2 poems: Birds of Rome, and
for Tom & Olga
Ken Bolton: BIRDS OF ROME
It is my duty —
or is it Poetry’s (& Poetry says
Duh, what? It is what
that I’m supposed to do now?) — my duty,
to tell the people of the future
just what life is like
right now, in this part
of this century — & to this end
I copy passages
from Raymond Queneau (Last Days)
& look closely at
a poem of Charles North’s, that might
complicate matters — complication being, tho,
part of the game we are shown to be playing
passing the time of our lives. Both poem
& novel argue an underlying simplicity
that is life — but I mean to show —
here, now, tho I realize this
is nothing of their agenda —
that the ages
still speak to each other —
1935 to 1989 to 2018.
Out the window, Via Giacinto Carini, Rome,
streetlight falls on the top leaves
of a tree, rendering them green
against the relative dark
of a building across the road (yellow,
I think, in the day) & cars whoosh
up & down, at very regular intervals.
It is Friday night. I am up,
not quite well, happy,
moved-to-write. ‘Whoosh’ because it has rained.
Rome has declined a little since I was last here —
with Cath in the year that rounded out the last century —
the effect of many years of bad government
& bad circumstance — tho I have nothing wise
to say about this — hasn’t the West declined,
the whole Anglophone sphere?
I am tired & think a little
of Picasso. (To no real end.)
And if Rome has declined, if Italy has — &
the ‘Anglosphere’, & the planet perhaps —
then where does that leave me, reader of
the future? — (& reader of today — you’re here
too?) In the midst of my usual difficulties,
that’s where —
& I gargle, & go to bed,
to address these issues
once more, or again, or more fully —
thru the lens — or the ‘flaw’ in the lens,
or whatever — tomorrow — a word,
“whatever”, increasingly used
to express hopelessness, carelessness or impatience
in recent years. Often comically. Tho it is
an easy comedy. I am saying this, I suppose,
to the people of the future, before whom — these
latter — we feel a little guilty.
What will it be like for you?
Sparrows — which they say are disappearing from big cities —
are here in Rome. At least, I saw one today.
It danced & darted & sat, about the table
Cath & I shared,
around the corner from Via Carini. Smaller
& a little more russet than ours in Adelaide.
Actually, ours are more beautiful.
Good to get something stated plainly. But,
Of course I rise again & get this started. Here. But not before
some real life has intervened — tho is this
not real, not life? It has a different feel
from wandering with Cath around Rome… A bus
a tram, some trekking & we are at Santa Sabina
& Saint Alessio’s — a saint I love: held to have spent
his adult life under the stairs, a secret from his
dad — to die on being discovered. You might. Out of
embarrassment? Regret? Tho I’ve led a fairly quiet life
I rise, as S. Alessio must have done,
done his stretches, a few pressups — then down to prayer.
Not me. I strike out for the coffee shop
on the corner, a few corners away (what is Rome
if not a place of corners — open skies, curved umbrella pines
& vast edifices & blocks, of corniced & windowed masonry,
abutting at de Chiricoid angles, Euclidean & deeply somnolent?) order
an espresso, & sit, looking past — I calculate — the Italian Centre
for German Studies’ wall — or maybe not — & watch birds
sweeping slowly around the sky.
Like a fly around the rim of a lampshade? No. Like last flicks of a rag, around a kitchen,
a plate. The sky is empty, tho an impressively empurpled grey one
massed in the window in the afternoon,
behind the enormous column of the decapitated
palm next door. On which a bird sat, corvinely —
like Edward Everett Horton —
or an ancient
Christian Democrat polly
pleased at his situation, how far he has risen,
all those years of routine voting producing Italy’s problems — the palm, shorn
to a vast trunk, swells at its top slightly. There are two.
Dark columns — vertical, that swell & thin just appreciably,
appearing bodily, pagan, sensual — providing the plateau on which the bird sits. Corvinely.
Then hops to the roof & is out of sight.
birds ever advised me — except Down tools — &
“bugger off” —
as a sparrow once told me — told me, in almost so many words,
as a tourist, in Trastevere.
Less generous to foreigners
have generally been — tho in that respect things are beginning to
(Cath notes a large street newly named for Albania —
tho most of the businesses retain their old signs of identification,
a more Italian name, “Aventina” — still in use by
everyone, surely, over 14.)
