In the four collections of poetry published during his life time (The House by the Port, News from Solitude, Wedding Rings, Spirits of a Son’s Lexicon) and in his posthumous volume, Glance from a Window in Winter, Benzoni displays a remarkable blend of romantic sensibility and modernist technique. His subjects are always the same: love, nature, friendship, family, memory, solitude, death, and—above all else—poetry. These preoccupations come together in striking and startling ways. Take, for example, an early poem, “Blue and Gloomy” from The House by the Port (1983). Benzoni declares: “The sea is that blue and gloomy thing / you and I one day sailed through, / which then enveloped us with other / enchantments, shipwrecks, and tenderness, / turbidly disappearing.” At the end of the poem, we meet again the “blue and gloomy sea,” but now we learn it is “(love) because / it never dies—that which you alone were to me / so vast, excessive, elemental.” In between the first and last stanzas, come bits and pieces (flotsam and jetsam) of Benzoni’s daily life: self-deprecating remarks (“I feel like an idiot and a fool”), covert drinking, a request from his aunt (“Will you take my drops upstairs?”), and “that dream / (remember?) of mice in the attic, of cardboard and beams.” As readers, we can only speculate about the unidentified “I” and “you” of the poem; it could be a young impassioned/disillusioned Benzoni and an unnamed love interest, or just as easily the child Benzoni and his mother. We can’t tell if he is speaking to himself or to some unknown person or both at the same time. Nevertheless, the final impression is of an immense force (“vast, excessive, elemental”) that threatens to overwhelm and obliterate the fleeting and fragile self.
Relentlessly autobiographical, Benzoni meditates on important figures in his life, such as his best friend and mentor Vittorio Sereni, his wife Ilsa Maier, and his father—a man as tormented as his son. Benzoni etches vivid images of all these figures, many of whom haunt his verses, early and late. In “Meeting with Father” (Spirits of a Son’s Lexicon), Benzoni writes briefly and memorably:
And at last the two of us
struck by the same illness:
you with your silent burial
at an astonished dawn—
and I in order to win
I must sprint dashing ahead of you
in a photo finish of support riders emptied out.
We don’t know what this shared illness is, but we can guess (from poems, letters, and interviews) that both men suffered from severe bouts of depression. In this incisive poem, everything comes down to a competition between father and son, presented here as racing cyclists, to see who can win—but win at what and for what cause? On one level, the poem suggests an optimistic, life-affirming answer: to continue living or “(to live!)”; on another level, it suggests the opposite, namely, that the father has died before the son, a surprising event (hence the “astonished dawn”). Taken in this way, the last two lines are supremely ironic. In order to win the race toward death, Benzoni must exhaust all his personal resources, including those of family and friends, who are “emptied out” (svuotati) in their efforts to keep him alive. In this alternate reading, “to live” means to achieve personal immortality though poetry (the parentheses further qualify exactly what it means to live). The conventional categories of life and death, winning and losing, get turned upside-down and inside-out. This “photo finish” will never be splashed on the headlines of the sports page; father and son are athletes only in the sense that they struggle mightily with their own demons.
Benzoni writes many bitter-sweet love poems about Ilsa Maier, including “Winter Marriage” (Wedding Bands), which celebrates and laments their union and their dissolution. Amidst a season of “rotting mishmash,” of “snow on the defenseless branches,” of “injuries stones wasting away,” of “the biting north wind,” Benzoni urges Ilsa to remember how they “tumbled together / from too much love” and the “desire to glow there in a flood / of lilies among the ruins.” It is a poem of conflicting emotions where intense solitude vies with the longing for companionship. In the first stanza, it appears that marriage just enhances their sense of isolation, “adding to the loneliness / one more time.” They will remember depressing things from that time, such as the figure of “the owl / stuck in some fringe of the garden or the heart.” But they will also remember that it was “winter in which we loved each other / clearing the snow off a bunch of white flowers.” This last image is a brilliant one because it merges white-on-white in such a way as to fuse life and death. It is also a triumphant gesture (clearing off the snow) that the two of them perform together.
The final poems of Benzoni (Glance from a Window in Winter) are preoccupied with death—for the simple reason that he suspected he was going to die from complications of liver failure. These poems are never morbid; instead, they look with astonishing clarity and objectivity at the prospect that his poetry may (or may not) survive, despite fact that he himself is a “dying animal” (the phrase comes from W. B. Yeats). In “A Farewell Coming Soon,” he imagines someone who “opens my papers and / blowing away the dust reads / lexicons, snow / cartilage / of a cold starless winter.” The imagery of this poem is stark and bleak; the words appear as lifeless as the dead poet himself. In another poem (“November”) from the same volume, Benzoni asks a woman, presumably Ilsa, to
please stay in bed on your side
next to the charmed shadow
that brushes by you it may be somewhere else
(two three door frames further on) the posthumous
inks, the notes.
Here Benzoni imagines himself a “charmed shadow” who flits from the bedroom where his widow is sleeping to the study where his writing tools lie. It is a benevolent vision of a writer’s afterlife—very much at odds with the sterility of “A Farewell Coming Soon.” Other moods and other attitudes diversify this final volume and demonstrate that Benzoni continued to write formally complex and profoundly moving poetry right up to the end.
Benzoni’s Life and Works
Ferruccio Benzoni was born on February 18th 1949 in Cesenatico, a small fishing town on the northern shore of the Adriatic coast, midway between Ravenna and Rimini, which became a center for summer tourism in the 1960s. Cesenatico is the town where Benzoni spent all his life, leaving just for short trips. He was the only child of Giuseppe Benzoni and Giovanna Garavini. Giuseppe, a teacher at the local high school for maritime studies, was fascinated by everything regarding the sea; Giovanna, who taught at another local technical high school, had a great passion for French language and culture—a love she passed on to her son.
