Primo Levi, in his apartment in Turin, reading The Divine Comedy. February, 1987
Drowsing, head propped above the eighth circle,
he feels the present shifting like a keel,
takes his bearings by the toss and swivel
of snow in window light–though still less real,
it seems to him, than that thick Polish snow
which, tumbling in his mind, begins to wheel
like Dante’s leaves or starlings, like the slow
stumble of shades from an open freight car,
or from an open book. All night, the snow
whirls at his window, whiting out the stars.
We sailed now for the stars of that other pole.
Leafing a thumb-worn page, he tries to parse
those lines he once struggled to recall
for a fellow prisoner, who’d hoped to learn
Italian as they scraped rust from the wall
of an emptied petrol tank. The greater horn
began to mutter and move, as a wavering flame
wrestles against the wind and is overworn–
although, oddly enough, the lines sound tame
now there is no one to explain them to.
Nor words to write. His own canticle of pain
is, after all, finished. The past is nothing new.
And the present breaks over him like the dream
of firelight, plush eiderdown, and hot stew
a prisoner will sometimes startle from
who has lost hope of returning to the world,
blowing upon his hands the pluming steam
of breath, in which a few snowflakes are whirled.
Or, nodding above the passage where Ulysses
tells how the second journey ended-hurled
by a fierce squall, till the sea closed over us–
he feels at the moment like that restless king
home from Troy after twenty years, his face
grown old and strange from so much wandering,
who broods all night over the cyclops’ lair
or Circe’s pigs, the shades’ dim gathering,
then falls asleep.
He leans back in his chair.
It all seems now just like it seemed–the snow;
the frozen dead. They whisper on the stair
as if he’d called their shades up from below
to hear the story of Agamemnon slain,
or paced out the long maze of the Inferno
to hear their lamentations fresh again.
Beyond his window: stars, the sleeping town,
the past, whirled like flakes on a windowpane–
the sea closed over us, and the prow went down.
Dreaming, he drops the book without a sound.