Sunday, December 6, 2009

thoughts on two Cesare Pavese poems

from Hard Labor: Poems by Cesare Pavese
trans. William Arrowsmith, The Ecco Press, New York, 1979


The window, half open, holds a face
over the meadow of the sea. The hair sways
with the gentle rhythm of the sea, moving.

There are no memories on this face.
Only a passing shadow, like the shadow of a cloud.
In the half-light the shadow is moist and sweet
like the sand of a hollow cove, untouched.
There are no memories. Only a murmur
which is the sound of the sea made memory.

In the half-light the soft water of dawn
is saturated with light and illumines the face.
When the sun is high, each day is a miracle.
It has no time. A salt light suffuses it,
and a smell of living things from the salt sea.

No memory lives on this face.
No word could hold it, no word
connect it to vanished things. Yesterday
it vanished from the little window as it will
always vanish, instantly, no sadness,
no human words, over the field of the sea.

I adore this kind of poem. For me, it achieves the highest goal that poetry has latent in its power: numinous art. Here, there is no complaining ego, no myriad foibles of fractured psychology or wounded heart. No “I” or “me” protrudes; self is only observer. Here, we have a moment of transcendent beauty, sublime Being. Here, the human being takes his proper place amid mysteries and then salutes them quietly, without hubris. The image of that strange face must

always vanish, instantly, no sadness,
no human words, over the field of the sea.

Landscape VIII

Memories begin at evening,
with a breath of wind, to lift their head
and listen to the river running. In the darkness
the water flows as it did in the dead years.

In the still darkness a rustling rises,
old voices, old laughter go flowing by,
and with them goes a flurry of empty color,
color of sunlight, and beaches, and bright looks.
A summer of sounds. Each face keeps,
like ripe fruit, a savor of something gone.

Each look, returning, keeps a taste
of grass and things suffused with late light
along a beach. It keeps a breath of the sea.
It's like the sea at night, this drifting blur
of old longings and tremblings, touched by the sky,
which every evening brings again. The dead
sounds are like that sea, breaking.

Again, personality is subsumed into what swirls and mixes into our experience. Memories, yes. But their status as prior events has been subtly altered: they are now bonded to something bigger, abstracted into color, sound, light, movement. Transmuted to higher, more complex emotional forms. To something that has a nocturnal taste of dream about it. Or at least that odd in-between space where nature and spirit sometimes mingle.

[Cesare Pavese, 1908 - 1950]

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