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Dear Readers,

Our thanks to Gail Mazur for today's Poet's Pick!

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Don Selby & Diane Boller

Gail Mazur 's Poetry Month Pick, April 5, 2012

To Giovanni da Pistoia "When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel" (1509)
by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564)
translated from the Italian by Gail Mazur

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
swollen up here like a cat from Lombardy
(or anywhere where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles the paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself,
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

And because I’m like this, my thoughts
Are crazy perfidious tripe:
Anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

* Gail Mazur Comments:
This amazing poem, perhaps the most translated of the great artist Michelangelo’s more than 300 poems, was unknown to me when I made my first trip to Florence with my husband, Michael, who’d lived there as a student decades before and studied art at the Accademia. The little bilingual Dover edition of Great Italian Poems introduced me to this tailed sonnet (the sonnet was Michelangelo’s most chosen form), in a stilted and ungainly translation by John Addington Symonds.

Even in Victorian English, the force of anguish, the rage of the artist’s creative despair, the raw near-comic hyperbole, were exhilaratingly clear. Michael read the Italian aloud to me—it’s a beauty!— in our hotel room with a view of the Duomo. And here was the artist, really forced by Pope Julius II to labor for years on one of the most sublime creations in Western art. So extreme was his torment that 1965 Hollywood had the goofy idea to make a big movie about it, “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (based on Irving Stone’s novelization of Michelangelo’s life). Charlton Heston is hunched on the scaffolding at the ceiling, his stomach squashed under his chin, his spine all knotted, his face a fine floor for droppings. Rex Harrison, the echt Londoner, was the Pope! Cinemascope. It can’t compete with this poem.

For the first time in my writing life, I felt that I absolutely needed to make for myself a better version of a poem in translation. The poem here is really very close to the original, except of course, in its sonic qualities. Written when the painter was in psychic “agony,” as he worked in intolerable physical discomfort, Michelangelo’s “To Giovanni da Pistoia When the Author was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel” embodies the passionate appetite for the work and the devastating self-doubt that’s often, and maybe especially in the exacting spirit of a genius, just a miserable part of the artistic process.

About Gail Mazur:
Gail Mazur is the author of six books of poetry, including Figures in a Landscape, Zeppo's First Wife: New and Selected Poems (winner of the Massachusetts Book Prize for Poetry), and They Can't Take That Away from Me (a finalist for the National Book Award), all published by the University of Chicago Press. She lives in Cambridge and Provincetown, Massachusetts, and is Distinguished Writer in Residence in Emerson College's Graduate Program in Writing, Literature and Publishing.

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