The following set of poems were written in Milan, Italy, and Toronto, Canada. I classify them as my juvenalia, too, since I wrote them between the ages of 22 and 31: still a formative stage for anyone who eventually turns into a mature poet. I haven’t done so myself: I stopped writing poetry at about the age of 31 and have written only a couple of minor pieces since. My interest has turned more and more to non-fiction, to scholarly pursuits and considerations of things we call metaphysics (after Aristotle, still my favourite philosopher), and to other creative projects I hope I will have the time, the energy, and the necessary conditions of possibility (as we say in philosophy) to pull off and complete during the time that remains available to me.
What strikes me about these poems is the role aggression plays in creativity and what uses we put art to: as, for instance, in using it to express anger and the desire for revenge in a sublimated (and so a slightly less harmful) form than it would be if acted out “in the raw”. The second poem here, the one I wrote about Stefano Giordana (a young man whom I taught English in Milan in 1979-80), to whom I subsequently, after I had recovered from the psychological blow he had dealt me, dedicated a second poem, exemplifies that very nicely. Stefano had betrayed me (sexually) and, although he subsequently tried to “win me back” by asking me to give him a second chance, it was evident to me that he felt no real remorse or any consideration for me, any real understanding of the pain he had caused me by choosing to lie to and cheat on me. I therefore refused to give him a second chance — as it would have been simply an invitation for him to continue to abuse me emotionally, not having had the necessary metanoia (change of mind and heart), the necessary conversion to loving instead of using people — and, feeling angry and disappointed, but not completely hostile towards him, I expressed that ambivalence in the poem I then wrote about us. Naturally, I never wanted Stefano dead: but, as the poem shows, I very clearly wanted to express my own aggression (and, on some level, I suspect, I also wanted to scare other men with it, having been hurt by a number of them by then). “Fraud in Genoa” intrigues me for another reason: I can now acknowledge that in writing it, I had more or less consciously slandered myself, imputing to me post facto feelings of hostility and an intent to betray which had never been there in the first place. Unlike another young man whom I was at the time yet to meet (in North America) and about whom I never wrote any poetry because his loss was far too painful for me to express with the artistry any poem-making requires, Stefano was never either a friend to me nor in any sense my guide (except in the trivial sense of showing me around his mother’s native city, Genoa). It’s therefore all the more interesting for me to realize now how guilty I must have felt about even that tiny act of “revenge” because the poem I subsequently wrote and dedicated to Stefano Giordana (“Vespa Ride”) is certainly an idealization of him. The last three lines, but especially the opening line, n particular, demonstrate that impulse to idealize very well. Such are the emotional vacillations of a very young and rather vulnerable woman. In writing these poems, I was able to externalize and give shape and form to my feelings and thus to assuage them to a degree. The real healing, however, does not take place in the art we make, in our self-externalizations. Our art may help others, perhaps; it rarely, if ever, helps the creators themselves.
I may add some commentary on the other poems at a later date.
Under dumb midnight streets
waters surge, suffocated,
gasp through the asphalt chinks.
soon, the waters of Milan
will rush out
and swallow the city
that has betrayed them.
Fraud in Genoa
My lover’s face close to my own:
feeding autumnal coughs, the smoke-blown
grey envelops visions of a needle-pricked arm,
the red swollen spot; a mosquito-bite cloak
hides the euphoria shot.
He cries my name from the bathroom,
He cries: Ti voglio bene!
A cold sun over Cristofero’s city grins mean-lipped
on casbah alleys swarming with vermin.
By mute palace doors sheltering afternoon whores
Ligurian smugglers act a chorus
to my fraud unsuspected:
my student’s death my eyes focus.
My lover’s eyes — blue
like Portofino sea on a bright
true November non-tourist morning:
the glaze-chilled eyes glint, so trustingly.
A Vespa Ride
for Stephano Giordana
No flitting of shadows on the Portofino road
but a slow-motion glide
as we plied
ourselves into the soft November air.
The sun-spun train of his hair
relays a windblown warmth,
a late summer smell.
At every roadcurve to the right
I feel my arm fetch —
pale gold, freckled by light —
a magnolia prick, a bright cactus scratch.
Clasped to my friend and guide
I anchor in time. We make it bide.
His back the mast, his shirt the sails,
on Cristofero’s land we cast
a gliding current to the tide
of Ligurian afternoons: present and past.
