Emilio Villa


Emilio Villa’s sybilline poetry


Emilio Villa passed away on 14th January 2003. He had been born at Affori, near Milan in 1914. He spent his life in Milan, Florence, Sao Paolo (Brazil) and most of all in Rome, engaging in studies of Semitic - he was an exile from the Vatican Institute of Biblical Studies – and early Greek philology and working actively with avant-garde artists both Italian and foreign. He carried out a remarkable prose translation of the Odyssey (1964) and he also translated some cuneiform tablets of the Accadic poem “Enuma Eli” (1939). Moreover he carried out a long labour of interpretation of some passages of the Bible, of the Pentateuch in particular. He contributed to several cultural reviews, such as “Frontispizio”, “Letteratura”, “Arti visive” (1953-56), to avant-garde magazines, such as “Ex” (1961-65) and “Tau/ma” (1980).
Some of his most significant writings on contemporary art are collected in “Attributi dell’arte odierna” (1947-67) reedited by Aldo Tagliaferri (Feltrinelli, 1970).
For a long time his poetry was ignored by critics mainly because Villa was always indifferent to the fortune of his poetic work, which he preferred to publish in very limited editions or on catalogues of his artist friends or on half-clandestine reviews, thus purposefully achieving a maximum of dispersion.
In 1989, however, for the publisher Coliseum (Milan) the greatest expert of Villa’s work, Aldo Tagliaferri, edited the first part of his poetic works, collecting texts of the period 1934-1958. The anticipated second part has not yet appeared.
Villa writes also in Italian, a language which, however, he has never loved because, according to him it is “a language of slavery” of a pompously academic “Ytaglya”. He chose to write in the dialect of Milan, but above all in a very fanciful latin of his own creation, with piquant branching off into ancient Greek, Provençal and with Semitic inserts, to land finally into a French of his own that will bewilder the native speakers of that language. The twisting about to which he submits the language distorts its ordinary usage though never having recourse to wayward fancies, but delving into the innermost core of the language, where he created and experimented unheard of situations.
With Villa there came to light the event of a poetry which is both a philological draft and a work of hermeneutics in a “magmatic and enigmatic” blend (Tagliaferri in “Parole silenziose”, (Silent Words) “Opera Poetica” I, already quoted).
This is not yet the case with the collection “Oramai”(By Now) of 1947, written in Italian with slang and dialect inlets and in crepuscular tones alluded to in the title of the collections, of irretrievable loss, tones which will later tend to rise in more and more ardent tones where that “oramai” (by now) will take the shape of nostalgia for the lost innocence of Eden.
In this vision of the world history is refused: “ Even at the pub we believe we are at the pub, and instead we are all of us in history, see Pascarella. On the contrary history is all a continuous mistake that never stops and is never tired of going wrong, of doing things all over again, of revising, of changing its mind, of stating one thing today only to take it all back tomorrow” (see his review of “Stalin, zar di tutte le Russie” by E. Lyons on “L’Italia che scrive”, December 1941).
With his refusal of history is connected his criticism of the relationship between things and words: who what expects to hear words/hey you/ are you expecting to hear things among things? Every guy expects to hear things and words? But who what. and the words he says, where are they?” (“Sì, ma lentamente”,-Yes but slowly- 1954) and Villa will finally choose to speak words and no longer things.
But of things he will speak once more in “La tenzone” a mock Provençal form of an exchange of alternating stanzas, composed in a mixture of Lombard and Roman Dialects, with invented words and an invective against post-war “Ytaglya”.
In the fifties Villa got to work to merge together his experiences as glottologist, philologist, translator and poet to create a language of his own, which Tagliaferri describes as “a very personal expression of the neo-alexandrine vocation of our age” (in “Parole silenziose”, op. cit.), aimed at the co-existence of experiences originating from multifarious cultures and above all “bound for a very remote past, for the mystery of the origins of language, far beyond the syncretism between Hellenism and Judaism”, so far as to ask oneself if “ a cromlech might not be more intense and spasmodic than the Parthenon or Bernini’s colonnade” ( from “Ciò che è primitivo” in Arti visive” may 1953).
Into this channel there flowed the two years’ experience (1950-52) in Brazil, where literary culture, especially on the part of the “Noigandres” group of concrete poets took as its models Pound, Joyce and Cummings.
One of the techniques he acquired is the collage of fragments of lyrical situations, a means of expression which originated from Blaise Cendrars’ “Découpage poétique” and was to have an enormous success with Apollinaire, Pound, Eliot, Gide, to say nothing of the dada experiments and the recent Anglo- American “cut up” of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs.
Besides collage, there puts in an appearance a singular variant of glossolalia, which is that “odd speaking” already mentioned by St Paul in a letter to the Corinthians, a form present under certain situations of mystic frenzy with many religious communities. Villa’s glossolalia stems from the ferment of a linguistic material teeming with phonic puns, etymologic conjectures, of unexpected juxtapositions, where the sound generates the sense, constantly risking nonsense.
And Villa is always willing to free euphony from meaning: certain passages are altogether obscure, even though something phosphorescent is perceived as among abysmal phantom essences : Here is the voice of a Sybil: “Sibilla spuria sibillina discissa per os/…sibilla umbra sedumbrans ad umbris…umbrarumque mysticantia sibilla sexus” (in Sibilla Burri”) or again “Sibilla labialis, alis labi queas, limine clam/sigillata, sillaba labyrinthia, labilis labi lilium” ( in “Sibilla labia”, 1980-84).
Thus an area is created where the highest degree of semantic ambiguity reigns in an everlasting transformation. It goes without saying that Villa’s glossolalia is the apotheosis of philological multilinguism – in Semitic languages etymological puns are frequent – as well as of neologism elected as method of composing: the poet acts on the physicality of the word, in the underground of linguistic sedimentation.
To give an example, taken from the collection “Verboracula” (on the review “Tau/ma”, 1981) the name Artemis is made to derive from Akkadic and Sumerian phonic sequences. Here is the text:

