Giulia Niccolai

Giulia Niccolai

from Orients (Two Chinese Poems)


The two armies face each other:
the one which has remained invisible
for millenniums and has come back into
light since a few decades,
advances imposingly in orderly columns.
There, under the huge hangar that
protects it, the “Terracotta Army”
deposits itself — in the mind’s eye —
as the majestic, unceasing march
of humanity. But the sacredness
of this image requires time to
sink in. We there, “extras”
in flesh and bone, too immersed
in the present, we visitors, too
talkative and hot, all of us,
too contemporary and thwarted
to perceive our tie with the past
and appear similar to them:
dignified, wise and measured.



Mongolian Outpost

Here, north of Datong, the Great Wall
is not massive slabs of stone, crenellated
and well maintained as it is near Peking,
it does not have the appearance of a castle or fortress.
Left to itself, it is only a succession
of humps of yellow clay
between fields of corn and potatoes: camel’s
humps drawn by a child.
Here already for half an hour, on the back seat
of a red and ramshackle taxi, perched
on one of the humps with a view
of the valley and the peasant village
— once a Mongolian outpost — I listen
with amusement, without understanding a word,
to the reciprocal confessions — in Chinese —
between the driver and the interpreter
who is a member of the Party.
I laugh, I laugh to myself because
the dynamics of life have chosen to show me
right here, how that mythical, universal
imaginary of the Great Wall and of China
— which has fed my mind for more than 50 years
together with a youthful love of adventure,
a hankering for something great and unknown,
for something superior and non-experienced,
with Ulysses and Marco Polo as favourite heroes —
should materialize in a situation
so comic and convivial, to be experienced
as a country picnic with its socially relaxed
ways: lemonade, a snack, chatting, friends.


Translated from the Italian by the author and Ian Simpson

Click here to read Italian versions of these poems

BIO: Giulia Niccolai was born in Milano in 1934 where she lives and works. In the 1970s she directed, with Adriano Spatola, the poetry magazine Tam Tam, founded by them in Mulino di Bazzano (Parma). Her work has been featured in various Italian and foreign anthologies, including Incontri di poesia (Trauben edizioni, Torino 2000) and Autodizionario degli scrittori italiani (Leonardo, Milano 1990). She has written many books of poetry and prose; most recently Esoterico Biliardo (Archinto, Milano, 2001), and her selected works in La misura del respiro (Anterem, 2002), after being awarded the Lorenzo Montano Prize. The more recent American anthologies of Italian poetry in which her work appears are: Twentieth Century Italian Poetry — An Anthology, edited by John Picchione and Lawrence R. Smith, University of Toronto Press, 1993; Italian Poetry 1950 to 1990, edited by Gayle Ridinger and Gian Paolo Renello, Dante University Press, Boston 1996; The Promised Land (Italian Poetry after 1975), edited by Luigi Ballerini, Beppe Cavatorta, Elena Coda and Paul Vangelisti, Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles 1999; Contemporary Italian Women Poets — A Bilingual Anthology, edited by Cinzia Sartini Blum and Lara Trubowitz, Italica Press, New York, 2001.

Ian Simpson was born in Malta in 1933 and lives both in Milano (Italy) and England, as a translator from Italian into English. He also paints and writes poetry, but has never wanted to show or publish any of his work.


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