Montale’s Lemon Trees

How do poems get us, like this one did me — to the point I put it over into English?

Here, as best as I recollect, it was the lines translated as: … the overgrown / ditches where boys fish stray eels / out of half dried-up puddles …..

They were eerily reminiscent of a still unfinished poem of my own about my bayou-centric boyhood in Houston: the stagnant pools where kids with bacon / tied on strings coax crawdads out the lips / of underwater mud-clump mounds < “Gladiola”, forthcomng.

For  an instant I thought Montale’s poem was my own.

Such a experiential coincidence is really all it takes. True, it is sometimes hard then to prize those crawdads and eels out  of the muck of another language, even one as luminous as Italian. But there is delight in the process and if you are lucky, as reader or as translator, coming out of gloom you taste joy akin to suddenly glimpsing clusters of lemons  glistening behind a garden gate inadvertently left ajar and hearing, synesthesiac, the radiant peal of the sun — though  the pun with peel works solely in English.


Hear me on this: poets laureate
delight in growths of erudite
name — ligustrum, acanthus, box.
My own path leads to overgrown
ditches where boys fish stray eels
out of half dried-up puddles,
down lanes skirting their banks,
bearing past tufted cat-tails
into orchards of lemon trees.

Better that the chatter of birds
be swallowed by the empty blue sky.
Then you hear the gracious rustle
of branches in air barely astir, the drift
of smells indistinct from the earth
which fall like soft restless rain within.
The distracting strife of the passions
is miraculously quelled. Even we
poor receive our share of common
wealth: the scent of lemon trees.

See, in these tacit moments
when things seem ready
to own up their deepest secrets,
how sometimes we expect to seize
upon an inner flaw of nature, the hinge
of everything, a link that gives way,
a thread to unravel to conduct
us back to the crux of a truth.
The eye casts about, the mind inquires,
reconciles, dissociates in the fragrance
spreading as the day drags on.
In these silences we sense in each passing
human shade a provocative divinity.

But the illusion falters. Time returns us
to noisy streets where the same blue sky
is reduced to fleeting patches above façades.
Rain again pummels the earth.
Winter’s tedium hangs over the houses.
Light turns grudging. Spirits are embittered
until, one day through a courtyard gate left
inadvertently ajar, the lemons’ yellows glisten.
The heart’s frozen floe cracks, pouring
forth the radiant peal of the sun.

After Eugenio Montale, I Limoni

Ascoltami, i poeti laureati
si muovono soltanto fra le piante
dai nomi poco usati: bossi ligustri o acanti.
Io, per me, amo le strade che riescono agli erbosi
fossi dove in pozzanghere
mezzo seccate agguantano i ragazzi
qualche sparuta anguilla:
le viuzze che seguono i ciglioni,
discendono tra i ciuffi delle canne
e mettono negli orti, tra gli alberi dei limoni.

Meglio se le gazzarre degli uccelli
si spengono inghiottite dall’azzurro:
più chiaro si ascolta il susurro
dei rami amici nell’aria che quasi non si muove,
e i sensi di quest’odore
che non sa staccarsi da terra
e piove in petto una dolcezza inquieta.
Qui delle divertite passioni
per miracolo tace la guerra,
qui tocca anche a noi poveri la nostra parte di ricchezza
ed è l’odore dei limoni.

Vedi, in questi silenzi in cui le cose
s’abbandonano e sembrano vicine
a tradire il loro ultimo segreto,
talora ci si aspetta
di scoprire uno sbaglio di Natura,
il punto morto del mondo, l’anello che non tiene,
il filo da disbrogliare che finalmente ci metta
nel mezzo di una verità.
Lo sguardo fruga d’intorno,
la mente indaga accorda disunisce
nel profumo che dilaga
quando il giorno più languisce.
Sono i silenzi in cui si vede
in ogni ombra umana che si allontana
qualche disturbata Divinità

Ma l’illusione manca e ci riporta il tempo
nelle città rumorose dove l’azzurro si mostra
soltanto a pezzi, in alto, tra le cimase.
La pioggia stanca la terra, di poi; s’affolta
il tedio dell’inverno sulle case,
la luce si fa avara – amara l’anima.
Quando un giorno da un malchiuso portone
tra gli alberi di una corte
ci si mostrano i gialli dei limoni;
e il gelo del cuore si sfa,
e in petto ci scrosciano
le loro canzoni
le trombe d’oro della solarità.

Red and Green All Over Again

O soft yellow buttercup field
tinged green with red sorrel leaf,
not even your copious yield
affords full-blown relief.

O swelling boughs whose song
blossoms like snow in Spring,
our hearts, alas, are strung along
by dreams of you to which we cling.


Christian Morgenstern, who wrote the two stanzas loosely translated here, died well before LSD was synthesized — in 1938, though its psychedelic properties were not discovered until 1943.  There is nonetheless something acid-like about the whimsical  ecstasy in these turn-of-the-twentieth-century verses.

