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This article is taken from PN Review 163, Volume 31 Number 5, May - June 2005.

'Everything is at Stake': Ungaretti and the First World War Mark Thomson

The soldier climbs over boulders, through foliage and insect-buzz down to the Isonzo, a turquoise river. Off with the woollen tunic, lousy, rank with sweat; the puttees and heavy boots. The sluicing water restores him to himself, bearing him back to other rivers in his life. His bones are as hard as these rocks and his life is a river, the war's not strong enough to stop it.

On the scarred limestone slopes above the valley, the soldier shelters by a tree stump. The river is a ribbon in the distance. He scribbles on a scrap of cartridge box and stuffs it in a pocket.

... This morning I lay back
in an urn of water
and like a relic
took my rest

The Isonzo's flow
smoothed me
like a stone of its own

I dragged this
bonebag up
and away I went
like an acrobat
on water...

That was nearly ninety years ago, in the broiling summer of 1916, when Giuseppe Ungaretti was a private in the Italian army that was attacking the Austro-Hungarians along a 250-mile front from the Adriatic to the Tyrol. His poem, 'The Rivers', has been an anthology piece for decades. In tribute, I managed a gasping minute in the icy water.

The rhythms of Ungaretti's early work are incredibly compact and reticent, lying low until the pulse of speech uncurls ...


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