He cut it from a hedge—the breaking day
sad but not cold—and turning, he began
to move. And moving, he was on his way.
It was a hedge beside a cemetery:
the cemetery where his mother lay.
He’s wandered ever since. Nothing to carry
except that staff. Has both rejoiced and wept.
Has seen river and sea, mountain and prairie.
The places that were farthest off he kept
closest to heart. At times he lent a hand,
at times was given one. At dusk despaired;
at dawn awoke with hope enough to stand
and carry on. The fruit was empty but
the flower sweet. At countless churches prayed.
Met countless men: some called him idiot,
some wished him well. Each of them drifted by,
like black cloud shadows past a black cloud shadow
on a brown lake. He was what met his eye,
was no one. Now he’s tired. The evening rises,
sad but not cold. He stands there, as before,
beside a hedge. The hedge is as it was.
He stands beside the hedge, unmoving there,
beside the graveyard where his mother lies.
He’s what he was, though now in disrepair
from all his wandering, stripped of his glees
but not his griefs. He stands, now white of hair,
hand on the same old staff. And now he sees
that through the years and by degrees his staff
had sent down roots, had been alive, had sprouted
leaves and had bloomed: here where his fingers chafe
it had bloomed; where his feet stand it had rooted.
A withered leaf’s the last thing to remain.
It trembles. Wind is blowing. The pilgrim, stooped
over his still life, seems to be moving again.
Geoffrey Brock is the author of two collections of poetry, the editor of The FSG Book of 20th-Century Italian Poetry, and the translator of numerous volumes of Italian poetry and prose, including Last Dream: Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli, forthcoming from World Poetry Books. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas and edits The Arkansas International (arkint.org).
Giovanni Pascoli (1855–1912) survived a famously tragic childhood, including his father’s unsolved murder, to become arguably the most important Italian poet writing at the dawn of the twentieth century. While certainly not a modernist, his almost imagistic focus on “piccole cose” (small things) and his scaling back of the era’s often overblown rhetoric both contributed enormously to the modernization of Italian poetry.