Here is the 50th poem in my 52-poem sequence (one a week) for 2013, followed by some illumination and reflection:
This morning my hand struck the mirror
reaching not for my toothbrush, but
for its reflection.
Last night, crossing the thousandth arched bridge
commonplace as musical notation, glissando affettuoso
you glanced to your left across black water confined between
cliffs of decaying palazzi, and saw other legs on another bridge;
thought you’d glimpsed yourself momentarily as if you were
a mere reflection, a ripple of light thrown in the afterswell
of the passing barque of life, catafalque of death. Painted
white, red or black, adorned with feather and candelabra
as everything here.
Take up the mask of dark and pace these irrational
vennels and rat runs as random as the connections
between synapses in the folds of some age-wrinkled brain
too vast to map in the etchings in the ancient bookshops.
Venice is humanity’s true self-portrait: not its conscious
but its subconscious life, the non-sequiturs of dreams
and nightmares are here made manifest:
the purposeful thoroughfare which turns and resolves itself
on a whim, into a passageway so narrow scarcely two can pass
or worse still; into a cul-de-sac, or seaweed-bearded steps
leading down into water.
The most important addresses hidden at the end
of a malodourous maze, or the least consequential of hovels
hoarding the termination of an accidentally beautiful vista.
Ornate church facades are cut off midstream, concealed
behind the jostling shoulder of an insolent granary or convent.
There are no manners here, only the mysteriously musical
cacophony of many tales told by many idiots.
Venice is anti-city, the world seen from below
as the dead might see us, the inside of a velvet pin cushion
into which a hundred blades of jagged overheard speech
and warped intention intervene, weaving
avant-garde chamber music for the insane.
Across a chequerboard floor we walk
upside down between the flicking tongues
of blindfold salamanders.
Or are they crocodiles?
The statue of a centurion subduing one
atop the ludicrous trumpet-fanfare
of a column capital in Piazza San Marco
stolen from Constantinople: was clearly
carved by a sculptor who’d never seen one
nor Rome, come to think about it.
Everything is borrowed, half-heard and
misunderstood here, as at the drowsy threshold
of a siesta, a somnambulist fiesta
the Moorish arches and walled gardens
bent and cracked, not just with age
or through a distorting mirror, but
under the onslaught of unreason.
And yet, walking out next day
in the soft morning light
shimmering on the peaceful water
before your first sobering coffee,
a kind of profound sense is grasped
underlying, like ancestral memory
and every other city in the world
seems wrong for a moment, idiotic
built so far from joy and the elemental medium,
amniotic, which first birthed us.
Back in Glasgow
Harsh, dry, modern, metallic, glassy
I find the floors beneath my feet
swaying like water, my sea legs
rejecting all this safety after countless voyages al vaporetto
and when I return to bed, my eyes close
opening inwardly to resume a dream like a video on pause
of the interior of a vast and floorless palazzo
filled with ancient loot, dark carved wood
obscure instruments of navigation and enlightenment
and the endless music of Vivaldi.
Well, we’re nearly bang up to date in this sequence now, seeing as this poem was written in August of this year. For an illustration, we just have to go for Max Ernst’s The Robing Of The Bride, since it is part of the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice. Nobody forgets the first time in their life they encountered this extraordinary image. It is simultaneously disturbing, exquisitely beautiful and utterly terrifying. “Convulsive beauty” indeed as the self-styled Surrealist Pope André Breton would have it. I only recently read the official interpretation that the painting conveys Ernst’s sense of horror at France’s capitulation/conquest at the hands of the Nazis in 1940. Considering Ernst was born in the border between the two countries, and the Nazis sought to ban and destroy his work, this meaning makes a lot of sense. There is something Teutonic in the swan-headed figure who seeks to encourage the unholy and unnatural marriage to come, and the grotesque green creature on the floor represents the obscene afterbirth of collaboration and betrayal. Since this painting was complete in 1940, we can see therefore that it was profoundly prophetic. We, unlike Ernst at the time, now know the full extent of the horrors that took place under Nazi rule. French citizens betrayed Jews in their midst and sent them to certain death in concentration camps. The resistance were subjected of course to the vile torture and injustice common to all desperate and dictatorial regimes. Tumultuous times do at least, as some kind of compensation, produce great art like this in artists sufficiently sensitive and attuned to express the outrage of the human spirit against evil and its longing for the ultimate resolution of conflict through love. Let us not therefore, ever underestimate the power of art. The Nazis, and all dictatorships, want to destroy art like this for a reason. Because it tells the truth, and everybody recognises the truth, at one level or another, when they are finally lucky enough to be exposed to it. Europe may be peaceful now, but the war continues for the triumph of love over fear in every society, including our own. Everyone can take part in that timeless battle, by telling the truth, in art or in conversation, and ideally both.
The Venetian photographs above are by Rona MacDonald. For reading material about the incomparable city of Venice I would recommend ‘Invisible Cities’ by Italo Calvino (a major influence on my fifth novel Entanglement), and “Venice” by Jan Morris.