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Dora Markus

by Eugenio Montale

translated from the Italian by Millicent Bell


I

Where the wood bridge reaches over
high water at Porto Corsini
we could see some fishermen stiff as sticks
till they dropped or pulled their nets.
You raised your hand and pointed:
there, unseen on the other side
was your real home.
After that, we walked along the canal
to the city docks, shiny with dark soot,
in that flat country where the sluggish spring
was wilting, without memory.

And in that old-fashioned life of ours
whose dullness is relieved now and then
only by a mild anxiety—the variations of a harem—
your words glittered with rainbow lights, like the scales
of the dying mullet.

Your restlessness makes me think
of those far-travelers, those birds who crash
into lighthouses on stormy nights;
even your patience is a dark storm,
an invisible whirlwind
hardly ever stopping, never seen.
I can’t imagine how you keep from going under
in that pool
of indifference you’ve made of your heart;
maybe it’s because you carry
a luck charm in your purse—along with
your lipstick, powder puff, nail file—
a white ivory mouse. Ah, that’s how you do it!                             [1926

II

Now you are in your Carinthia
of flowering myrtle and ponds
over whose edge you lean to watch
the shy carp gasping and nibbling
or go down the avenues of limes glimpsing
through their shaggy spires the evening lights
of the resort, seeing already the reflection, on the lake,
of bright awnings over boat landings and hotel entrances.
The evening that stretches itself
over the watery cove brings
not only the honking of geese but the throbbing of outboards;
inside, in the white-tiled bathroom
your face in the dark mirror
tells a story of mistakes you never regretted,
lines graved too deep for the sponge.

That’s your legend, Dora!
But it’s written already
in the looks you get from those
weak-bearded papas in gold frames,
and it comes back again
in each chord grunted
by the broken harmonica
on those nights ending later and later.

So, it’s written. Remembering
laurel survives in the kitchen
as a kitchen herb,
but still utters itself.
Ravenna is far away;
a ferocious faith
distills its venom.
What does it ask of you? Not to give up
your voice, your legend, your destiny...
But it’s late, it gets later and later.                                                        [1939]

 

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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