Liviu Pendefunda’s introduction to his translation into Romanian of “In the Instant’s Guise - Selected Poems 1978-2012” (in press)
THE SHAMELESS HERMENUETICS OF LIGHT
by Liviu Pendefunda
An instant can possess shape as well as substance, body as well as soul, as can the spirit down to its very essence. Time appears disguised, concealed by a mask that manifests the stance, the character of past, future and, especially, of present circumstances – all images of the instant itself. The interpretation of such a semblance – like that of poetry, of the primeval word that light reveals – is similar to Sisyphus’s burden, the poet being doomed never to complete his vision.
Nail Chiodo was born in Padua, Italy, in 1952 to Italian biologists who emigrated to the United States. He lived in America on and off for over twenty years, from early childhood up to the age of 36. He also spent some years in Paris, first while in elementary school and then as a college student. In 1974, he received a BA in Philosophy from Yale and, in 1977, he began to make a movie, The Insignificant Other, which he managed to finish only as late as 2000, against all odds. From 1978 onwards, however, his work has centered on writing poetry in English. He now lives just outside of Rome and promotes Lyrical Translations, a professional multilingual poetry translation initiative.
Chiodo moves about the realm of words with remarkable easiness thanks to a prodigious memory and great linguistic dexterity. He may be described, in a sense, as sheer paradox: his literary nature, abundant and unsettling in its originality, encounters – deep within his being but also on its rationalizing boundaries – a type of assumed responsibility, which yields a contained fervor, assimilated with a certain pedantic devotion. The personal touch in his texts, which is immediately palpable, issues therefore from the clashing of feeling and thought, of reflection and affection, from the correspondence of the different, and partly contrary, cultures that formed him intellectually.
In his first set of poems, Calliope Teething, literary critics have discerned a series of influences ultimately understood as inherent in the inventory of his personal imagination. It resounds, first of all, a mannerist echo, in particular through a measured abuse of the oxymoron, via the labyrinth motif or the cosmogonic one: the story of the artist determined to complete his work despite of its Sisyphean quality. He also offers, in an attempt to match Creation itself, a singular, plausible explanation for the specific character of Sisyphus’ otherworldly punishment, and provides a morality tale of the quid pro quos of the 1960s and 70s in the United States that Rick Perlstein, one of America’s most distinguished historians, has described as being “full of fascinating insights and deft formulations” (The Penitentiary). The de-mythicizing verve of the poet, his capacity and determination to confute accepted patterns, to desecrate them, is equally plain in the poem Noncense. The composition prefigures, in a certain sense, the later, longer texts dedicated to Feronia’s woods. The poet quotes Blaise Pascal (“Knowledge of physical science will not console me for ignorance of morality in a time of affliction, but knowledge of morality will always console me for ignorance of physical science”), and embraces also the doctrine of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He tries to do what Wittgenstein said he would have liked to be able to do, i.e. to write philosophy in lyrical form. We must admire the verses’ power of premonition in suggesting, nine years before the event, that Seamus Heaney would be granted the Nobel Prize in Literature, praise their quoting of Giorgio Colli – one of Italy’s most renowned philosophers and the editor of the first complete edition of the works of Nietzsche and of a most distinguished compendium of the Pre-Socratics – who is practically unknown to the English-speaking public.
In What the Whale Said, Chiodo suggests that sky-scrapers in Manhattan could easily end up in ruins – just like ancient Roman temples – along with some possible reasons why, some thirteen years before the fatidic September 11th (he is, here, in agreement with the bas-reliefs carved on the columns of St. John the Divine in the Big Apple).
If one attempts a brief historical review of the Eros motif in western literature, one could say that it has been perceived in a lyrical pattern, in two opposing hypostases. First, we have the erotic or eroticizing poetry promoted by the troubadours, the genre that draws upon the very essence of feeling, depicting the male in ceremonial poses of adoration and humility, triggering affections in tonalities of exalted effusions. In time, there was a reaction against this traditional image of Eros, modern-era poets launched a re-writing offensive, parodied the chivalrous approach. As a result, erotic feeling has not evolved in superlative-inflationary terms and instead been integrated in a new axiological code. Feelings have found a counterpart, no doubt, in the effusion-limiting intellect and in their rationalization, and thus been only reticently embraced by the critical eye of poets. As a result, love has been transcribed, not in a grave and solemn register, but in a more imaginary, ironic pattern – the underlying parodying signs or contained humor being shaped into a lucid, bitter-sweet poetic discourse. In Loud in War, for instance, we witness this de-ritualization of feeling and of sexual love in plainly unromantic language, wherein words are brutally concrete and their coming together from different semantic areas ends up producing an ironical and parodical effect. This is the case of its hero, this is the case of the verses that depict Lud, which have an enduring lexical flavor, amplified not least by inter-textual graftings that suggest that our life in this world is nothing but an extensive bout of texting. Love, as seen by the contemporary poet, is rather more a comedy of words than a naked feeling, more a parodic halo-effect of language than a state of mind endowed with precise psychological contours. It is also the case of the archaic and slang word transplants that give the unromantic language beauty and plasticity (the colloquial language specific to the American street and the gnoseological entities borrowed from several other tongues, especially Latin and French).