Benzoni attended a classical high school in the nearby city of Cesena, where he developed a deep interest in modern literatures and contemporary cinema, particularly the work of François Truffaut and Pier Paolo Pasolini. In 1968 he won his first poetic prize (although a local one); his commitment to left-wing politics also began at this time. In these years, he and his friends Stefano Simoncelli and Walter Valeri worked with various writers, including Dario Fo. On July 25, 1967, his mother died of cancer; soon afterwards, his family moved to live with his father’s sister in a house located on Cesenatico’s canal harbor. Benzoni’s aunt and her house will appear in many of his later poems, as in his first collection (called in fact The House by the Port). On August 10, 1970, his father died as a consequence of the hepatitis he had contracted in World War II. Benzoni briefly attended the University of Bologna, without graduating, and in 1973 he, Simoncelli and Valeri published the first issue of their literary magazine Sul porto, nine issues of which were published at irregular intervals until 1983. Sul porto immediately caught the attention of some major figures of the Italian literary landscape, such as the critic and poet Franco Fortini, and the poet and director P.P. Pasolini. Benzoni developed a long-lasting friendship with both of these men, as well as with other major poets such as Sandro Penna, Attilio Bertolucci, Alfonso Gatto, Giorgio Caproni, Giovanni Raboni, Antonio Porta, Giovanni Giudici, and Maurizio Cucchi, many of whom collaborated with Benzoni on Sul porto.
In 1977, he met the figure who would exercise the greatest influence on his poetry and his life—the poet Vittorio Sereni. Particularly relevant are the visits that Benzoni made to the older poet in his Tuscan country house in Bocca di Magra, as well as their trips to the southern French region of Vaucluse to meet the French poet René Char, for whom Sereni was the Italian translator. They remained close friends until 1983, when Sereni suddenly died of a heart attack. Meantime, in 1980, he published his first volume, La Casa sul porto (The House by the Port), in a joint collection with Simoncelli and Valeri for the influential press Guanda (Parma). This first volume received an important national literary prize, the “Premio Mondello Opera Prima.” However, the unexpected death of Sereni proved to be extremely traumatic; alcohol addiction, moreover, began taking a heavy toll on him, as many poems thereafter testify, and it would eventually be the reason for his death.
In 1984, he met Ilse Maier, whom he later married, and moved back in the family house located in Viale dei Mille, another house often mentioned in his later poems. In 1983, he published another small collection in a book for the major Italian publisher Mondadori (number 11 of the series Almanacco dello Specchio), and in 1986 he published his first autonomous volume with a preface by Fortini, Notizie dalla solitudine (News from Solitude), for the small but well-respected Genoese publisher S. Marco dei Giustiniani. In 1991, he published with another small but distinguished Milanese press, Scheiwiller, a new volume, Fedi nuziali (Wedding Bands), in honor of his marriage to Ilse. Shortly after this event, following a series of prolonged health related issues, Benzoni quit drinking.
In 1995, he published his third full volume, Numi di un lessico figliale (Spirits of a Son’s Lexicon) in an influential collection of poetry directed by Giovanni Raboni for the Venetian press Marsilio. Between 1996 and 1997, Benzoni wrote his last volume, Sguardo dalla finestra d’inverno (Glance from a Window in Winter), which was published posthumously in 1998 by Scheiwiller after his sudden death on the night of June 15, 1997. In 2004, Dante Isella published many of the uncollected poems by Benzoni with San Marco dei Giustiniani in a volume entitled Canzoniere infimo e altri versi (Small Collection and Other Verses).
A few of Benzoni’s poems have been published in an English translation by Alistair Eliot in Modern Poetry in Translation, a collection of modern Italian poets edited by L. Guerneri with an introduction by R. Galaverni (London: King’s College London, 1999. 17-21). The first relevant critical assessment of Benzoni’s poetry appeared in the proceedings of a conference that took place in Cesenatico on November 23,1991 (Per Ferruccio Benzoni. Edited by S. Santucci. Lugo: Edizioni del Bradipo, 1995), with essays by Renzo Cremante, Franco Contorbia, Fernando Bandini, Alberto Bertoni, and Rodolfo Zucco. However, the most essential critical contribution to the life and works of Ferruccio Benzoni is the collected volume Postumo a me stesso (Edited by the Associazione Ferruccio Benzoni. Bologna:Patron, 2004), in which appear critical essays by F. Bandini, R. Galaverni, P. Maccari, F. Panzeri, R. Roversi, and P. Zublena, an important biographical note by A. Casagrande (on which the present one is largely based), an interview with Benzoni by C. Castellani, an anthology of his poems by G. Raboni, Benzoni’s correspondence with Fortini and Sereni, an accurate biographical note by N. Lazzarini, an anthology of articles from the magazine Sul porto, and many memorable pictures portraying Ferruccio in the company of his fellow poet.
For a selection of poems by Ferruccio Benzoni, please go to post on this issue http://www.thedreamingmachine.com/dont-exile-me-from-your-mist-five-poems-by-ferruccio-benzoni/
Taylor Corse is an Associate Professor of English at Arizona State University. He has written about authors such as John Dryden, Aphra Behn, Alexander Pope, and Tobias Smollett. He has also translated works by Anne Conway and Francis Mercury van Helmont. Professor Corse lives with his wife and children in Tempe, Arizona.
Enrico Minardi teaches Italian and French at Arizona State University. He has mostly written about Nineteenth and Twentieth Italian literature, working on authors such as Pier Vittorio Tondelli and Enrico Palandri. He has also published on some of the major poetic figures such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Giovanni Raboni, Antonia Pozzi, and others.
Photos in photo gallery from the archives of Walter Valeri.