Right away, let me admit that my case acid has anything to do with Morgenstern’s poem (which it doesn’t) is, at best, an afterthought, the mental counterpart of persistence of vision which sometimes produces the rainbow effects he wasn’t alluding to in his second line. The highlights gracing Morgenstern’s entrancing yellow field of buttercups can be explained without resorting  to hallucination. Spring having sprung, we can easily verify that fresh leafage does sometimes have reddish edges to it, usually shifting definitively to green within a matter of days. There is thus no need to relate Morgenstern’s poetic vision to the visual effects produced by psychedelics  — or to have written any of what follows below. His “red leaf sorrel” reflected acuity of vision rather than enhancement of it. 

That said, anyone who has dropped acid or imbibed or ingested or smoked serious psychedelics like mescaline, peyote, or psilocybin will recognize the aura of contrasting colors which graces objects in the visual world when on a trip, like halos except not just on saints, but everywhere. Lucky survivors of that now distant epoch will see where I am coming from, as the jargon of those times put it. 


So the motif of red-and-green decidedly captured my eye, though my attention was further captivated by the sorrel, one of my favorite edible weeds. And, as I came to excavate this connection, I recalled that long before, in fact during my brief phase of home-schooling, actually home-kindergartening, I had intuited, independently I like to believe, the binary nature of complementary colors, not just red-green, but orange-blue and yellow-violet, though I always called the last hue purple. Was it my own foreknowledge and expectation of red going well with green which set the grounds for the perception I had while tripping? Or were those fractal special effects in fact there, wherever that might mean when under the influence of lysergic acid?


What I can point to is a repeated pattern in my poetry, where I often turn when trying to understand or express myself.  For example, in Ars poetica, where I describe a bird-watching expedition in Mexico in quest of a trogon, I write:

I looked up through the rainbow spray where
my creature should have been, emerald scarlet in the air,
thoughts of ruby green …


I intended to echo the baroque motif of green thoughts, but with a spectral twist of my own, playing on antinomies conjoined, emerald scarlet, ruby green.  At the beginning of the poem red bromeliads had been set like jewels in a background of tropical shade.

In another poem, Stoic Garden, this image of complementaries returns in a sequence starting from a statement of the primary colors themselves before adducing  antitheses first phenomenological, then corporeal.

green for red,
absence for the flutter of a wing,
a heartbeat for a spasm.

I can’t otherwise tell you what it means, this serial substitution of contrasts, green and red, being and absence, a regular heartbeat for a spasm of an undefined sort.

In another this time explicitly Lysergic Vision, red and green themselves are not  denominated but the naked branches of elms in winter are tinged with spectral  fringes in the refracted glare of winter sun off the skin of the trunks and limbs of a stand of trees in a field of crusted snow one blue-sky February afternoon in Wisconsin:

O, the spectral symmetry of the elms,
retinal veins through which suns stagger
on stilts, suturing folds of soil and sky!

Those sutures of sky and soil were polychromatic, in my memory to be sure, but actually, then and there.  


In my spiritual life there is a before and an after LSD. I haven’t touched the stuff for over half a century, since the summer of 1967, but in my opinion LSD was the perfect entheogen — a “class of psychoactive substances that induce any type of spiritual experience aimed at development“.

The power of those entheogenic experiences was such that my memories of them were eventually gathered in Déjà vu: 

Once they are with me I know they belong,
these spells when I do what I know I’ve done.
They start with a memory, where ought to be none,
an onset of symptoms something is wrong.
Then reigns within a split second of grace.
Familiar feelings are stripped of their name.
What is marvelous springs from one and the same
utterly common theme I cannot place.
Some quirk or trick of thought quells my fear,
makes the moment’s scattered parts cohere,
shows behind the hubbub and din there swells
a hum I might be able to hear
if I ceased listening, a drone which dwells
and will still when I disappear.

For over a half-century I’ve perceived transcendence or immanence or any psychically aware state through the lens of those LSD-driven bubbles of expanded consciousness.

Déjà vus are now all I have left to cling to, like the dreams in the last line of my translation. I worship their fleeting instants as unique instances of reunion with … the godhead? No, that puts too much of a theist spin on it. But the metaphor of communion may hold. Déjà vus are like sacrements to me, except there is no need to confess in order to receive them.


For those who read German, here is finally a classic exegesis of the Morgenstern source, a reading that doesn’t come down to mounting ones own hobby horse, as I have done here. He says, dismounting, and offering with apologies to any who have been waiting for it, the poem itself:

Butterblumengelbe Wiesen,
sauerampferrot getönt,
– O du überreiches Sprießen,
wie das Aug dich nie gewöhnt!

Wohlgesangdurchschwellte Bäume,
wunderblütenschneebereift –
ja, fürwahr, ihr zeigt uns Träume,
wie die Brust sie kaum begreift.