Four Poems by Primo Levi

February 11, 1946

I looked for you in the stars
When as a child I questioned them.
I asked the mountains for you
But all they gave me were a few moments
of solitude and short-lived peace.
Since you weren’t there, those long evenings
I contemplated the mad blasphemy
That the world was one of God’s mistakes,
And I was one of the world’s.
But when, in the face of death,
I shouted no with every fiber,
That I wasn’t through,
That I still had too much to do,
It was because you were there in front of me,
You with me beside you, as today,
A man a woman under the sun.
I came back because you were there.

Shemà

You who live safe
In your heated houses
You who come home at night to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man,
Who toils in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for half a loaf
Who dies by a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
With no hair and no name
With no more strength to remember
With empty eyes and a womb as cold
As a frog in winter.

Ponder that this happened:
I consign these words to you.
Carve them into your hearts
At home or on the street,
Going to bed or rising:
Tell them to your children.
Or may your house fall down,
May illness make you helpless,
And your children turn their eyes from you.

In the Beginning

Fellow men for whom a year is long,
A century a venerable goal,
Exhausted earning your bread,
Worn out, enraged, deluded, sick, and lost;
Hear, and be consoled and mocked:
Twenty billion years ago,
Splendid, moving through both space and time,
There was a globe of flame, alone, eternal,
Our common father and our executioner,
And it exploded, and all change began.
Even now, the faint echo from this one catastrophe reversal
Sounds from the far ends of the universe.
Everything was born from that one spasm:
The same abyss that embraces us and taunts us,
The same time that gives us life and ruins us,
Everything each of us has thought,
The eyes of every woman we have loved,
Suns by the thousand, too,
And this hand that writes.

The Girl of Pompeii

Since the anguish of each belongs to us all
We’re still living yours, scrawny little girl
Clinging convulsively to your mother
As if you wanted to get back inside her
When the sky went black that afternoon.
To no avail, because the sky, turned poison,
Infiltrated the shut windows of your quiet
House with its thick walls to find you
Happy before in your song and timid laughter.
The centuries have passed, the ash has turned to stone,
Locking in these gentle limbs forever.
So you stay with us, contorted plaster cast,
Endless agony, horrific witness
To how our proud seed matters to the gods.
But there’s nothing left for us of your far-away sister,
The girl from Holland walled up in four walls
Who wrote about her childhood without a tomorrow:
Her quiet ashes have been spread by the wind,
Her brief life held inside a crumpled notebook.
Nothing’s left of the Hiroshima schoolgirl,
Shadow transfixed on the wall by the light of a thousand suns,
Victim sacrificed on the altar of fear.
Masters of the earth lords of new poisons,
Sad secret guardians of definitive thunder,
The afflictions heaven offers us are sufficient.
Stop and consider before you push the button.

Translated by Jonathan Galassi

The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein, are published as a limited edition slipcase by Penguin Classics on September 10, priced £100

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