The sparrow offers no advice
to our table — sniffs the air, takes off;
atop his enormous plinth or pedestal the crow says nothing,
hardly catches my eye, hops off it to the roof.
Disappears. And a guy, sixty if he’s a day, wearing a Batman T-shirt,
walks down the road across the way, string shopping bag, a degree of swagger.
Norman Douglas, writing — on Lecce, Bari, Naples? —
in 1905, remarked the ubiquity of optometrists, chemists, & underwear shops —
& nothing’s changed.
Italy is not going to solve
some of the world’s problems.
“It’s not our thing”?
Here’s the thing —
(the phrase used regularly — on an interview show
I never saw but loved the idea of. (Alec Baldwin
When was America, by ‘his’ lights, last great?
What do I think — 50 years ago, 55? did it peak
with ‘The Morning of the Poem’?
on the Italian milk carton
& think: (feed the President some)
“gone to hell in a hand-basket”, an American phrase
that, from the first,
I both understood & which I remained
puzzled by, could be applied here.
to your Bestertester!
Da Cesaré restaurant — “ostaria” their chosen term —
established 2018 — so, as it’s only May now, can’t be very old:
the site of a lot of smoking & standing around outside, in
high heels, tottering, puffing away, on mobile phones, sorties into the restaurant
& out again. We sit outside — where the presiding figure is
Rodney Dangerfield, who sits outside also, practising ‘living in the moment’
emptying his mind, in fawn pants & bright red T-shirt. He is sent eventually
by the owner on an errand, to buy cigarettes, milk, serviettes, maybe repark somebody’s car —
& reappears after a time, sits again. Ah, Italy. Is this
love, or exasperation? The world will not be brought down
by double parking or cigarettes. “Well, it may solve some,” a bird
suggests, sub-vocally, alluding to an earlier conversation. I have been looking at it for
quite a time —
& it flies off, message delivered.
I am hardly thinking.
A handsome kind of crow they have around here —
two-toned, black & a lighter chocolate-charcoal colour. He
watches from a distance then flies away.
Inane but highly competent music comes from da Cesaré,
some professional singing & some Karaoke-level, so-so — (or ‘bad’) — vocals.
I go inside to pay & it is red-shirt, looking more like Rodney Dangerfield than ever —
at the keyboard, confident, masterful, drum machine ticking over
Sirens whoop & swallow the world it seems
briefly — pass — & the world is ours again, ours
& other citizens’, its dimensions & routines
restored. Clamour, a vertiginous
narrowing & the ambulance is past. I write this
in the quiet, of the end of the day, on Silvi’s mother’s balcony,
Le Balcon de la Madame Volonta. Le Balcon
de l’Europe, a possibly fictional bar-café
in Higgins’ novel of that name — one
in a long line I stand
somewhere near the end of, presuming that it
will end. But why would it? Beautiful, non-allegorical
clouds gather to darken with their dove-grey;
slight mauve, slight purple, a silver sky
above two principal roofs, one of orange terracotta,
the other a deep sienna. Below the orange roof —
a butter wall; beneath the other — a wall of palest cream
its windows & capitals & balconies a chalky grey,
intensely classical. Unremarkable
except that it is perfect. A bird flaps onto
a tall aerial, turns, & flaps off again, downward
like a discarded umbrella.
I write, I fool around, here
in Turin, on Giulia Volonta’s balcony,
wondering at the point of all this embrace
of Europe’s charm, Europe’s ways —
it must be counterpoint to something.
(“I like them: but I’m different”?)
And the sky has darkened. The
clouds have cleared — mostly — a vast
white one, miming Boo!
“Oo-ooo, woo woo wooh,”
it proclaims for its own amusement,
white in its higher parts — which must catch
the last of the light, high, high in the sky.
Here below it has darkened, various lights come on,
voices call, relaxed & inviting, there is laughter,
the purple-grey has gone,
leaving the sky its slightly smudged, thin
blue-grey; the orange gone from its roof —
now dark with a memory of warmth within.
Street lights from below lend the lower floors
a faint lemon colour. It is night — Spring,
has spoken to me — evidently — which I take to be
Torino sang-froid. Perhaps, after my Roman correspondence, they observe
my ‘progress-so-far’ — to formulate encouragement
or correction, as required.
Renato Guttuso I expect to be
coarse, blowsy, obvious — but feel I should see,
to see if there is more. I doubt I will catch his
Bar of Europe painting, so famous, or that it will be
perfect if I do see it. In fact, tho, he is better than I expect.
