunciation, Abraham’s sacrifice, pregnancy, exhausted mothers, the difficulty of getting children to sleep, Noah’s ark, the rapture, the lottery, food, hunger, and even a sonnet about the pain women can experience in breast-feeding.
These sonnets seem like almost nothing else: raw, energetic, caustic, irreverent, comical, daring, sarcastic, cynical, drawing on a long satirical tradition in Italian literature and on the bawdy irreverence of the poesia giocosa of the Middle Ages. Many lance the hypocrisy in the institutional Catholic church and the sense of entitlement of the wealthy - sometimes within the same poem:
The Two Human Species (Eleanor Clark, translator)
We, you know, were brought into the world
Kneaded in shit and garbage.
Merit, manners and stature
Are all stuff of the gentry
To His Excellency, to His Majesty, to His Highness
Vanities, phoney medals, titles and luxuries;
And for us craftsmen and servants
The stick, the load and the halter.
Christ made houses and palaces
For the prince, the marquis and the knight
And the earth for us ass-faces
And when he died on the cross, he thought
To spill, in his goodness, among such tortures
For them his blood and for us the whey.
Belli’s range, though, is both vertical and horizontal; he can shift suddenly from lancing wit and prurient content to a remarkable empathy and insight into suffering - sober, even bitter, glimpses of the struggle of his fellow Romans to survive amid poverty and squalor. Where in some sonnets he can display a rancor towards women bordering on misogyny, in others he seems unusually attuned and sympathetic to the travails of poor women, particularly mothers:
The Poor Family (Mike Stocks, translator)
Now hush my darlings, hush my little ones,
Your daddy’s coming soon so don’t you worry…
Oh Holy Blessed Virgin Mother Mary,
You who can help me – help me, just this once.
Flesh of my flesh, don’t cry, don’t cry my sweet dear lambs, don't make me die with grief for you.
Your daddy will have scrounged a scrap or two,
And we will get some bread, and you will eat.
If you could understand a mother’s love…
What’s that, Joey, what are you frightened of?
The dark? But son, I’ve got no oil to light.
And Laura, what, what is it, little mite?
You’re cold? Well then, don’t sit there all alone,
Come to your mummy’s arms and warm your bones.
The variety of topics is nearly matched by that of Belli’s experimental approaches to the sonnets and by their daring linguistic diversity. Belli incorporates proverbs, street slang, onomatopoeia, and an enormous variety of voices, from smooth-talking prostitutes to shop owners, from beggars to the rich, from lowly prelates to the Pope himself. Some sonnets get conveyed entirely in dialogue, others in monologue, a couple in baby talk, another by a stutterer, yet another in mocking imitation of bad poetry. Nearly all, as Eleanor Clark observes, present a story or form a vignette, as in the following where the reader can envision a copy writer spelling out the words aloud as he pens an advertisement:
Advertisement (Harold Norse, translator)
Of-St-Cos-ma comma & Da-mi-an
To-se-ll comma or-re-nt-o-ne-l-rge-flo-or
Of-o-ne-of-his-hou-ses comma &th-en-ti-re
Or-ch-rd comma whi-ch-fa-ces-to-th-hi-gh-er
Si-de comma at-num-br-th-ree-fo-ur
Of-St-Sp-i-rit comma wi-th-o-pen-sp-a-ce
Fr-a-st-all semi colon gi-ves-not-ice
To-a-ll comma &sun-dry-ap-pli-ca-nts
Shove it; and I’ll put in the full point.
Once one starts reading Belli’s Romanesco sonnets, it’s hard to stop. I’ll end here with another poem on a religious theme, one that captures the deft combination of hard-edged wit, underlying religiosity, and ultimate pessimism that Belli exhibits in his work:
The Last Judgment (Anthony Burgess, translator)
At the round earth’s imagined corners let
Angels regale us with a brass quartet,
Capping that concord with a fourfold shout:
“Out, everybody, everybody out!”
Then skeletons will rattle all about
Forming in file, on all fours, tail to snout,
Putting on flesh and face until they get,
Upright, to where the Judgment Seat is set.
There the All High, maternal, systematic,
Will separate the black souls from the white:
That lot there for the cellar, this the attic.
The wing’d musicians now will chime or blare a
Brief final tune, then they’ll put out the light:
And so to bed.
Perhaps a bit more on Belli later.