The unflustered set of their bare limbs,
abjures the histrionics of human passion.
They neither welcome nor reject the fog
when it comes.
The grace of their acceptance —
these hibernal trees
carrying spring within them,
the inaudible gurgle of sap
so hushed, none of us heard it
all these months — is a natural one.
Withdrawn into themselves,
in their deliberate fortitude of winter,
what emending of means do they work then,
what solicitous gathering of force?
Their solitude: a quiet call to rememberance,
such casual courtesy to self.
Stand by me, here, and look:
how gracefully they bear
the still weight of layered snow,
the cool pressure of our condensed breath.
How calmly they go about
observing that harshest season of the interior year:
the necessary, needful, frost-tempering time.
Greeny Flowers and Modernist Festoons
— angrily, after William Carlos Williams
Let us be precise,
set order to this recalcitrant mind,
bring focus to these changeful eyes.
Well, then: it’s twenty to one —
a place to start from,
if only a time,
and a fancy-ridden way on a March afternoon
to say: the year’s ticking to its prime.
What poetry offers may be no more that this:
a sideshow stunt, a chiming pantomime,
a well-versed sputter of public,
So let us, then, too,
and by all means, assume all lapse of taste,
all decorum gone, an angry unseemly haste
as the guardians still forewarn:
Beware pastiche of garbled forms;
Language crippled by History.
The case is simple, really, and inelegance
has its rules: every cult, self-adulatory,
of Man, or Art, or Muse
an other-sensed time eventually overrules.
So that to describe this room now,
or pay our arrears,
to answer summons ambiguous or terse,
to rhyme or dissonate — to form any utterance
at all in tune,
one must refuse.
One must decline to bend
and fuse and mend those diminutives,
those ample consolations of the Bardic Ruse.
the words they used tearing their hair,
the words they cursed
in what now must seem but mock-despair —
that histrion’s grin and groaning rasp
the masters perfected to such mellifluence —
serve us no longer. As they stood.
And what are these but mere verbal charades
out of mode? Unfashionable, fusty
rags of rhyme — a retro bombast that
will fade, self-contradictory, synched-out nouveau sublime?
Know then, sweet lech, you mumbler of the Bardic Party line:
Neither your words nor mine make petals out of blood.
When the light fades and before the bombs explode,
none can have reprieve.
Take this, too, against the time when
no eye could be quick enough to perceive:
see now how they implode,
each slime-licked life, each shiny limb and breast
burning to ashes — and nothing of this slow,
nothing to be caught. Just
a jagged design that bursts and pales
without a flicker or a beheld glow.
Literal-minded, prosaic, subaltern stubborn
poems about women, yellow-skinned or skinny,
generic women in anonymous hospital rooms —
occasional figures of some affectless reverie —
“fingering four,” he says,
or eight (or more!)
strands of hair — “last remnants of
than death by poetasters.
Bilious, stirred, I muse publicly:
Surely the time has passed
for these dull, bone-dry, distended masturbatory gazes
on women and dying
forever deferred, on paper,
formal inanities hawking
the pathos of “feminine weaving”
cocain-Sieggy gave us a howler about
almost a century ago.
Surely, the time has passed
for mealy-mouthed poems that feed —
leech-like, necrophiliac —
with profit and pleasure tossed into their bargain —
on representable stoicisms of my kind.
Back in Ithaca after his 20-year voyage round the Mediterranean, and having butchered the suitors come to woo Penelope in his absence, Odysseus commands the female slaves to clean up the scene of his carnage and then orders them hanged: for having loved some of the men.
As broad-winged thrushes caught in a net:
so Homer described them.
In the great hall, after his homecoming slaughter,
After the first glimpse of furtive recollection
And the heavy, stumbling hauling of corpses —
How did they feel
having to drag and heave
and toss those fleshly dismemberings
of their infrequent pleasures? —
The last master-detailed labour of the night
Awaited the women: unsanctified, homely purgation by water.
Telemachus the heir oversaw it all, apprised
The moving flash of each tired arm, their generous splash
And every baring scrape, all that mopping up of trickled life.
Afterwards, with beam and rope and air —
Such handy props for such domestic spite —
performed the patrocratic rite.
With feet astagger for a bound flight,
Suspended in struggle — “but not for very long” —
The slave-women slipped, noose-necklaced,
against the obliterating Ionian light.
So swayed into silence.