Poems by Aldo Palazzeschi

The Peasant-Woman in Mourning

Of the few furnishings
I found in the castle when I first entered,
I didn’t want to throw out all,
it pleased me to keep a few.
Among these, there was a painting,
a portrait of a peasant-woman in mourning.
I wanted to leave it where it was, not because it was valuable,
but because that painting
always plunged me into thought.

Have you ever owned a painting
that has no value, that you don’t admire,
that is without a trace of beauty,
but that makes you think?
A painting you always see
in your mind’s eye,
that makes you stand and stare
when you’re alone for lunch,
and makes you eat
without realizing you’re eating?

Though it’s not without good qualities,
it is certainly not a valuable painting;
I couldn’t say how old it might be,
it has no artist’s signature.
It hangs from the wall of the breakfast-room,
and represents, with natural grandeur,
a peasant-woman in mourning.

While I eat I do nothing
but stare at it and think.
A middle-aged woman,
not ugly, but not beautiful either,
of good height, with a slender figure,
and a serious expression…
but not melancholy,
a hard face, entirely singular.
A peasant-woman in mourning!
To me it seems…entirely incongruous,
to me, mourning vestments
are the exact
contradiction of peasant women;
and yet mourning vestments are also worn
by peasant women;
I just can’t get my mind around it.
That skirt with all those pleats,
and the corset, it doesn’t add up,
of black fabric, the chest
covered with a white linen shirt…
and the fabric on the head, black…
and the linen underneath, white…
How did she get here? Who is she?
That’s what I’m thinking.
And it torments me every evening and every morning.

Who could she be?
The family wet-nurse?
The old Countess’s maid?
Maybe her daughter’s?
Did she even have a daughter?
Maybe she died?
Or she’s still alive? But where?
And yet, placed in this way
in the breakfast-room, in a place of honor…
a peasant wet-nurse…
And in mourning!
Maybe her little one died,
and she came to be a wet-nurse here,
at this noble house.
She wouldn’t have been able
to take her mourning vestments off.
Or was the family at that time
in mourning for some reason?
But it’s not usually the custom
to dress even the wet-nurse
in black garb,
to me it seems a bad omen.

Was the painting purchased? Was it a gift?
Neither possibility
seems at all likely.
To buy or give as a gift
a painting that’s nothing
but the portrait of a woman who is not beautiful.
And who’s even unable to dress
in anything beautiful.
You can see paintings of peasant women everywhere,
but they’re peasant women with cheerful faces,
full of color and gaiety,
peasant women moving gracefully,
not peasant women in mourning.
And to hang the portrait
of an unknown woman in the dining room,
where usually one places
a subject that has to do with the repast,
something cheerful and enhancing.

Could it be a portrait
of the lady of the Castle
A portrait of the Countess, dressed up?
The lines aren’t those of a lady,
and what’s more, why choose garments
at their gloomiest
for such a portrait?
Was the Countess perhaps very eccentric?
I can take a lot on faith,
but I’d be skeptical indeed
if you said this castle was inhabited,
before I came, by people
a hundred times more eccentric
than me.

Sometimes, after looking
at the portrait for a long time,
I no longer see the canvas, the frame,
or the wall-−I can no longer make out anything,
only that woman who seems
to abandon her pose
and move, to come forward
as though to say something to me,
who comes, perhaps, with severity
to scold me, to chase me off!
Oh come on! I shake myself,
it’s impossible, a world away from the peasant-woman.

Could it possibly be one of the two aged
ladies-in-waiting of the Countess?
And each so dear to her?
So dear that she gave them, in her rooms,
this place of honor?
Maybe one of them had passed away…
The two women were both peasants…
Maybe a painter once
was a guest at the castle…
But he would have painted each of the peasant-women,
or more likely, in homage, he would have painted
the Countess.

How well I see them together,
the three women!
That old lady, withered and brittle,
in mourning, with a long black train,
with a black tuft of lace
atop a scrim of white curls,
yellowed by now;
and at her sides, the two peasant women in mourning,
in those short skirts,
broad-bottomed, with a hundred pleats,
walking so slowly,
so stiffly in their wooden bones,
their skin wrinkled like parchment,
their flesh little by little
drained of all sap,
by then they’d all but evaporated.
That Countess with that train,
and those peasant women with those short skirts!
All three of them at least a hundred!
Could it be so? And if so, how?

