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The Eel

by Eugenio Montale

translated from the Italian by Millicent Bell

The eel, the siren
of freezing oceans, who leaves the Baltic
to reach our seas,
our estuaries, the rivers
that she climbs again, deep under opposing tides
of branch narrowing into more slender branch, and then
in the root fibers of streams piercing
always closer to the rock’s heart,
filtering like bright water through
rivulets of mere mud until one day
light flashed from chestnut leaves
lights up the quiver in a dead pool,
in runnels that slant down
from the ridges of the Apennine to the Romagna;
the eel, torch, whip,
Love’s arrow on earth
which only our stagnant ditches or the dried
streams of the Pyrenees lead back
to paradises of fecundity;
the green spirit who seeks
life there only
where drought and desolation gnaw,
the spark that says
everything begins where everything seems
charcoal, a burnt-down stump;
brief rainbow, iris, twin
to the glance mounted within your lashes
which you keep sparkling and untouched
in the midst of the sons
of Man, all sunk in your mire—Can you
not see she’s your sister?


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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