by Primo Levi

Translated from the Italian by Harry Thomas

The sun comes up even in Crescenzago,
though perhaps you thought that impossible—
comes up and looks around for a meadow
or a forest or a lake or a hill,
and not finding one, with a scowl
sucks the mist out of the Naviglio canal.

The wind whirls down off the mountain peaks,
runs free across the endless plateau.
But when it catches sight of these smokestacks,
it turns and flees as far as it can go,
because the smoke is so black and toxic
the wind is afraid that it will choke.

The old women sit wasting hour after hour,
and count the raindrops as they fall.
The faces of the children have the color
of the streets covered with dust particles,
And the women never sing here,
but the trams hiss, hoarse and regular.

At Crescenzago there’s a window
and behind it a girl growing pale.
With a needle and thread in her right hand,
she sews and rechecks the clock on the wall,
and at the whistle blaring she is off;
she sighs and weeps, and this is her life.

When the siren wails just after dawn
they scramble out of their tousled beds,
and with eyes dark-ringed and ears stunned
they go down to the streets still chewing food.
They pump up the tires on their bikes
and light their cigarette butts.

From morning till night they make sure
the panting black stonecrusher’s never still,
or all day long they monitor
the twitching hands on a dial.
On Saturday nights they make love
in the ditch the inspector lives above.

(February 1943)

About the Authors:

Primo Levi (1919-1987) lived for most of his life in Turin. During the Nazi occupation of Italy, he joined a partisan group in the Alps, but was soon arrested and sent to an internment camp in Fossoli and then to Auschwitz. After the war he worked as a chemist in a paint factory and wrote many books, including Survival in Auschwitz and The Periodic Table, which London’s Royal Institute voted in 2006 “the best science book ever.” He wrote poems throughout his life.

Harry Thomas is the author of Some Complicity: Poems and Translations (Un-Gyve Books), and he has edited several books, including Montale in English (Penguin UK) and Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy (Penguin UK). Later this year Un-Gyve will bring out The Truth of Two: Selected Translations. Thomas’s poems, stories, translations from several languages, essays and reviews have appeared in dozens of magazines, American Poetry Review, The Times Literary Supplement, The Paris Review, and The Threepenny Review, among them. He did a PhD at the University of Michigan, writing his dissertation on John Berryman, and has taught at many schools: Boston University, Harvard, MIT, Davidson College, Kalamazoo College, where he was poet-in-residence, and Buckingham Browne & Nichols, a prep school in Cambridge, MA. From 2001 to 2011 he was the editor-in- chief of Handsel Books, an imprint at Other Press, a subsidiary of Random House. Italian scholar and translator Marco Sonzogni contributed to this work.