What follows are the first and last sections of Eugenio Montale’s last great “story-poem,” in the manner of his “Motets” and “Xenia.” It dates from the late 1960s and concerns the old poet’s infatuation with a beautiful, emotionally unstable younger woman. (The complete translation will be included in Eugenio Montale, Selected Poems, translated by Jonathan Galassi, Charles Wright, and David Young, edited by David Young, which will be published by Oberlin College Press in December 2004.)

There were birches, stands of them, to hide
the hospital where someone suffering
from too much love of life was bored
hanging between everything and nothing.
A cricket chanted, perfectly in key
with the therapeutic plan,
and the cuckoo you’d already heard
more economically in Indonesia.
There were birches, a Swiss nurse,
three or four half-wits in the courtyard,
an album of exotic birds, a phone,
some chocolates on the nightstand.
And I was there, of course, and other nuisances,
trying to provide the kind of cheer
you would have overwhelmed us with, if only
we’d had eyes to see. I had them.

*  *  *
I cannot breathe without you:
Keats to Fanny Brawne,
whom he wrested from oblivion. It’s strange
my case, if you’ll permit, is different:
I breathe much better when you’re not around.
Nearness brings us moments to remember,
but not the way they happened:
as we imagined them, like smelling salts
for the future, just in case,
or medicated vinegar (but no one faints today
over trifles like a shattered heart).
It’s these hoarded facts that take the blow,
but add the corpse and the scaffolding won’t hold.
I won’t try to explain. I know that if you read me
you believe that you contributed
the impetus I needed, and the rest
(as long as it’s not silence) matters little.

This Issue

November 18, 2004