Also, I realise I have seen more of him than I remembered.
A forceful painter who becomes an entertainer, a
cartoonist — a reliable
fist in the air (as in his paintings) —
striking the attitudes expected,
tiresomely (eventually) ‘beside-the-point’,
unable to matter. But, for a few decades, good.
Togliatti is celebrated. But surely his life was one long
bad gamble, chips placed on the wrong square & the choice
defended: do not form government, do not address power
but wait —
for the change that never came.
to count as tragic? — you become a near-hero, a loved figure,
for embodying the national dilemma. (“I coulda been a
contender,” said the contender.) “Of course, the
alternative… ?” ask the birds wisely.
“Poverty, dissension, violence?”
A death-mask profile of Togliatti in one continuous single line
seems loving, respectful & forgiving — a head, as if lying, pillowed.
How introduce these things — Queneau’s novel, North’s poem —
or re-introduce them: did I say I might? In Queneau’s
early novel the intense young man, a student, near the end
is reconciled to the world: he attends for some twenty minutes,
in a small square — where a man smokes & reads,
stretches, smokes & reads again, where housewives
shout to each other, a cat appears & moves from here
to here, a dog barks, a woman’s voice is heard
to sing; the cat, the dog again, a bell. The student
considers all this as a philosophical problem — whose terms are
dissolved or defeated with a repetition of these events.
North’s poem ‘A Note On Labor Day’
consists similarly — of scenes & sounds, sounds
particularly — & things seen, or imagined, as their
explanations, their source (the horn of a truck, a
car backfires); pigeons a number of times
are dispersed, fly & regroup, a bike is stolen,
fish are imagined to have crossed the bay with the night,
taxis come & go, while North expounds a philosophy,
or a view of things — that places him at their centre
at peace, unconfounded.
Queneau would have known
‘on to a good thing’ —
to help conclude his novel — which he folds away
after that point, the student’s ‘problem’ resolved.
Charles North was pleased with his task
as a challenge, I would guess — & he brought it off. It shares
a family resemblance to the poems by his friend, Tony Towle,
but is less drawn to the Augustan discursive’s ‘machinery’ — more
W C Williams & Edward Hopper. It is dedicated
to his wife, a painter. Paula.
What is the relation
of these works —
to this? None that is close: they were supplies I took on,
in preparation for the journey, lucky charms.
Turin will not seem to have furthered my case,
but it has altered my mood, moved me a good way past
my introduction. A highly cultured city. The first,
almost, in which I have experienced the interior of a representative
Italian apartment: its large & calmly ombrous rooms,
sparse but fine furniture, parquetry floors, absolute
intelligence of design & disposal of functions & objects, its
discretion & sense, its calm. Torino is an orderly city — likewise
of long arcades & treed corsos — like the lovely Corso Vinaglio.
Laid out on a grid on flat ground, it takes days to orient oneself.
“Trees wave on the roof
across the street
which has the forsythia for two weeks
every year, which I always want you
to paint, which is past,
or almost, as light sweeps it” etc
Schuyler than Williams — (or Tony — or Hopper).
“Which I always want you to paint” attaches to
the forsythia I think — & it is ‘the year’ which is
past. I like it for not bothering to be too clear
“So a tugboat has plowed
up Broadway pulling half
the Battery behind it” — which I am not
New Yorker enough to be sure of
— or to see how it is possible —
but like a lot
(What is the relation of the novel, the poem, to this?)
We may never have entered the Bar Personal but meant to.
Those we did enter we liked — where we rested spending the traveller’s
quiet moments, gazing at the trees outside, watching the traffic,
watching others pass.
One estimates, judges, measures
one’s surroundings, insulated from the problems of the world,
failing to catch the eye of the beggars — who are relatively few.
We have little money ourselves. Giulia & Silvi could be said to live
well, but frugally — out of habit & philosophy. Silvi will pay
to study, having relied on scholarships heretofore, will waitress
as she goes — & become a useful profesional in areas
of foreign aid, immigration, population flow —
a remove from her Australian years as a greenie.
Our own children plan second babies — & careers
that might be safe but cannot be sure — the worry that attends
modern life. We visited a town in England that celebrated
its having lost half its mass
to the sea in the 17th century, blind
to the fact of imminent sea rise that will surely see the rest off.