                     leges sumerice arademe, dim, sa
                     Ara, seu, akkadice namru h.e. splendescens
                     splendid splendita splenduit
                     aut situ, h.e.exiens (luna) in coelo

that is in Sumerian “arade me dim sa ara”, that is in akkadic “namru”, that is splendescens splendit splendida splenduit or “situ” that is exiens (the moon) in coelo where “ara” sumero e “namru” akkadic, mean to resplend and me, in Sumerian means the divine power.
Such outcomes correspond to the different attitude which in the twentieth century the writer has taken up concerning language, conceived not essentially as a vehicle for meanings, but rather as pure material to be analysed in a continuous process of associations and dissociations which starts from the Words at Large of Futurism and from the transmental language –zaum- of Velemir Chlebnikov, Aleksej Krucdenych and Iliazd to end in the total detachment from meaning which is a feature of dadaism.
With some authors thought seems to develop from sounds and one tends to think with one’s ears rather than with one’s brain:
“ similar sound means similar meaning” wrote Igor’ G. Terent already in 1919 ( in “17 worthless implements”, Tiflis) and in actual fact in every poet there is a transrational aspect.
In “Linguistica” ( from “ E ma dopo” (But then), 1950) Villa wrote: “There are no more origins. Nor can one know if./ if origins existed and not even…, which is consequential with that sense of absolute loss already foreshadowed in “Oramai”. But the search for an Edenic language will always be with him and links him with Chlebnikov, also a poet – a philologist that delves into words and reconstructs them with novel blends of roots, suffixes and prefixes: the linguistic experiment becomes an aesthetic act. Also akin to Villa’s splitting and joining of words is Chlebnikov’s “phonic writing”, which is the search for the intimate fusions of sympathetic sounds separated from their meaning. Thus in Villa the process of accumulation through the use of suffixes and prefixes in a process of nomination which is all a maze of etymologic cross-references.
A central point in Villa’s poetic world is the role of the Sibyl, vox clamantis in tenebris verborum, which embodies the fundamental ambiguity of language through the figure of the enigma which, already for Aristotle is the ancestor of the metaphor.
The enigma puts a strain on the faculty of communication: if the word is a gift of the gods, the enigma is set to man by the god in a semantic shortcircuit.
In order to better understand Villa’s idea of the relationship between the divine and the human, one should have recourse to the extracts of his unfinished essay “L’arte dell’uomo primordiale” (The art of primeval man), written around 1965, where sacrifice “sacrificium facere” the killing of the victim is considered as an act of nutrition which makes one divine, but at the same time not transcendent: the “Nourishing-Nutritional-Absolute is pure substance and symbol at the same time. The act of violence is positively natural and the sign-incision-wound is the symbol of transfusion of vital energies. With the birth of painting, of the so-called prehistoric art, the sign, as expression of the symbol, tends to take the place of the sacrificial rite.
In contemporary art Villa sees the act of cutting by Fontana, in the seams in Burri’s sacks, in Pollock’s “dripping “ a return to the primeval sign-symbols, from which historic and technologic man has fatally become estranged.” (A. Tagliaferri in “Su E. Villa”, il Verri n. 7-8, Novembre 1998).
In its turn the impossibility to delve into the ineffability of a primeval language implies accepting the fact that poetry is not pureness but a compromise that mirrors the human condition of the loss of the divine, of childhood, perhaps of childish animality and therefore of a fall, perhaps of an original sin, of an objective guilt, of expulsion from Eden, of a forcible descent from the airy spaces of the ancestral forest. If it is compromise, poetry will have to accept the degradation of language, the informal of matter , and in this sense Villa’s poetry corresponds to the essentials of abstract expressionism of Pollock, of Gorky or to the tragic informal of Burri: an informal lexicon, therefore, of the “langue nulle, degree zero” (in “L’homme qui descend quelque, Roman métamitique”, Msagma, Roma 1974): a space into which the phrase dissolves, never to be recovered again except by flashes, with the danger at every step of sinking into the void of nonsense, into the “trou” of nothingness or of primeval chaos. And “trou” is the title of four poems related to Fontanas Holes, contemporary with the series of the Sibyllae”.
In Villa’s poetic horizon there is always present an absolute a-historical value, that deus absconditus which is at the same time the ephemeral and the eternal, the beginning and the end, the uroburos.
If Schwitters, dadaist, creates his Merz with waste matter, Villa, on his part, sketches with a tragically mocking gesture on the immaculate “blanc” of the page, original power “inanis et vacua” – but already Mallarmé had written “la destruction fut ma Beatrice” – a lexical melting pot which mixes again and again series of paradoxical puns, a continuous deformation-contamination of terms, the indifferent use of several languages and creates an all-embracing , inarticulate, total, polysemeiotic language, chock full of spelling accidents and coffer-words “arboranea (tree and spider) “obnubilanti deo” (clouded and joyful god) “nuxnox” (night-nut) – and of split words – “m’ori (un) tur”(they are born and die), “n omina” (nomen omen) – a chaotic and hierophantic search for the foundations of words-things lost in the labyrinthic “spider’s web of whispering millennia”.

