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  • Maura del Serra

Changing colours in the poetry of Maura Del Serra,


Convegno Internazionale di Italianistica

(Chicago [USA], aprile 1998)

Despite the fact that Maura Del Serra's verse is generally classified within the ambit of changing trends in recent Italian poetry, particularly women's poetry, the work that she has published to date has already earned her a distinctive niche within the general panorama of contemporary Italian poetry. A prolific poet her many and various collections have appeared regularly from 1978 to date. [1] A versatile translator from English, French, German and Spanish she has also written a significant number of works for the theatre too.

The fact that Maura Del Serra is not very well known outside Italy can be largely attributed to a general lack of substantial translations of her poetry into English which would bring her achievements to date to the attention of a wider public outside her native country. Within Italy Del Serra's work is appreciated by critics, poets and readers whose interest in lyrical expression is more broadranging, who empathise with her view on poetry and life in general and who are also prepared to come to terms with her use of language which is highly individual and often difficult to decipher.

Like many other poets of her generation her work has seldom been included in major anthologies of recent Italian verse [2] but this is perhaps more a reflection on the compilers of such anthologies rather than a negative assessment of her work as a poet. Indeed the 1996 Poeti italiani del secondo Novecento 1945-1995 [3] has been much criticised for the selection of poets presented and the glaring omission of such well established figures such as Sbarbaro, Rebora, Gatto, Penna, Risi, Spaziani, Cattafi, Ripellino, Guidacci, Mussapi, Frabotta and Insana from the ranks of poets presented. The implications and seriousness of these omissions makes us aware of the precarious, arbitrary and fickle nature of anthological inclusion and it would often seem to question the whole selection procedure adopted for inclusion in such a work.

Tuscan by birth, [4] Maura Del Serra's poetry is closely linked to her work as a lecturer in modern and contemporary Italian literature at Florence University where much of her research has centered on critical evaluations of twentieth century Italian and European authors such as Pascoli, Campana, Rebora, Ungaretti, Jahier, Caproni, Penna, Montale, Guidacci, Proust, Woolf, Borges. A distingushed translator who works with German, English, French and Spanish she has translated work by Else Lasker-Schuler, Shakespeare, Francis Thompson, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust and Juana Inés de la Cruz and has written several plays for the theatre. There is a strong link between her work as dramatist and poet: she particularly revels in the latitude offered by theatre in verse which often allows her become more subjective and project herself in others.

Her first love, however, is poetry as it allows her articulate her philosophy of life in a brief and concise manner. She herself has stated clearly and unequivocally what it is that it means to her:

La poesia è comunicazione, come lo è la musica, come lo è il linguaggio di tutte le arti: una comunicazione molto intensa [...] nel mio caso si scrive poesia per testimoniare, per gettare un ponte [...] per stabilire dei legami autentici fra sé e il mondo, e questo lo si fa per tutti, a nome di tutti: il poeta è semplicemente un testimone, e non ha, in questo senso, nessun diritto all'autoesaltazione, a un senso di elezione "profetica" o di importanza particolare: è un testimone, un interprete dell'umano; è un traduttore dall'invisibile al visibile e viceversa, quindi, se è un buon traduttore avrà il merito appunto di aver ben tradotto questo testo invisibile che leggiamo tutti e da cui tutti siamo letti. [5]

Maura Del Serra views her role as a poet as that of one who mediates between the visible and the invisible and who translates and interprets what she can discern in the written text. Therefore, her use of language is vitally important so that she can use it to articulate this vision and intuition for the reader. Her modes of expression are dense and concentrated as the links between man and the surrounding world are documented by various signs and changing metaphors. Particularly revealing are titles chosen for collections such as La gloria oscura and L'età che non dà ombra where the accent leans decidedly towards the darker hues of "oscura" and "ombra" while the tendency to single out changing colours is one of the strongest characteristics of her poetry. This accent on colour contains not only realistic and symbolic dimensions but it reveals a great deal about the poet and her relationship with the written word.

The critic Giorgio Barberi Squarotti detects the use of magical and orphic qualities in Del Serra's poetry which specifically recall the poetry of Dino Campana and Mario Luzi. [6] Despite the parallel, Del Serra's poetry, in contrast, has many symbolic forms and allegorical constructions that reveal a whole substratum of convictions and religious beliefs. The poem "Equilibrio" makes a bold and unequivocal statement about the link that binds the poet and reader to the text itself:

Ora che il tempo passa

su noi col suo colore

e siamo due farfalle

dentro lo stesso fiore,

ogni cosa ci svela

la sua forma perfetta. [7]

The poet and reader (the "due farfalle") are united symbolically in their human and finite destiny ("dentro lo stesso fiore") and allegorically in their awareness of the fleeting nature of human life ("il tempo passa") as what is finite recalls the infinite, the imperfect what is perfect ("ogni cosa ci svela/ la sua forma perfetta").