We are in Via Pessina, four floors up — fifty paces, seventy?
from the student bar & restaurant area — & which changes its name,
‘Pessina’, for Via Toledo, the street Stendhal proclaimed
most exciting (the happiest?) in the world — or was he so realistic
as to limit himself to “Europe”? — & which in some respects
must not be much changed — as well as much changed. New drinks, new trinkets.
Sri-Lankans appear now in numbers, a significant presence — on Sundays — clearly
their day off, from what one guesses will be menial work. It has bustle still
tho the excitement might now have moved to the streets & alleys around
Via Constantinople, Porta Alba (&) Gesu Nuova. These, anyway,
are raffishly glamorous. Naples.
There are no trees — & hence, especially given the traffic, no birds —
except at Tom & Olga’s,
who look down on a private garden, whose luxuriant green
feeds many. Otherwise we see — pigeons, if we walk thru town —
a lone hawk circling high, cruising on rising thermals,
above the parklands of Capodimonte. The hawk has no advice for me.
The city beneath consists of monuments to its own oppressors — centuries
of aristocrats, foreign despots, bankers, two thousand years
of the Church: palaces, baroque cathedrals —
backdrop to the theatre of energetic Neapolitans.
What, I think, can
Sicily teach me?
For long moments, at night, I
content myself with the view from the balcony of endless streaming traffic:
pearls of light — the cars, the motorbikes & vespas — as they
stream & weave endlessly & variously down the hill below us,
phosphorescent against the dark night,
taking my breath away.
The triumphant fashion victim presiding over
The Good Shoe. They were good shoes & he made them.
The shop oozed Eurotrash good taste. Quiet & dark.
Men’s shoes in half a dozen styles a quarter of them
in colours. The genius of the place was a very spry
seventy year old with well-cut
straight wispy silver hair, shoulder length. An
amused smile. A black-blue linen jacket over expensive,
white, collarless shirt — & black linen pants, tapered fairly tight —
ending a good four or five inches
above the ankle — sockless, in handsome black loafers
with a tiny bit of tan trim. One liked him.
He was in on the joke. The other staff were a tall & muscly
young man, & fairly busy, & a beautiful darkhaired
young woman seated in a deep deep chair, not
about to move. She too liked his humour.
Where are they made? asks Tom. — China. — China? But the
designs are Italian? Chinese. — Chinese, but why? — My
father was Chinese — ha ha ha. Girl’s eyes light up. She arches
the foot of her crossed leg. His look is great: the fabulously
got up serving of a look that quotes ‘Picaro’, Tom Sawyer,
urchin, carefree bumpkin & says “Many euros”
Yachts! Lamborghinis! Yes, I do know personally
Jeff Koons. And Mimmo Paladino. Madonna. I have shaken the hand
of Robert Gray.
The old ‘tourist’ part of Taormina (home once to Nelson, Goethe,
Nietzsche, authors, intellectuals, academics, actors & actresses)
is nice to wander thru — but only early in the morning.
Unfortunately, nothing is open till after 10.
From that point it begins to fill with the young
& the old — mostly well-dressed in resort wear, unlike
us — not so many of the thirtyish — unless they open boutiques
set out restaurant chairs (trattorias, ristorantes, enotecas).
The press of people in aimless procession tests one’s — everyone’s —
fellow feeling. A few are conspicuously glamorous, tanned
bejewelled & coiffed & accoutred, including the odd girl
cresting her ‘top model’ appearance, often part of a
A quick walk behind our house & up the hill is the much
more pleasant reverse. A wide apron of concrete
overlooks the valley, precipitously, like the rest of the town.
On it a large number of kids & parents, run, ride
& jump & throw balls, the adults down at heel
chatting & happy. I watch for quite a while, from
some steps at one corner — like the oldies outside the supermarket
at the other, that I passed as I came thru. I am reminded,
searching for comparisons, of Larry Clark’s photographs,
Pasolini’s Rome. So I like them, of course — the single guy, the
old couple under the awning at the store, the mums talking to
each other in the small parking area across from it, & all the
figures crossing paths, running standing walking, joking & calling.
A few kids approach me at different times, pursuing a lost
ball, or out of curiosity; one tiny, many-curled blond boy needing
respite from the crowd (is it ‘madding’ him?). Buona sera,
I say to him & smile. He looks to be three or four — & asks
me something & I say Me dispiacere — non parlo Italiano,
which he must have heard before. He looks at me differently, smiles
again, turns, goes down the stairs & joins the big picture once more:
groups & skeins of figures forming & reforming. Pleasingly random,
ongoing but not repetitive. You’d come here every night
(7 to 9 o’clock) & sit in the cool, watch them. I’ve seen the same people
sitting outside the store before. Here for that purpose.