How did this painting get in here?
Why didn’t I want to trash it as soon as I arrived?
What could this woman
I’ve never known, who is not beautiful,
have to say to me?
Who put this thing here?
Somebody, perhaps just…to spur thought?
And to pass the habit
onto someone else?


I write: Cherubina,
and my readers think:
she must be a lovely little wife,
one of those perfect types,
pink-cheeked and fresh,
the little wife…
of the poet…
A lovely little wife
who keeps the castle in order,
oversees the kitchen,
and puts the laundry away,
the best company
for a man like him,
who lives all year around
shut in a castle.
Did you hear that, Cherubina?
 Is it true that you’re my little wife?
The wife dear to my heart,
the wife who lifts my spirit?
A wife such as you,
so full of comforting moves,
simply can’t exist, Cherubina,
the other wives are all shrews.
Come on Cherubina, get up,
give us a salute,
like an exemplary wife.
Tell these gentlemen
what you do with your days;
admit you’re such a coquette
that you spend entire days at your toilette.
Tell them you break countless mirrors,
and don’t hide that you powder yourself
and doll yourself up like a Parisienne.
And I stand by you looking on, the lucky husband,
finding your every motion so pleasing
that I could watch you
into late evening,
without being constrained to wait
to take you out to the theatre,
or to dance.

As a wife you’re quite domestic,
almost in the Oriental style.
Turkish women are at the command
of their master
to serve his pleasure,
and you, to lift his spirit.
In the morning, it’s Cherubina
who comes to wake me,
jump on my bed
and pinch me on the nose,
who throws around the sheets,
covering and uncovering me,
and then gets ready to go to sleep
with her little hands under the pillow;
everything an ideal wife
could find to do.
Some of her poses are a little risqué,
but that’s how one behaves…in private…
and any other wife
would be forgiven.
But I don’t always let it go,
I shout at her:
Cherubina, it is not okay
to pick off fleas in front of people,
it isn’t done, Cherubina,
not in front of your master!
Another young wife wouldn’t do it.
And who knows?
After a little while…
in absolute privacy…

You have to see how the maternal feeling
has grown,
how sweetly she caresses
Stellina and Cometuzza,
combs their feathers, their crests of hair,
then gives them a great slap on the behind
and off they run,
and Cherubina pretends nothing happened,
for fear of her master.
But the master laughs and enjoys it all
in good humor.
Men, as the custom goes
in good society,
have the habit of keeping a wife to keep up their spirits
instead of a monkey,
while I, being of modest desires
and far from any society,
keep a monkey
instead of a wife.


Today I see before me
the longest
unending road,
packed with caravans.
Long and dusty road
extending into infinity
right in front of my house.
At the window of my bedroom
I stand and watch
all that coming and going,
all that puffing, that standing around.
Stalled, wandering, flying
caravans lost
on the road here before me.

Tall green caravans
of cypress and fir,
caravans of wings, of hands,
of feet, of crutches, of eyes,
strange eyes, lively, immobile,
stares of intelligent people,
stares of idiots.
Shining men
clad in iron,
semi-nude men
wrapped in furs,
they edge ahead willy-nilly,
now swiftly now slowly,
mingled with the animals,
everyone in the caravan.

Caravans of houses, of castles,
of ships, of boats,
upright ladies
prim in their carriages,
vulgar whores in packs.
Caravans of birds, of insects,
over caravans of rooftops.
They whistle in my ears,
so many stupid thoughts,
they fly through the air lithe and lively.
One walks behind
and plants her crutch,
thinking she’ll break through the world.
And looking down knowingly from above,
caravans of shining stars.

