Monday, October 29, 2012

Sketches from the Campagna: Nino and the Bicycle

When the crisis hit, and no one had any money at all, the roads that lead into Nicosia became full of bicycles. People who worked started cycling to work and people without jobs cycled to wherever they spent their day. Far fewer cars made the rounds on account of the price of petrol.

This pleased Giovanni Catalano, called Nino, who had previously driven to his job in Nicosia and had always wanted to cycle. He hated the heavy, sterile frame of his car. He hated having to roll down a window (it was fairly old, the car) to feel the wind. Every day since the bicycles started to appear he would stare in envy at the people leaning over their handlebars in the full flush of the good clean air, up the hills and down the hills, who could smell the orange blossoms as they passed the orchards. He hated having to find a few meters of empty space in the crowded street when others could simply lock their bicycle to a streetsign or shoulder it into work. When he filled the tank he would swear viciously. “All you do is suck life. A bloody stramaladetto vampire. It's not enough that you suck my wallet dry. You have to leave my bloodless in this miserable box. You rusty old carcass.”

Nino envied the commuter cyclists and admired them. He had seen a TV documentary on Denmark, where it seemed that everyone rode a bicycle everywhere, even politicians and famous people, and he burned up inside. Apparently Holland was the same way. And so was Nicosia once, he reflected, because his grandfather had ridden a bicycle to work for as long as he worked, and even his father – Nino's father – had commuted by bicycle as a young man, before his first car.

He brought this up at the table one night. His mother nearly dropped the pot she was holding.


He told her again.

“What's gotten into you? You want to give up the car?”

His father chewed the tip of his knife, slowly. “I used to ride my cycle to work, before I got a car.”

“Before you could afford a car.” --His wife.

“Right, before I could afford one. It wasn't so bad. The old one-speed. And anyway with fuel prices being what they are.”

“The price is not the point. The point is that a man of almost thirty years doesn't ride a bicycle when he could drive. He simply doesn't. One doesn't do that. Nino, you are going to drive and you are going to forget this bicycle business immediately.”

The father placed the knife delicately back next to his plate. “My old bike,” he said calmly, “is in the garage under a tarpaulin. The tires'll be flat. But that's where you'll find it.

The next day Nino stuck the old singlespeed into the back of his Fiat and, having managed to get out of work early, shouldered it and walked a few blocks to a cycle shop. He waited in line a good quarter hour before he got to the counter.

“Fix it up so you can commute?” asked the mechanic, a bored-looking boy with long hair and a rakish beard. “Right. Give me your number, we'll call you.”

And by the following Monday Nino had a well-oiled, properly pumped bicycle. He left the house early, much earlier than before. He took the same road that he had taken to work for years to school for years before that, past an orange grove, intersecting the highway, over the hill into town; but it was like a new road, a new country, and he felt himself an explorer in uncharted territory. A new old country. A new old world.

He learned. He learned that the stretches he'd always thought were flat were actually on an incline. He learned what gravel felt like under the tires and how easy it was to slide clear off the road, and how the air dries as the sun rises, which he knew but didn't remember ever feeling. As he travelled day by day he began to recognize the rabbits on the roadside and the doves in the cypresses, and they were no longer little flashes of color but real animals. He had found a new country in old Nicosia town and its outskirts.

What new disdain he now felt for his old car, his great rusting life-sucker! When his coworkers complained about petrol prices his smiled. On the road he wondered what a gearshift must be like, to slide easily in and out of the fast-spinning little gear and back into the great slow heaving first, to control the flow as he willed, to make music from the rhythm of the clacking, whispering chain. He whistled at the doves. The rabbits sat on the roadside and and waved. Spring came; flowers opened up for Nino on his ride.

On a Thursday night he sat on the bed of his friend, the girl who worked mornings at the Bar Belfiore, and talked about the bike as he pulled on his shoes.

“I like it,” she was telling him. “Take me some time. Your rabbits sound adorable.”

He stood up to fasten his belt. “I will.”

