who will quell our intense desire
to solve

Four Poems by Donata Berra with an introduction and translations by Charif Shanahan

Donata Berra’s work came to me by chance. I had just moved to Switzerland for love. I had just begun studying at the University of Berne, where Donata teaches. I had wandered, at random, into the Romance Languages building, bumped into a nice man in the Italian department who, I would later discover, was a poet, too, and found myself enrolling in an Italian course. Course: Advanced Italian Syntax and Grammar. Instructor: D. Berra/Staff.

After two weeks, longing already for literature to complement the linguistic focus of the course, I asked Donata if she could make recommendations of Italian poets to read in addition to the course work. She obliged, indicating that she was actually a passionate reader of poetry. She told me she loved many of the same English-language poets I loved, though she had only read them in translation. She told me that it would be her pleasure to help; in fact, she would bring me her personal copies of the books she recommended so I wouldn’t have to navigate the library stacks. She never mentioned she was a poet.

Each week, Donata brought me books, and each week, I took them home, devoured them, and gave them back to her in class, where we discussed compound reflexive pronouns and the passato remoto.  To the final class, Donata brought a thin, red collection of poetry, which lay, face down, on the desk next to her. I was surprised: I didn’t know that I would see her again after this class and therefore hadn’t been expecting a book. After the lesson, she handed me the collection, her own, with humility and graciousness, saying only that she hoped I liked it.

I say with embarrassment that A memoria di mare /As the Sea Remembers sat on my bookshelf for two years before I opened it purposefully. I discovered a collection marked by a palpable sensuality of language, arresting imagery, and a tremendous sensitivity to the human condition—to the great tragedies that unite us, and to the nuances of even our smallest interactions. Moved, without thinking, I found myself translating Donata’s most powerful poems. I deliberately stayed as literal in my translations as possible, wanting to preserve, and to transmit, the clarity of voice, scene, and affect in these poems.

—Charif Shanahan

 photo of Donata Berra by Yvonne Böhler



by Donata Berra

Quando sull’arco del giorno si schiaccia la notte
e abbruna la linfa alle nostre membra sfatte


passa la mano dell’onda e subito
abbiamo tutti lo stesso nome


i giochi le reti gettate gli sguardi la compiacenza
il lungo, faticoso metterci in scena

   niente più appare


sotto il cielo ragnato da un inutile sole
come se il tempo si trovasse altrove


calma è soltanto la voce
nostra, che dice – in fondo noi

lo sapevamo.


Vieni, riposa, voglio accarezzarti di buio,
buio sulla tua pelle, a piene mani ti accarezzo
di buio
che renda cieca la voce.



by Donata Berra

As the night presses onto the arc of day
and darkens the lymph in our undone limbs


the hand of the wave passes and instantly
we all have the same name


the games the cast nets the gazes the complacency
the long, tiresome staging of ourselves

nothing appears anymore


beneath the sky spidered by a useless sun
as though time itself was somewhere else

only our voice is calm,
it says – in our deepest selves,

we knew it.


Come, rest, I want to caress you with the dark,

dark on your skin, with both hands I caress you

in the dark that blinds the voice.


translated from Italian by Charif Shanahan

[Apri la porta a quello sconosciuto]

by Donata Berra

Apri la porta a quello sconosciuto,
ti reca in dono odore di mare
e un cesto di ricci, di granchi,
proprio a te, che ne hai paura,
non lo guardi negli occhi e nel suo caldo
ma chini il capo fidando nell’aiuto
degli orecchini della nonna, lunghe
gocce di perla che dai rosei
lobi pendono, sfiorandoti le gote.

[Open the door to that stranger]

by Donata Berra


You open the door to that stranger
who gifts you the smell of the sea
and a chest of urchins, of crabs,
just for you, and you fear it,
you don’t even look him in the eyes


or consider his warmth,
but bow your head trusting the help
of grandmother’s earrings, long
drops of pearls that from rose lobes

hang, grazing your cheeks.

translated from Italian by Charif Shanahan

Al porto

by Donata Berra



Al porto, uno


A ridosso dell’onda, preso

tra le maglie della rete, perso

al finisterre sguardo, e le passioni:

fermo, aspettando che calino le nasse




Al porto, due


Senza apparente scopo

come la lenta risacca


ma con visibile fastidio

per le frasi che non la riguardano


sta la bella donna

seduta al bar Blu Mare


attorcigliando il fumo

cilestrino della sigaretta.



In the Harbor

by Donata Berra



At the first harbor


Close to the wave, taken

between the mesh of the net, he is lost

in the endless glance and the passions:

standing still, waiting for the creels to lower




At the second harbor


With no apparent purpose
like the slow returning undertow


though visibly annoyed
by the words not concerning her


the beautiful woman is
sitting at the Blue Sea bar


twisting the bluish smoke

of the cigarette.



translated from Italian by Charif Shanahan


by Donata Berra


Chi ci terrà premuto il capo che cerca di rialzarsi,
chi non vorrà tener conto che il tempo era breve

e non spersi

chi schiaccerà l’estrema nostra voglia

di tentare

l’ancora irrisolto, di interrogare il vuoto
chi spengerà quest’ultimo fiato che, ci avevano detto,

   era forse

il soffio divino

chi oserà tacitare la voce, l’ultimo coraggio
chi avrà l’ardire dell’oltraggio,

chiunque sia, sappia:

lo guarderemo, prima o poi, direttamente in faccia.




Dopo tante maledizioni


sapersi persi, non cedere
lasciando l’ultima riva
giocarsi tutto rischiare
compromettere la salvezza


esasperati di stare all’oscuro

spingere a fondo la domanda

che ci riguarda

ché di altro non sapremmo chiedere


e prendere atto piano piano

di una nota scura

cupa insistente

come di bordone


era la voce di Dio che diceva

è niente.



by Donata Berra



Who will keep their head down trying to get up,
who won’t want to consider that time was short

and not scattered

who will quell our intense desire

to solve

the still unresolved, to interrogate the emptiness
who will extinguish this last breath which, they had told us,

was maybe

the divine one

who will dare hush the voice, the last courage

who will brave the outrage and insults,

whoever you are, know this:

we will look at you, sooner or later, directly in the face.




After many curses


knowing ourselves lost, not yielding
leaving the last shore
gambling everything at risk

compromising salvation


exhausted of being in the dark
pushing firmly into the question

which must be all about us
for we’d not know how to ask it


and realizing little by little

a distant note
dark insistent

as a drone


was the voice of God, saying

it’s nothing, it’s nothing–

translated from Italian by Charif Shanahan