But what’s all this passing through,
all this travelling, this stopping for a bit?
All these caravans caravans caravans…
vans vans vans vans vans…
ans ans ans ans ans…
s… s… s… s… s…

Back of it all I stand watching,
tranquil at the window
of my bedroom,
watching, and waiting.
So tell me, where are you all going?
Where? Can one know?
What’s at the end of that road?
Are you going to the City of My Sun?
Fools! Idiots! Stop!
Don’t you know
no one can go
to that city but me?

The City of My Sun

Yo! Hey! You!
Turn around! Everybody back!
Thoughtless sheep!
Don’t you know you can’t go
into that city!
That realm is closed to all!
No one can go to the City of My Sun
but me!
Everybody back!
Oh my! What sheep!
Stubborn beasts!
Don’t you know your fate?
You’re all to remain arguing
outside the gates,
they’re all closed, all those gates!
Come right up here,
under the window
of my bedroom,
you’ll hear it all from me, I promise.
Don’t turn around,
look here!
You won’t be able to see the city,
you need my telescope;
so come and listen.
Crouch here in silence,
my voice isn’t very strong,
be still
as you would at the foot of the cross.
The city extends in the form
of a perfect square,
its doors are four, and shut−-
they admit
neither prefect nor mayor.
It’s all built of identical
square rowhouses.
It’s all populated
by identical people
of old intermarried clans.
Each house is composed
of a room and a garden,
the doors are all wide open.
The sole inhabitant is in the doorway
watching the road
with an absorbed look,
thin, or trim,
white as a corpse,
without a hat.

The straight roads distribute
these houses in two groups:
to the left inhabited
by young people, to the right
by people over a hundred years old.
Everyone stands in the doorway, waiting.
No one turns to their neighbor
or to whoever’s behind them.
The young ones stand leaning
in the doorways, tall and white,
erect in their clothes
of crimped black silk.
Their collars, their shoulders,
are covered in pearls;
many, many strands
upon one another, hanging down,
dangling down their shirtfronts.
Just as many as the deceased
of each successive house.
The old ladies are in front,
in the doorways in just the same way,
terribly dressed and without jewelry,
withered, whispy, so tiny,
all bundled in moldy old shawls.
Heads wrapped,
their necks a cascade of wrinkles,
they’re clad in greenish rags
like the necks of turtles
or lizard skins.
Of the same size as the house
is the garden,
and each cultivates his own.
They cultivate, with the greatest care,
aromatic herbs,
and their food is composed
of aromatic greens.
And at the window in the front,
sprouting on the ledge,
out of the grating,
masses of basil and mint,
some plants of rue and myrtle.

So all are alike
in this singular city,
no noise and no chatter.
Young vines sick with languor,
obstinate decrepit vines,
aromatic herbs,
perfume as delicate
as diseased skin.

Can you imagine what sun shines
on such a city?
A feeble sun
that retains nothing
of the sun but its round shape:
pallid, tuberculous,
a germ warmer,
like the one that will bring about
the world’s last day.
A sun full of shadows,
of arabesques.
What sun could shine,
if not a beacon for beetles
in the sky of my dreams?
You protest: This sun is too bizarre!
But I can hold it in my arms;
play with it on my table
as thought it were a cabbage.
Make it love
anytime I wish;
tell it: You’re a fool!
Tell it a thousand insults,
a thousand nasty words,
as though it weren’t the sun at all.
Have you understood?
Go now,
I’m shutting my window,
I need to rest.


Aldo Palazzeschi

Aldo Palazzeschi (Florence 1885-1974 Rome) had a distinguished career as a writer of essays, stories, novels, and poems. He won particular acclaim for the novels The Materassi Sisters (1934), The Cuccoli Brothers (1948), and Roma (1953). Palazzeschi’s early avant-garde works, the anti-novel The Man of Smoke (1911) and the volume of poetry The Arsonist (1910), from which this selection is taken, were both originally published by F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist press.

Nicholas Benson

Nicholas Benson’s poetry and translations have appeared in New England Review, Prairie Schooner, Calque, and other journals. His translation of Attilio Bertolucci’s Winter Journey was published in 2005 by Free Verse editions of Parlor Press. He was awarded a 2008 NEA Translation Fellowship.

Copyright (c) Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A., 1910. English translation copyright (c) Nicholas Benson, 2009.