LYRIC.CO Leonardo Sinisgalli “Old Tears”

To the old, weeping comes easy. / In midafternoon, / in some hiding-place in the empty house/ they sit, and burst into tears. / An infinite despair / takes them by surprise. / They raise to their lips / a dry slice of pear, the pulp / of a fig dried on the roof-tiles. / Even a sip of water / can resolve their crisis, / or the sight of a snail.
translated by William Weaver.

FRAME OF REFERENCE [In old age] In a new wonder at the gift of life, there can be Eros beyond Eros, touched already by a caress of the agapeic. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, 323.

Five AM, the steady sound of rain in the trees. Will I listen to Ms. Barrett defend the indefensible in her Supreme Court hearing, and the stupid-beyond-belief voices of her supporters explaining the doctrine of original intent, to wit a true judge of contested matters can appeal to the original intent of the Founders. Oh really? No, they can’t. It’s simply not available. Equivocity rules In the between, words require mindful finesse to interpret. One learns this in school, in life.

The profound rot in the foundations of our constitutional order smells to high heaven. I turn to one of my favorite sources of good sense, THE FSG BOOK OF TWENTIETH – CENTURY ITALIAN POETRY, edited by Geoffrey Brock (2012).

Sinisgalli’s small poem sticks in the mind. All you have to know about him is that as an undergraduate in engineering he turned down an invitation to join the Institute of Physics in Rome. He took a job as Art Director for Olivetti and Pirelli and was best known as a poet. He lived a long productive life—1908-1981. “Old Tears” is full of wisdom, early or late.

We are used to the stresses reading lyric puts on the imagination. The simplest scene leads unpromisingly into cosmic mysteries. We quickly yield to the gambit of the first line. And the second, and, with some heightened sense of the chiaroscuro of the between, the third. And yes, having gone this far, the fourth. Old tears.

But now infinite despair takes them by surprise. Infinitude must include us: The growing equivocity of the opening has created gaps in the picture. We readers loiter in those gaps. Strange lights play among the shadows.

The second six lines are reassuringly “concrete.” No more of this infinite-business. Just pathos riddled with something close to condescension. No? According to our expectations, the lyric narrative has delivered us to the edge of an abyss (something unscripted in Ms. Barrett’s conception of reading for original intent, but then she reads “law.”) Anyway, these images have the radiance of Cezanne. The whole poem becomes a “spiritual exercise” in not thinking exactly but looking at aspects as they change. Of being part of an open whole, to use Desmond’s useful term.

The sudden sight of a snail among the dried pear and fig has something of Moore’s real toad in it. Blick! As Wittgensteinians might say. Aspect change from duck to rabbit and back? No, no, but something like.

Whatever brought on the crying jag of infinite despair seems easily reduced to manageable proportions by a sip of water.

Which brings me to my new hobbyhorse: analogy. Lyrics work by analogy: in every resemblance, every aspect shift, there’s a greater difference. An unmanageable difference opens up. A tiny scene like “Old Tears” opens (eventually in the mindfulness of the faithful reader) to the ultimate real aporia: the darkness of God. We sort of “know” this. It is the groundless ground, the fertile void, of the infinite despair that takes us by surprise.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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