An afternoon with friend Maurizio.
He takes us to an old town, once moderately large — some of it
— including a huge church — built in 1200. Mostly run down, with narrow
streets & covered walkways, lots of it falling apart, overgrown — but
the Taormina money — richer Italians, others — are buying in:
one passes old nonnas sitting on doorsteps, consumptive looking men,
cobbles & bricks misplaced & a general bleak grime, to come upon
large, startlingly well-lit chemists, beauticians,
bags & shoe stores, jewellery shops, nightclubs: intermittent,
or in clusters. A ghost town soaking up new blood,
being revived & taken over. Two Italys — one decrepit, the other
bearing Audis, BMWs, Porsches, expensive scarves & sunglasses, good shoes.
Randazzo — the town. Why should Randazzo stay poor —
to remain picturesque? What will happen to Randazzo’s poor?
(Or is the change largely generational?
A disappearing act.)
Two large seagulls on the roof opposite Maria & Mike’s,
they stretch & dip their necks — a spooning motion —
& make a long sound followed by a few small
rattling sounds, that is very like the beginnings of
a kookaburra’s call. Appropriate, because I’ll be
heading back to Adelaide in three or four hours.
The drive last night around town in Maria’s Bambino — 1974 —
engine like an old pencil sharpener — a sound of small pebbles —
has Rome appear miraculous & charming again, magical.
“Taking” — to quote North —
“my breath away”.
Ken Bolton: THE FACTS
& in tribute to the following and their works —
Tony Towle, the book North and the poem ‘Works on Paper’;
Charles North and his poem ‘A Note on Labor Day’ from the book The Year of the Olive Oil;
Raymond Queneau, the novel Last Days.
I buy only one thing — a five euro hat,
against the heat we expect over the next few weeks,
& because I see one that doesn’t look too awful
The one I choose — black — has the effect
of looking vaguely sacerdotal, without
convincing anybody that I am a priest.
In it I feel a little like Paul Hewson
whose efforts to appear hip
I always applauded,
tho no one else seemed to
I never knew if Paul liked me
or noticed — or cared about —
my applause. It wasn’t, in fact, that I thought he
so much as I thought his unease modern —
& his will-to-hipness somehow admirable
(or hip in itself), a sort of
ascetic, priestly & austere vocation.
Do I, in my hat,
In London I pretty much decide
to write the poem. Tho before we left home
I had figured to write something — & had taken
Wayne South along
as a possible spur or model.
In the poem I do decide to write
I decide also
not to resist too much the cliche of
Tho, without wishing to succumb to it
too much, you inevitably do. You give it play
‘for decorative purposes’ —
ironize it to maintain ‘distance’
Or it’s the enemy
& you stay ‘well away’ —
But wanting to write something
was the overriding factor. Ambivalence
‘got a look in’ was as far as realism went.
We arrived sick in Rome
but in a good mood,
from London where we froze.
Rome was warmer — a week into May.
But Rome presents in so many ways,
that fail to cohere: the down at heel
the wealthy, the inane, the cool
the foolish monument to Victor Emmanuel
the romantic ruins — of the baths, the
Aventine — the fabulous river — Testaccio
& Trastevere — (the latter now wasting
in parts to a shadow of itself) — so incoherent,
or disparate, that it is hard to meet foursquare.
It was nearly twenty years earlier we had known it.
I liked it even so — & in truth I had
only ever liked it in parts. I liked them then
& liked them now mostly —
& found some new — & then we
Turin was nice, very —
but less a world city, less a city
one ‘had to come to terms with’.
It was admirable — I was smitten by it
& our time there was terrific. Then Naples.
I read Henri L’Oupöl in London.
Ultimos Dias — & in Turin I wrote the poem.
I had started it in Rome. But in Turin
I had nothing to read, so I wrote —
& bought Zadie Smith (Swing Time)
as I got on the train to Naples
— a book I increasingly withdrew my investment in —
a re-write of her own NW
& Elena Ferrante.
Unconvincing. In Naples I saw
Guido Reni’s terrific ‘Atalanta & Hippomenes’
& a late Caravaggio that reconciled me to him —
the Roman works seem ‘all over in a flash’ —
a blinding clarity — & then there’s ‘nothing to look at’.
