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Darkness and Dazzle: Cavalcanti Variations

Darkness and Dazzle consists of two texts based on Guido Cavalcanti’s poem, “Donna me prega…”.

Cavalcanti (c.1255-1300) perhaps reaches his artistic height with this strange text. It’s a poem that appears to use heretical religious ideas fused with the science of the day to depict love in the throes of passionate obsession. Love here is a dark force rather than a romantic one.

There have been a number of discussions concerning the abstruse theological references Cavalcanti makes, but my feeling, from the breezy viewpoint I must admit of having no medieval history and understanding the poem mainly through an existing translation, is that this is something of a wild goose chase. The sly humour in the poem and what I see as Cavalcanti’s rhetorical grandstanding suggests to me that the poem is playing with these vocabularies and registers. Perhaps it has more in common with, say, Joseph Beuys’s parodies of learned lectures than may at first appear. “Donna me prega” is, I would argue, a kind of romantic speech which plays at academic objectivity and the anti-romantic but in fact focuses on the object of the speaker’s desire (who is in the audience). Through the shock of the ‘scientific’ and through occasional directed asides, the poem builds to a conclusion which is both a flattering nod to the cognoscenti, the ‘academics’ gathered before him, and a more intimate declaration to the female member of the assembled group who, at the beginning of the piece, prompted the poet to speak.

Formally speaking, the original is a highly-wrought poem and I’ve tried to indicate that in the variations. It not only uses a kind of doubling of sonnets in its canzone form, but tightens the grid further by applying a stringent internal rhyme scheme. In my first variation I have tried to maintain both external and internal rhyme. Like Cavalcanti, I have varied the length of the line (we’re not in an iambic pentameter situation here with the original so I’ve declined to offer it in the variation). I have taken the liberty of adding occasional, as if improvisational, further rhyme and using a rather different rhythm, if only in respect to my inevitable inability to match Cavalcanti’s particular effects dazzle by dazzle. All the same, I hope Cavalcanti’s bright glances concerning the dark matter of love are still somehow detectable.

The second variation imagines a kind of concentrate of Cavalcanti’s poem, processed like a voice treated synthetically through electronics and re-amplified to the point of jaggedness.

Acknowledgements and Further Reading

I have found especially useful Lowry Nelson’s edition and translation, The Poetry of Cavalcanti (New York: Garland, 1986. Vol. 18, Series A, Garland Library of Medieval Literature). The original Cavalcanti poem reproduced here in Italian is that version used by Adriano Piacentini on his site www. adrianopiacentini.it and used with kind permission. The second variation was first published in Painted, spoken and can be heard at www.poetrymagazines.org.uk.

An accompanying illustration might be “Three Dimensional Distribution of Dark Matter in the Universe 5 Billion Years Ago”, by NASA, ESA, and R Massey (California Institute of Technology).

There are of course other Anglophone versions of this poem available from all good newsagents - Pound tries a ye Olde Englande one in the Cantos - and also try Peter Manson's in Between Lip and Cup (2008), or Anthony Mortimer's 2010 translations. The version and its improvisation published here is collected in Rays (Carcanet, 2009).

