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Apertura d'ali (Wingspan) / Bartolo Cattafi

Cattafi was one of the generation of post-war Italian poets I was inspired to read at university in the 1980s. He lived through the second world war and made sense of that cataclysm by writing elliptical and mysterious poetry which alludes rather than lectures. This poem contains one of my favourite lines in all poetry - 'pasto a tarme felice' - which sounds so beautiful in Italian and sits in this weird image of Eden's angel eating willing moths for food.

As with all the poetry I like, one is never quite sure what is going on. Do the wingspans refer to the wings of angels or to the biodiversity of the planet? Certainly, Cattafi was probably referencing the suffering of the 1940s but I feel it is equally allusive to the suffering on the horizon with the climate catastrophe with its talk of 'majestic bones [and] flies extinguished in the shadow of time'.

And what to make of that last line?

E l'apertura d'ali?

Esse varia; ve n'é

di micron, di centrimetri, di metri.

Dipende dal modello, dalla materia, dalla

forza motrice; il motivo, la quota da raggiungere.

Ripiegate, richiuse, accantonate

sotto un serto verdissimo, nell'Eden

pasto a tarme felice;

oppure sottoghiaccio coi relitti, ossa

regali, mammut, mosche spente

in fondo all'ombra del tempo.

Camminammo piú a lungo che potemmo,

spesso vedemmo, alto nella memoria, doloroso,

un bianco stormo di brandelli ... (appena

un gioco, un aiuto, una finzione

se sulla scena del deserto il fuoco

s'apprende alla pelle delle prede

se il gelo aggruma nomi disumani).

Un battito d'ali su per le vaste

pareti delle memoria non ci sottrae

all'ombre che ci seguono; la iena,

il lupo, gli angeli

abietti dall'obliquo incedere.


And the wingspan?

It varies; it can be

in microns, in centimetres, in metres.

It depends on the model, the material, the

driving force; the purpose, the height to be reached.

Folded, closed up, sheltered

beneath a wreath of bright green, in Eden

feeding on happy moths;

or under ice with the detritus, majestic

bones, mammoths, flies extinguished

in the depths of the shadows of time.

We travelled longer that we were able,

we often saw, high in the memory, painful,

a white bundle of rags ... (hardly

a game, a relief, a fiction

if on the desert stage fire

clings to the victim's skin

if ice curdles inhuman names).

A beating of wings up the vast

walls of memory doesn't free us

from the shadows who pursue us; the hyena,

the wolf, the angels

abject from their creeping pace.

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Naomi Shihab Nye is an American-Palestinian poet who lives in San Antonio. Her poetry is much garlanded and she has been Young People’s poet laureate. I was sent this poem by my friend Alice Eldridge


Lucy Bailey
Lucy Bailey
May 04, 2023

What a beautiful poem, especially (of course) in Italian. This has just made me buy a copy of the only book of his I could easily find for sale ('Anthracite'). Thank you for introducing me to him Alistair!

Alistair Appleton
Alistair Appleton
May 06, 2023
Replying to

Oh how wonderful. Do tell me if it’s good. I only know a handful of his work apart from this one.


It certainly does remind me of the climate crisis. The line of the desert stage fire clinging to the victims skin is a chilling image.

Alistair Appleton
Alistair Appleton
May 06, 2023
Replying to

Isn’t it? There are so many good lines in it.


Archer Swiggum
Archer Swiggum
Apr 19, 2023

"angels/abject in their creeping pace" reminds me of how some angels on gothic churches look like they are cringing and bowing...are angels oppressed by the need to worship or be perfect?

Alistair Appleton
Alistair Appleton
May 06, 2023
Replying to

True. I also thought of angels with their wings broken —- like a line of refugees after the war. (Or today…)

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