And While the Beast Was on the Prowl
And while the beast was on the prowl I read you
dear Andrew with a tumor in my face
with winter just outside the door and ice
gripping the heart: will I ever recapture
And you came
with your beloved hills
to which in fury and terror
in delay and inertia
you led your years
of which you begged to be
pardoned, to care and not to care:
riotous fullness, avarice
and your hills right before me
stretched the arid, pure death
to a fiery point so that
paucity and hatred did not sway me
nor the malignant gnomes
golems and tarots and the clown the jerk
the King of Oil the King of Thuribles
the paladins the crescent holy wars
What joy your Hermes tongue
that thwacked all other lights
uncouth and mediocre
of a small world in heat
your realm of ferns and vineyards
for which I whirl, a top
driven by gypsy music
your childlike voice your calm
whispering your nostalgia
for grasses and oaks clamorous
with birds and winds, with strong
aromas, dead at last
all boring melodramas
now silence germinates
for the other hand of man
not the one of the pontiffs
always jilting our songs
no, but your blue-haired town
within its ring of walls
that foil the enemy's thrust
your presence in all things
that says to grim nightmares
one more day one more day
we fooled the dragon's fangs
and now the unbridled happiness
of starving children soon
to be fed the eerie trumpet
flourishing over mountains....
Author's note: Andrew is astonishing Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto, born in Veneto, Northern Italy. Holy wars is ironic: the wars waged today between Muslims and the rest of the world.
Copyright 2009 by Ned Condini
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Ned Condini's poem "And While the Beast Was on the Prowl" is both an intimate address to a mentor, and an ambitious meditation on salvaging humane values in a time of violent fanaticism. The personal element helps the reader engage with a topic, the so-called "clash of civilizations", that often remains at the level of mere polemics and theorizing.
Condini's style and theme here remind me of the high-Modernist aesthetic epitomized by T.S. Eliot. The phrase "to care and not to care" and the medieval imagery hark back to Eliot's "Ash Wednesday"; the Eliot who wrote "these fragments I have shored against my ruins" in "The Waste Land" would have recognized Condini's concern that European civilization was crumbling under assault from barbarism and greed.
I chose this poem because I was moved by the beauty and intensity of the darkly mythical imagery Condini uses to dramatize this political conflict. At the same time, however, I felt that the poem had levels of meaning I couldn't grasp because I didn't recognize all the allusions in it. The later-added Author's Note (above) provided a key, but I would like to see more of this information woven into the poem itself, perhaps through a revised title or epigraph. I was distracted at the outset by the question "Who is Andrew?" and I think it would be more effective to signal his identity and literary prominence at the beginning instead of making the reader wait for the footnote.
A writer takes a risk in addressing his poem to a personage whom his readers may not recognize. In judging the War Poetry Contest, I more frequently run into the opposite problem of "borrowed thunder": a Wilfred Owen quote, for instance, does so much to conjure up the culture of the World War I soldier-poets that the author can neglect her obligation to create an independently compelling scene. Here, because Andrea Zanzotto may not be widely known outside Italy, Condini has a fresher story to tell, but this also means that he must work harder to demonstrate Zanzotto's relevance to the narrative, lest the allusion remain at the level of an in-joke.
Even not knowing Zanzotto's work (a deficit I now hope to correct), I got a sense of him in this poem as a man who loves beauty and loves the homeland that inspired his art. The elder poet provides a model for aging without despair. The narrator turns to him, the companion of his imagination, for hope when he feels besieged.
The beast, the forces of death and decay, first attack the narrator on a personal level: "with a tumor in my face/with winter just outside the door". I heard echoes here of the phrase "wolf at the door", often used as a metaphor for starvation. This association led me to picture a poor family hiding from marauding soldiers, as, for example, the Jews hid from the Cossacks during the Eastern European pogroms.
A leap, perhaps, but in keeping with the theme that Condini goes on to develop, namely the ironically named "holy wars" that are ravaging the precious "small world[s]" of "ferns and vineyards". The vineyard, in the Old Testament, is a powerful symbol of the coming reign of God, when even the humblest household will have the means to flourish in peace. (See, e.g., 1 Kings 4:25, "During Solomon's lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree.")
In Condini's poem, it is less clear that God is a liberating force, by whatever name God is called. "[T]he paladins the crescent holy wars" suggests Muslim fundamentalism, but the sardonic references to "golems and tarots and the clown the jerk/the King of Oil the King of Thuribles" seem to skewer Western authorities of church and state nearly as much. I guessed "the King of Oil" to be former US President George W. Bush, who also at times framed the Middle East conflict in terms of a Christian crusade. A thurible is an incense-burner on a chain, which a priest swings during a church procession. Incense being most commonly associated with Catholic and high-church Anglican worship, rather than Bush's evangelicalism, could the "King of Thuribles" be Pope Benedict XVI—no stranger to provocative statements against Islam? This connection is strengthened by the later negative reference to "the pontiffs/always jilting our songs".
Whether one matches these figures up to real-life personages or understands them on a symbolic level, Condini appears to conclude that real salvation resides outside the power structure, with the trickster-poet whose "Hermes tongue...thwacked all other lights". I love the vernacular snap of that word "thwacked," upsetting the pretensions of these "Kings" with its sudden dash of comedy. Victory lies in the small moments of beauty and grace that persist despite the seemingly more powerful forces arrayed against them: "one more day one more day/we fooled the dragon's fangs". It is in the poet's love for his particular patch of ground, in contrast to the ideologues who would sacrifice the land and its people for an abstraction, a kingdom of martyrs in the clouds.
There are a few places in this poem where I would suggest some clarifications. Addressing Zanzotto, the narrator alludes to some inner struggle whose significance is unclear: "your beloved hills/to which in fury and terror/in delay and inertia/you led your years". Did the elder poet need to repent of some period of anger and violence that preceded his current humane wisdom? How does that relate to the poem's political theme? (According to the sketchy biography on Wikipedia, he came from an anti-fascist family, so the obvious guess is out.)
I liked the originality of "blue-haired town" but, on reflection, couldn't quite picture what it meant. The first image I get from "blue-haired" is a certain kind of old lady with a fake-looking dye job. This seems too suburban and pretentious for Zanzotto's earthy Italian village. Is he referring to mossy slate roofs, or bluish foliage? Do blue spruce grow in Italy?
Finally, in the penultimate line, I would put either a line break or a dash between "soon to be fed" and "the eerie trumpet". It might also work to end the poem at "dragon's fangs", since the concluding images are not the most original, and ending with the dragon brings the poem full circle, back to the beast—prowling still, but held at bay, for now.
(Purchase Ned Condini's new book, An Anthology of Modern Italian Poetry, from the Modern Language Association here.)
Where could a poem like "And While the Beast Was on the Prowl" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Aesthetica Magazine's Annual Creative Works Competition
Entries must be received by August 31
Prizes of 1000 pounds for unpublished poems and stories from a British magazine that explores the interactions among different artistic genres and their cultural context; enter online
Robert Watson Literary Prizes
Postmark Deadline: September 15
Free contest from the prestigious Greensboro Review offers prizes of $500 for unpublished poetry and short fiction; no simultaneous submissions
Hackney Literary Awards for Poetry & Short Fiction
Postmark Deadline: November 30 (don't enter before September 1)
Offers prizes up to $600 for unpublished poetry and stories, in both nationwide and statewide (Alabama) categories; publication not included
This poem and critique appeared in the August 2009 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques