Thursday, April 29, 2004

The words of a 'secular saint' 

Recently, not having my own anthology to hand, I was looking for some Primo Levi poetry online. The supply is very poor indeed - there are about three poems widely available on the internet, all of which are used as illustration to back up the traditional idea of him as 'Primo Levi: Holocaust Survivor'. But Levi was more than that - he was a chemist, of course, but also a really excellent writer, quite independent of his autobiographical work. I only know his writing in translation, but there seems to be quite a simple joy in reading some of his work. He has a sensitivity of approach rarely met elsewhere, and which of course was widely admired in his holocaust writings. But most of all I find this in his poetry, and since this is almost as little available in bookshops as it is online, I thought I'd make it my mission to post a few poems here every once in a while - whenever I have nothing of my own to contribute.

I'll begin towards the end, with my favourite poem, written in 1984 and translated by Ruth Feldman:


I wouldn't want to upset the universe.
I'd like, if possible,
To cross the border silently,
With the light step of a smuggler.
The way one slips away from a party.
To stop without a screech
The lungs' obstinate piston,
And say to the dear heart,
That mediocre musician without rhythm:
'After two, six billion beats,
You must be tired too, so thanks, enough.'
If it were possible, as I was saying,
If it were not for those who will remain,
The work left truncated
(Every life is truncated),
The world's turns and its wounds;
If it were not for the unresolved burdens,
The debts incurred earlier on,
The old unavoidable obligations.

For more information on Levi, there is an interesting interview with him here, dating from his first trip back to Auschwitz in 1982. There is an article here, discussing his last moments (and whether or not his death was suicide), and the biography by Carol Angier is also excellent (I haven't read its rival - two biographies were published two weeks apart in 2002 - perhaps someone can tell me if that's any good too).

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