Eugenio Montale


Selected Poems

 

       

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          Translated by A. S. Kline © 2012 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.

 

(For more Montale translations, see my selection: Five Italian Poets)

 


Contents

 

 

I Recall Your Smile. 4

To Rest In The Shade. 5

Evil, I’ve Often Encountered. 6

The Hope Even Of Seeing You Again. 7

Happiness Is Achieved Walking Thus. 8

To Rest In The Shade. 9

Perhaps One Morning Walking. 10

Day And Night 11

The House By The Sea. 12

Another Effect Of The Moon. 14

Fresh Stanzas. 15

Near Vienna. 17

The Well 18

Bagni di Lucca. 19

The Repertoire. 20

Dora Markus. 21

The Shadow Of The Magnolia. 25

Hitlerian Spring. 26

News From Mount Amiata. 28

Little Testament 28

Index of First Lines. 28

 

 


I Recall Your Smile

 

For K.

 

(Ripenso il tuo sorriso, ed è per me un’acqua limpida)


I recall your smile, and for me it is limpid water

witnessed by chance among the stones of a riverbed.

slight mirror in which you see an ivy and its inflorescence,

and over all the embrace of a serene white sky.

 

This is my recollection; I cannot say, O distant one,

if an ingenuous spirit is freely expressed in your face,

truly you are a wanderer whom the world’s ills exhaust,

and who carry your suffering with you like a talisman.

 

But this I may say; that your thoughtful portrait

drowns anxious inspiration in a wave of calm;

and your aspect insinuates itself in grey memory

pure as the crown of a youthful palm-tree…

 


To Rest In The Shade

 

(Meriggiare pallido e assorto)


To rest in the shade, pale and thoughtful,

by a sun-hot garden wall

listening among thorns and brushwood

to the cry of blackbirds, the hiss of snakes.

 

In cracks in the soil or amongst the vetch

to spy on the files of red ants

now scattering now intertwining

at the top of miniscule mountains.

 

To observe among the leaves the distant

quivering scales of the sea,

while the tremulous cries rise

from cicadas on the naked hills.

 

And walking in the dazzling sun

to feel with a saddened wonder

how all of life and its travails

is in this following a wall

topped by bright shards of glass.

 


Evil, I’ve Often Encountered

 

(Spesso il male di vivere ho incontrat)


Evil I’ve often encountered in life;

it was the strangled rivulet gurgling,

it was the shrivelling of parched

leaves, it was the horse falling heavily.

 

Good I have not known; except the wonder

that reveals divine Indifference;

it was the statue in the somnolence

of noon, and the cloud, and the hawk flying high.

 


The Hope Even Of Seeing You Again

 

(La speranza di pure rivederti)


The hope even of seeing you again

has left me;

and I wondered if what robs me

of all sense of you, screen of images,

reveals the signs of death or is

essentially the past, but distorted, rendered labile,

a bedazzlement of yours;

(at Modena, among the colonnades,

a liveried servant led

two jackals on a leash)

 


Happiness Is Achieved Walking Thus

 

(Felicità raggiunta, si cammina)


Happiness is achieved for you, walking

thus, on the edge of a knife blade.

To our eyes you are a wavering gleam,

afoot, tense ice that fractures;

so who loves you most cannot touch you.

If you come upon spirits invaded

with sadness and brighten them, your morning

is sweet and troubled like the nests on high.

But nothing compensates for the cry of the child

whose ball is in flight among the houses.

 


To Rest In The Shade

 

(Ti libero la fronte dai ghiaccioli)


I free your brow of all the ice

you have gathered traversing the high

clouds; your feathers lacerated

by cyclones, you woke to lightning jolts.

 

Noon: the medlar in the square extends

its dark shadow, a cold sun hangs

in the sky; and the other shadows lurking

in the alley do not know you are here. 

