Archive for September, 2014

ADRIFT

Where part of the back wall of the scena

of the Greco-Roman amphitheatre

has collapsed, we can see the sun setting

on Etna, its smoke drifting like a veil

over the sea. The town’s orchestra –

of mandolins, lutes, guitars, double bass –

with its plangent, sentimental, heart-

rending timbre plays the prelude to act one

of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata’…

 

We saw the opera at the Bolshoi –

with its gilt chairs and the Romanov box

with the hammer and the sickle above –

the month Vladimir Putin was first crowned.

When we left the theatre in the soft dusk

of May there was a babushka begging.

In the Lubyanka metro station,

a drunken man rolled down the escalator…

 

As Venus appears in the south east,

the orchestra plays encores – ‘Volare’,

‘Torna a Surriento’, ‘Ritorna-me’.

The audience, mostly local, largely

female, sways and hums, secure, for that moment,

in its campanilismo, thinking of amore

 

Small boats are approaching, in the thickening

dark, from North Africa and the Levant,

chartered by men – vessels overladen with

women and children, craft whose landfall, whose

free fall will set tolling each and every

bell in the frantic campanile.

 

 

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THE SECOND TIME AS FARCE

So many colonisers here in this

terra amara, this bitter land –

from Ancient Greece to Bourbon Spain,

from Ancient Rome to Scandinavia,

from the Caliphate to Swabia – fitting

therefore that our cable car cabin

should be muti-lingual, each of us

keeping our space, averting our eyes.

 

As we descend from Via Luigi

Pirandello to Isola Bella,

past terraces with sun loungers, over

the Campo Sportivo and the tangled

scrub in the gorge, we hear suddenly

from the air itself it seems, from nowhere,

the first bars of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ –

those fateful sisters who will choose the half,

in battle, that shall be killed, the half that live.

 

There is a confident flurry of amused

Nordic voices: ‘Er vi i himmelen?’

(Are we in heaven?) ‘Eller helvede?’

(Or hell?) You whisper, ‘The Vikings are back!’

 

 

 

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ICONOCLASTS

A young woman, with a babe in arms, sits

beneath a mosaic of the Virgin

and Child under a medieval arch and begs.

Set in the tower above them is a clock,

which plays ‘Ave, ave, ave Maria’.

The narrow space is clogged with tourists

from the cruise ships and the tour buses.

Most do not give. She might be roma:

like the woman, begging with a toddler

near the amphitheatre, to whom we gave

but said nothing, did nothing seeing a

child of that age, though bonny enough,

play on the street. Something is wrong – such begging,

such indifference, such circumspection!

Have we all become senza anima

without soul – or do these mothers love

their children beyond shame?

 

 

 

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VIA SALITA GIAFARI

The street is built into the steep mountainside,

hence ‘salita’, ‘slope’. It is a wide street of steps –

edged with granite, inlaid with pebbles

and set in cement bordered by brick.

 

***

 

From our balcony, there is an impassive,

inscrutable vista of the old town’s

semi-circular, interlocking

clay roof tiles of varying shades of

terracotta and the occasional

Moorish-style chimney – finally

the public gardens’ umbrella pines and

the Ionian Sea becoming sky.

 

***

 

At dusk, Arab street sellers climb the steps

slowly, their wares in torn sheets on their backs.

When the street light comes on a gecko appears

on the wall opposite and waits. Each time

a new video appears on the large

plasma screen in Piazza Vittorio

Emanuele walls even here flash blue.

 

***

 

Ten thousand residents of Taormina,

two million tourists each year – beginning

with Goethe – and such sounds… the commune’s band

on the Corso Umberto – brass playing

nostalgia, drums braggadocio;

enthusiastic French tourists in step

on the Via Don Bosco; petulant,

throaty Vespas on the narrow ring road;

dogs, out of sight in walled yards or hidden

by oleanders, yelping, baying;

a blackbird’s solitary ‘chook, chook’,

beneath the lemon trees and plumbago

on a neighbouring terrace; a quick bell

rung a dozen times for matins; the cruise ships’

sirens sounding, sounding… Tennesse

and Truman with their paramours laughing

freely on the terrace of the Caffé

Wunderbar; Taylor breaking a guitar

over Burton’s head in the Hotel

San Domenica; D.H. Lawrence

beating up Frieda just down the road from us

in the Villa Vecchia Fontana…

 

***

 

We have neighbours: the elegant woman,

opposite, with the basset hound, in a house

with raised grills on the windows and an ornate

wooden door set in an arch of marble;

someone, whom we never see, in the apartment

above, who whistles Vivaldi on the stairs;

in the apartment below, the Arab traders

smoking hash, talking quietly into the night –

their tee-shirts and cut-offs on an airer

outside their front door to dry in the dark;

the elderly owner of the Summer

Bazaar near the beach, who complains of Africans

selling their wares on the gritty sand,

and climbs down eighty steps and back each day

to descend and rise in the Funivia;

the beautiful girl, who, each morning

walks down to work at the alimentari

on the Via Timeo beside

the ruins of the Roman theatre…

***

 

A cloud burst brings water centimetres deep –

and laden with particles of pumice

from the mountain – cascading down the steps.

‘Giafari’ is a variant of

‘jafar’, Arabic for stream. Below us,

by the Arco Dei Cappucini,

a fountain flows from the rock – and watching

over us on the mountain’s edge are

the shrine to the Madonna of the Rock

and the walls of the Saracens’ Castle.

 

 

 

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THE EAR OF DIONYSUS

Ships ride in Syracusa’s harbour

a couple of hundred metres below.

The amphitheatre, seating twenty thousand,

is a monolith carved from the limestone hill.

Behind us a natural fountain pours.

Near it is a square hole cut in the rock.

 

Shaped by design like the auditory

canal and tympanum of the human ear

this slave-made cleft in the limestone, some

forty feet high, echoes with the babel

of snatched arias and football songs.

At the entrance, our tour bus guide taps

his crumpled pack of Marlborough and,

despite the hubbub, we hear the echo clearly.

‘Allora!’ High up, we can see a square

of light at the furthest point of the cleft.

 

Our teacher, in his stained Ralph Lauren sweatshirt,

tells us that winds, blowing from the sea

during the day, would project the actors’ words.

‘Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it

brings no profit to the man that’s wise!

This I knew well but had forgotten. I

would not have journeyed here otherwise.’

 

As the sun begins to set, the wind shifts,

blowing from the land. Sails are hoisted

for serious journeys – navigated by nous

not compass or charts – with serious cargoes,

uncertain landfalls. So, our pilot muses,

maybe not so good to have aboard the god

of wine, art, ecstasy – and yet, and yet…

 

He hears the anchor drawn, the ropes hauled,

the sharp flap of the yard taking the wind,

the slap of the quickening wave beneath the prow.

 

 

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