Book Review: Collected Poems

Collected Poems, by Primo Levi, translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann

This is a collection of poetry that is both dark and beautiful, spanning from the mid-40’s just after the poet was released from the German concentration camps where he spent a couple of years after his capture as a partisan in German-occupied Italy to the 1980’s, when he died after having devoted himself to writing for the previous ten years after retirement.  In a way, the author never fully left the war, as these collected poems demonstrate that even as an old man reflecting on death that he wrestled with the questions of Jewish identity, the way in which everyone was an enemy of everyone else and of themselves, and of the questions of justice and divine providence that would naturally follow experience like his own.  He never felt at peace, and always wondered about the jack-booted soldiers knocking on his door, so that the nightmare would begin again.  Experience as traumatic as the author’s was sublimated into beautiful poems that allow the reader to visualize life in postwar Italy and the way that it was shaped by the harrowing experience of war and loss, and if the author is better known for writing other sorts of books, this collection of poems is still well-worth checking out.

These collected poems were originally published in the author’s native Italian in a couple of collections titled Shema and Ad ora incerta, but were translated for this edition into English so that the works could reach a wider audience.  The translations are excellent, and they preserve something of the haunting quality of the original poems.  The most moving poems here deal with questions of life and death and of light and darkness, and perhaps my favorite of the whole collection are “Nachtwache,” which makes use of a favorite biblical quotation of mine [1], and “Partisan,” which portrays old partisans reuniting with creaking joints and suspicions about each other and deeply divided selves and the realization that their war is never over.  If one has to compare his work to other writers, it bears a strong resemblance to the expressiveness of a William Stafford (ironically enough a pacifist who spent his World War II in a work camp in the West Coast) or the haunted quality of a W.G. Sebald.  Here too the experience of war dramatically shaped the author and left his poetry deeply affected by the tragic experiences of war.

If one reads the notes to this book of poetry, one recognizes that the author makes a lot of allusions both to his own experience as well as to literature.  Often expressions and titles carry deep allusive layers.  “Nachtwache” is not only a reference to Isaiah with its discussion of the night watchman, but is also an expression that refers to an office within the concentration camps, blending the horrors of the prophetic judgment on an obscure Arabian city Dumah with the horrors of the concentration camp that the author experienced.  Likewise, there are poems that reference the death of Pliny the Elder in the eruption of Vesuvius as well as the Hebrew Bible and the writings of Dante.  One gets a sense of the moral and intellectual resources of a writer who could endure the suffering of hell on earth by reflecting on how this hell could be understood through literary allusions that somehow made sense of the inhumanity of man against man and the way that earth under the rule of wicked rulers like Hitler became a sort of infernal realm of injustice and suffering.  And yet the author did not wallow in that suffering, but turned it into beautiful art.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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