One year when the awakened plane trees
find themselves struck yellow in the night,
there will be nothing left of me but
a memory in your hands as they pull
wet laundry from the spun drum or
open the window’s case –
inviting October’s last, warm breath
to communicate the dust
between one room
I am blue in the face
sky’s edge, distant,
cracks and curls.
Ozone’s filthy fingers
ruck parched dusk.
water and vinegar
think of Christ
“E’-li, E’-li, la’-ma sa-bach’-tha-ni?”
amber thick, sour smell
slaps against our Savior’s sense.
Now he’s off –
Hard business for him to harrow hell;
Hard business for me,
just sitting still.
Venerdi Santo, Cristo morirà ancora come ha fatto ogni anno poichè Dio sa quando.*
They held a New Orleans Funeral for Jesus:
Woodwinds, brass and the big bass drum.
After awhile the rain began to come;
Parishioners popped up their umbrellas,
Madonna was sacked to protect the stars
Spangling perfect electrified hair that
Should have been disheveled in grief.
Christ: unable to awaken, trapped in an opiate nightmare,
Pallid, couch-ridden, sick with flowers,
Widow-borne through the streets on a lacy bier.
Mary: politely dolorosa, her face more composed than that
Of the old mother dressed in black
Hanging out of the window to watch Her pass,
Baptizing the parading crowd with tears
Thrown out like old wash water.
What is left clean and what is soiled?
The sorrow of sin shifts from house to street
To be tracked back in on the slack-shod feet
Of grandchildren, dogs and beggared questions,
Salved in the last moment with words and oil:
quidquid deliquisti / in all that you have failed.
*Good Friday, Christ will die again As he’s done every year Since God knows when.
ATTENTION: This is not truly a story about a toddlers encounter with real farm animals or about expatriate Americans having an “Under the Tuscan Sun” experience. It is a story that extends forward and backward from the vanishing point of a life, the life of a baby goat. This is also not a story about how terrible it is to kill and eat animals: in this place, butchering a goat for Easter is like picking an orange, an ordinary part of life. These shepherds are kind to and value their animals for what they are – their livelihood. If you are squeamish about the idea of a goat being butchered, stop reading when you get to the picture of the heard of goats.
It has taken me four years to finish this story. The memory so visceral and the series of sensations so complex that it has resisted my every effort to make it into a comprehensible story or a poem as I have those things from Serra San Bruno or from inside the city walls. This is a liminal place, on the border between the named place – the city – and the lush density of the landscape as it thickens in a following line towards the sea.
A rooster crows, where is the sound coming from? Robin wants to find it. We wander and talk, Matthew’s work day will start soon, we put our feet on the path to go up, to say thank you and goodbye. The three men stand on the side porch. Peppe holds his hand up in warning, his whole body says don’t let the child see: Gianni has brought the stranger to buy a kid, they are slaughtering it, for Easter.
Peppe is an able butcher and there is not even a bleat. I turn with my child on my hip, my arm between her gaze and the house; I point out to her something on the opposite horizon. I look down and the whey in the gully is mixing with blood. Who would have thought such a tiny thing held so much? When do you explain this to a child…with our language that so neatly separates the words used for meat and those used for animals? We walk, gesturing and talking always pointing Robin’s attention away from the trussed and headless goat on the porch. I look back. It’s skin now hangs down in a tidy rope from the pallid, marbling of meat, veiled with the translucent tissue that keeps it all compact – lubricating the movement between skin and muscle – meat that is still anchored to hoof, hoof that is still tied to a rope slung over the porch’s lintel beam.
They’re hosing down the concrete in front, the dog that had been drinking a bucket of whey pokes his white muzzle down into the gully to lap at the water tinged with milk and blood. Walking back to my van I see the coursing streamlet of whey and blood as it mixes with the almost motionless trickle of shit and urine running under the passenger-side front tire. It flows across the dirt road and into a hillside so full of green that it looks like Eden – will the ground soak it all up, all of this nitrogen and potassium, everything good for making verdant things stronger?