This had mystery, a softness to outlines, details
that swam to you from the darkness, that waited —
for you to find them, over time, by accident.
Christ getting a scourging, I think. You could
look at it forever, or repeatedly. Other things
were there, some Carracci, some Bronzino — & Artemisia,
& Jerome taking a thorn from a lion’s paw.
There are some great churches —
but I hate them for what they are. Also,
the art history I was taught, its
whole framework, was Florence, Rome,
a little Bologna, some Arezzo etc.
But not the South. Hugh Honor,
all too well brought up, & bred
too delicate — for the South & Naples
None of these buildings were canonical —
tho some must have rivalled Rome
in splendour & conception.
About the paintings one knew only
Ribera, & the Caravaggists almost as a rumour —
a dark, ‘intense’ Catholicism was cited, & the explanation:
Spain, the Inquisition, a simple, stark ‘faith’
& a consequent darkness.
I read, in Naples,
Updike’s Rich In Russia. It is funny. How great to find it.
I haven’t read him since Rabbit, Run
in 1969, 68, or 70 — & had thought
he ‘only wrote about rich people’ — or money — & in a sense
he is: his novelist-hero is ‘paid in roubles’ —
but this was funny & not entirely unlike
Gilbert Sorrentino, even, in some ways. My
Sorrentino is black & scathing & irresistibly selfconscious.
Updike is smooth, & light — but clever. I will search
more of these out — the ‘Bech’ novels.
[I buy the hat in Naples, take it to Sicily.]
South’s poem is hardly a model available to me —
but I turn to it as something to read
in the pauses in my poem — & occasionally get an idea —
from it, or at least while reading it.
I hadn’t thought much of South. But I pulled out his book,
A Year with Popeye, one I’ve had
a decade or two, & hadn’t liked —
&, giving it ‘one last chance’ (“Come on,
save me from boredom”), find this terrific poem.
More research & I find others. South, South —
I never knew ye! I’d preferred his friend
Terry Tunes’ poems — & now I’ve found South, or
# # #
[[[ SOME POSTCARDS
I guess you are, as I write, saving the animals & their little lives — but maybe doing it for somebody else now, as an employee & not a — what? sole trader? (which sounds like someone sailing up a river, laden with furs — chug chug chug — & here you make jokes about ‘up the creek’ & ‘sold down the river’.) Your Vet’s business sold? This has been a good trip tho the highlights I suppose conform to the outline of cliches, despite actually being highlights. 1) I saw a guy berated for eating his food off a Richard Serra slab — best, he didn’t argue that it ‘wasn’t Art’. He lifted his plate & made the What you gonna do shrug & said, But there was no room elsewhere! 2) Saw a Renato Guttuso show (good artist becoming a bad one over twenty or thirty years) & 3) a great Guido Reni & a great late Caravaggio. Otherwise, Cath & I have eaten & drunk & laughed. And we should do the same — some time in the second week of June maybe?
I love you, & I have always loved you — ha ha ha ha ha. And it’s true tho, isn’t it, in a way? At any rate I have always wanted your approval. Italy is great — tho you would not approve of me in it, it is such a joke. London tho was great — & you’d have liked it a lot — so many people fiercely themselves & confident. Richard & Suzy send their love. Their new home is very nice, it backs on to Hampstead Heath — & they seem in good shape. We’re with Tom & Olga Sankey in Sicily. Mt Etna just outside the window, Olga on the phone to her son. Anyway, it’s cheered me up a whole lot. It’s time we caught up. We’ll issue an invitation when we come home.
I wonder if this card will get to you before we do? We think about you lots & figure you would like it over here. Italy is beautiful & dirty & nuts — & you’re beautiful — terrifically handsome anyway — & usually need a bath — & you’re definitely nuts. You should come here one day & bring the whole family. Is Arlo coming along well, are your Mum & Dad? Say hi to them from us. See you soon!
Ken & Cath
MICHAEL & WENDY
Dear Michael & Wendy
I wonder if this card will get to you before we do? Am thinking about you lots [ETC]. Italy is … [Repeat Richard Serra thing] ETC
MICHAEL & DI
Dear Michael & Di,
I wonder if this card will get to you before we do? We think about you lots [ETC]. Italy is … etc [Repeat Richard Serra story, Guttuso] ETC
# # #
In South I like the dependent after-thoughts or
early impulses, first guesses —
as to where the sentence is going — allowed to
attach themselves, to hang
from the sentence’s main thrust, weakening it
comically, they give a kind of indirection,
a dagginess, a rivulet becomes
a slender trickle &, its last gasp, the sand absorbs it.