(there follows “Antologia Minima”)


Antologia Minima

“Dichiarazioni di un soldato morto”, da “Oramai – Pezzi, composizioni, antifone. 1936-1945”, Istituto Grafico Tiberino, Roma, 1947
“La Tenzone” (1948)
“Linguistica”, da “E ma dopo”, Argo, Roma, 1950
“Sibylla (foedus, foetus),” da “12 Sibyllae”, M. Lombardelli Ed., Castelvetro Piacentino, 1995
“Poesia in greco classico più traduzione dell’Autore”, da “Le mura di t;éb;è”, galleria Multimedia, Brescia, 1981



“Oramai. Pezzi, composizioni, antifone. 1936-1945”, Istituto Grafico Tiberino, Roma, 1947
“E ma dopo”, Argo, Roma, 1950 (con disegni di Mirko)
“17 variazioni su temi proposti per una pura ideologia fonetica”, Origine, Roma, 1955 (99 copie + 5)
“3 ideologie da piazza del popolo / senza l’imprimatur”, Roma, 1958, (con 3 opere di Nuvolo)
“Comizio 1953”, Roma, 1959
“Heurarium”, Edizioni EX, Roma, 1961
“Traitée de pédérasthie céleste”, Colonnese, Napoli, 1969
“Phrenodiae quinque de coitu mirabili”, La Nuova Foglio, Pollenza-Macerata, 1971
“The Flippant Ball-Feel”, Piacenza, 1973 (600 copie in occasione della mostra di tre flippers di W. Xerra e C. Costa)
“L’homme qui descend quelque: roman métamytique”, Magma, Roma, 1974 (con 6 tavole xilografiche di Claudio Parmiggiani)
“le mura di t;éb;è”, galleria Multimedia, Brescia, 1981
“Opere Poetiche I”, a cura di A. Tagliaferri, Coliseum, Milano, 1990
“12 Sibyllae”, a cura di A. Tagliaferri, M. Lombardelli Ed., Castelvetro Piacentino, 1995
“Letania per Carmelo Bene”, Scheiwiller, Milano, 1996
“Zodiaco”, a cura di A. Tagliaferri e Cecilia Bello, Empirìa, Roma, 2000


Critical studies

Aldo Tagliaferri, “Parole silenziose”, in “Opere Poetiche I”, Coliseum Milano, 1990
AA.VV. in “Uomini e idee”, n° 2-4, ottobre 1975 (numero monografico dedicato a Villa)
Stelio Maria Martini, “L’avanguardia permanente di E. Villa” in Letteratura italiana. Novecento” diretta da G. Grana, vol. X, Marzorati, Milano, 1979
Stelio Maria Martini e Luciano Caruso, “Emilio Villa” in “Altro Polo. A volume of italian studies”, a cura di Raffaele Perrotta, University of Sydney, 1980
Aldo Tagliaferri, “Occasioni villane” in “Baldus” anno 1, n° 10, settembre 1990
Gianni Grana, “L’iper(dis)funzione critica. Letteratura (Novecento) e poteri istituzionali”, Marzorati, Milano, 1980
Gianni Grana, “Babele e il silenzio: genio ‘orfico’ di E. Villa”, Marzorati, Settimo Milanese, 1991
AA.VV., “Il Verri” n° 7-8 novembre 1998, Monogramma, Milano (numero dedicato a E. Villa)