I am nauseous, not simply from the death – all of my senses are too full: baby goats like ballet dancers, the thick scent of manure, the widening red streamlet coursing cheerfully through the green hillside and the little bucket of creamy cheese in my hand. The ancientness of the act dizzyingly dissonant with the shininess of the cars, the space-age plastic of my shoes. I look up.
The sick dog lies on a warm patch of grass. The healthy dog that is tied up ignores his tithe: a fluorescent red round of bone taken from the freshly slaughtered goat that still hangs from the lintel.
A consecutive flow of fluids convene into a single flow: whey/blood/water from the place of men – water/urine/feces from where men keep the animals. In the flow that reaches the bottom of the path in this moment, the color of blood predominates.
Behind the ovile rises the hillside full of breccia – the eroded face of rock worn away by the river far below, flowing towards the Ionian sea. This moment collapses inward and dilates outward: a vanishing point.
From the house there is now a flow of clear water, washing everything clean.
If you haven’t read “The Ovile of Memo and Pepe: Part One” (click here).
Inside, the room was clean and sparse. A bucket of water just inside the door held the meter-and-a-half-long wooden stick with which they stirred the cheese. The cheese was boiling in a black iron cauldron, with a mouth a meter wide, that hung over a wood fire burning so hot and clean that I do not recall even a breath of smoke in the tiny room. Some sausages hung from the rafters; on a table catty-corner from the fire a wood plank table held up two bottles of wine and several packs of cigarettes. In the far corner, opposite the fire, Mimmo and Peppe were busy at a shallow-sided, waist-high stone sink, squeezing whey from the cheese through plastic sieves. They looked up from their work, smiling, verbally poking at Matthew for having taken so long to bring his family down to the ovile, saying hello to me and saving all of the best sweet talk for Robin.
Now I’m going to cheat, this is a blog and not a novel so I can show you a picture of Mimmo and Peppe that I’ve posted above and ask you to look at their hands. They are amazing hands, impressively large and smooth, these hands make almost anything they hold look small. I’m also going to break another writer’s rule and slip into something more comfortable, the present tense:
They offer us some curds of the cheese they’re cooking; it tastes like fresh farmers cheese, bright and dry. Mimmo explains that this is the first cooking and that they will cook it again, making it into creamy, rich ricotta (literally: re-cotta/re-cooked). In the meantime they are busily pressing and compressing the cheese, the whey runs down the slanted work surface and into the drain feeding the rivulet of whey specked with curd that we encountered on the way in. Matthew pops another bit of crumbly bright cheese in my mouth and I understand why the dog outside is so happy to lap up the remnants.
Robin is squirming and agitated by the fire, the dark room and the two robust men with hands bigger than her head. She says alternately, “want to go OUTside.” and “want to see BABY goats!” She wants nothing to do with the fresh cheese. She’s squiggled down out of my arms and hoisted up onto her papa’s shoulders. Matthew asks for permission to go through the door next to where Mimmo and Peppe are working; this is the door that leads to the enclosed concrete part of the ovile where all the goats, too young to go out to pasture, are kept.
Ducking through the door we see goats of all ages from ones that look grown to ones that are barely standing, only 24 hours old. Amongst the goats is a lone lamb with his tight white wool looking tidy in comparison to the splendor of speckles, spots and stripes that embellish the surrounding swirl of goats. Their legs and bellies thick with damp feces, the baby goats are still enchanting. Robin shimmies down from her father’s shoulders and her sneakers smack on the wet cement. The baby goats resist her attempts to pat them by dancing away on their delicate hooves in a wave, like startled ballerinas on point. We explain that they’re nervous, that she needs to walk slowly so she can get a little closer. She won’t get her hands on one this time but she’s happily talking to and about them, informing the world in general about which ones are what colors, and which ones are sleeping, or jumping. Then, like any toddler, her attention span is used up and she wants to go.