The cantos in the mock-heroic epic evoke, in spectacular colors and pitch, especially the New York arena, a space that incorporates the sheer magic of the past and the temptation of faraway places, and where the main mood is that of smoothness and idleness, dense with suave traces of the most atrocious terror. In one segment of the poem, Chiodo imagines a whole world – multicolored, dismembered, and fascinating – as a direct projection into an oneiric dimension, like the frames of a perpetual oscillation between facade and essence, between concrete reality and the deceitful illusion of the poetic gambit.
Sometimes, the poet evokes times and sounds long gone and employs archaic lexical forms to introduce the reader into the fabulous world of the past, a world with fluid contours and a metabolically unsteady mechanics, without homogeneous structure, multifaceted and exorbitant in its rhythm and nature. In effect, the mega-poem establishes an articulate opposition between past and present, between overwhelmingly real, concrete worlds, and those of the imagination, in which things are ambiguous, altered, constantly shifting their weight as if by legerdemain of the imponderable. Nail Chiodo is the one to write his own epic, visited by his own characters. Basically, what we have here is a quantum of the postmodernist obsession with the past, both historical and literary, with a certain “retro” vogue that helps us to retrieve, with peerless ludic instinct, bits and pieces of the ancient mechanisms of literature. The fantasy, virtuosity, and frenzy Chiodo uses to dismantle the old devices of literature are practically incessant. The real world, as well as its fictional paraphrase, intersect in a flurry of playful, carnivalesque hypostases and stresses. His stylistic dexterity is amazing, as is his impeccable handling of different language registers. His image, set face to face with the fictional world he himself has imagined, along with the bookish insertions, the seamless tennis between text, inter-text, and meta-text, make Loud in War a poem where comicality and parody, pastiche and irony meet to configure a comedy of literature re-coined in a postmodern guise. The cantos try to answer questions such as why there is permanence and continuity in the Universe, to elucidate, in a mathematical fashion, the magic of the number 7 (Canto X), to explain Quantum Theory (Canto XII) and the implications of the cloning of human beings (Canto XIII), all these things being inscribed in a game outside time.
In other terms, our poet’s instinct for parody is mainly oriented towards a certain tectonics of the classical imagination, a fixity and monolithic stability of images, the conventionalism of techniques, and not towards the subversive employment of more personal poetic methods. To classic clarity and harmony, he prefers heterogeneity and ironic impulse, in order to make reality less real, to endow it with novel shapes and dimensions more akin to its serendipitous phenomenology. The poet inflicts a desecration of poetic language and also of the world it evokes. Take, for example, the twenty-two things he himself claims to have achieved. We have already touched upon some of them. Thus, we find out the econometric datum at the very beginning of Lucus Feroniae, intended not to disparage the reader, but to make him aware of future perils, on the basis of sound anthropological knowledge: Chiodo quotes a very interesting statement that Claude Lévi-Strauss made towards the end of his long life, to the effect that, after having studied all sorts of human communities, from the most “primitive” to the most “advanced,” there was only ONE conclusion he felt certain he could draw, namely that “no human community can contain more than five-hundred members and not, in some manner or another, split in two.” Also other important theories find a place in his verses, such as a revision of the history and meaning of pragmatism (Canto V), an original kerygmatic/agnostic approach to Christianity (Cantos VII - VIII), an analysis of the scandal triggered by untoward power and privileges presently associated with academic poetry, on the model of the military-industrial complex (Lucus Feroniae, Part II, Canto IV). The central arguments for situating Nail Chiodo’s work in the postmodern zone are quite clear. The ludic strain and the parody, the distinction between high and low cultural registers, the fascinating interjection of past styles and traditions, the narratives that question conventional concepts of law, religion, subjectivity, vision, and the space-time simulacrum, the equanimous criticism of different social systems, and the disorientation of characters in the context of contemporary and future society. The postmodern author, once again, deals with issues of resounding importance – WWII, the Cold War, theories of conspiracy accessed from a distant and less “connected” position, preferring to describe them in an ironic and humorist fashion.