 


Perhaps One Morning Walking

 

(Forse un mattino andando in un’aria di vetro)


Perhaps one morning walking in dry glassy air,

I will turn, I will see the miracle complete:

nothingness at my shoulder, the void behind

me, with a drunkard’s terror.

 

Then, as on a screen, trees houses hills

will advance swiftly in familiar illusion,

But it will be too late; and I will return, silently,

to men who do not look back, with my secret.

 


Day And Night

 

(Anche una piuma che vola può disegnare)


Even a flying feather can sketch

your figure, or a ray of light playing hide and seek

among tables and chairs, the signal

from a child’s mirror, or the rooftops. Round the circuit

of walls trails of mist lengthen the spires

of the poplars, and down below on its perch

the knife-grinder’s parrot ruffles its plumage. Then

sultry night in the little squares, footsteps, and always

the toilsome effort to sink so as to rise again equal

to centuries, moments, to nightmares that cannot

recover the light of your eyes in the incandescent

cave – and still the same cries and the endless

plaint on the veranda,

if the sudden blow falls that reddens

your throat and breaks your wings, O perilous

herald of dawn,

and the cloisters and hospitals wake

to a laceration of trumpets…

 


The House By The Sea

 

(ll viaggio finisce qui)


The journey ends here:

in the petty cares that divide

the spirit that no longer utters a cry.

Now the minutes are equal and fixed

like the rhythm of the pump’s wheel.

A rotation: a spouting of rumbling water.

Another: more water, sometimes a creak. 

 

The journey ends on this beach

that slow regular tides attempt.

The sea reveals nothing but idle vapours

the vigorous murmurs of shells

conceive; and rarely among the tranquil

mutations of islands of migrating air

Corsica’s ridge or Capri appears.

You ask if all things vanish

in this little mist of memories;

if in this torpid hour, or in the sigh

of breakers every destiny completes.

I would say to you, no; the hour

approaches when you will pass beyond time;

perhaps only those who so wish become infinite,

and you may do so, who knows, not I.

I think for most it may be no salvation,

but some subvert every design,

make every crossing, discover what they desire.

First I would grant your crossing yourself,

that way of escape

uncertain as foam or a wrinkle

in the risen fields of the sea.

I grant you my miserly hope as well.

At daylight, weary, I cannot increase it:

my offer as pledge of the fate you evade.

 

The path ends with the brave

whom the tide gnaws with its ebb and flow.

Your heart close to me that hears me not

already sets sail perhaps for eternity.

 


Another Effect Of The Moon

 

(La trama del carrubo che si profila)


The form of the carob tree that looms

naked against the somnolent blue,

the sound of voices, the process

of silver fingers over the doorsteps,

the feather that gets entangled, on the jetty

a trampling of feet that dies away,

and the felucca already falling back in flight

its abandoned sail in tatters.

 


Fresh Stanzas

 

(Poi che gli ultimi fili di tabacco)


At last, with a gesture, the last shreds of your tobacco

are extinguished in the glass

dish; towards the ceiling

a slow spiral of smoke rises

that the bishops and knights on the chessboard

gaze at stupefied; and new smoke-rings

follow, more mobile than the rings

on your fingers.

 

The mirage that freed towers

and bridges in the sky is gone

at the first breath; an unseen window

opens and the smoke stirs. Down there

another herd moves; a storm

of men who cannot comprehend your incense;

that of this board, of which you alone

can make sense.

 

For a time I doubted if even you perhaps

were ignorant of the game played out

on its squares, now a cloud at your door:

the madness of death is not eased at so slight

a cost; though the gleam in your eyes is subdued

it demands other fires, as well as the dense

cloud that the household gods foment

around you, when they aid you.

 

Today, I know what you want; the hoarse bell

of the Martinella rings out and frightens

the ivory shapes with the spectral

light of snowfall. But he resists

and wins the prize of the watchful solitary

who, with you, can pit those steely eyes

of yours against the burning-glass

that blinds pawns.