We come back into the cheese making room where Mimmo and Peppe have started the second cooking. Our shoes, everyone’s shoes, are slimed with goat shit so I am relieved to see that Mimmo meticulously rinses his hands and keeps the cheese stirring stick always up or resting in the bucket of clean water. Robin cannot be tempted to try the cheese and now wants to go outside, see pigs, see pretty, sad puppy. As we walk back down the path towards the pig pens Mimmo and Peppe’s brother, Gianni, is coming up the path with another man, he sees Robin and scoops her up on to his hip, like a veteran papa, and chucks her startled cheek with his broad knuckle and tells her what a lovely girl she is.
Robin balks at being picked up by Gianni but she doesn’t cry she just wriggles and chants her latest mantra, “mama gon pick you up!” Gianni gets the message and puts her down. He, the stranger and Matthew all walk back up to the cheese room and Matthew returns with a small, plastic basket full of hot and creamy fresh ricotta. He spoons bites into my mouth at happy intervals as we walk up and back down the path. Robin is balanced on my hip and we alternately shoot the breeze and point out things to her, rocks in the cliff face, flowers by the side of the road. The ricotta is magnificent.
In the spaces between the rains the sky runs and falls; gathers itself and plunges again towards the sea. Cumulonimbus titans strike their shins on the horizon line as they stumble through the Mediterranean, dead drunk and anxious to reach Ithaca. This is a place where mothers still name their sons Ulysses.
The houses are like barnacles on a rock; roof tiles buried in lichen and slathered with concrete where they meet at the crown in an uneasy sea-sick ridge. Below the rust-eaten white iron boundary of the balcony-rail I can see two flaps of a prickly pear struggling out from between two heavy arcs of terracotta.
The edge of the sky at dawn over the water is like Montale’s description, a singing strip of metal lath, a kite string straining against the rebounding vault of blue. His was the western sea, the Ligurian coast, a sunset light. Here the Ionian dawn makes eastern music…Jove’s mute mistress writes her name in the sand with a round hoof…IO.
Despite lying just above the Ionian Sea, named for Jove’s mythic mistress transformed into a cow, Caulonia Superiore is a place of goats. The goats, along with a few sheep, are kept in enclosures called ‘ovile’ just outside the town walls. There should be a better English translation for the Italian word, “ovile” (oh-VEE-layh) but there is not. “Fold” is inadequate, it’s too short in sound and too broad in meaning. “Goat fold” although accurate, is just plain ugly, clanking off the tongue like a broken carburetor. I mention this translation difficulty because I am about to tell the story of “The Ovile of Mimmo and Pepe” and I don’t want to leave readers scratching their heads as to what an “OH-vile” is until they reach the third paragraph. And so we begin…
THE STORY OF THE OVILE OF MIMMO AND PEPPE
This morning Matthew, Robin and I woke up early to go and visit the ovile of Mimmo and Peppe so that Robin could see the baby goats and we could all have a breakfast of fresh ricotta. The three of us piled into my big blue van and Matthew managed to squeeze, nudge, and coerce it through the slender streets of Caulonia Superiore until we found ourselves on the dirt road that meandered below the vaulting walls that are still (just barely) sustaining Piazza della Carmine above. Matthew parked the van atilt on the shoulder of the road, leaving room for another car to pass, maybe.
The ovile was what you would expect: a big fenced in plot of land for the grown sheep and goats in which every hint of something green had been eaten. Three rambunctious, gangly white puppies tumbled over one another, and a minor river of water, goat shit and urine ran across the road and under the front tires of my van. Adjacent to the large open pen was a roofed enclosure where the baby animals were kept separate and which was abutted by a cinder block shed where Peppe and Mimmo were working making the cheese.
As we walked up the path towards the porch that fronted the shed we passed by a fluffy white dog whose eyes were badly infected, the skin all around them pitted and inflamed. Robin wanted to pet it until she got a little closer and her good will towards animals banged flat up against something sad and ugly. She solved the struggle by resorting to reassuring herself with words, “Bobbie give sad puppy hug, now she happy puppy!” She looked obliquely at the dog while hugging her own round, pink arms. I found my self wondering when we should start teaching her to look at the ugly things straight on and with compassion instead of looking at the ground and calling them beautiful; then I remembered that I was still working on that one myself and our daughter was not yet two years old. Today would not be the day.
