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Three Poems by Eugenio Montale

Eugenio Montale, translated by G. Singh

A LETTER

The old cavalry colonel
used to offer you negroni, bacardi
and the red label röderer brut.
He told you his name, but added
it was superfluous to remember it, and
he didn’t even bother to ask yours,
still less mine. The habitués of the hotel,
though strangers, were all friends, but only
towards the last gasps of September.
Some would embrace us mistaking us for others,
and offer no apologies, but rather
would congratulate themselves on the happy error.
The big shots, the forgotten ones, would
emerge from the dark, Respighi’s
widow, the heirs of Toscanini,
Tetrazzini’s gravedigger, a namesake
of Malpighi’s, Ramerrez-Martinelli,
a nimbus of silver hair,
and Tullio Carminati, a glory
for some surviving initiate.
(Above all the Guardian of the Keys,
an illustrious personage who thought
we were the true worthies avant le déluge
but it never came or was little more
than a surplus of the Acqua Alta.)
The old cavalier would always repeat
between a bourbon and a martini
that no one ever saw him beaten
at a steeplechase and conclude
by observing that rheumatism had
shorn him of his wings.
One lived among one’s peers, too different
to hate each other, but too alike
in the art of keeping afloat.
The invincible radoteur died
some years back, perhaps before you,
and with him died the last of your suitors.
Now only package tours arrive at the hotel.
No more of the master of the liquorice
made of meconium. Nothing more
in that sewer of a canal. Not even
the band which used to honour me,
as I entered from the side of the bridge,
with the potpourri of the Guest hidden behind the screen:
The Count of Luxembourg.

THE GHOST

….
four syllables, the name of a stranger
you never met again
and who’s now dead no doubt.
A painter; he even flirted with you,
you admitted, though mildly, for he was shy.
We talked about it many years ago;
then you died and I’ve forgotten his name.
But here’s a clandestine periodical
with faces or pictures of artists
nipped in the bud
at the outset of this century,
and there’s a painting by him, quite horrible,
but then who can say? Tomorrow
it will be a masterpiece. Perhaps
you were his Clizia and did not know it.
I don’t relish the idea much.
I wonder why the threads of the two spools
got so entangled; and if
that phantasm is not the lost
original and I its facsimile.

LIGHTS AND COLOURS

Whenever you appear
it’s always in the red bed-jacket,
with your eyes rather swollen like those
of one who has seen.
These mute visitations of yours
seem quite inexplicable.
Perhaps it’s only a glitter from your spectacles,
almost a flash from a mirror
which cuts across the mist. Last time
it was an apricot-coloured worm hobbling
uncomfortably on the bedside carpet.
It wasn’t easy to make it glide up
a piece of paper and throw it
alive in the courtyard. You yourself
would weigh no more.

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