“I don't know anyone he rides a bike. There's a young guy who comes in for a cappuccino all sweaty and flushed every morning early but I don't know if he rides his bike or a scooter or what. Does that happen to you?”


“I mean does it wear you out. Do you show up to work all sweaty?”

“A little.”

“It doesn't seem to wear you out too much. Not in a bad way, anyway.”

“No, it gives you energy.”

“I can tell.”

“I'm serious, though,” said Nino, “you live when you're on a bike. You breathe. You move... I don't know how to explain it.” She smiled and kissed him.

The next morning was a Friday, and the sky was clear and and Nino saw magpies busy with their nest building. The bees were singing in choirs, and the sky arced wonderfully and the cypresses smelled wonderful and everything lost its dimensions and became like a painted image, all on the same plane and glowing. A little bit faster he pedaled, and a little bit faster; he was the wind that blew the pollen now, the warm spring wind that stirred the grass. His thighs burned with the speed and the hill and sang out to each other in turns, call, response, right, left as he topped the hill, left, right, right, right. Down the hill he sped, blind in the wind. He never saw the truck, and when it caught him broadside he flew forward in an arc, headfirst with his body whipping behind him like a tail. Up, up, up and then down, down, down; and when he smashed into the asphalt it was like he had been swallowed by the curving side of the Earth, and the bits of his body here and there on the road were the only proof that he hadn't.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

San Giorgio - Monferrato

Colli, vigne, orti e campi:
un registro di timbri dolci
e luce bionda, e foschia
leggera e garbata.
Ametista ed oro dei colli e campi,
chiarezza chiodata dai pini solitari.

Ma sotto quel suolo che tiene le vigne
c'è roccia, roccia
né ametista né oro, plutone
roccia cieca, che sa l'antico canto
dei falchi che gridano lassù.

O San Giorgio!

          Tu vedi il dorso delle Alpi
          l'orrore del sasso sorgente
          come carne solida, vivente, sì
          le Alpi le vedi, San Giorgio
          potenti e sfrenati, sì tanto
          la coda scagliosa del tuo drago

Friday, October 19, 2012

Si torna

E la vita eccheggia nell'arco dei secoli
di vita in vita.
Ecco: stamattina ho raccoltato il grano
davanti allo specchio.
Cadeva il grano, fino e dorato; ed al campo è rimasta
l'ombra della stoppia, comprendomi il mento
e le guance.

E la memoria eccheggia nell'arco di tempo
di occhio in occhio.
Vedi: ho aperto un libro
e là fra i fogli i disegni d'inchiostro
si son riformati.
E vedevo il carro, il gran cacciatore
le sette sorelle ed il fiume ed il cane
e gli altri sillabi della lingua
del cielo.

E la vita corre nel torrente di sogno
di cuore in cuore.
Penna in mano comincio la vendemmia.

Ecco finalmente il mosto.
Guarda quant'è scuro
e che profumo fa.

Incantesimo di Merseburg: Sassonia, anno 900 d.C.

Fol ed Wodan passavan pel bosco
e la caviglia del cavallo                 di Balder fu storta.

Ed allor lanciò l'incantesimo              Sinthgut sorella di Sunna
ed allor lanciò l'incantesimo               Frija sorella di Wolla
e lanciò l'incantesimo Wodan            al meglio possibile.

Quanto rotta l'ossa               tanto rotto il sangue
                       e tanto rotta la storta.

Ossa all'ossa
Sangue al sangue
Nodi ai nodi

                      come fosser legati.
(per un cavallo ferito)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The White Bull

A white bull, a king of the field.
Magnificent. Who else could match you?
The chest scraping the clover
the massive haunches and the shimmering flanks
the powerful roll of the shoulders
the ripple of throatflesh
and the circumspect twitch of the tail.
Whose bone was it that splintered your crown?
How many calves now grazing in your field
came to the sunlight from your dreadful loins?