We passed by a small fenced in garden with olive and lemon trees. Across from this were a series of low-walled concrete pens one of which housed two large, pink pigs. Matthew held his hand down to their wiggly snouts saying, “See, it’s a pig. He has a wiggly nose.” Robin edged nervously against my leg saying, “Mama gonna pick you up. Don’t want pigs.” For the first time she was seeing the real animals and they were not wearing plaid shirts and blue jeans like the small, shiny, cartoon pigs in her picture book. They were twice as big as she, I would have been nervous too. I lifted her up. “Lets go see Mimmo and Peppe and the BABY goats,” I said.
As we neared the shed we saw another white dog, this one young and healthy, tied up near a large tree. He was lapping up the water and whey and bits of curd that came from a tube functioning as a drain that led from the cheese making shed out the door and on to the concrete sluice that angled down from the porch. As we reached the open door to the shed Matthew said the obligatory “con permesso” as we walked in.
Slip-stitch ribbing knit in the round with hand spun yarn.
So, I have begun the sweater I was thinking about when I wrote Norwegian Wool and the Magic Sweater 10 days ago, and my spinning has stabilized since I wrote Spinning Out (of Control) a week ago. My output of spun yarn has doubled to two-hundred yards this week and I have a good 7″ knitted. I’m in luck with this sweater both because my husband (who requested it) is slender – so I only have 36″ of ‘tube’ to knit for the body – and because I decided to knit it on U.S. #10 (6mm) needles! After working on my standard U.S. #2 (2.75mm) needles to make socks this sweater seems to be knitting up so quickly that I could finish it before the long Lombard winter actually ends.
I have learned two new techniques on this sweater. The first is the slip-stitch rib knit. I’ve found that it’s the perfect stitch to forgive the uneven quality of my different skeins of ‘beginner’s’ hand-spun yarn, the slipped stitches add density where the yarn is thin and at the same time allow enough openness to keep the thick spots from looking bulky…nice. If you don’t know this stitch, it’s easy and both the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sides look cool:
Row 1: K1, P1 rib until you reach the marker at the beginning of your round
Row 2: *S1 (purl-wise with yarn in back), P1* repeat these two stitches until you reach the marker
Repeat rows 1 and 2 for as long as you’d like.
The second technique is grafting. My wonderful (and insanely talented) mother, Sara, sent me this link for yarn grafting that I have adapted for my wool. Considering that both my spindle and the Andean plying that I’m doing, limits me to a maximum skein length of 50 yards, without grafting I’d have a whole lot of little ends to be worked back into the fabric. Grafting two or more skeins together has allowed me to make up much larger balls and just keep knitting. Once again, the very forgiving stitch hides the grafts well. Thanks Mom!
Unable to traverse the swallow’s path
Or tread roof tiles as the agile cat,
upon his brothers’ labouring backs
A polychrome Christ will make a rough pilgrimage of His own;
Pillar bound, to that church above from this one below.
Square-shouldered, tow-haired nine-year old will run and clap
His acolyte’s bell laughingly at black curls that lap
The tender nape of his fellow impenitent in Mary’s blue.
And so this honour guard will hew
four hundred years of progress’ path
Pelligrinago from first to last,
Across the stuck in stones.
AT 5:30 THIS AFTERNOON
Piazza della carmine is desirous of tumbling towards the sea.
Boys gyre round parked cars in this town the Greeks begot.
A truck full of music winds lamenting through the streets;
Calling forth ancient Eves to buy their compassionate widow’s tot
Of what, to Adam’s sweaty brow, this fallen earth bequeaths.
poem and photo copyright Bonnie McClellan 2011 all rights reserved
This poem is the third in a suite of poems written about 24 hours in Caulonia Superiore.