For several months now, I have been working on a recomposition of Vittoria Colonna’s Sonnets for Michelangelo. I took the idea of “recomposing” from Max Richter, whose “Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons” renders the “Four Seasons” in a fresh, dynamic, contemporary voice. If there was ever a piece of music that was teetering on the edge of oblivion from overexposure, the way a word too-oft repeated can lose its meaning, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was it. But Richter made it possible for us to really hear that music again. Richter retains Vivaldi’s substance while dancing around his themes, revealing new movements and surprising us with the kind of expected-unexpected joy that spring is.
Most of us have never heard of Vittoria Colonna: the overexposure at issue here does not pertain to the particular words of her sonnets, which most of us have never read, but to the language of Christianity. Christianity has become too familiar—the words, too often repeated and too little meant, have gone stale. As the great philosopher Søren Kierkegaard worked so tirelessly to make visible, we seem to have assimilated and forgotten the wildly unassimilable and unforgettable truths of the Christian faith. Add to this problem the inescapable difficulty of reading and translating poetry of the past, and it begins to feel like the sonnets of someone like Colonna are consigned to the realm of those many ingenious lovely things that are gone, in the words of Yeats.
I ordered a copy of Colonna’s sonnets at the recommendation of a friend. The copy I purchased is a bilingual edition in Italian and English, and even though I found myself often uncomfortable with the translation, I could immediately sense the depth and power of Colonna’s poetic vision. It is a common move in the academy today to translate vital poets of the past such as Vittoria Colonna or Sor Juana de la Cruz in such a way as to “rescue” them from their presumably oppressive Catholic context in order rechristen them as reformers in disguise: reformist evangelicals, political liberals or whatever has traction at the moment.
The working assumption seems to be that whatever passionate, poetic intellects such as Colonna or Sor Juana were up to, they can’t possibly have been seriously Catholic. And because the deep mystery of Catholicism lends itself to paradoxical utterances that are only resolved in the fullness of Catholic theology, it’s not hard to pick and choose pieces of the work that could support such a thesis. But in the end, the translations that flow from this approach end up sounding tinny; they end up sounding more like the translator and less like the poet, despite their word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase correspondence. In choosing to recompose these works, my first goal was to allow Colonna to speak as the devoted and searching Catholic she clearly was—through the voice of the searching and devoted Catholic I aspire to be.
From a technical perspective, my purpose was not to render faithfully word for word or line for line or even stanza for stanza the language, movements and images of Colonna’s original sonnets; rather, I have tried to create a new work that allows two distinct voices to sing together. Colonna says things that I wouldn’t or couldn’t say, but I love the challenge of trying to find a way to say them that is alive and true. More than this, I have tried with each sonnet to find in myself the spiritual movement that gave rise to the sonnet, and then to write from that place—to feel the urgency and the difficulty of it. I know that her sonnets are powerful and true because entering into the space of each sonnet is an intense spiritual exercise, and whatever truth can be found in my recompositions is the fruit of that exercise.
I have tried to retain the rhyme scheme of the original sonnets, which are Petrarchan and so follow the abba abba cde cde rhyme scheme and its variations. In English this is of course a tremendous challenge, and I can only say of my attempt that whatever success it achieves is owing to grace. My particular poetics has long been grounded in the belief that the simplest word is almost always the best word, and this determination has served me well in the recomposition process because simple words are easier to rhyme than long, complicated words.
My hope for these recompositions is that the spiritual intensity of Colonna’s poetic journey may become available to the contemporary reader. Christianity remains as unassimilable and unforgettable as it was in the time of Colonna or Kierkegaard, but we seem to have developed a kind of cultural deafness with respect to the truths of the Catholic faith. Christ said, He who has ears to hear, let him hear. If my recompositions can be of service in this regard, they will have been worth the effort.
Here are a few examples:
All I wanted after love left me was fame.
I can’t recall now what I hoped to find—
lust grew like a snake in my gardened mind
until love turned to blame and blame, more blame.
Let me write as with nails your holy name;
your blood my ink, make me patient and kind;
let my words be on your lifeless body signed
that others may know you suffered, you came.
Why would I invoke Delos or Parnassus?
You’re the only island I long to reach,
the only mountain I ever hope to climb.
Let your sun shine on me as it passes us;
let it warm me, enlighten me, and teach
me, Lord, to find your truth in humble rhyme.
I want to walk behind you, Lord, up that
impossible path, cross on my back, all
light streaming from you. Only when I fall
will I see what Peter saw, and say what
he said, when he alone knew you. I thought
I could hope this on my own, but I’m small;
by your light alone find the door in the wall;
every human hope is made of glass, but
yours remains. O God, generous and sincere,
if I could come to your table, all my
desire for your food alone, all other
desires being gone, I might be here,
fully present and full, ready to die
beside you, in the arms of your sweet mother.