But it has moved in interesting directions in its course.
As South employs it, tho, this is a virtue: Labor Day,
a day in which he sits, passively, & New York’s sights & sounds & ‘incidents’
encircle him, a sybaritic St Anthony, happily ‘tortured’ — by felicities.
I emailed South something to this effect —
his sentences’ indirection — but heard nothing from him. He
probably figured me for some smart-arsed critic, a type his
poetry goes out of its way to inveigh against. I concluded,
to Terry Tunes — we used to be in touch, to suggest I had once
been in the loop, but it may not have been enough.
Do they not
still talk? (The great Tunes poems will never be touched.
Galling for a poet sort of similar. (Of course, if
he’s galled, what am I? (In respect of either — or both?)
Weirdly Tunes’ first ‘real’ book was called South — published
well before Tunes & Wayne met, I think. True South might be
a title, for a book on South’s virtues & vices (more the vices)
& the kind of harping criticism Tunes might like to make. I
could write it. I might mention this to South. (Ha ha.) Hmm,
wouldn’t want to get dished by those guys.
In London I think — or did I even start it on the plane out? —
I began with a statement of the poem’s intent, its contract
with itself, to describe the real conditions
of life in this part of the century, while traveling
in Rome, Turin, Naples — & acknowledging
the probable, the possible, or destined influence of South —
& his poem, ‘A Note On Labor Day’ — & with the proximity at least
of L’Oupöl’s Ultimos Dias, both of which, I hinted, hymned the quotidian,
or hymned its acceptance.
I looked out the window (palm tree), listened (ambulance)
& began. At this point I was in Rome.
my sole piece of ‘machinery’, could tell me what to think
whenever I needed a pause, came to one, or needed to return
to the fanciful — or needed it undercut… by a bluntly spoken
bird — an avian Groucho, or Oscar Levant … a name it has taken me
some time to dredge from the past, a past watching television,
the bedrock of my education.
We were living, in a slightly unliveable flat, in a very good
location, that gave us some new ways in to areas we’d known before,
& some new locations, & allowed some of the old ways, too.
Rome was more unkempt this time round — some of
the old thrills were absent. I still liked it.
Realism was hardly one of my goals, with Terry Tunes
somehow at the back of this — invoked as the shadow behind
Wayne South —
& perhaps still the stronger influence. Would I have read South
if not for Tunes? Tunes’ neo-classical periphrasis & ornament
do hold the real — but as if in huge & ironising pincers.
My own work strains for that tone, or something of it,
but does it ever hold anything in its sights, its grip, for long?
Can it ever keep a straight face — except in those moments overtaken
by an unwanted solemnity? — An ‘unwasted celebrity’? — There is
no place for him at The Good Shoe. Tho I am ‘reminded’ — well,
I was — of a faint stain on my grey T-shirt that I have washed twice
but not yet removed. It grows fainter — & by the time I get home
may have disappeared, weeks — an ocean & a continent — too late. (Do
you ‘know’ The Good Shoe?) A kind of status-quo regained, to
Milton, whose shirts were very likely much stained. Talk about
‘anxiety of influence’ — we were, weren’t we, talking of it? — Milton worried,
a lot, about whether he’d have any. “Look, John,” I’d say, “even now, your name…”
putting my tiny shoulder to the wheel … for the good of all of us —
me, Robert Grey, South, Tunes, even L’Oupöl
Turin was fun, thanks to our hosts,
Silvi & Giuli her mum, tho we were not quite well —
& Naples was great, & great to catch up with Olga & Tom. In Sicily
we could breathe again — & there occurred ‘the lifting
of my mood’.
The successive birds I began to find rather repetitive.
Not objectionably. Uninventive.
But invention, what is that, isn’t it one of those
rhetorical categories? Aristotle, Horace, Leon
Battista Alberti? How old fashioned.
Here in Taormina there is the bay — as there was in Naples.
(Famous, tho I made no mention of it.) A handsome, white
cruise ship has just entered. Six-thirty a.m. Gleaming.
Soon the town will be filled, with couples favouring beige.
In fact, a tiny boat has just departed & heads portwards
perhaps to seek permission from some authority, the harbourmaster,
there might be something half-ceremonial about it, it being Italy.
