Sex and Tax – Brief Poems by Alda Merini

141618Alda Merini (1931-2009) was born in Milan on March 21, 1931 to a family of modest means. Her father encouraged Alda’s interest in literature and published a little booklet of her poems when she was ten. At fifteen she began devoting herself to writing poems. Soon she began frequenting the period’s most remarkable literary circle in Milan, attended by many eminent poets and critics, among them Pier Paolo Pasolini, Maria Corti, Luciano Erba and Giorgio Manganelli, with whom she began a tormented love affair. Also in 1947, she showed her first symptoms of mental illness and spent a month at the Villa Turro clinic in Milan. In 1949 the affair with Manganelli ended. In 1950 she became romantically involved with Salvatore Quasimodo; the relationship lasted until 1953.

In 1953, Alda Merini married Ettore Carniti, the owner of a bakery and pastry shop in Milan, and published her first book, La presenza di Orfeo. After the publication of Tu sei Pietro in 1961, she stopped writing for two decades, due to her deteriorating mental health. Susan Stewart, her translator, has commented on her mental problems: In her Delirio amoroso, Merini wrote, ambiguously, “All my books are tied to my mental illness, almost always wanted by others to witness my damnation,” thereby not indicating whether it is her books or the mental illness itself, or their inter-relation, that was demanded by her audience. Indeed her tremendous, bestselling popularity in Italy—witnessed by the fact that her books can be found in the kiosks of every Italian train station as well as every bookstore— speaks to the importance of the Merini legend of the mad poet.

In 1965, committed by her husband, she entered the Paolo Pini asylum in Milan, where she remained until 1972, although she did spend some brief periods with her family. In 1979 she emerged from her illness and began writing again, permeating her poems with her dramatic and painful experience in mental institutions. After the death of her husband in 1983, she began a correspondence with the doctor Michele Pierri, thirty years her senior. She married him the same year, moving to his home in Taranto. Here she had another bout of serious mental illness and for a short time entered a local mental institution.

She returned to Milan in 1986, where she finally achieving some serenity. She was able to live outside of mental institutions in her own apartment on the Naviglio. The next twenty years were creatively fecund and she published at least a book of poems or prose annually. In 1993 she received the prestigious Librex-Guggenheim Eugenio Montale Prize, thus becoming an acclaimed and revered poet. In 1996 she won another prestigious prize, the Premio Viareggio.

Renowned and beloved in her native Italy, her numerous books include The Presence of OrpheusFear of GodRoman WeddingDiary of an Other, and Love Lessons (2009), a selection of  poems translated into English by Susan Stewart. Her later poems meditate on illness, nature, and myth. She was twice nominated for a Nobel Prize during her lifetime, by both the French Academy and Italian PEN.


Alda Merini died on November 1, 2009 of cancer. She is buried in the Monumental Cemetery in Milan. (See the image of her tomb above.)






According to Alda Merini, Gli aforismi sono gli incantesimi della notte (Aphorisms are the spells of the night.) I first discovered her aphorisms in Douglas Basford’s translations on the Poetry Foundation site. (See LINKS below.)  There are other translations available in Susan Stewart’s Love Lessons: Selected Poems of Alda Merini. But I prefer those of Douglas Basford who has probably selected the best of the aphorisms of which there are very many.

Alda Merini wrote some of them on the walls of her apartment in Milan, as seen in this YouTube video, where she delighted in self display of all sorts, including nude photos of herself (“Nudity refreshes my soul,” is  another one of her aphorisms.) Susan Stewart describes a visit to her apartment: Across the ochre palimpsest of peeling paint above her bed, in lurid lines of lipsticks and faint pencil traces, she has scrawled a vast map of phone numbers, aphorisms, fragments of poems coming to life or fading from memory; it’s hard to tell. She roams, a small stooped figure, through her realm of objects, dropping cigarette ash everywhere she goes. If you do not believe in guardian angels, the sight of Alda Merini orbiting through this flammable maze, day after day, night after night, shedding sparks, might make you change your mind.




Brief Poems by Alda Merini


always looks for the egg
in a basket
that has been lost.

*       *       *

I sample sin as if it were
the beginning of well-being.

*       *       *

I don’t like Paradise
as they probably don’t have obsessions there.

*       *       *

Se Dio mi assolve, lo fa sempre per insufficienza di prove.

If God absolves me
he always does so
for insufficient

*       *       *

Everyone is a friend of his own pathology.

*       *       *

When I raise a toast to madness,
I toast myself as well.

*       *       *

Ci sono notti che non accadono mai.

There are nights that don’t
ever happen.


Translated by Douglas Basford.

Source : Poetry (December 2007)




from Aphorisms and Spells

As I am Catholic
I have never played.

*       *       *

I’ve had
thirty-six lovers
plus tax.

*       *       *

I am the most chaste woman
in Italian literature.

*       *       *

I am completely
not counting errors
and omissions.

*       *       *

Mount Sinai
is sometimes confused
with the Mons Veneris.

*       *       *

No one can know
what is
between me and God.


Translated by Douglas Basford.

Source : Poetry (December 2007)




The Poety Foundation selection from Aphorisms translated by Douglas Basford.

The Poetry Foundation selection from Aphorisms and Spells translated by Douglas Basford.

Susan Stewart’s introduction to her translation of Alda Merini’s Selected  Poems.

A series of amazing photographs of Alda Merini.

The official homepage for Alda Merini. (In Italian)

A large selection of the  aphorisms (Aforisi) in Italian.





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