Blood That Dreams of Stone: Antonia Pozzi, Climbing Poet

Posted on: December 16, 2019


[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 68, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. The translated poems of Antonia Pozzi featured here derive from Parole (2009), compiled by Paolo Alberti and Catia Righi. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are translations from the Italian by Brian McKenzie and the author David Smart. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 68 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

[Illustration] Rhiannon Klee[Illustration] Rhiannon Klee

WHEN SHE WAS A SMALL CHILD, Antonia Pozzi loved to explore the trails that led from her family's villa in Pasturo, Italy, to the rough grass slopes of the Grigna massif, a landscape studded with limestone boulders, wild thickets and misshapen pinnacles. During a calm walk near the house with her father, she felt the urge to run off on her own. In the poem "Heedlessness," she recalled wishing she could "leap outside, / into the invading sun, to gather / a fistful of blackberries from a hedge"—lines that would be translated by Peter Robinson as part of a posthumous collection of her work. But she never managed to break away from her father.

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In 1923, at age eleven, Antonia joined the Milan Section of the Club Alpino Italiano (Italian Alpine Club) on her own initiative. It was a precocious and hopeful act for a young person who craved unfettered access to the mountains. Her participation would have been limited, at first, to lectures, art exhibitions and nature hikes that she could attend with her father or other trusted adults. Nonetheless, her love for the mountains steadily grew. When she was fourteen, she seemed to be describing herself in a student essay that she wrote about Pasturo, later cited in Marco Dalla Torre's 2009 book Antonia Pozzi e la Montagna: "The village where I spend my holidays, which, like a fearful child who clings to the skirts of his mother, climbs up the side of the great mountain that overlooks it, almost as if to ask her for protection."

Antonia's life had certain material and social privileges. She was born in 1912 to Roberto Pozzi, a proud and cultured Milanese lawyer who specialized in international law, and to Carolina, a noble of the Sanguiliani family of Gualdana. And yet, Antonia's access to money, her status in her society and her ability to form relationships were all dependent on her father's approval. To her, the stifling, patriarchal norms of bourgeois existence seemed like "a stupid game that costs nothing and yet can cost a life," she wrote in a letter to Vittorio Sereni, as translated by Robinson. She took refuge in the hours she spent every day writing and revising her poetry, though she showed only a few of her poems to anyone else. She clung tenaciously to the mountains. The landscapes of rocks and snow, of storm and wildflowers, of laconic climbing companions and jangling iron climbing hardware became inseparable from her internal universe.

Her intellectual contacts and her guides and climbing friends included some of the leading figures of the inter-war generation: the poet Vittorio Sereni; the alpinist Guido Rey. After World War I, Italian alpinism blossomed into a discipline of its own. Climbers overcame previously unimaginable routes, such as the sheer fortress-like wall of the North Face of the Cima Grande, with the use of etriers, with strings of bad pitons and with sections of hard free climbing (but no bolts)—around the same time that the first carabiner arrived in Yosemite Valley. Nonetheless, Emilio Comici, Domenico Rudatis and other philosophers of the new Italian climbing era hardly ever wrote about technical trivia. Instead, they emphasized the inner aspects. The primary definition of the sixth grade, the sestogrado, didn't merely indicate terrain harder than that of grade five—it represented the point at which the climb became an ultimate, all-consuming effort that tried someone in all dimensions of their being. The spiritual dimension wasn't limited to the best climbers.

"The mountain is an unsurpassable gym for the soul and the body," Antonia declared in a 1934 letter to Lucia Bozzi (included in Dalla Torre's book) about her ascent of the Castelletto Superiore, a 250-meter rampart of grey stone, with the guide Oliviero Gasperi. "In climbing, there is only the adaptation of the flesh and the feline instincts with which to cling to the rocks. Palms, bent fingers, the friction; by these, you earn the rock. And then, from your narrow ledge, you turn and see an amphitheatre of spires and ice. You look down the face and feel a dizzying mental fluidity...then a crazy drunkenness invades you and the wild adoration of your ardently held frailty."

[Illustration] Rhiannon Klee[Illustration] Rhiannon Klee

Antonia didn't record her climbs for their own sake, though she occasionally described them in detailed correspondence. A letter to a friend recounts a typical trip to the Brenta Group in the Dolomites. On August 13, 1932, Antonia made an ascent of Cima del Groste via the northeast side, a rambling climb to warm up for a strenuous week. The next day, after scaling the 300-meter limestone tooth of the Campanile dei Camosci, she didn't appear to be tired out. On the third morning, she headed for the South Face of the Cima Brenta. Still a respected route in the 1930s, this climb required nerve and technical skill to follow its lengthy traverses and unprotected terrain as it snaked upward for almost 1500 meters. The day after that, she confronted the southwest ridge of the west face of the Croz del Rifugio. Here, she might have found complete engagement of her body and mind on the rock—an ascent that appeared impossible at first glance, unmarked apart from the occasional fixed piton on a steep wall. On the last morning of the trip, as if finally sated, she finished with a romp up the stone chimneys of the Gasperi Route on the Parete della Cima Campiglio.

