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The Lemons

by Eugenio Montale

translated from the Italian by Millicent Bell

But listen—those famous poets
everyone studied in school—they got stirred up
among plants we don’t know here: box privet or acanthus.
As for me, I love the roads that shrivel
into parched, weed-cluttered
ditches where boys
catch a skinny eel or two in a puddle;
the paths that follow the banks and sidle
down between clumps of cane
and put you down in the lemon groves, among the trees.

Better that the clamor of the birds
should exhaust itself, be swallowed
into the blue hole overhead;
then one can hear the private
whisper of branch to branch
while the air hardly moves,
and the meanings of that odor
which is just the earth and nothing else
as a mildness enters the heart in gusts like rain.
Here by a miracle the striving
of frustrate passions is stilled,
here even we, the poorest, find a fortune—
and it is the scent of the lemons.

Understand—in the silence in which each thing
puts off its guard and seems ready
to give itself away altogether,
one hopes to detect a lapse of Nature,
the blind spot of the world, the gap in the chain,
the tangled thread which, if followed, leads
into the innermost cell of a truth.
In the fragrance that blooms
as the day languishes further,
your eyes rummage the dark
and the mind searches combines distinguishes.
These are the silences in which one sees
in each retreating human shade
some surprised Divinity.

But the dream fails and time returns
us to the raucous towns where the sky
shows only in broken pieces pinched high
between the cornices of buildings.
Now rain tires the earth, winter dullness
heaps upon the houses,
the daylight grows grudging, the soul is grim.
When one day through a gate left open
there appears among the trees in a courtyard
the yellow light of lemons;
and the icy heart melts
as in the breast roar
their songs,
the gold trumpets of solarity.


Millicent Bell, Professor Emerita of English at Boston University, is a literary scholar and critic (her last book was on Henry James, her next is on Shakespeare). She also writes poems now and then and is presently engaged in a project involving translation from French, Italian, and German poetry. (2000)

Eugenio Montale (1896–1991) won the Nobel Prize in 1975. Translator Jonathan Galassi recently published Montale’s Collected Poems 1920-1954 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998) to great acclaim. (2000)



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