One comes to the kingdom to meet the king.
One comes to the pasture to meet the bull.
Life straddles horsebacks and drips from horns
And I to see life with my own eyes
and breathe it with my own lungs
have come to you, to the field of dung
and dandelions
at least to sit upon a splintered post
and watch you graze
swallowing green life to produce white--


if not to feed you clover with my hand
and feel the stormcloud of your breath against my skin
then to have your hide, tight drawn like a bowstring
stretched and nailed, embracing the house wall;
and your bullslaying rack
I would paint red
and fix to the lintel
to catch the hearthglow in the night
and blaze by day when the door is open
crowning the field of blue with red.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sketches from the Campagna: The Chickens

One morning the sky was especially blue, and the lawyer decided he wanted chickens. Actually he had always wanted chickens, but now that his new house had space for a henhouse he could finally have some, and eat fresh eggs whenever he wanted. When he arrived at the office the first thing he did was make a couple phone calls; when he came home for one o'clock dinner he announced that he was buying chickens, that a hired man was coming over on Thursday to put together a nice henhouse, and soon they'd be eating fresh eggs.

His wife was delighted and began dreaming aloud of all the wonders she could cook up with fresh eggs, and laughed with triumphant derision at the store-bought eggs that they wouldn't be eating much longer. The tall, skinny boy twisted up his face and laughed at the idea of chickens, and the little girl clapped her hands in oblivious joy.

That Thursday the workman came. The lawyer took the day off to supervise, standing in the sun and dust, directing the old man as needed. There was a terrible wind blowing, and the palms shook, and all the olives that stood along the edge of the property wailed and threw their leaves into the air. By dusk the old workman had more or less finished, as good as done, and the lawyer dismissed him.

When all was done the lawyer drove back to his office and made another call, this time to a chicken farmer. He greeted the old farmer over the phone with extravagant courtesy, inquired after the price of a few good layers, and immediately set into bargaining. The farmer had little patience for it and invited him to come tomorrow, and then bid him good night and hung up. The lawyer was not offended; he was too pleased in his handiwork to feel resentful. He had knocked the price down a considerable number of lire, he was sure, and anyway he'd be eating fresh eggs within a few days. The next morning he went to see the chicken farmer on the latter's little holding in Marausa. When he arrived he parked his car on the potholed street and called to the farmer's son, who was just snapping up the kickstand of his Vespa to leave, to open the gate. He was a big hulking boy in his late twenties, wearing a mustache and a shiny jacket; there was a piece of flesh missing from under his eye, as though scooped out like a morsel from a block of cheese. The son obliged silently, and the lawyer made his way to the farmhouse, where the chicken farmer greeted him without wasting much breath and showed him what chickens he had for sale.

The lawyer walked down the short corridor of the barn, stroking his chin and hmming and scratching meditatively at his belly. He wanted big ones, he said, nice big fat ones to lay nice big eggs. He pointed to a great lethargic black hen on a top shelf; the farmer chuckled grimly and advised against it. They walked a few more steps and the lawyer, a bit desperately, asked about a second one: the farmer said no, that one laid very little. In the end the farmer chose two good layers, accepted the lawyer's offer without complaining, handed him the chickens and went back inside, coppola pulled firmly down on his head.

At the lawyer's house everyone crowded around to look at the chickens, to poke at them and admire their fine plumage, and the lawyer threw open a window that faced the sea and proclaimed how much he enjoyed living in the country, what a good contadino he made. The little girl clapped and danced in the excitement, the dog barked in the yard, the wind howled in the olives, the skinny boy tried to poke the birds with a stick. Neighbors passing along the road heard the ruckus and stopped by the open window, smiling and appraising the fine hens that the lawyer had bought. The chickens themselves clucked and twitched and blinked their round chicken eyes.

That night at supper the lawyer took second and third helpings of everything, put away almost a liter of wine, and had two glasses of bitters after dessert. He slept like a baby, curled up under the covers, his snores almost drowned by the sirocco that was shrieking through the fields, churning the sea and bending the trees.

