The Tablecloth

Giovanni Pascoli
Geoffrey Brock

“Dear child,” they’d say, “take care
never to leave it spread
on the supper table there
after you’ve gone to bed,
but put it away again
as soon as supper is done,
lest it invite the dead—
the pale, unhappy dead!

They’ll enter, gasping for air.
And each will pass the night,
hunched wearily in a chair,
around that field of white.
Heads in their hands, they’ll stay
just so till break of day,
and from this darkened room
no sound at all will come.”

That girl is a child no more.
She keeps house, as she must,
as her mother did before:
washes, and cooks, and dusts.
And yet, though perfectly able,
she never clears the table.
She lets them come, the dead,
the kind, unhappy dead.

Oh! through the darkest black,
through wind or snow or rain,
she lets them come gasping back,
lets them return again
to the table where we sup,
to rest, till the sun comes up,
pursuing some far-off detail,
heads in their hands, and pale.

And so, till morning comes,
they sit, heads bowed, in a ring
and stare at the few stray crumbs
and pursue some far-off thing
down the forgotten years—
but all they find are tears,
for oh! they can’t recall them.
Her dear dead can’t recall them.

“Bread—yes, that is called bread,
we ate it together, remember?
And that, that’s a loose thread,
it makes the cloth, remember?
These? Just a couple of tears,
bitter like yours, and yours,
the usual tears that fall
whenever we recall.”

Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912) was an Italian poet and classical scholar. Last Dream: Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli (translated by Geoffrey Brock) is forthcoming this season.
Geoffrey Brock is the author of two collections of poems (most recently Voices Bright Flags), the editor of The FSG Book of 20th-Century Italian Poetry, and the translator of numerous volumes from Italian, including Last Dream: Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli, forthcoming. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, where he edits the Arkansas International.
Originally published:
April 1, 2019


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