BAGGAGE: Alex Caldiero in Retrospect

These images are from the catalogue for the exhibition just mounted by the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City. The exhibition will be open until June.

As you can see, the catalogue is a brilliant expansion and development of what is on display at the museum, a work of art in itself with 7 artist’s statement and 7 essays about Alex’s work and page after striking page of works done over the last 50 years.

Our UVU Humanities Symposium website offers a third set of Alex’s poetic, performance, and visual work:

And if this retrospective avalanche isn’t enough, Andy Hoffmann’s Elik Press has just published another book of Alex’s sonosophical work: PER-SONAL EFFECTS

Three decades of friendship with Alex Caldiero have enriched my life immensely.

I’ll end this post with a glimpse at a section of a book another old friend, Zarko Radakovic, and I have written (to be published this spring by Laguna Press in Belgrade, looking for an American publisher):

An Amicable Correspondence

amicable: good-natured, harmonious, cordial, agreeable, good-humored, kind, polite 

No, none of those. I mean something with more bite, more room for spirited exchange. This amicable correspondence will be between amici, prijatelji, Freunde, friends. 

amicable: between friends

In 1826, officials in Weimar decided to clean out an overstuffed mausoleum that housed the remains of various notables, including those of Friedrich Schiller, who had died twenty-one years earlier. When they could not identify Schiller’s bones in the chaotic crypt, a doctor named Schwabe gathered 23 skulls to examine at home. Schwabe had known Schiller, he had his death mask, but still he was unable to identify Schiller’s skull with any certainty. He finally chose a skull that distinguished itself by its large size and fine, regular form. Großherzog Karl August recommended that the skull eventually be housed under glass next to Leibniz’s skull in the Royal Library. In the meantime, Goethe borrowed the skull and in the night of September 25 wrote a poem about his friend, using the occasion to explore the shifting relationships between nature and spirit, between matter and mind. Wilhelm von Humboldt saw the skull in Goethe’s possession and wrote to his wife that Goethe was having a burial vault built in the hopes that he and Schiller could eventually lie there together. In the end, the friends never shared a grave. DNA analysis in 2008 proved that the skull in question belonged to someone other than Friedrich Schiller. 

I decide to translate Goethe’s poem. The dense rhymes of terza rima and the rhythms of iambic pentameter are integral formal contributors to the content, but my attempts to reproduce them in English are a disaster. I opt for a more straightforward form.

While Contemplating Schiller’s Skull

It was in the somber ossuary that I saw

Skulls aligned with ordered skulls;

Old times, I thought, gone grey.

They stand fixed in rows, once mutual foes,

And stout bones that clashed to kill

Lie athwart, rest subdued.

Dismembered shoulder blades! what they bore

Now lost, and fine and lively limbs,

the hand, the foot, scattered, disjointed. 

You lay down tired, in vain,

They left you no peace in the grave, 

Drove you again into daylight.

No one can love the desiccated shell,

Whatever splendid noble germ it protected.

Yet for me, the adept, were inscribed

Sacred meanings not revealed to all,

As I, amidst that unblinking multitude 

Sensed an image wondrous beyond imagination,

And in the clammy hall’s constriction

I was warmed, refreshed,

As if life had sprung from death.

How mysteriously the form ravished me!

The divinely ordered trace, preserved!

A glimpse that carried me off to that sea

Whence figures rise transmuted.

Mysterious vessel! Orphic oracle,

How am I worthy to hold you in my hand?

Lifting you fervently, ultimate treasure, from corruption 

And into the open air to freely muse,

Turning myself, devoutly, to the sunlight.

What more can one attain in a lifetime

Than that God-Nature reveals herself?

How she lets what is firm pass away to spirit,

How she firmly preserves what the spirit engenders.

(to be continued)

Translating the poem from German to English and from the distance of two centuries, I enjoy an expansive freedom. As opposed to my ongoing habitation in the American West where I was born and raised, my friends Žarko Radaković and Alex Caldiero live at linguistic junctures. Žarko, who emigrated from the former Yugoslavia and whose native language is Serbo-Croatian, lives in Cologne with his German wife Anne. An uncompromising novelist, he is also a devoted translator of works by Peter Handke. Alex, who emigrated to Brooklyn from Sicily at the age of nine, lives in Orem, Utah with his Russian / Turkish / American wife Setenay. His poetry performances are legendary and his translations from Sicilian include the delightful “Bawdy Riddles and Tongue Twisters of the Sicilian Folk”: Trasi tisa / E nesci modda — It goes in hard / And comes out soft—Pasta). I have been the fortunate friend of these emigrant/immigrant/translator/artists for more than three decades. 

1 8 December 2017

I show Alex my new hearing aids. He points out that because his left ear is still his worst one, the fact that I can now hear through my bad right ear won’t change the fact that I’ll need to walk on his right side if we’re walking and talking. He has some technical questions. And then he gets to the heart of the matter: 

What if this destroys our friendship?

What do you mean?

What if our friendship is based on miscommunication? What if we’re friends only because I’ve been hearing you poorly and you haven’t been hearing me correctly?

While contemplating that possibility, I tell Alex about Goethe’s poem written while contemplating his friend Schiller’s skull.

My mother, Alex responds, had a burning desire to see her father’s bones. We were in Licodea, Sicily, and she insisted that we go to the cemetery where the family crypt is. My grandfather’s casket is in the ground-level room of the crypt, directly under the altar. She asked a cemetery official if she could open the casket. You can do anything you want in your family’s crypt, he said. I did my best to dissuade her from opening the casket. You know how close to an emotional edge I live; imagine my mother 100 times closer to that edge. She finally acquiesced and we didn’t open the casket. 

When Schiller died, Goethe was 55 and Schiller 45. Goethe was 76 when he contemplated Schiller’s skull. Žarko, Alex, and I are 73, 69, and 69 respectively. None of us is likely to write a poem with the other’s skull on our desk. 

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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2 Responses to BAGGAGE: Alex Caldiero in Retrospect

  1. Marigold Long says:

    Is the catalog for sale?


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