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Xenia I

by Eugenio Montale

translated from the Italian by William Arrowsmith


Dear little insect
nicknamed Mosca, who knows why,
this evening, when it was nearly dark,
while I was reading Deutero-Isaiah,
you reappeared at my side,
but without your glasses
you couldn’t see me,
and in the blur, without their glitter,
I didn’t know who you were.


Minus glasses and antennae,
poor insect, wingèd
only in imagination,
a beaten-up Bible and none
too plausible either, black night,
a flash of lightning, thunder, and then
not even the storm. Could it be
you left so soon, and without
a word? But it’s crazy, my thinking
you still had lips.


At the St. James in Paris I’ll have to ask for
a room for one. (They don’t like
single guests.) Ditto
in the fake Byzantium of your Venetian
hotel; and then, right off, hunting down
the girls at the switchboard,
your old pals; and then leaving again
the minute my three minutes are up,
and the wanting you back,
if only in one gesture,
one habit of yours.


We’d worked out a whistle for the world
beyond, a token of recognition.
Now I’m giving it a try, hoping
we’re all dead already and don’t know it.


I ’ve never figured out whether I
was your faithful dog with runny eyes
or you were mine.
To others you were a myopic little bug
bewildered by the twaddle
of high society. They were naïve,
those clever folk, never guessing
they were the butt of your humor:
that you could see them even in the dark,
unmasked by your infallible sixth sense,
your bat’s radar.


You never thought of leaving your mark
by writing prose or verse. This
was your charm—and later my self-revulsion.
It was what I dreaded too: that someday
you’d shove me back into the croaking
bog of “modern poets.”


Self-pity, infinite pain and anguish
of the man who worships this world here and now,
who hopes and despairs of another . . .
(who dares speak of another world?)

                • • •                       

“Strana pietà . . . ” (Azucena, Act II)


Your speech so halting and tactless
is the only consolation left me.
But the accent has changed, the color too.
I’ll get used to hearing you, decoding you
in the click-clack of the teletype,
in the spirals of smoke coiling
from my Brissago cigars.


Listening was your only way of seeing.
The phone bill comes to almost nothing now.


“Did she pray?” “Yes, to St. Anthony.
He’s in charge of finding lost
umbrellas and suchlike things
in St. Hermes’ cloakroom.”
“And that’s it?” “She prayed for her dead too,
and for me.”
            “Quite enough,” the priest replied.


The memory of your tears (I cried twice as hard)
can’t obliterate your wild peals of laughter.
They were a kind of foretaste
of a private Last Judgment of your own,
which, alas, never came to pass.


Spring pokes out at a snail’s pace.
Never again will I hear you talking of antibiotic
poisoning, or the pin in your femur;
or the patrimony plucked from you
by that thousand-eyed

Spring comes on with its heavy fogs,
long daylights and unbearable hours.
Never again will I hear you struggling with the backwash
of time, or ghosts, or the logistical problems
of summer.


Your brother died young; that little girl
with tousled curls in the oval portrait,
looking at me, was you.
He wrote music, unpublished, unheard,
now buried away in some trunk
or trashed. If what’s written is written,
maybe someone, unawares, is rewriting it now.
I loved him without ever knowing him.
Except for you no one remembered him.
I made no inquiries; it’s futile now.
After you I was the only one left
for whom he ever existed.
But we can love a shade, you know,
being shades ourselves.


They say my poetry is one of non-belonging.
But if it was yours, it was someone’s:
it was yours who are no longer form, but essence.
They say that poetry at its peak
glorifies the All in flight,
they say the tortoise
is no swifter than lightning.
You alone knew
that motion and stasis are one,
that the void is fullness and the clear sky
cloud at its airiest. So your long journey
imprisoned by bandages and casts,
makes better sense to me.
Still, knowing we’re a single thing,
whether one or two, gives me no peace.


Eugenio Montale (1896–1981) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1975. The “Xenia” poems published here, a memorial to his wife Drusilla Tanzi (better known as Moasca), come from the collection Satura. (1991)

William Arrowsmith’s translations of Montale's The Storm and Other Things and The Occasions received the Premio Internazionale Eugenio Montale in 1990. He teaches at Boston University. (1991)

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