He waited in breathless anticipation all the next day for news of eggs; he checked before going to the office, again when he came home for dinner, and even called his wife that afternoon. Nothing yet. The lawyer came home with his lip a bit twisted, yelled at his son for making too much noise, yelled at the television because Napoli had beaten Inter three to one, drank too much wine at supper and went straight to bed. The next morning he woke up before light, and wrapping himself in a bathrobe crept outside to the henhouse. The wind had let up for a moment, but the air was cold. The henouse itself, mostly finished, loomed in the dark like an apparition. The lawyer glanced around nervously, then retied the belt of the bathrobe around his belly and unhinged the little wooden door. There were the chickens, their open eyes unnerving in the dark. He slipped in his hand awkwardly under the first one, almost embarrassed to disturb her, and suddenly the ghostliness of the scene melted into joy: he felt an egg. Grinning he thrust his hand under the other chicken and felt shell. He chuckled to himself as he turned on the flashlight he had brought in his pocket. But he stopped short, his mouth open in confusion, because in the light he saw that both eggs had been shattered in the nest, that there were bits of yolk along the wood plankings, and that both hens had their beaks and breasts specked with mutilated egg. One even opened its mouth to squawk in annoyance, and he saw that there was more egg in the bird's mouth.

He went back inside at a run to find the chicken farmer's number. He called immediately, not caring that it was barely six in the morning. It hardly mattered though, because the farmer was awake, having his first coffee after the early morning chores; as taciturn but uncomplaining as usual, he listened stonily to the lawyer's story and advised bringing the chickens back to the farm as soon as possible. The lawyer threw on whatever clothes he had on hand, and without his usual morning shower and shave and aftershave he seized the birds by the feet, threw them into the car, and drove to Marausa.

Light was leaking over the hills, but the sea was still dark; the farmer's son was just arriving home on his Vespa, the crator on his face twitching a little, and opened the gate for the lawyer. The farmer himself was outside smoking in overalls a size too big and his coppola pulled down over his eyes.

“This happens,” he explained. “There isn't much you can do.”

The lawyer was desperate.

“Well,” said the farmer, “we can try this.”

He went inside and called his son to fetch a saw. A moment later the big, broad boy was walking around the side of the house, not at all sleepy, with a hacksaw in his huge hand. Without a word he handed off the saw to his father and seized one chicken with his hands and laid it on a wooden bench. The farmer calmly sawed about half the beak off. The son grabbed the other one, laid it down, and the farmer sawed its beak off as well.

“Hopefully that stops it,” he said, and excused himself, flicking his cigarette butt onto the road and plodding back inside.

Back at home he explained everything to his wife, who nodded wearily because she knew of chickens who ate their own eggs. She was a country girl herself, and had grown up with all sorts of animals, and knew their vices. The next day the wind returned. The lawyer banished the chickens from his mind to concentrate on his work. But every time the windowpane in his office shuddered he lost his train of thought, and thought of the chickens and their vileness.

The next morning he went out after coffee with his wife to check on the eggs. There was nothing to be done. The broken shells lay on the floor, and the stumpy, mutilated beaks were covered in yolk and the clear drippings of the whites. The birds stared and twitched. The wife sighed; the lawyer ran clumsily inside to call the farmer. The farmer answered almost at the first ring and knew who it was. The lawyer explained in a rush, tripping over his words. The farmer cleared his throat.

“I knew it. When a chicken gets the taste of its own blood in its mouth there's nothing to be done. It gets the taste for it and the taste never goes away. All those birds are good for is eating. At least they're young, they'll be tender.”

The lawyer and his wife sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee. The wife suggested they take the birds to her mother, who could wring their necks. The lawyer started and knocked over his chair. If anyone would be killing the chickens it would be him. He had bought them, he declared, so he was going to knock them off. It didn't matter that he had never wrung a chicken's neck before, or watched it done. How difficult could it be? He wasn't an idiot.