It was a week that would have exhausted many experts for its sheer volume. Unlike top alpinists of her generation, however, Antonia wasn't able to devote a large part of her life to climbing. Instead, her excursions were limited to holidays, and her companions were mostly CAI section leaders and guides. Nevertheless, her love for the mountains remained fierce. In her poem "Song of my Nakedness," translated by Robinson, she described herself as having "gained the rock with the hunger of predators," and she declared that she was proud of her physical condition, "lean and firm as a thoroughbred."

In 1929, when Antonia was seventeen, she had fallen in love with her classics teacher, Antonio Maria Cervi, who was brilliant and handsome, but fourteen years older than she was. She fantasized about having a child with him to replace the brother he had lost in the Great War. Cervi eventually confessed that the love was mutual. When he asked for Roberto Pozzi's approval, Antonia's father was horrified that his daughter might end up with a humble, nearly middle-aged schoolteacher. Roberto had Cervi re-posted to Rome, and he forbade Antonia from seeing her lover. Despite attempts to break off the romance, Cervi and Antonia met each other furtively for several years, before the relationship ended for good.

Devastated, Antonia felt a void within herself that she'd once hoped would be filled with a new existence. She fell in love twice more with other men, but the sense of lost opportunity remained. "If I knew what it would mean," she wrote about Cervi in her 1933 poem "Rejoining," translated by Robinson, "to see you no more / I believe my life here / it would be over." She felt, more keenly than ever, the inability of reconciling her creative and romantic desires with her family's expectations. In the mountains, where she'd once found sanctuary, she began to hear an echo of the abyss. The rope seemed "as white as the bones of a dead hawk." A red patch of lichen on overhanging stone startled her with its appearance of spilled blood. "Nice to fall / When the nerves and flesh are mad with strength / they want to become a soul," she wrote, "below, the hard rock cries."

[Illustration] Rhiannon Klee[Illustration] Rhiannon Klee

IN 1936 ANTONIA recalled lying on the grass between the boulders below the dark south face of the Cima Piccola of the Tre Cima di Lavaredo. She had hiked up from the Principe Umberto hut to climb, but now she watched her friend and guide, Emilio Comici, free solo the 1000-meter-long Innerkofler Route. The crescent-shaped line of this climb leads up a monolithic grey-black wall to the yellow summit pinnacle. The route is long, varied and even discordant in its colors and shades. Comici's own melancholy personality seemed to echo the disparate moods of the Innerkofler: he was obsessed with music, yet a poor pianist; he was convinced of his own ugliness, though women admired his good looks; he was famous for pounding hundreds of pitons to defeat climbs, but he was also a free soloist; he was hungry for attention, yet resentful when he got it. Antonia had only ever composed poems about two climbers: herself, and unbeknownst to him, Comici.

"The highest note was up there," Antonia wrote in a letter to Bozzi in 1937, "a tiny point crucified on a black slab in the infinite silence." She watched the silver clouds, and she listened to the wind. She lay "on the sharp pointed grass," she recounted, "and pressed my heart against a boulder.... If I could always remember that hour, life would be a continual victory."

By then, however, the tone of Antonia's poems had crossed beyond hopelessness into even darker resonances. By August 1938, over a year before the Italian dictator Mussolini made his Iron Pact with Nazi Germany, Mussolini enacted his own anti-Semitic laws: Jewish people were banned from public office and universities; their books were suppressed; and their property was seized. Two of Antonia's Jewish friends, Paolo and Piero Treves, who later worked for Radio Londra—the wartime Italian-language newscast of the BBC—fled for England. Antonia had already taken a stand against the encroachment of fascism through her work with the GISM (Mountain Writers Group), a consortium of writers who opposed the efforts of some members of the Academy of the CAI to bring climbing culture into line with Mussolini's regime. Since 1935, she had decried Italian military activity in Eritrea and elsewhere.

Poetry was no longer a means of life for her; it became a form of death. "Poetry has this sublime task," she wrote to Tullio Gadenz in July 1933, "to take all the pain that bubbles up in us and roars in our souls, and to placate it, to transfigure it into the supreme calm of art, just as the rivers flow into the heavenly vast oceans. Poetry is a catharsis of pain, as the immensity of death is the catharsis of life."

In December 1938, she took an overdose of barbiturates outside Chiaravalle Abbey in Milan. She was found in a ditch, a frequent symbol in her poems, and she died the next day in her parents' home.

When her father discovered her poetry, he redacted lines that referred to Antonia's affair with Cervi, and he edited out some of the more erotic content. He showed the censored poems to his literary friends, who published them in a collection called Parole, or Words, in 1939. Readers were stunned by this sudden revelation of a secret genius. Roberto later regretted many of his edits, and in 1943, he allowed the first uncensored versions to be published. Today, Pozzi is considered one of the great Italian poets of the twentieth century. She is buried in Pasturo, next to her parents. Her grave is marked by boulders from the Grigna—rocks that recall the places where she'd wanted to run off and seek blackberries as a child.

Her real memorial, the one she worked on her whole life, is her poetry. "If my words could be an offering to someone," she once wrote in her typically hermetic style, "they would bear your name."

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 68, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. The translated poems of Antonia Pozzi featured here derive from Parole (2009), compiled by Paolo Alberti and Catia Righi. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are translations from the Italian by Brian McKenzie and the author David Smart. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 68 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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