 

Note: The Martinella was a bell attached to the door of the Church of Santa Maria in Florence, rung to signal the outbreak of war.

 


Near Vienna

 

(Il convento barocco)


The baroque convent

of biscuit and foam

hid a glimpse of sluggish water

and tables already set, scattered here and there

with leaves and ginger.

 

A swimmer emerged, dripping,

in a cloud of midges,

asked about our journey,

spoke at length about his own, over the border.

 

He pointed to the bridge opposite, crossed

(he informed us) with a single coin as toll.

With a wave of his hand, he sank,

was at one with the current…

And into his place,

from a shed, there leapt our herald,

a dachshund barking joyously,

 

sole fraternal voice in the sticky heat.

 


The Well

 

(Cigola la carrucola del pozzo)


The pulley of the well-shaft creaks,

water rises to the light and dissolves you.

A memory trembles in the refilled pail,

an image smiles in its pure circle.

Touch your face to evanescent lips:

the past wavers, grows old,

belongs to another…

Ah, how the wheel groans

already, returns you to the dark depths,

vision, a distance divides us.

 


Bagni di Lucca

 

(Fra il tonfo dei marroni)


Between the thud of chestnuts

and the roar of the torrent,

whose voices unite

the heart wavers.

 

Precocious winter that the north wind

sets shaking. I advance

on the verge that the dawn

of day dissolves in ice.

 

Marbled, branched…

and as one I shake down

scrolled leaves, arrows

into the ditch.

 

The raw ultimate

passes in the fog

of its own breath.

 


The Repertoire

 

(Il repertorio della memoria è logoro)


The repertoire of memory is worn: a leather suitcase

that has borne the labels from too many hotels.

Now there remains some sticker I dare not

unpeel. We must think of the porters,

the doorman at night, the taxi-drivers.

 

The repertoire of your memory

has shown me you yourself before you left.

There were names of various countries, dates

and sojourns and at the end a blank white page,

but with rows of dots…as if to suggest,

if it were possible: ‘to be continued’.

 

The repertoire of our memory cannot be imagined

as cut in two thus by a knife. It’s a single sheet with traces

of stamps, abrasions, and a few spots of blood,

It was no passport, not even a testimonial.

To be of service, even to hope, would have still meant life.

 


Dora Markus

 

(Fu dove il ponte di legno)


I – 1926


It was where a wooden pier

pushed from Porto Corsini into the open

sea,

and a few men,

almost motionless, let drop

or draw in their nets. With a gesture

of your hand you pointed

to the other shore,

invisible, your true country.

Then we followed the canal

till we reached the city’s

docklands, shining with soot,

flat land where inert

spring sank,

without trace.

And here where ancient life

is marked by the sweet

anxiety of the Levant,

your words are iridescent

as the scales

of a dying mullet.


Your restlessness

makes me think

of birds of passage

dashing against the lighthouse

on stormy evenings:

and even your blandness

is a storm

whirling, without striking,

its moments of repose rarer still.

I don’t know how, exhausted, you resist

in that lake

of indifference that is

your heart; perhaps

an amulet saves you, that you keep

with your lipstick,

powder puff, and nail-file:

a white mouse made

of ivory; and thus you exist!


II – 1939


Now in your
Carinthia

of flowering myrtles and ponds,

you stoop on the brink watching

the timid carp swallowing,

or wander under the limes, among

the ragged peaks, the twilight

lamps, and in the water the glow

thrown by jetties and boarding houses.

 

The evening that extends

over the damp basin, brings

with the throbbing of engines,

only the cries of geese and the interior

of snow-white majolica says

to the blackened mirror that it sees you

other, a tale of imperturbable

errors, etched there

where the sponge cannot reach.

Your legend, Dora!

But it is already written in the eyes

of men with weak side-burns

in large gold portraits, and returns

in every chord of the broken

harmonica at the hour

that darkens, ever later.

