When his wife died the great Italian poet Eugenio Montale (1896-1981) wrote a sequence of short poems in her memory, linked but able to stand alone; he called the sequence ‘Xenia’, meaning ‘gifts’, particularly those made as a token of hospitality by a host to his guest. Their style is much plainer and more direct than that found in most of his other work, which makes them not only very accessible but very moving in their simplicity. This one commemorates his wife’s brother, who died young, and by extension her.
The translation that follows is my own.
Tuo fratello morì giovane; tu eri
la bimba scarruffata che mi guarda
“in posa” nell’ovale di un ritratto.
Scrisse musiche inedite, inaudite,
oggi sepolte in un baule o andate
al macero. Forse le riinventa
qualcuno inconsapevole, se ciò ch’è scritto è scritto.
L’amavo senza averlo conosciuto.
Fuori di te nessuno lo ricordava.
Non ho fatto ricerche: ora è inutile.
Dopo di te sono rimasto il solo
per cui egli è esistito. Ma è possibile,
lo sai, amare un’ombra, ombre noi stessi.
Your brother died young; you
Were the tousle-headed girl looking out at me
From your pose in an oval portrait. He wrote music
Unpublished, unperformed, buried today
In a trunk or sent for pulping; yet maybe,
If what is written stays written, reinvented
Unknowingly by someone else. I loved him
Although I never knew him, but only you
Remembered him. I never made inquiries
To know him better, and now it would be in vain:
With you gone, I am left the only one
For whom he once existed. Yet one can.
I know it, love a shade, being shadows ourselves.