“All I Have is What I Have Given Away”: an encounter with Dante, a reading with Robert Pinsky, and a Roman friendship


“When my time comes, I want to die here. Here on this ground.” (Photo: Patrick Troccolo)

“All I Have Is What I Have Given Away,” a smooth, enchanting, and elegant tale, is up at The Commonan Amherst journal. I am proud of my small role in encouraging its publication. Susan Troccolo tells the story of a meeting in Rome with an educator and Dantista who had been imprisoned as part of Italy’s WWII resistance. The encounter, decades ago, changed her life:

On that bright morning in November—the first day I saw her—Anna Lea Lelli wore the outfit that distinguished her on the streets of Rome: a long cape and beret. The beret emphasized her craggy jaw and prominent Roman nose. Under her Scottish wool cape, Lea wore a gray suit in gabardine and a cream-colored silk blouse with French cuffs and pearl cufflinks. Just the right amount of cuff showed under the suit, no doubt perfectly tailored to her years ago. At her neck was a silk scarf, on her hand a carnelian ring carved with the face of Mars. She held a cane with the silver head of a horse, the patina worn from the warmth and pressure of her hand.

At the Forum together (Photo: Patrick Troccolo)

I don’t know why I was drawn to her that day in Rome. She was eighty-three years old. I was thirty-two. We were clearly from different worlds, with nothing apparent in common. My husband and I had gone to live in Rome for what we thought would be one whirlwind year. Now that year had passed, and I felt I hadn’t really touched the heart of the place. I was in love with Italy, and wholly taken with the music of the language, but I wanted something deeper from my experience. …

It was only during our second visit that Lea began to inquire about my Italian studies. She could hear that I was a beginner, she said, but my accent was very natural. She studied me again with that penetrating gaze I never got used to and, in her refined English, said, “We have a space for you in the Dante class that meets here every Monday.” Motioning to me to pour her another cup of tea, she said, “You are young, but you have the quality of devotion. Devotion matters to Dante.”

We sipped our tea in silence for a moment. Her compliment had been unexpected, and it made me thoughtful. What did she mean by “devotion”What kind of devotion could a Dante class possibly require? As if she had heard the voice inside my head, Lea explained just how devoted I’d need to be: “You must first learn Italian. Then you will begin to learn the Italian of Dante. Our class meets once a week for three hours. Of course, the class must go on for three years, a canto a week….” Lea’s voice dropped low, as if she knew she might scare me off.

Susan sent me a draft of the story ages ago, and I helped with editorial suggestions. However, there is a coda to the story that didn’t survive the final cut. Since I know the cast of characters –both Robert Pinsky and Susan – I thought I’d include it here. Susan continued:

In November 1998, Robert Pinsky, who was the U.S. Poet Laureate at the time, did a reading at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. A few years earlier, he had completed a new bilingual verse translation of Dante’s masterpiece called The Inferno of Dante.

I arrived early and sat in the third row, with Pinsky’s new book in my hands and the sales slip as a bookmark. The reading was drawing a big crowd—a staffer was setting up extra chairs so everyone could have a seat.

Pinsky (Photo: J. van Otteren)

Robert Pinsky arrived and began to set up at the lectern. He was a handsome man with dark brooding eyes—heavy lidded with thick brows. Dante could have picked him personally from beyond the grave to represent his words.

The reading began and then Pinsky said something that floored me: he said he didn’t speak Italian. Yes, he could read Italian, as a poet, he could do a fresh translation.

But the real music of the language was something he could not lay claim to. Was there anyone here in this crowd who could read the original before he read his translation?

I froze. My mind raced and the book almost fell from my hands. What if I didn’t raise my hand? What if I let an opportunity like this pass by? Lea would never forgive me.

I raised my hand.

What happened next lives in a sun-lit corner of my mind. It lasted ten minutes. I recited what Pinsky pointed out in his copy, then he took back his book and read the English. Then, I showed him my favorite passages and recited them as music, as Lea had taught me. No book. Robert Pinsky replied with his magnificent translation.

After our reading, the line to have Mr. Pinsky sign his book was long. While we waited—all of us poetry lovers—people came up to me.

“You know, I didn’t understand you, but I did understand you, do you know what I mean?” Someone else said: “I think this is the first time I’ve ever really known that poetry is music.”

When my turn came, I thanked Mr. Pinsky for allowing me to share Dante with him. He was warm and enthusiastic: “Where do you teach? I don’t hear Dante like that. Where do you teach?” he repeated.

“I don’t teach, but you see…I had this friend…..in Rome…”

Read the whole story here. Or watch the video, filmed in Rome, 1990, and aired on San Francisco public television KQED. Part 1 on Youtube is here. Part 2 is here. Or stay put and watch the Vimeo clip below. (The video quality has not borne the burdens of time well – the youtube quality is a better than the short Vimeo clip below – but it will give you a taste.)

Omaggio: A Portrait of Anna Lea Lelli from Digital Bindery on Vimeo.

2 Responses to ““All I Have is What I Have Given Away”: an encounter with Dante, a reading with Robert Pinsky, and a Roman friendship”

  1. Jim Erwin Says:

    It is not surprising that those attending the Powell’s reading did not understand much of the Italian Susan read. I helped organize a day of talks on Dante in Portorož on the Gulf of Trieste attended by about 3/4 Italians and 1/4 Slovenes, which included recitations from the original Commedia by someone trained in the Italian of Dante’s time. Several of the Italians confided to me the same sentiments – they found it beautiful, but understood little of it.

    I attended a talk from Susan around ’86 during a violent thunder/lightning storm. Part of the way in, the power went out. When we organized some candles and reconvened, Susan assured us that Dante would have approved of the setting.

  2. Susan Troccolo Says:

    Hi Jim,
    Thanks so much for the reminder of that wild and woolly reading when we lost power! I’m sure the details were somewhere in the veils of memory, but you’ve brought it all back and I thank you for it.

    I appreciated your personal story of the Dante talk you organized. Dante’s word choice and rhyme scheme would be to a modern Italian what Chaucer would be to a modern English man or woman – likely very odd, unless someone had a chance to sit with a translation and take it apart bit by bit. I recall struggling with Lea at times, trying to get her to recommend an English translation of Dante for me…but she wouldn’t. She told me that if I couldn’t read it in Italian, the only viable second choice would be to read it in Spanish! It was the Latinesque flow and beauty she was after, not the harsh structure of the English tongue. I loved her for it. After all, she had learned English in order to read Shakespeare. The gauntlet was thrown-:)