It is written there! The evergreen

laurel for the kitchen

lives on, the voice does not change.

Ravenna is distant now. A ferocious

faith distils its poison.

What does it want from you? Not that you yield

voice, legend, or destiny…

But it is late, forever later.

 

Note: Porto Corsini is the old port of Ravenna. Dora Markus though based loosely on a real person is rather a type of the age. Carinthia is the southernmost part of Austria, in the Eastern Alps.

 


The Shadow Of The Magnolia

 

(Lombra della magnolia giapponese)


The shadow of the Japanese magnolia

has thinned now the purple flowers

are fallen. At its top, a cicada

vibrates intermittently. It is no longer

the time of voices in unison,

Clizia, the time of the infinite deity,

who devours his faithful, revives them with blood.

To expend oneself was easier, to die

at the first wing-beat, the first encounter

with the enemy, a plaything. No a harder

path begins; but not for you,

consumed by sunlight, rooted, and yet a soft

thrush that flies high over your cold

river-banks – not for you fragile

fugitive for whom zenith nadir Cancer

Capricorn remained indistinct

because the war could have been in you and who adores

in you the stigmata of your Spouse, the shudder

of ice bends…the others retreat

and bow. The file that pares

thinly will fall silent. The empty husk

of those who sang will soon be glass

dust under your feet, the shadow is livid –

it’s autumn, it’s winter, it’s the other side of the sky

that accompanies you, into which I hurl myself, a mullet

leaping high and dry in the new moon.

Farewell.

 

Note: Clizia, based on Montale’s American friend Irma Brandeis, is a symbolic female religiously-oriented presence.

 


Hitlerian Spring

 

 

                    Né quella ch’a veder lo sol si gira…

 

                    Not the one the sun turns to see….

                                                                     

                              (Dante, in a poem to Giovanni Quirini: attributed)

 

(Folta la nuvola bianca delle falene impazzite)


The white cloud of maddened moths swirls

thickly round the pale lamps and over the parapets,

spreading a sheet on the ground that crackles

like sugar underfoot; now imminent summer liberates

the ice of night trapped

in the secret caves of the dead season,

in the gardens that stretch from Maiano here to Arno’s shores.

 

Lately, on the Corso, an infernal messenger passed in flight

through cheering admirers; a mystic gulf, open

and decked with crosses, took and swallowed the bait;

the shops are shuttered, poor

and harmless though even those are armed

with cannon and toys of war,

the butcher has locked his grille, who wreathed

the heads of dead goats with berries,

the ritual of mild executioners who still do not realise blood

has been transmuted into the foul tangle of crushed wings

of insects on the embankments, and water continues

to gnaw the banks, and no one is innocent.


All for nothing then? – And the Roman candles,

on Saint John’s Day, that slowly bleached

the horizon, and the pledges and long goodbyes

intense as a baptism in gloomy expectation

of the horde (yet a comet scored the dripping air

on the ice and shores of your coasts,

the angels Tobias saw, the seven, the future

arriving) and the sunflower born

from your hands – all burned and desiccated

in this pollen that shrills like fire

with the sharpness of icy sleet…

 

                                                  Oh, the wounded

spring is still festive though frozen

in death, this death! Your fate, Clizia,

is still cherished above, you

who preserve a love unaltered though altered

pure in what the blind sun might bring you,

dazed by the Highest, and destroyed

in Him, for all. Perhaps the sirens, the tolling bells,

that greeted the monsters in their stormy

evening are already confounded

with a sound loosed from heaven, descending, in victory –

with the breath of a dawn that rises tomorrow

for all, white but without those dreadful

wings, over the scorched shores of the south…

 

Note: The ‘liberation’ of the first verse is the imminent liberation of Italy from Fascism. Maiano is near Florence, the caves are those of partisans. The Corso is the street in Florence. Hitler was the infernal messenger, Mussolini the other monster. Clizia is leaving for America; the American troop landings in Southern Italy are imminent.

