Cesare Pavese once said, “No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide,” a grim line that always makes dg chuckle. Pavese was a hugely important Italian writer of the first half of the 20th century. These poems date from the 1930s, early in his career, when he was briefly imprisoned for anti-fascist activities. After the Second World War, he became a communist (remember Italy had a powerful and for the most part legal Communist Party) and wrote prolifically until his death by suicide in 1950, the year he won the Strega Prize for a book of novellas called La Bella Estate. Richard Jackson is a beloved colleague and friend and, once upon a time, dg’s Virgil in the wilds of Slovenia (during one of those famous Vermont College of Fine Arts summer residencies). See also his revelatory essay on translation, published earlier on Numéro Cinq, and his lovely translation Leopardi’s “The Infinite.”
Poems by Cesare Pavese
Translated by Richard Jackson
We have the right to treat them that way.
It’s certainly better than having some compassionate
heart for them and then just enjoying them in bed.
“It’s the strongest need we have in our entire life,”
or rather “and we are all fated this way,
but if ever the girl makes a got of it with her skills
I’d choke her in a rage or learn some other revenge.”
Compassion was always just a matter of lost time,
life is bigger than any of us and won’t be changed by this,–
better to clench your teeth and be silent.
I traveled on a train where there was this woman
dressed plainly, made up, serious in her face.
Outside the lights paled and the green became gray,
erasing the world. We were isolated
in that car — third class– woman and young man.
I didn’t know what to say to her at that age
and I always wept when I thought of women. That’s the way
I made my trip, looking around nervously, and she also
looked at me sometimes, smoking. I didn’t speak,
didn’t think anything, but still in my blood I can
feel her stern look, the laughter of an instant
of someone who has worked hard and took life
as it came, in silence.
A friend, someone
who says what he thinks, would like to save
a woman and wipe her tears, and give her some joy.
“No, it is the strongest need in our entire life
and if it is our fate that we have only this power
and a hardened soul, it doesn’t do any good.”
You have the power to save thousands of women
but those I have seen smoking and looking about
with pride written in their faces, –they will always live
to suffer in silence and pay for us all.
THE BOY THAT WAS IN ME
I want to know why the grave of evening settled in the meadow.
Perhaps it was because I collapsed, exhausted from sunstroke,
Pretending to be some wounded Indian. In those days the boy
Tried to escape loneliness by seeking models for ancestors,
And drew his imagined painted arrows and shook his lance.
The evening sky itself was colored with war paint.
Every day the air was so fresh, and the aroma indeed was
So plush, so deep, from sprays of flowers that were also
Reddish gray, and then suddenly the clouds and sky
Caught fire among the early stars. The boy turned
To the village feeling he should preserve it by celebrating it.
But the sunset dulled his senses. It seemed best to squint
So he could enjoy and embrace what he saw. As if immersed in water.
All at once a gruff voice assaulted me as if out of that sun—
It was the master of the manor, my nemesis from the house,
A voice that stopped me short in that pool where I was submerged–
Because it knew me from the village and berated me, irritated
That I could ruin everything that I could have been by not working.
I leapt from the grass, and I remained silent holding my hands tight
To stop them from shaking and I turned away into the darkness.
Oh what a good chance to shoot an arrow into the chest of that man.
If the boy didn’t have the courage, I at least deceived myself
To take on the air of a tough commando against that man.
But even today I deceive myself in order to act immovable and firm
And not to go into that darkness in silence, so I can draw my arrows
Whistling through the air, screaming words like some a paralyzed hero.
Perhaps it was the disheartening look when I saw a man
Who could have beaten me up badly. Or pitiful shame
Like that of a person who laughs embarrassed in the face of danger.
But I had a fearful terror. I had to flee, and so I fled.
And that night, returning home, I cried so hard into my pillow
That it left my lips bloody, knowing the blood of defeat.
The man is dead now. The field has become like a trench, harrowed,
But I can see that old field clearly just as it was back then,
And curiously, in this journey where I speak to myself, I am unmovable,
Like that other man, and I spend the evening still baking from that sun.
—Poems by Cesare Pavese, Translated by Richard Jackson
Incredible! Both of these rip my heart from my chest and then hand it back. Such a masculine perspective – stark, deep and yet poignant after several readings. May compassion not also be silent for lost men or boys.
I was particularly moved by “The Boy That Was In Me.”
There is a flood of compassion for the boy, but the poem reaches much deeper than that. It triggers a welling of memory, of unnamed emotions. The defeat of the child by powerful adults who never doubt that they know what is right and good, it is too familiar.
Thank you Cesare Pavese, Richard Jackson, and DG for bringing us these.
Which book are these two from by Cesare Pavese?