I spent a lazy Sunday morning reading the satirical, anticlerical Roman sonnets of Giuseppe Gioachino Belli as translated by Harold Norse. Jargon 38 designed and printed by Igal Roodenko and Jonathan Williams in 1960. This is the type of thing that I never would have found out about or experienced but for the nose of Jonathan Williams. He finds all the most fascinating truffles.Belli was an Italian poet best known for his sonnets in Romanesco, the dialect of Rome. Norse, who prior to encountering the sonnet, could not read Italian, immersed himself in the originals for two months and came up with these slangy translations. The sonnets have also been translated by Anthony Burgess and William Carlos Williams. WCW provides a preface for Norse’s translations and you can see why Belli would appeal to him, given Williams interest in the American vernacular, along with his anti-establishment spirit.
Here is Norse’s translation of The Mason of the World:
“To see just what there is above the stars
What can we do?” said all the men who were able.
One said, “So whaddaya need? Ya don’t need nothin’-
Let’s just go an’ build the Tower of Babel.
C’mon cement, bricks, slaked lime, a trowel . . . .
I’m manager, you’re foreman: all right, guys,
Let’s buckle down and get to work with a will. . . .”
An’ meanwhile God was laughin’ to split His sides.
Already it was high as the cross on St. Peter’s
When - wot’s this? their tongues ball up, they stammer
An’ instead of going ahead they go to pieces.
Nobody savvied Italian anymore;
An while one was sayin’: “Pass the hammer,”
The other handed him a cross-cut saw.
Norse also translates Alberto Moravia’s introduction. Ray Johnson provides the cover and J.J. Lebel the collage on the title page. Patrons who made the book possible include Black Mountaineers Willem de Kooning, Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Fiore, Franz Kline, and Dan Rice.
A delightful read. I am not as thrilled with the book’s design. In fact I do not like the small format Jargon titles as much as the slightly more expansive ones like Some Time or Overland to the Islands, and of course, The Maximus Poems 1-10 and 11-22. Zukofsky’s and Levertov’s books seem so much more an opening of the field than these cramped sonnets. I am not talking about poetic forms but their presentation on the page. Like many small perfect bound titles, the text runs right into the gutter, maybe this is fitting for the likes of Saint Strumpet, but it makes reading difficult. You have to handle the book with kid gloves in order to not to destroy the binding.
Not sure if that is Jonathan Williams’s fault or Roodenko’s. Whatever the case, Roodenko sounds like a fascinating guy. He was a conscientious objector in World War II, was interned in a camp (he refused to work and was sent to federal prison), and sued the United States regarding the constitutionality of the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940. He lost and then staged a hunger strike. He was released from prison in 1947, and quickly became involved in civil rights causes. That year he was arrested in North Carolina with Baynard Rustin for desegregating public transportation. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was seven years down the road in 1955; the Greensboro sit-ins in 1960. The judge in North Carolina did not appreciate Roodenko’s radicalism nor his Jewishness. Roodenko served 90 days on a chain gang. One can easily see how Belli’s language of the people and anti-clerical spirit would appeal to Roodenko.
Not a bad way to spend $15. Sermon over.