by Eugenio Montale
Translated from the Italian by Katherine Jackson
List of first lines:
- You know it: I must lose you again and can’t
- Many years, and one harder still
- Frost on the glass; always the sick are
- Far away, I was with you when your father
- Goodbyes, whistles in the dark, nods, coughing
- The hope of seeing you again abandons me
- The white and black undulation
- The sign is here: entangled
- The green lizard, should it dart
- Why are you late? In the pine the squirrel
- The soul that dispenses
- I free your forehead from the icicles
- The gondola that slips by in a lightning
- Is it salt or hail that rages? Lacerates
- At first light, when
- The flower which keeps repeating
- The frog, first to try again its note
- Don’t, scissors, cut that face
- The reed which languidly
- …but so be it. In the oakwood
You know it: I must lose you again and can’t.
Like a well-aimed gunshot, every action
startles me, every cry, and even the salt
breeze that brims over
the docks, clouds the spring
Landscape of iron and shipmasts,
a forest in the dusty vespers.
A prolonged buzzing comes from the open air,
grates like a fingernail on windows. I search
for the lost sign, the only pledge of grace
I had from you.
And Inferno is certain.
Many years, and one harder still
above the foreign lake, burning at sunset.
Then you came down from the mountains
to bring me back
St. George and the Dragon.
I wish I could imprint them
on the banner in my heart, lashed
by the northeast wind. And through you drop
in a whirlpool
Frost on the glass; always the sick are
together, always apart—
and across tables, the long
soliloquies over cards.
Your days of exile. I think back
also on mine, the morning
when I heard among the rocks the crackle
of the Ballerina bomb.
They lasted long, those nocturnal games,
And a rough wing brushed past, you skimmed
my hands, but in vain. Your card wasn’t this one.
Far away, I was with you when your father
entered the shade, left you his "addío."
What did I know until then? The strain
of before saves me only for this:
That I ignored you and shouldn’t have: from today’s
blows I know it, if one hour inflects
from below, brings me back Cumerlotti
or Anghèbeni—among the blasting fuses,
the moans, the scattering of squads.
Goodbyes, whistles in the dark, nods, coughing,
and train windows down. It’s time. Perhaps
the robots are right. How they lean
from the corridors, walled in!
And do you too lend, to the dim
litany of your express train, this constant
fearful cadenza of a carioca?
The hope of even seeing you again abandons me:
and I ask myself if that which closes off
every sense of you, a screen of images,
bearing signs of death, or from the past
is in essence, though distorted, slipping,
a gleam of you
(at Modena, between the porticoes,
a servant in livery was dragging
two jackals on a leash)
The white and black undulation
of martens from the telegraph
pole to the sea
won’t comfort your anguish on the pier,
bring you back where you can no longer be.
Already the dense elderberry breathes
over the trench. The shower fades away.
If this clearing is a truce,
your dear menace consumes it.
The sign is here: entangled
on the wall which turns to gold—
an arabesque of palms
scorched in the dazzle of dawn.
The step which comes
so lightly from the greenhouse,
not muffled by the snow, is still
your life—your blood in my veins.
The green lizard, should it dart
under the giant whiplash
of sunburnt stubble?
The sail when it flutters
and collapses by the steep
the cannonade of noon
feebler than your heart
and the clock
should it spring without a sound,
and then? a lightning-blaze
in vain would change them all into something
rich and strange. Your stamp was another.
Why are you late? In the pine the squirrel
bats with his tail, a torch on the bark.
The half-moon lowers its horn,
guttering into the sun. Day is over.
In a breath, the sluggish smoke leaps, gives a start,
defending itself on the spot which conceals you.
Nothing ends, or everything, if in a flash
you forsake your stormcloud.
The soul that dispenses
a polka or a rigadoon at each
new season of the street, feeds
on a secret passion, which it retrieves
at every turning more intense.
Your voice is that spirit that diffuses.
On wires, on wings, on the wind, by chance,
the favor of the Muse or some device,
it returns joyful or sad. I speak of other things,
to others unaware of you, and the design
is there, insisting do re la sol sol
I free your forehead from the icicles
you gathered traversing the high
star-clouds; cyclones have lacerated
your feathers, you wake with a start.
Noontime: in the courtyard the medlar’s
black shadow lengthens. A shivering sun
hangs on in the sky; and the other shades
that turn in the alley don’t know you’re here.
The gondola that slips by in a lightning
flash of tar and poppies,
the crafty song that rises
from the piles of coiled rope—the high doors
that close on you and the laughter of masks
that escaped to the crowd—
an evening like countless others, and my night
even darker! Below, a bleak
tangle stirs, rousing me
by starts, till I’m one with the man
on the bank—absorbed, fishing for eels.
Is it salt or hail that rages? Lacerates
the campanula, roots out the verbena?
An underwater tolling such as you awaken
sends its ripples, then fades away.
The hurdy-gurdy of the damned
increases tempo, vaults into the far
ice-spheres…glisters like you
when you feigned with trills of air
Lakme in the Aria of the Bells.
At first light, when
suddenly a rumbling
of train-cars tells me
of men in corridors,
closed in, lit by shafts
of sky and water, mingled,
at first dark, when
the woodworm, burrowing
in the desk, redoubles
its fervor and the steps
of the watchman draw near:
in light and dark, pauses still human
if you persist, weaving in your thread.
The flower which keeps repeating
from the edge of the crevasse
never forgets me
has tints no lighter nor more clear
than the space flung out between you and me.
The clank of metal gears and we’re apart,
the stubborn azure doesn’t reappear.
In the almost visible heat-daze I’m carried
to the other landing, already dark, of the funicular.
The frog, first to try again its note
from the pond which drowns
rushes and clouds, the racket of carobs
woven where a sun without warmth
snuffs its torches, the late buzzing
in flowers where hornets are still
draining sap, last sounds, bitter
life of the countryside. With a breath
the hour is quenched, a slate sky
prepares for the thunderburst of death-
thin horses, the sparks from their hooves.
Don’t, scissors, cut that face,
alone as memory disperses,
don’t make of that clear, listening glance
misamas of forever.
A chill descends…the hard blow swings
and the wounded acacia shakes
off the shell of the cicada
into the first mud of November.
The reed which languidly
sheds its soft red
plume in springtime,
the grass-tufts in the ditch
above the black stream
grazed by dragonflies,
and the panting dog returning
home, his burden in his mouth
these, today I need not recognize
but where the reflection burns
and the storm-cloud lowers, beyond those
pupils now remote—only two
And time passes.
…but so be it. In the oakwood
the horn sounds, conversing with bee-swarms.
On a seashell, which reflects the evening star,
a painted volcano gaily fumes.
The coin encased in lava
gleams on the desk, holding down
a few stray pages. Life which had seemed
so vast is briefer than your handkerchief.
(Copyright © 1996 by Katherine Jackson.)
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