 


News From Mount Amiata

 

(Il fuoco d’artifizio del maltempo)


The bad weather’s firecrackers

will become a murmur of hives in late evening.

There’s woodworm in the beams

and an odour of melon oozes

from the floor. The soft

smoke that ascends the valley

of elves and mushrooms to the transparent cone

of the summit fogs the windows,

and I write to you from here, from this table,

from this honeyed cell

of a sphere hurled through space,

and the covered cage, the grate

where chestnuts explode, the veins

of saltpetre and mould, are the frame

from which I will burst. Life

that renders you legendary falls short

if it contains you! The bright background

reveals your icon. Outside it rains

 

And you can follow the fragile architecture

blackened by carbon and time,

the square courtyards with the deepest of wells

at their centre; you can follow

the veiled flight of nocturnal

birds, and in the depths of the ravine the glow

of the galaxy, that belt of every torment.

But the step that resonates in the darkness

is of one who goes solitary and sees nothing

except this descent of arches, shadows and angles.

The stars are embroidered too thinly,

the eye of the campanile shuts at two o’clock.

the vines too are an ascent

of darkness and their scent bitter regret.

 

Return tomorrow, colder still, north wind,

shatter the ancient fingers of sandstone,

scatter the missals in the attics,

and let all be slow tranquility, a domain, a prison

of feeling without despair. Return more fiercely

north wind that makes our chains dear to us,

and seals up the seeds of the possible!

The streets are too narrow, the black donkeys

that jog along in files strike sparks,

from the hidden peak magnesium flares reply…

…has this Christian quarrel nothing

but words of shadow and lament

to bring me? Less than whatever

the mill-race stole from you that inters

sweetness in its closure of cement.

A grindstone, an old trunk,

the world’s ultimate limits. A heap

of straw is scattered: and woodworms emerge

to link my wakefulness to your deep

sleep that greets them, The porcupine

sips at a thread of mercy.

 

Note: Mount Amiata is a lava dome in southern Tuscany.

 


Little Testament

 

(Questo che a notte balugina)


This, that glimmers at night

in the shell of my mind

mother-of-pearl snail-track,

or ground glass powder,

is not a lamp in some church or office,

tended by clerical

red, or black.

I have only this rainbow glow

to leave as testimony

of a faith contested

of a hope that burned more slowly

than an iron-hard log on the fire.

Keep its face-powder in your compact,

when with every light extinguished

the wild dance becomes infernal,

and shadowy Lucifer lands on some prow

on the Thames, the Hudson, the Seine,

beating his bitumen wings half-

lopped by fatigue, to tell you; this is the hour.

It’s not an heirloom, a lucky charm

to withstand the force of the monsoon

beating on the spider-web of memory,

but a story can only survive as ashes,

and persistence is only extinction.

It will be a sign, for certain; whoever sees it,

cannot fail to find you there.

Everyone knows their own: the pride was

not escape, the humility not

meanness, the tenuous spark struck

there no spurt of a spent match.

 


Index of First Lines

 

I recall your smile, and for me it is limpid water 4

To rest in the shade, pale and thoughtful, 5

Evil I’ve often encountered in life; 6

The hope even of seeing you again. 7

Happiness is achieved for you, walking. 8

I free your brow of all the ice. 9

Perhaps one morning walking in dry glassy air, 10

Even a flying feather can sketch. 11

The journey ends here: 12

The form of the carob tree that looms. 14

At last, with a gesture, the last shreds of your tobacco. 15

The baroque convent 17

The pulley of the well-shaft creaks, 18

Between the thud of chestnuts. 19

The repertoire of memory is worn: a leather suitcase. 20

It was where a wooden pier 21

The shadow of the Japanese magnolia. 25

The white cloud of maddened moths swirls. 26

The bad weather’s firecrackers. 28

This, that glimmers at night 28