A Beautiful and Understated Object: Jan Zwicky’s Vittoria Colonna: Selections from the Rime Spirituali

The new collection Vittoria Colonna, Selections from the Rime Spirituali, “with photographs of Josep Maria Subirachs’ Passion Façade” by Robert Moody and “English Texts by Jan Zwicky,” is a curiosity. The book is made up of “ten Renaissance Italian poems” by “Vittoria Colonna, the first woman to achieve wide recognition as a poet in Renaissance Italy.” Compelling as both poet and historical figure, Vittoria Colonna was considered a rarity in Renaissance Italy for the fact that she neither remarried after the death of her husband, nor sequestered herself to a convent, and “made her reputation as a univira—a once-married woman who remains loyal to her dead husband.” It was through her husband’s means and this loyalty that gave her the freedom to be able to pursue writing, and “diffuse the intense hostility usually displayed towards women who attempted to cultivate a public voice.” Given that I can’t read the original Italian versions of the poems by Vittoria Colonna (1490/1492 to 1525), I’m unable to discern exactly what Zwicky has done with her English versions, not referred to as “translations” or, in the Moure sense, “transelations,” but “lyrical versions.” As she writes in her introduction:

The English poems that appear here do not reproduce Colonna’s originals word for word or even phrase for phrase: they are what I call versions rather than translations. In a scholarly context it would be right, indeed essential, to try to give readers a sense of her immense skill as a writer of Renaissance Italian verse. But in a literary context, an attempt to reproduce her Petrarchan rhetoric and logic, would, I believe, amount to a kind of misrepresentation—a failure to draw a distinction between her rich and antique clothing and her equally remarkable character. No doubt the two are related, and sometimes intricately so. But Colonna believed, as do I, that it is possible to experience character independently of costume. It is that character I have attempted to convey here.

Given the wide variety of work done in the realm of translation and transelation by Erín Moure, Mark Goldstein, Steve McCaffery, Ezra Pound, Paul Celan, bpNichol, Lyn Heijinian, Pierre Joris, Oana Avasilichioaei and others, I do find it odd the way Zwicky seems to quietly sidestep an already long-ongoing conversation, calling her pieces “lyrical versions” instead of, possibly, “collaborations” with the original text. Either way, the book as a whole is a beautiful and understated object, classically designed and developed. Zwicky’s choice appears to be made to allow the original voice and work of Colonna to speak as much as possible, without interference from Zwicky herself (which, even in the closest of translations, can’t be avoided), who perhaps feels less confident in her ability to directly translate the works from Renaissance-era Italian into contemporary English. Perhaps it is in a shared silence they both work to quietly push against, as poem “102” begins: “Why, you may wonder, have I failed / to take the rasp of good sense to these / rough uncultivated verses? / But I think you know. / It isn’t praise or immortality / I’m after. It’s because / I do not dare.” One can only hope that other translators and critics are attentive enough to perhaps do further work on an intriguing poet.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.



Skip to content