Donna me prega

Donna me prega, - per ch'eo voglio dire

     d'un accidente - che sovente - è fero
     ed è si altero - ch'è chiamato amore:
     sì chi lo nega - possa 'l ver sentire!
05   Ed a presente - conoscente - chero,
     perch'io no sper - ch'om di basso core
     a tal ragione porti canoscenza:
     ché senza - natural dimostramemto
     non ho talento - di voler provare
10   là dove posa, e chi lo fa creare,
     e qual sia sua vertute e sua potenza,
     l'essenza - poi e ciascun suo movimento,
     e 'l piacimento - che 'l fa dire amare,
     e s'omo per veder lo pò mostrare.
15   In quella parte - dove sta memora
     prende suo stato, - sì formato, - come
     diaffan da lume, - d'una scuritate
     la qual da Marte - vène, e fa demora;
     elli è creato - ed ha sensato - nome,
20   d'alma costume - e di cor volontate.
     Vèn da veduta forma che s'intende,
     che prende - nel possibile intelletto,
     come in subietto, - loco e dimoranza.
     In quella parte mai non ha pesanza
25   perché da qualitate non descende:
     resplende - in sé perpetual effetto;
     non ha diletto - ma consideranza;
     sì che non pote largir simiglianza.
     Non è vertute, - ma da quella vène
30   ch'è perfezione - (ché si pone - tale),
     non razionale, - ma che sente, dico;
     for di salute - giudicar mantene,
     ch la 'ntenzione - per ragione - vale:
     discerne male - in cui è vizio amico.
35   Di sua potenza segue spesso morte,
     se forte - la vertù fosse impedita,
     la quale aita - la contraria via:
     non perché oppost' a naturale sia;
     ma quanto che da buon perfetto tort'è
40   per sorte, - non pò dire om ch'aggia vita,
     ché stabilita - non ha segnoria.
     A simil pò valer quand'om l'oblia.
     L'essere è quando - lo voler è tanto
     ch'oltra misura - di natura - torna,
45   poi non s'adorna - di riposo mai.
     Move, cangiando - color, riso in pianto,
     e la figura - co paura - storna;
     poco soggiorna; - ancor di lui vedrai
     che 'n gente di valor lo più si trova.
50   La nova- qualità move sospiri,
     e vol ch'om miri - 'n non formato loco,
     destandos' ira la qual manda foco
     (Imaginar nol pote om che nol prova),
     né mova - già però ch'a lui si tiri,
55   e non si giri - per trovarvi gioco:
     né cert'ha mente gran saver né poco.
     De simil tragge - complessione sguardo
     che fa parere - lo piacere - certo:
     non pò coverto - star, quand'è sì giunto.
60   Non già selvagge - le bieltà son dardo,
     ché tal volere - per temere - è sperto:
     consiegue merto - spirito ch'è punto.
     E non si pò conoscer per lo viso:
     compriso - bianco in tale obietto cade;
65   e, chi ben aude, - forma non si vede:
     dungu' elli meno, che da lei procede.
     For di colore, d'essere diviso,
     assiso - 'n mezzo scuro, luce rade,
     For d'ogne fraude - dico, degno in fede,
70   che solo di costui nasce mercede.
     Tu puoi sicuramente gir, canzone,
     là 've ti piace, ch'io t'ho sì adornata
     ch'assai laudata - sarà tua ragione
     da le persone - c'hanno intendimento:
75   di star con l'altre tu non hai talento.

Question Time

after Cavalcanti

The lady did ask, so here’s my answer:

it’s an accident. It’s arrogant, it’s severe,

maybe it’s from above. They call it love.

I’ll start the task, but please, the chancer,

the bully, best be absent. The accent here

is surely not on shove. They call it love.


This is theoretical science,

not duty or compliance, not plodding measure.

And who has the leisure for the fantastic?

This is the nature of it all, the ecstatic,

the energy defining love’s defiance.

Forget beauty or mythical quest: our reliance must rest on that treasure

that’s composed of atoms, on knowing pleasure through physicist tactic,

not romance, not the Church, not the vacuous vatic.


Love starts life where memory is already living.

It makes the most of its generous host: strikes it dead.

Love is formed, if I’m right, as clarity is formed by light –

by darkness, strife. Love’s the opposite of giving.

Its name’s a boast, its baby-clothes religious robes, red

for Mars, for fevered blight, for the more than war of its constant fight.


Love derives from vision, I mean optics, sight,

yet distorts the light reflected from what it sees.

Intelligence, it decrees, must be taken – and taken by force.

It’s soon hurt, of course:

it’s in foreign territory, powerless, panicked (eventually, every conqueror’s plight).

For intelligence, delight and love’s lethal look-at-me’s

are neither here nor there. Intelligence just searches, thinks. It can’t endorse

an image. It lets love depict the damage, howl itself hoarse.


