Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cesare Pavese

Pavese was an Italian poet who had an unhappy life. This, of course, does not much differentiate him from many other writers discussed on this site. Born in 1908, he resisted Italian fascism and joined the communist resistance to Mussolini on behalf of a girlfriend. His subversion did not remain undetected, and he was thrown in jail for three years.

When he got out of the clink, he learned his girl hadn’t waited for him, and he didn’t take it well. Misfortune continued. He killed himself at the age of 42 after a failed love affair with the American actress Constance Dowling.

Pavese is not a poet whose works I’ve exhaustively studied. He was a favorite of my undergraduate advisor, and he tended to bring his poems into class from time to time as exemplars of good work. That’s how I became acquainted with the following poem, and it’s stuck with me over the years.

As an expression of pure despair combined with near-pathological paranoia, this poem is unparalleled. While the tone is grim throughout, the initial images in the poem are of simple moments of grace. The stanza beginning “You too will make gestures” functions as something of a rhetorical caesura, contrasting the fate of the beloved with that of the speaker. Respite and pleasure is possible, even destined for the lover, but the "I" of the poem possesses no capacity for redemption.

This absence underscores his desolation. The detached solitude of the cats mimics an inner darkness that creates separation from the world and its quotidian joys.

Oddly, I find this poem somewhat cheering, despite its bleakness. The speaker is connected to the inert and impenetrable cats; but others, including the lover and the rest of humanity, remain embedded within the physical world and can participate in the exhilarations of routine beauty. The speaker’s awareness of this, and his inability to be like them, are a greater tragedy than the thwarted love, which is either symptomatic of or precursor to this immutable isolation.

The Cats Will Know

Rain will fall again
on your smooth pavement,
a light rain like
a breath or a step.
The breeze and the dawn
will flourish again
when you return,
as if beneath your step.
Between flowers and sills
the cats will know.

There will be other days,
there will be other voices.
You will smile alone.
The cats will know.
You will hear words
old and spent and useless
like costumes left over
from yesterday’s parties.

You too will make gestures.
You’ll answer with words—
face of springtime,
you too will make gestures.

The cats will know,
face of springtime;
and the light rain
and the hyacinth dawn
that wrench the heart of him
who hopes no more for you—
they are the sad smile
you smile by yourself.

There will be other days,
other voices and renewals.
Face of springtime,
we will suffer at daybreak.

Translated by Geoffrey Brock

Cesare Pavese on Wikipedia


  1. i am also a foodie and love poetry, too. i think it's a great idea that you have combined your two loves. i adore cesare pavese, i worked and lived in italy for many years and came to know of his work when i was there. he was an eccentric, genius of a man. best wishes, shayma

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments and for stopping by. I'm so jealous that you got to live in Italy! How delightful!

    Your blog is lovely, too.