Translator’s note: Ardengo Soffici began his career as a painter living between Florence and Paris, where he developed lasting friendships with Picasso and Apollinaire. Early 20th-century Paris was home to a thriving avant-garde, while Florence saw an explosion of cultural magazines; Soffici managed to situate himself in the midst of both movements. While he continued to exhibit his paintings alongside Braque and others in Paris, he wrote for influential Italian publications as an art critic, introducing French Cubist and Impressionist artists to the Italian cultural scene. Back in Italy, Soffici became a central cultural figure, and in this fertile milieu he began writing poetry in a radically original fashion, building on his love of Rimbaud and applying new concepts borrowed from French avant-garde painting.
During his most innovative period (1900 to 1915), Soffici’s work combined Cubist and Impressionist writing, parole in libertà, experiments in typography, and the influence of late collaborations with Apollinaire, culminating in his 1915 master work entitled BÏF§ZF+18: Simultaneità e Chimismi lirici (often referred to as “Bizzeffe,” given the title’s unpronounceable typographic elements).
Soffici eschews all punctuation in his poems, often creating a flood of hallucinatory utterances. As one critic suggests, Soffici “in some ways anticipated for Italian letters what Gertrude Stein was to accomplish later for American writers.” Unfortunately, soon after the book’s publication, he set off to serve in World War I. When he returned, the Florentine avant-garde was no more. Soffici wholly rejected his prior experimentalism and embraced conservative trends in both literature and politics. As a consequence of this radical about-face, his groundbreaking early work was largely forgotten and has never been fully translated.
The book BÏF§ZF+18 combines poems from the two distinct poetic forms of the subtitle: Simultaneities and Lyric Chemisms. “Atelier” belongs to the more symbolist-inspired “simultaneities,” often characterized by a collapsing of time. In these poems Soffici depicts his subject from several perspectives simultaneously like a Cubist painter, while also attending to the ephemeral nature of light and color like an Impressionist. By contrast, in “Typography,” Soffici illustrates his love of letters — the “mortal attire” of poetry — not primarily through words but through a visual jumble of lettering that dominates the page and dwarfs his tiny poem hidden in the center. This “lyric chemism” is an example of the visually dynamic poetic form Soffici developed contemporaneous with the Futurists’ parole in libertà and the calligrammes of Apollinaire.
Soffici’s hypnotic poems pile up colors, ripe fruit, nude bodies, musical instruments, fresh flowers, typographical elements, foreign languages, scrawled messages, books, and booze, to summon a sensory tsunami — all in an effort to portray experiences based in space and time on the static page. Nailed down in printed letters, Soffici’s poetry of excess attempts a transubstantiation of the infinite and the mysterious, to write what can never be fully expressed because it is both boundless and unknown. And yet his poetry keeps trying.
Five meters by seven carved from the amaranth of the sun
Radiotelephantastic booth open to all messages
Every painting is a window onto the frenzy of life
I am a thrower-open of windows
Sings like a bird
Blue yellow green cobalt
Black vermillion and tender pink
My magnetic eyes attract lights
From the four corners of the world
I unravel the rainbow
Let things men countries
Come to me like simple children
Settle down around me each in its place in the picture frames
Bottles of every kind of spirit
Sher Tvui Césa written on the labels
A fine white fig
Vermillion rooftops the repose of lovers in the shadow of summer branches
Wine flasks toys newspapers
Posters of nude bodies in full bloom
Each creation more divine than the last
In the great international chaos
Of this existence strewn across table and walls
Telegrams petits bleus
Of rendezvous business deals invitations
Here’s the Russian coachman with the golden top hat
Just arrived from Kiev in Marinetti’s pocket
The white clay pipe
From Gambier à Paris
And the fresh young tulip
Of a girl who isn’t coming back
On a trop répété cette parole Je t’aime
In every language
Hundreds of books all lined up
Repugnant as cadavers of old friends
Stendhal’s the only one you can still read
In the floral armchair between the tea and the fruit salad
But the inscriptions in charcoal and chalk
On the door and the walls
Keep better time with the bewildered music of a day juicy as a ripe orange
“I’m at the café across the street”
“A. came at 5 Will be back”
“Salaud tu poses tout le temps des lapins! Germaine”
“Anita Caputo model 57 rue de Vaugirard”
(Rue de Vaugirard! I shed half my best tears there in vain
On a sofa scented with Jicky perfume and ether)
“Remember to write Irene at Fondukleskaja D. 27”
“N.V. 104 Prussian blue 3”
Mysteries mysteries on sale cheap
Paid for with 24 hours of youth per day
Joy beauty miseries
Dissolved in the depths of harmonies
In the cubic vat minute by minute
Just open the crystal vials and magic spells will smother you
Pull aside the curtain
Facing the street that rises and falls
The twilight that festers in the white basin
Smokestacks towers chimneys stars
Cities of Europe deep in the night
And trains speeding through lit up like theaters trains laden with nostalgia
All the earth comes to rest
Halcyon bird tired of flying
Unfurled like a flag over our hearts
Poetry shining summit of the universe
Even your mortal attire is charming
Ancient things of flesh and sinew
Living beings with their earthly fate
Shadows now nailed down with a clear and fixed sign
Typefaces transubstantiation of infinite mysteries
Alphabets letters dentelles batistes bows
Ornaments of the naked idea
Je m’abîme dans ce fouillis de tiédeurs charnelles
I breathe the rich odors of your secrets
I kiss your golden scarves that are but a small part of your great body
Old cosmopolitan satyr of future mythologies
Voilà I possess you completely
Poet and painter Ardengo Soffici (1879–1964) exhibited his art alongside Picasso and Braque and, through his early reviews of the Parisian avant-garde, established himself as an important cultural mediator between France and Italy. He soon dove into the Florentine literary scene, co-founding the magazine Lacerba, and emerged as one of the most innovative poets linked to Futurism. His poetry culminated in the experimental BÏF§ZF+18: Simultaneità e Chimismi lirici, published in 1915 (and expanded in 1919). The volume Simultaneities and Lyric Chemisms, forthcoming from World Poetry Books, is his first full-length collection in English.
Olivia E. Sears is founder of the Center for the Art of Translation and the journal Two Lines, which she edited for more than a decade. Recent publications include translations of Italian women writers ranging from early 20th-century Dada poet Maria d’Arezzo to the 1960s/70s avant-garde poet Patrizia Vicinelli to contemporary poet and dramatist Mariangela Gualtieri. Her translations of Ardengo Soffici appear in numerous magazines as well as The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Italian Poetry. A graduate of Yale University, she holds a doctorate in Italian literature from Stanford University. These poems were drawn from her forthcoming translation of Soffici’s 1915 master work, Simultaneities and Lyric Chemisms (World Poetry Books, 2020).
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