NEA Literature Fellowships

Douglas S. Basford

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(2015 - Translation)

"No Party Too Small" by Il Burchiello

[translated from the Italian]

Dripping cheese and purple-dark olive oil,
and a miller who sells his coals burnt to a husk
traveled yesterday morning at almost dusk
to a wedding to belt out a great big Olé!

The snails were raising such a racket, so roiled
the gate had been crashed by some vagrant bums
they didn’t want to add a black bean—the thumbs
down—seein’s the canal wer’ makin’ a large puddle.

Then a Barbary ape slipped on some wood sandals
to challenge Achilles to a duel with spears.
She bellowed out, “Extinguish all these candles!”

And then I saw a thousand and more lit tapers
and a feast spread for ducklings—ravenous vandals!—
because the frogs were clamoring to sing vespers.

And then a kit of eels appears,
and does something I don’t know I should reveal...
But I’ll dish: they were stuffing fog in a barrel.

(sonnet VI)

Original in Italian

About Il Burchiello

Born in 1404 into “miserable” circumstances, Burchiello established a barbershop in Florence that drew the city’s literati for impromptu poetry contests. His anti-Medici sonnets led to his exile, and his peregrinations took him to Venice and Siena, where he fell ill and, ever irascible and in debt, was imprisoned. He died in Rome in 1449, perhaps of syphillis, in penury. Nearly 200 sonnets are attributed to him, with hundreds more written in imitation, including by Lorenzo de’ Medici himself. These works circulated in manuscript and in a string of printed editions that, at one point, surpassed Dante and Petrarch in number.

Douglas Basford has received honors from the Summer Literary Seminars, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences, as well as a Santa Fe Art Institute translation residency. He has been among winners of the Der-Hovanessian Translation Award three times, and a finalist for the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. His translations from French and Italian appear in Poetry, Subtropics, Western Humanities Review, Words without Borders, Two Lines, The Atlanta Review, SubStance, Formes Poétiques Contemporaines, The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and The Display of Art in Roman Palaces, 1550-1750 (Getty). His sonnets appear in Narrative, Ambit, Smartish Pace, Tampa Review, Diagram, and elsewhere. He is Assistant Director of Composition at the University at Buffalo, a co-editor of Unsplendid (an online journal of poetry in received and nonce forms), and Italian language editor of Coeur Publishing, a new venue for book-length translations.

Photo by Frances Gage

Translator's Statement

Bizarre. Incomprehensible. Unhinged. The 15th-century Florentine barber-poet Domenico di Giovanni has been called many things over the centuries, but he is best known by the sobriquet Il Burchiello, which may derive from the images and observations he heaped up “alla burchia,” like bargemen did with merchandise on their boats. Unlike the spare vocabulary of the dolce stilnovo of Dante and Petrarch, and even of the comico-realistic tradition of Cecco Angiolieri and Rustico Filippo, Burchiello is an earthy poet, for all his fiery volatility: his poems create an ecosystem of contemporary life, people of all walks of life mingling with animals doing what comes naturally (e.g. in pest-infested accommodations) or acting like people—and vice versa. In an immense tonal range (jocular, caustic, despondent, earnest, bawdy, defiant, solicitous, baffled, playful) and in his shots at the excesses, corruption, and ill-behavior of judges, medical quacks, government technocrats, humanists, clergy, and scholastics, Burchiello built up a poetics of absurdities, equivocations, and linguistic play. His brand of “nonsense” is an incredible challenge and delight to translate.

This NEA Fellowship comes at an ideal point, four years into my project, when I am polishing the drafted translations, a process requiring intensive engagement with lexical and contextual problems the poems invariably raise. Significant differences of opinion among scholars leave difficult questions for a translator, which only extended engagement with the dozens of extant manuscripts and printed editions of Burchiello and his contemporaries and followers can begin to address. Being attuned to formal verse through my editorial, critical, and poetic practice, and working in the vein of translations of Dante by Andrew Frisardi and Cecco Angiolieri by Brett Foster, I will also benefit from concentrated time the fellowship will permit to capture Burchiello’s spontaneous electricity in meter and rhyme.