What then are the elements that we find in the poetry of Maura Del Serra? Firstly, her poetry displays moods and changes as it reflects the entire metamorphosis that man can experience. This poetry is an exploration of the soul and of the world in so far as one can reflect the other. This exploration is accompanied by further scrutiny of the poetic word while poetry and truth come together in a linear movement of the texts themselves. Maura Del Serra's "orphism" (to use Barberi Squarotti's terminology) is direct, ascetic and to the point while the images or visions presented are clear and decidedly unsentimental.

Memory too plays an important role in her poetry as it recalls the poet's first mysterious contacts with life and her attempts to decipher its relationship with her own life and, by extension, with that of others too. Her possession of intuitive language allows her discover the analogies which link things together while it also offers her an understanding and appreciation of the continuous transformations and exchanges that take place between individuals. These occasions can provide prime material for poetry as is the case of "Ritratto 1954", a poem written when Del Serra discovered that she had taken the place of a much loved brother who had died in early childhood. It was a traumatic event from which her mother never recovered while the daughter, from an early age, was aware that there was little she could do to alleviate her mother's inconsolable grief:

La bambina perduta nella casa

a lottare con l'ombra d'angelo del fratello

che a vita oscura il respiro ed il riso

nuovo del corpo a lei. La madre arsa

conta i doni mancati

alla sua icona...

La bambina presa

già da un suo stemma di parole contro

il nulla vi si cerca ed accarezza

la sua gatta nel sole dell'attesa. [8]

Experiences like this provide her with the certainty that the use and creative manipulation of the written word can bring the reader and poet alike to the very heart of the matter. Poetry, therefore, for De Serra can be

l'inutile certezza d'ogni rosa creata

nel lume chiuso dell'apparsa danza

mostra il cammino al sole. [9]

These lines touch the very essence of what is apparent but also what is hidden behind the words selected by the poet. This poem illuminates the way for the reader as the darkness of the two adjectives "inutile" and "chiuso" is overcome by the brightness of the solar image which brings the poem to its conclusion and the way towards the "cammino al sole" dominates at the end. Here, poetry and thought becomes two sides of the same experience as what in the literal sense is real and concrete gives way to the light, joy and brightness of the "danza" and the "sole".

In many ways poetry like this resembles a secret fire that penetrates the deep recesses of meaning which are particularly evident in the enigmatic and deliberately provocative titles chosen for Del Serra's poetry collections to date. Like many other poets she is acutely aware of the ability of the word to signify, to excavate and to reveal further meanings that are not always apparent on the surface. The objective in her poetry is to discover and reveal analogies on different levels, to relish the constant transformations and exchanges that take place in life and to express it through the lyrical suggestion of poetry. In L'Arco, the title, chosen for her first collection, the images act as a metaphor for internal tension, for that which Emily Dickinson called "Existence's whole arc, filled up,/ with one small diadem". This "arco" spans or encapsulates light and sun and places particular emphasis on the value of knowledge and of everything that breaks through the darkness and the forces of evil. It particularly values what is perceived as eternal or divine as these are seen to drown out the darkness of silence and despair.

Maura Del Serra chose the contradictory title La gloria oscura for her second collection and it highlights one of the many ways in which she presents colour in her work. Here it is part of an oxymoron and refers to the ability rather than the certainty of the human condition to achieve glory. This duality is reflected in the variety of contrasting colours and images that she presents such as "la gloria oscura", [10] "disputa in nero e rosso", [11] "l'azzurra quiete", [12] or the lines "sarò cerchio perpetuo di lume/scritto nel punto oscuro" [13] - all of which emphasise the conflicts detectable in the world around.

By contrast, her next title Concordanze is a more global one as it attempts to stress the way in which the apparent opposites of human life such as light and darkness, joy and despair, may come together in ultimate harmony. In the poem "Preghiera" she had already visualised this concordance in the following manner:

sia favilla che sana

l'incendio della notte

goccia che scava dalla sabbia nostra

la sua guglia indelebile dispersa

nell'oltresole [14]

Ever-present in Del Serra's poetry is the sense of dualism, of black and white, of the contrast between the finite and the infinite, reality and potential, doubt and confirmation. Poetry is not just dark sign on clear paper but it can also point towards a religious dimension in life. Consequently, the vocabularly used by Del Serra, refers to those essential elements that make up the essential of life such as water (l'acqua), fire (il fuoco), earth (la terra), air (l'aria), dawn (l'alba), night (la notte), comet (la cometa), mirror (lo specchio), stone (la pietra), desert (il deserto), star (la stella), darkness (l'ombra) and travel (il viaggio) - all terms that can help decipher the truth of life and living and which are associated with the dominant colours of black, white and red and the ensuing emotions of despair, joy and passion. The experience of the poet is parallel to that of all those willing to travel through highs and lows in search of further knowledge and of a possible religious dimension to life itself.