But at 6.30?
“Name of ship?” The Isola Bella. “How many?”
Two hundred — and fifty. Usually fifty stay on board. “Okay.
I’ll alert the police & the pickpockets.”
South used to have things cross the harbour —
a squid or a mollusc — an oyster? There’s a tug
he suggests has drawn half the Bronx with it, a
momentary illusion or fancy he doesn’t deny. Better
is a rodent — a raccoon? — that drags a woman, somehow, after it.
Along with things genuinely seen, or see-able. These
make up his poem.
Do I even have a dog in mine? How unimaginative.
But imagination, what is that, right?
I start this, with various people standing behind me —
Wayne South, I suppose, for one —
& Kenneth Koch behind him, which is bad news for South —
Koch will have almost certainly donned
an ape mask, wave an outsize toy elephant gun,
poetic parrots mounted on his arm, his poetic head. Anyway,
with them there, defining
a middle ground, becoming
background as I move forward, the
subject of my poem,
I might now have your full attention,
or as much as is reasonable to expect
just a dozen or so lines
to a poem of boundless, tho admittedly groundlessly held,
ambition — not held firmly either: a sort of feckless
feeling ‘lucky’ feeling. Me, not you — tho you’re entitled to feel that way too,
if you feel it.
Your feelings are sort of to-the-point,
yet not the point somehow — in the same way
that a stake is necessary to the game but it is not the game.
I mean (Do I, do I mean this? Well, I do now —
but I didn’t), ‘bale out’ in ‘media res’ & ‘leave me’
— lost, in the middle of a long afternoon, at a
dark wood desk, or bench or ‘table’ … outside this
coffee shop, The Middle Store — Wayne South (black T-shirt, dark glasses),
Kenneth, in a loud, & wide-checked, sports jacket of
pale brown & yellow, Terry Tunes, sitting sullenly beside them
(thinking “This must be miles from Tribeca — what are we doing here?
They’re driving on the wrong side of the road!”)
Alan Wearne, more vastly amused,
sits apart from them at a nearby table.
So there you are.
(In the sense of ‘get the picture?’) I am contemplating
a Krazy Kat cartoon — just a single frame —
that I have here
as a bookmark — while trying to recall another
from memory — a fuller scene: more sky, more rock-face, cactus,
empty space, tumbleweed, dark shadow.
Coconino County, Arizona — & work out
how I feel about it. Cartoons ‘hang’ upon,
isolate & exaggerate, one single point,
which they nail, thru something that is not quite ‘resemblance’
but is something like it. (Recognition is our response
to it.) ‘It’s a theory.’ — Well, a remark.
But the great cartoons — often, always, characteristically? —
nail more — & Krazy is an example.
Krazy’s is a ‘world’, with lots in it, that we recognise —
& love. Something else — Charles Schulz’s Peanuts for example
(‘much loved’, sure, sure), has less.
can be held to be ‘finally’ an abstraction — a notion I can
hardly entertain, just barely can — but works, we feel,
by what it packs in, a plenitude of recognisability,
but with a cartoon element disguised within it, by which it
nails something … that gives the picture its character, its
charm. Here Manet’s portrait of Berthe Morisot
meets Herriman’s Krazy — both liquid-eyed, trusting,
(in black, typically). A brick bouncing off Berthe’s head?
Hardly. I love that painting. Wearne,
Terry, South & K.K. are all looking down the street
where a car — driver lost in a deep fug,
brain fizzing — has circled, dangerously fast,
the traffic roundabout, allowing me
to slip away, mount my bike, ride home — & pack for Europe
where Cath & I ‘go’,
‘fly’, in a day or so: London (Richard & Suzy,
Wendy Griffith), Rome (Rome, beloved Rome), Turin
where we see Silvi — & meet Tom & Olga in Napoli.
The four poets, all chatting now, rouse themselves & walk,
Alan in the lead, to The Little Fig, I think — another coffee shop,
Terry expounding on his ‘Works On Paper’ & its relation
to ‘Epistle to a Patron’. Something like that. He looks chuffed,
draws himself to his considerable height — gestures generous, eloquent,
expansive — grandiloquent almost.
No, not that — but grandiloquence is within sight, all three
contemplate it, with satisfaction, the idea being less troublesome
than the, um, the item.
Birds of Rome
(“It is my duty —
or is it Poetry’s (& Poetry says