Inter-textuality, the acceptance of intrusions from other literary works full of scientific notions, of commentary on the state of society, of meta-fiction, is an important element of postmodernism, a technique that allows flagrant exchanges to occur within the same narrative, otherwise impossible leaps inside the selfsame temporal frame, historical or autobiographical as it may be, time warps that betray also Nail Chiodo’s identity as a cineast. The cultural logic of late capitalism leads his characters inside a space dominated by paranoia, and to the reduction of some of them, torn between reality and fiction, in a manner suggestive of a magical realism with deep roots in the work of Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel García Márquez. His longer poems are endowed with a fascinating inner lyricism, bear a complex narrative which, though seemingly torn asunder into definite stages of creation and several different pieces, forms a unitary construction, a grand epic of the world, of human civilization as a whole, with its sufferings, joys, disappointments, and victories. The exaltation of the cultural values of antiquity, and the reaffirmation of the great visual artists and composers of our own day (Lucus Feroniae, Part II, Canto V), are to be found throughout his poems. The exquisitely postmodern stance is obvious in his cinematic work, but no less evident in the poems: subjected to iconoclasm, the author becomes a spokesman for a certain historical period, confuting the human status presented by radical literary theory, setting the ground for a synthesis (of a “Rortyian” type) between philosophy and poetry (Lucus Feroniae, Part II, Canto III). It foreshortens the aesthetic distance between them, avoiding the constrictions of metaphor and other figures of speech, employing an assorted language, at once elitist and demotic.
Often, Chiodo’s poetry includes themes permeated with disquiet and is written in free verse. The pauses and structure may seem arbitrary or meaningless at times, even if there always are reasons for the staggering explanations that underpin the unusual ideas. While these ideas have not infrequently already been explained in older verses, and are set apart by punctuation devices and separately organized, the postmodern poetic pattern also resorts to pauses to indicate the chaotic character of our world. The very shape of the poems underlines the idea of meaningless form. This kind of poetry might suggest that life has no sense whatsoever, and makes the reader venture beyond the comfort zone and consider the existence of life in a new light.
The narrative in poems of this kind may be circumscribed to a certain flow that follows the thoughts or words of the speaker. What we encounter in Nail Chiodo’s work is an approach to existentialist and nihilist subjects. While existentialism and postmodernism are not synonymous, in practice they are frequently associated. The evocations of the mission and fate of the poet (Lucus Feroniae, Canto VII) and of divine vision (Canto VIII) are most memorable in this respect.
Chiodo is a poet not easily translated. His erudite polyglot language twists terms as well as meanings, requiring first of all that the whole picture be brought into focus, so that one may then be able to split hairs and analyze the import of ideas and the nuances in each and every word. The translation into Romanian required a comparative analysis between the original English version and its Italian translation, achieving a hybrid beneficial to a free interpretation of the text.
The entire work of this great poet and man of letters – and, I should add, of this thoroughly dedicated friend – is made up of photographic narratives. His instants or snapshots, however, have neither time nor space, but engulf both in order to unwind, at higher or lower speeds, the narrative’s moving picture. The latter is nothing other than the very matrix the poet pours his fantasy, his genius into, an allegory of elements which, as incarnate spirit, give lyrical shape and substance to poems unique in the panorama of world literature. Being written in English makes them accessible everywhere, but their translation into Italian and Romanian renders unto these jewels a Baroque tint. From the first to the last, their evolution is constant in terms of versification as well as ideas, the poet waxing unmatched and original in personality.
In their style, the verses are to be enrolled under the sign of modernism – alongside similar ones produced by E.E. Cummings, R. Kipling, T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats – Nail Chiodo’s forms being very much like those of Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath. An evident characteristic of modernism is the self-acknowledging stance, clearly rejecting the realist framework and using the values of the past by way of repetition, incorporation, rewriting, revision, and ridicule. His poetry is all over the surface of the mirrors poets look into, scrutinizing the novelties of his day, assaying them alongside experiences humanity has been accumulating since antiquity and that are still ongoing.
Chiodo’s erudition, his overflowing encyclopaedic knowledge – evidence of its accumulation in the manner of a veritable mental library – emerges forcefully but proves of no annoyance to the reader, the copious footnotes helping him to reconstruct the history of the arts, politics, and human society, or challenging him to search the dictionaries or the Internet. The resulting revelations, these living shapes of the instant, govern the world of Nail Chiodo, fix the reader’s soul and mind on the cross of the world, nail by nail.