Love, in reality, is not one of the senses –

it’s an appetite (I’m here to cite the current thinking).

Besotted with the now-or-never, it’s neither cute nor clever,

it separates salvation from sanity with refracting lenses,

calls open season on frivolous reason without the effort of blinking.

Vice is its “bestest friend forever and ever.”


Love’s power can overpower itself, flail out of hand,

but in the end it still can’t stand in reason’s way. Nothing’s that strong.

Love isn’t wrong, exactly, or against the natural order.

It’s just misdirected, distracted, beyond its rightful border –

but everyone here will understand

you’re unwomanned, your unmanned, if you’re out of control for long

(and you’re dead if you disobey love, if you can’t applaud her).


Love’s way of life is desire,

desire so strong it’s beyond right and wrong, all measure.

Love can’t fall asleep. At least, not that deep –

it has to be up, creating strife, harsh, abrupt, stoking its secret fire.

All along – mouthing its knowing song, crying, mocking pleasure –

love compels the loved to creep, retreat, contemplate the leap.


Well, it doesn’t last,

and no-one human is aghast at love’s brash actions.

The sighful dissatisfactions are known, too, to almost all –

the fierce gaze, the flat daze, the unreciprocating wall.

Mere anger is surpassed

by love’s vast rage, the range of its wrath. Yet love’s reactions

paralyse itself, full stop, at point of attraction; self-appal.

And then: nothing at all. Love can’t run for fumble or fun with any other –

it can’t walk, it can’t crawl.


From a corresponding sensibility, though,

love can attract the moment’s fact of a glance.

If it’s real to the eyes, love won’t jeopardise

the opportunity. Beauty, finally there for love, appears to love so gentle, so tender. It's so

lethal. Love’s attacked at the giving act of beauty’s award dinner dance.

Pierced by the prize, longing, yearning, subsides. Love falters, falls, dies.


No, you can’t understand love by just having a look.

Understand spotless white, say –  write that in your book – but don’t think you can comprehend

this little topic. (We’re coming to lecture’s end.)  Listen closely – abstract, essential, form

can’t be seen, even less its radiation. Its norm

is invisibility. Love is set in darkness – it’s been shook

from ordinary life, grammar, duty (a crook would tell you different, pretend

passion’s without end – half sweetness, half light). No, love is night of night, dark matter, torn

and tearing, anti-giving, anti-right – but I would say to the lady, I would say to the lady

from love, mercy is born.


Well, you can leave safely now, speech, song,

and go where you like. I’d be surprised,

once analysed, if a bard’s award wasn’t yours, a verse-celeb sinecure, a prof’s shiny gong

And if I’m wrong – if I’m wrong – this exclusive throng will still position pure cognition above what sells

Lady, I have no passion for anyone else.


Ask, answer

after Cavalcanti

Ask, answer.

Accident, arrogant. Call it love.


Deny it, expertise.

Cynics, please, and crude.

Refined science,

not forensics.


This is energy, ecstasy,

love, love –

oh and signs.


Love starts,

obliterates. Love is




Love senses, sees.

Intelligence by force, as if.

Astonished in foreign territory.


Intelligence shines,

perpetual searchlight.


can’t make up.


Love’s appetite,


Sanity and salvation separate,

intention replaces reason:

vice loves best.


Power – often suicidal, 


against nature -


forget you’re alive

(you’re dead if you forget).


Love’s desire,

beyond measure of nature,

can’t sleep.


colours, turning one laugh unstoppable,

affection scared into shadow.



All agree who suffer it.

Grip commands

a gaze, one miragey place.

An anger, a blazing.


Attracted? Paralysed.

Anywhere else.

From a

glance, though, though, though,



That replying glimpse,

and yet lethal,

yearning’s reality,

sharp-pointed prize.


No, don’t think

I don’t think.

Listen closely –

it’s radiation.


Set in darkness –

no fraud, someone to trust -

dark matter, birth, mercy.


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