Complete Poems of Michelangelo

"[These are] wonderful translations by Nims, himself a master craftsman, whose 'blunt, direct, plainspoken' diction perfectly matches Michelangelo's rough-talking poems and their formal complexities.…Nims gives us Michelangelo whole: the polymorphous love sonneteer, the political allegorist, and the solitary singer of madrigals."—Kirkus Reviews

"Admirably translated.…Happily, John Nims' efforts do not break free of their parent poems. Like strong-gened offspring, they have inherited the nobler and distinctive features of their progenitors."—Daniel Kunitz, Times Literary Supplement

"One of the Best Poetry Books of 1998.…A splendid, fresh and eloquent translation.…Nims, an eminent poet and among the best translators of our time, conveys the full meaning and message of Michelangelo's love sonnets and religious poems in fluently rhymed, metrical forms."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Three poems from
The Complete Poems of Michelangelo
Translated by John Frederick Nims

     A goiter it seems I got from this backward craning
like the cats get there in Lombardy, or wherever
—bad water, they say, from lapping their fetid river.
My belly, tugged under my chin, 's all out of whack.
     Beard points like a finger at heaven. Near the back
of my neck, skull scrapes where a hunchback's lump would be.
I'm pigeon-breasted, a harpy! Face dribbled—see?—
like a Byzantine floor, mosaic. From all this straining
     my guts and my hambones tangle, pretty near.
Thank God I can swivel my butt about for ballast.
Feet are out of sight; they just scuffle around, erratic.
     Up front my hide's tight elastic; in the rear
it's slack and droopy, except where crimps have callused.
I'm bent like a bow, half-round, type Asiatic.
     Not odd that what's on my mind,
when expressed, comes out weird, jumbled. Don't berate;
no gun with its barrel screwy can shoot straight.
     Giovanni, come agitate
for my pride, my poor dead art! I don't belong!
Who's a painter? Me? No way! They've got me wrong.

See note on Poem 5

     What file's incessant bite
left this old hide so shrunken, frayed away,
my poor sick soul? When is it due, the day
that sloughs it off, and heaven receives you, where
in primal joy and light
you lived, unvexed by the perilous flesh you wear?
Though I change hide and hair
with little life ahead,
no way to change behavior long engrained,
cramping me all the more as years go by.
I'm envious, Love, I swear
(why hide it?) of the dead,
a panicky muddle-head,
my soul in terror of its sensual tie.
Lord, as the last hours fly,
stretch out in mercy your two arms; make me
less what I've been, more what you'd have me be.

See note on Poem 161

     I'm packaged in here like the pulp in fruit
compacted by its peel. In lonely gloom,
a genii in a jar. Dumped destitute.
     No room for flying high. I'm in a tomb
where mad Arachne and her creepy crew
keep jittering up and down, a spooky loom.
     My entryway's a jakes for giants, who
gorge on gut-loosening grapes or suffer flux.
No other comfort station seems to do.
     Urine! How well I know it—drippy duct
compelling me awake too early, when
dawn plays at peekaboo, then yonder—yuck!—
     dead cats, cesspool and privy slosh, pigpen
guck—gifts for me, flung hit-or-miss?
Can't trudge to a proper dunghill, gentlemen?
     Soul gets some help from body though in this:
if guts, unclogged, could ventilate their smell
no bread and cheese would keep it in duress,
     while round it now catarrh and mucus jell.
Congestion blocks the postern down in back.
With all the phlegm, top exit's blocked as well.
     Gut-sprung and graveled, spavined, out of whack,
done in by drudgery's what I am. I pay
innkeeper Death for a fleabag, grub and sack.
     My pleasure: gloomy moping. Old and gray,
discomfort's my repose. Who'd choose it so,
God keep him in the dumps day after day.
     The bogeyman, that's me, at a twelfth-night show.
The setting's right, a stable. Disrepair's
conspicuous near fine mansions in a row.
     No flames of love within my heart, a bare
cold hearthstone deep in ash. Chill drafts prevail.
Clipped are the wings that rode celestial air.
     Skull hums like a hornet in a wooden pail;
gunnysack skin totes bones and jute around;
bladder's a pouch of gravel, edged like shale.
     My eyes: mauve pigment pestled till it's ground;
teeth: oboe-keys that, when I puff out air,
whistle it through or else begrudge the sound.
     My face says, "Boo!" It's scary. Rags I wear
rout-without bow and arrow-flocks of crows
from fresh-sown furrows even when weather's fair.
     One ear's all spider fuzz. I've tremolos
in the one an all-night vocal cricket chooses.
Can't sleep for my raucous snuffling, mouth and nose.
     Amor, flower-quilted grottos, all the Muses,
for these I scribbled reams—now scraps to tot
up tabs, wrap fish, scrub toilets, or worse uses.
     The puppets once I postured, cocky lot,
size up my here and now: I'm like the one
who, having swum wide ocean, drowned in snot.
     My cherished art, my season in the sun,
name, fame, acclaim—that cant I made a run for,
left me in servitude, poor, old, alone.
     O death, relieve me soon. Or soon I'm done for.

See note on Poem 267


5. 1509-10. Sonetto caudato [sonnet with tail], the tail consisting of six additional lines at the end of the sonnet, as in 25. It was written while Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). In the margin of the manuscript the artist has drawn an image of a strained figure with a bent back painting a ghostly shape on the ceiling. The "Giovanni" of line 18 refers to Giovanni da Pistoia, a member of the Florentine Academy who sent several sonnets to Michelangelo, whose own letters confirm his extreme discomfort at the time.

161. 1538-41. Madrigal. For Vittoria Colonna. Michelangelo's manuscript has the beginning of a letter to her, in which he mentions a drawing of the crucifixion he had sent her and that he is working on the Last Judgement. Ramsden dates the letter to spring, 1539.

267. 1546-49. Capitolo, terza rima. This piece was marked for publication and therefore seems to have existed in one version by 1546. The reference to his kidney trouble in line 36 suggests a date of 1548-49. Arachne of line 5 was a girl so proficient at weaving that Athena, jealous, turned her into a spider.


Copyright notice: From Complete Poems of Michelangelo translated by John Frederick Nims, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1998 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

The Complete Poems of Michelangelo
©1998, 198 pages, 3 halftones
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 0-226-08033-1
Paper $14.00 ISBN: 0-226-08030-7

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