Expansiveness and Inclusion for Susan Thomas: Embracing Poetry

Last Voyage

Giovanni Pascoli
Last Voyage: Selected Poems

BY Deborah Brown, Richard Jackson AND Susan Thomas
(Red Hen Press, 2010)

From the Publisher:

“This first appearance of Pascoli’s poems in English translation provides an introduction to his work for the English-speaking reader. The first section of the book includes some of Pascoli’s brief lyric poems, many of them displaying his innovative use of image narrative. We see scenes of country life in his village near Barga, Italy, in the Apuan Alps, at the end of the 19th century. We see the aurora borealis, chickens, donkeys, women hanging laundry, the new railway and men crushing wheat.

The second part of the book consists of three somewhat formal narrative poems set in classical Rome and Greece.

The book ends with a long narrative sequence, an exciting and poignant
re-imagining of Odysseus’ famous tale told from the perspective of an old man. The aging hero falls asleep by the fire with Penelope and dreams a final voyage, in which he reassembles his old crew and visits the scenes of his earlier adventures: Circe, the Sirens, the Cyclops, Lotus Eaters and Calypso.”

Your translations of the Italian poet, Giovanni Pascoli, The Last Voyage, that you worked on with Deborah Brown and Richard Jackson, will soon be released from Red Hen Press. How did this book come about?

The Pascoli project began in Ferrara, Italy when Rick picked up an enormous book containing all of Pascoli’s Italian poems. (Pascoli had also written in Latin and Greek.) Rick lent me the book and I translated a few of the poems. After Rick discovered Pascoli had been a strong influence of Pavese’s, Rick, Deborah and I thought we’d translate some more of them to figure out what this meant, as we were already familiar with Pavese. It also became apparent to us that Pascoli had not been translated into English before.

We began to see the progression of an image narrative, in the elegaic lyric poems Pascoli wrote in his later years. (He had settled in Barga in the Apuan Alps north of Lucca in 1895.) He seems, in these poems, to be exploring this new landscape in which he has begun to put down roots, but is, at the same time, becoming more and more haunted by the spectre of death, which has preoccupied him since the murder of his father when Pascoli was ten years old.

Susan Thomas, Maxine Kumin, Richard Jackson

Susan Thomas at a conference with American poets Maxine Kumin and Richard Jackson

We actually translated almost everything that Pascoli wrote in Italian. Rick, Deborah and I established a pattern, each translating a draft of one poem, then passing it to the others, who would comment and suggest changes. We all agreed the poems should follow the general form and stanzaic patterns of the original, with line breaks especially crucial. But we also agreed that the success of the poems in their “target” language would be the deciding factor in choosing to include poems in a collection.

Rick decided that we should tackle the late narrative poems inspired by Latin and Greek literature. In these, Pascoli transforms the scenes of his own life and expresses his own concerns through the voices of characters from antiquity.

In the longest poem, The Last Voyage, he speaks through Ulysses, nine years after his arrival home in Ithaca. Now Ulysses has the task of gathering his old shipmates and ship and must bury Poseidon’s oar in a land far from the sea. He retraces his famous first voyage and in recreating the voyage of The Odyssey through an old man’s point of view, he becomes an image for Pascoli’s own retreat into his past to evaluate his adventures, his triumphs and his failures.

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