ceramic, ceramic tile, ceramic floor tile

                         Five poems by Eugenio Montale

(                                                                          Nobel Prize for Literature 1975)

                                                              The first and third are among his best known.



Dora Markus


It was where the wooden pier at Porto Corsini

thrusts out into open sea

and solitary men, hardly seeming to move,

cast and retrieve their nets. With a vague hand

you gestured to your real country

on that other invisible shore,

and we followed the canal downtown

to the docks in their sheen of soot

where a stagnant Spring ebbed away



And here where a sweet Middle Eastern unease

perturbs the centuried calm,

your talk glittered like the scales

of their basketed catch.


Your restlessness recalls

those birds of passage that dash

against the harbour lighthouse

on hurricane nights;

tempestuous too your allure

that simmers without seeming

(and how rare its abeyance).

I don’t understand how it is

you contrive to survive

in that lake of indifference, your heart.

Is it your talisman saves you,

– the one that you keep with your

nail-file, your lipstick, your powderpuff:

that miniature ivory mouse?

Is he your secret?!



Xenia II


Death was ‘none of your business’.

Even if your dogs were dead, even

that asylum quack we called your loony uncle,

not to mention your mother, and her ‘special’:

rice and frogs’ legs – Milan in a saucepan! –

your father too, whose porcelain profile

looks down on me still, morning and night.

Even so, it was not ‘your business’, death.


You left it to me to do funeral duty,

huddled in a taxi, keeping my distance

from tears and tiresomeness. Not that life

ever moved you much, its greed and vanity-fair,

still less the epidemics of folly that turned

in our time grown men into ravening wolves.


A tabula rasa? Not quite: there was always

a point-beyond-which, to me quite invisible

but there, that was your business.



The Customs-hut


You won’t remember the customs-hut

topping the sheer cliff over the shingle:

it’s been waiting for you wanly since that

evening the swarm of your thoughts

burst in and settled here restlessly.

The sea winds these years have battered

the walls, your laughter long ceased to bounce

off them; the compass spins unremittingly

and the dice all decline to come right.

You don’t remember: other seasons

churn in your memory, a thread unravels.

I’m still holding an end of it, but the shack

fades back: on its roof a smoke-stained

weathervane stubbornly spinning.

I hold one end, but you’re out on your own,

Not a breath of you stirs in this gloom.

That retreating horizon where now,

again now, a tanker’s light flickers!

Is the breach here? (The breakers renew their chewing on the fissured cliff…)

You don’t remember our hut or this evening,

nor can I know who’s stayed and who’s leaving.



The House at Olgiate


It was another time, your little Tonino

still with you, and you in the high house

by the overpass. I would pick it out often,

that house, from the freeway, knowing nothing

of him, or of you, nor did my heart miss a click,

as later, as now. In that not-knowing our future

hid its hand: just so far the wires thread back

from tomorrow, then rupture.


How many years on did you let me in?

Your boy had long died (whispering

“Mama, it’s for you that it hurts”),

but I knew then your gardener, your kitchen garden,

your stripped teenage den – on the wall

a just visible shadow where a mirror had reigned.

I was wordless: in those rooms the least

breathing trace of you thralled me.


Much later, your goldfinch has warbled its last

in the shade of the tiger-lily I nurtured and left here.

Starved of any breath of you I stall before

squares of cabbage, old clumps of dust-freckled dahlias,

the custodian shuffling after me, no less bereft,

through wan corridors to your converted loft

where only the old moan of the cars seeps up

impervious through the gummy air.


And so our destinies ravelled, my lioness,

while you peered through smoked lenses

at refractory clouds, or down at spilt swirls

of detergent in the scummy Olona.

And unravel: your house in Friuli, unseen,

looms huge in my longing, the barns

where your childhood once ran at the future

full-tilt (even then!), and took wing.



Dietro Front


We had Ezra to lunch

There was roast chicken

Leg I like best he said

And was so served


Ezra to lunch again

The menu: chicken

I do hate leg he said

And was so served


Could a barrack-square band

About-turn with such verve?








These last two, their dates notwithstanding, were only published

25 years after the poet’s death in La casa di Olgiate e altre poesie

(2006) a book made up, bar the title poem, largely of barrel scrapings.

The ‘Ezra’ is presumably Pound, although he was already 6 years dead

when this slight piece was apparently jotted down…