In 1987 Del Serra chose the symbolic image of the sundial for the collection Meridiana. The combination of sunlight and shadow which represent daylight are a further indication of the duality of life's existence. Here Maura Del Serra's poetry moves from the subjective condition of confession and metamorphosis to a choral involvement with everyday things in the universal alternation of ascent and descent. The passage from the harmonisation of human happening and events to a subsequent reflection or evaluation of their worth implicitly includes a moment of concentration on the reflected subject. The sundial, or "meridiana", is transformed into the symbol of this condition as it uses light and shade to encapsulate both the concrete reality of time together with the essence of its fleeting nature.

In the poem "Alle stagioni" themes such as the inevitable passage of time, the superior harmony which regulates the universe, nature as both guarantor and repository of life and the cyclical nature of events on earth are presented and brought to the fore. The expressive technique used here, and indeed elsewhere in Del Serra's poetry, is unusual as the poem, through free rhyming and mostly hendecasyllabic lines, is expressed in one long sentence addressed to the seasons that is broken into various interlocking definitions by the exclusive use of the colon, semicolon and dash. In this way the language which is highly allusive brings the seasons with their continuous alternation, their colours and their function centre stage and they become the very image of the joyous and vital rhythm of the universe. This characteristic is clearly expressed in the opening lines:

In voi sole - oro, nero e azzurro - esiste

il tempo inesprimibile; voi siete

ogni viso che tanta strada porta

alla sua foce unanime, ed il moto

diamantino degli astri vi ripete in pensiero

In this poem the seasons, with their ever changing colours, are a perceptible image of the universal rhythm which each reflects in its own way. They epitomise both the endless mutation that marks the birth, transformation and death of people and things together with the seemingly perfect eternity of the surrounding universal order. Through our partial senses and limited intellect they offer us intimations of time and eternity together with an intuition of the deep analogies that exist between things:

- in voi la storia ha rotondo

incorruttibile specchio; voi, carne

della luce, spingete il mutamento

sull'altalena dell'eterno [...] siete

lo spazio che nel cuore nuovo canta.

The overall analogy between those changing colours that epitomise the vital characteristics of spring, summer, autumn and winter closely parallels and reflects the different stages of man's life as it moves and develops through birth, adolescence and maturity towards death and degeneration.


[1] The following were published by Editrice Giuntina, Florence: L'Arco (1978), La Gloria Oscura (1983), Concordanze (1985), Meridiana (1987) and Infinito presente (1992); the anthology Corale (1994) was published by Newton Compton Editori, L'età che non dà ombra (1997) and Adagio con fuoco (1999) by Le Lettere, Florence. [torna al testo]

[2] Her poetry is included in Poesia religiosa italiana - Dall'origini al Novecento, a cura di F. Ulivi e M. Savini, Casale Monferrato, Piemme, 1994, pp. 800-804, and in Lo spazio del testo, a cura di A. Fattori, F. Roncoroni, M. Sboarina, Milano, Mondadori Scuola, 1995, pp. 1326-1328. [torna al testo]

[3] Poeti italiani del secondo Novecento 1945-1995, a cura di Maurizio Cucchi e Stefano Giovanardi, Milano, Mondadori ("I Meridiani"), 1996. [torna al testo]

[4] Born in Pistoia in 1948 Del Serra still lives in her native city. [torna al testo]

[5] Interview given by Maura Del Serra in 1986 on the occasion of the award of the "Ceva" prize for the poems of Concordanze. [torna al testo]

[6] Introduction to Concordanze, p. 5. [torna al testo]

[7] Infinito presente, p. 12. [torna al testo]

[8] Concordanze, p. 9. [torna al testo]

[9] Concordanze, p. 10. [torna al testo]

[10] La gloria oscura, p. 9. [torna al testo]

[11] La gloria oscura, p. 10. [torna al testo]

[12] La gloria oscura, p. 10. [torna al testo]

[13] La gloria oscura, "Jacopone da Todi", p. 14. [torna al testo]

[14] Alle stagioni

In voi sole - oro, nero e azzurro - esiste

il tempo inesprimibile; voi siete

ogni viso che tanta strada porta

alla sua foce unanime, ed il moto

diamantino degli astri vi ripete in pensiero:

inverno, amore secco e freddo, oscuro

sussistere del tempo nella pietà di fine;

e primavera accesa nella sua mano, azzurra

potenza sprigionata dalla brama bambina

che cresce in vampa estiva e colma d'estasi il moto

delle cose; calante perfezione

dei sapori d'autunno - in voi la storia ha rotondo

incorruttibile specchio; voi, carne

della luce, spingete il mutamento

sull'altalena dell'eterno, e infine

bianche nel centro della ruota, siete

lo spazio che nel cuore nuovo canta.

(Meridiana, p. 72).

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