Hirschman Introduction Via Mala

The somewhat fetching title of Dave Steel’s book of poetry, Sequence of Nature past the Via Mala has a specific referencing, and a process of poem-making within a particular geographical context that makes the book all the more interesting. And then, given his love of Italy and the Italian language and, in this case, the Italian area of Switzerland, his insistence that this book, published by Lamont Steptoe’s Whirlwind Press of Camden, N.J., be translated into Italian by Amalia Bisutto Pascetta and appear in a bi-lingual edition in the United States, seems a rather remarkable gesture of love for both Italy and Switzerland.

And this from an American poet born in 1961 in Philadelphia, where he lives with his three daughters: Claudia (13),Cecilia (9) and Lucia (3). Steel was found by poetry when he was 19 and already a baseball player at the University of Tampa (he went on to play semi-pro baseball for 11 years), and he commenced in the art and also wrote a novel, Absinthe Trinker, which was published in a Swiss edition. In 1997 he started Forepaw Press in Philadelphia, which has published a number of books of his poems, including Lost but Found (1997), Two Worlds Within (2000), World War Thee (2006) and Cognac Apprenticeship with Sammy Ali Baba (2008). Saloonatics, a book of the work of San Francisco photographer, Scott Palmer, appeared in 2009 and in 2011 my own The Blue Xul Arcane.

I first met Dave Steel in 2008 on a trip he made to San Francisco for the publication of the Ali (Baba) Mongo book. In the Caffe Trieste in North Beach and over dinner at my home, he told me the story of his years: that he and his brother Adam had a family business in the Italian zone of Switzerland and that he was often there for whole chunks of the year, that he’d been doing that for 20 years and, in the course of that time, had fallen in love with the Italian language—-indeed with the particular Italian-Swiss dialect spoken in the villages around the factory (which produced synthetic sapphire for jeweled watches in the past but now has extended to include tubing, lenses and other instruments used in hospitals, high-tech offices, etc.)—and dreams of retiring to the area of Val Bedretto in Switzerland.

Steel’s poems are receptions inwardly of an identity with the nature and working people in that Italian zone of villages and pathways. The Via Mala of the title means “Bad Road” and is the narrowest section of the Hinterrein valley on the way to the San Bernadino Pass, which is the important north-south connection for crossing the Alps. Stone Age and megalithic remains, as well of those of the Celts and Romans, are still found along this route. The reason for the name Via Mala is that the route narrows at a certain point to a deep gorge and it is dangerous to cross it. Nowadays tunnels pass under the Via Mala, which at points is no more than a meter wide!

The technique of Dave Steel’s compositions are what first engaged me. He seems to have arrived at his style of writing not so much under the influence of any particular poet (he mentions Robert Bly and Bob Kaufman as American poets whom he loves reading; otherwise he’d read many Europeans), and seemed not to have read Charles Olson deeply at all, though it was an olsonic manner in his idiom that first called his work to my atten- tion.

That manner is resonant to a letter Olson wrote to Cid Corman in the 1950s, to the effect that an American poet MUST BEGIN WITH NOTHING, THE BLANK PAGE, almost as a goad of emptiness, and from that confrontation really begin. THEN the possibility might emerge wherein the poet might discover—in the mix of the conscious- ness of the transfer of energies from without with the moil of self and heart-soul within—his own unique way of saying.

Steel’s style is a staccato, almost at times telegrammatic one, in which he finds room to inform, comment and at the same time abbreviate so that as one gets deeper into the book one finds that one is genially identifying with his idiomatic technique of evoking by way of setting down a series of images and making a tight bit of music. For example:

On the lake tonight
there are no questions,
responses only, this lake,
the mountains, crevasses
kill, mountains kiss the
sky, beloved life keeps
death away, another day,
another forever.

A great deal is said and unsaid evocatively in those eight short lines. And this is a kind of vintage Steel, with one percept following another to make a composition that is hearable with resonance in the mind. Steel’s ability to everywhere abbreviate is another admirable dynamism of his prosody.

He can write, while observing a spider,

Reminder of life and death
Difference between nothing, humans,
insect, vapor, and sun

Continually effacing the “I”—though there’s plenty of “I” in the book—by slanging it away, like speaking from “the corner of the mind” (rather than the mouth). And by this idiomatic manner, Steel is writing about the whole gamut of his beloved villages and pathways, including their history, their current states, their people.

And then there is the bi-lingual gesture. Steel’s chosen translator is Amalia Bisutto Pascetta, who was born in the very lovely town of Chioggia (near Venice) in 1956. Amalia left elementary teaching at the age of 24 to work for a regional radio station which, after some years, she purchased, and worked as an administrative director and a publisher for almost 30 years. During those years, she traveled allover the world visiting many different countries and cultures. But her greatest love was for the United States and in 2009 she came to live in New Jersey with her American husband.

Today Amalia translates for European and American writers and philosophers. She especially loves translating poetry, and she’s done a superb job with Dave Steel’s texts —indeed, because Steel’s eccentric style is virtually impossible to render in Italian, many of Amalia’s translations become enhancements of the particular idiosyncrasies that most streetwise American poets use in expressing their worlds. She has captured Steel’s world beautifully in Italian, and those Italian readers in the States and in Switzerland as well as Italy itself (where copies of the edition will be sent) will be able to read the texts which originally moved Amalia to translate his “interweaving and fusion of various elements, special and unusual, that inspired them: writer, places, events and contexts.”

This book is a beautiful fusion itself of two brilliant sensibilities. I’d like to thank them both for making it possible for me to understand their work in both languages. Auguri! and Auguri! once more.

Jack Hirschman
San Francisco