Imperiously he marched to the henhouse, followed by his young son, wheezing with laughter, and his weeping young daughter; the dog slept by the woodpile, and the wife lingered by the telephone, ready to call her mother. The chickens stared with their round chicken eyes, twitching their heads. The lawyer bit his lip and thought for a moment. He rolled up his sleeves and slid off his tie, draping it over the unfinished henhouse roof. He slipped on a pair of garden gloves. Then with his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth he grabbed the first one around the head and held it in the air. With his left hand, not entirely steady, he held the body with his thumb pressing into the chest, and he fastened his right hand over the bird's neck. It twitched and squawked once. Then with one tremendously exaggerated pull, far too strong, he twisted and yanked with his right hand. The bird screamed: all he had done was pull all the feathers from the bird's head. A cloud of dirty white feathers floated toward the ground as the bird, now entirely bald, screeched horribly. The dog woke up and began to howl, the wind whipped the olive trees and cut furrows in the fields, and the little boy laughed and laughed.

Postscriptum:  I have been told that this story's scientific accuracy is dubious.  I countered, and counter, that this is in fact a true story, related to me by one who saw it happen, and that whoever wants scientific accuracy can find it easily enough in a scientific paper.

A Message from Letters From Caliban

Dear readers,

The output has been a little less than prodigous these last few weeks.  Allow me to explain.

Before I started this blog I kept much of my writing on my computer.  Computers, as you know, can be temperamental -- especially mine.  Out of what I imagine must have been pure spite, my laptop some how did away with dozens of my documents a few weeks ago.  (An IT guy can probably help, but that would mean a lot of work that I'd rather not do.  The lazy will inherit the earth.) 

Among those documents were two or three short stories and several finished poems.  Luckily, I had printed copies or rough drafts of most of them; the task of late has been to dig them out of file drawers and backpacks, transpose them onto the computer, and tidy them up so as to be presentable.  Don't worry, you'll see them soon.

So this week, if I can offer you nothing else, at least let me give you an idea of what the editors here at Letters from Caliban are reading.  The mood here has been decidedly modernist:  Ulysses (at the point where Bloom encounters the Citizen-Cyclops); the Cantos (having left the thirteen hundreds, Jefferson and Adams are writing each other about money and freedom); Isak Dinesen's Winter Tales; and a little bit of Baudelaire.  And also Tad Szulc's Chopin in Paris.

I admire Pound, but I don't see much that I can borrow (read: steal) from the Cantos for my own poetry.  That's not to say I haven't learned from him.  My poem "7 September" is based in part on Pound's explanation of Chinese characters in the beginning of ABC of Reading.  But those choppy, heel-pounding Poundian rhythms (pound Pound pound), such as you see later in Gary Snyder and some of Robert Lowell, are not a key that I can sing in. 

As far as Joyce goes, I have found in Ulysses a voice from heaven, a complex of word and feeling and thought and image sublime in its dimensions.  Only once have I ever read anything like it, and that was the Divina Commedia.  Faust comes close, but is too fragmented in its form and its music, not nearly as perfectly controlled a vision as Dante's or Joyce's. 

In practical terms, I have the most to learn from Dinesen.  At first I didn't like Dinesen.  She struck me as too artificial, overwraught.  But I've read more craefully this time around.  What primal power!  She is a teller of tales, the voice of all the legends of childhood - the Arabian Nights, Robin Hood, the stories from Homer and Ovid and the Eddas.  More importantly she is a surgeon and a craftsman of the highest grade.  She presents a story; but she has already dug deep into the weird, murky, eternally dark cavity of the story and found its mad beating dreamheart.  Having seen this strange subterranean soul, she returns to the surface story and dresses it with such elegance that the reader has no conscious idea of its primal force.  But she does.  That's the sly smile that characterizes Dinesen.  It's not the postmodern wink that promises emptiness beneath the gilding.  It's the opposite.  The gilding is unimportant.  There is a heart in the story, buried but beating. 

My dear readers and friends, don't hesitate to comment or ask questions.  And expect more stuff, soon.


To ride; to string a bow; to tell the truth