Paesaggio trascrive in polvere il fantasma del tempo
Tratto manomesso; friabile, reticolo evidente.
Maledizione di Jahweh, o di Minerva fatidico dono
Nudo frutto d’Eden, nel lavoro ridefinito.
Asse cartesiana della mente ben ordita
Contro il caos verdeggiante; la ruota della ragione.
EGO SUM dell’uomo tirato in campo ardente
Morbida, intransigente linea infinita.
Cosa abbiamo perso in questo mondo ben composto,
Arato dalla nostra razza divisa e consapevole?
Beatitudine incolta, dura, senza nome;
Primo bacio selvaggio tra Adamo ed Eva d’ossa fine;
Frusciante betulla sbiancata, mai scritta;
Panno primale della lingua, tessuto ma ancora spiegato.
***** ***** *****
SONNET ON DESCARTES’ VINEYARD
Landscape writes out in dust the ghost of time
Well-fingered tract; friable, forceful grid.
Yahweh’s curse or Minerva’s fateful gift
Naked fruit of Eden, in labour, redefined.
Cartesian axle of the ordered mind
Brought against verdant chaos, reason’s wheel.
Man’s own I AM scratched out in burning field
Soft, intransigent infinity of line.
What have we lost in this well-structured world
Ploughed out by our sentient, divided kind?
A hard, unnamed, uncultivated bliss;
Adam and fine-boned Eve’s first savage kiss;
Clattering, chalky aspen undescribed;
Primal cloth of language, woven, yet unfurled.
Click on the player below to listen to the podcast:
Per ascoltare allo podcast in italiano, premete qui sotto:
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.
I wish I had the patient will to unwind the miles
of iron spider’s thread that binds my love of you,
to my best-favoured pound of flesh.
I had a dream the morning before I left:
we touched each other so slowly that
a millennium might have passed
before my palm traversed
the radiant tenderness of your back.
You spoke to me in single words that expanded
downward like saturated leaves through still water
towards which I swam against
the natural buoyancy of awakenedness
that is unforgivingly attracted by dilating light
and found myself standing
in the wet grass of my friends’ back garden
smoking my third Gauloises.
I see a single strand of spider’s silk
resinous with dew;
Out of some odd, perhaps misplaced respect
for its unbroken beauty
and its slender strength.
I press four fingers against its sticky, resilient length;
I make it bend,
but do not make it break.
copyright 2011 bonnie mcclellan all rights reserved
In May of 2007 our family moved to the town of Torano in Italy. Torano is a quarry town, the last one between Carrara and some of the oldest marble quarries in Italy. There were two bars, a bakery, and a small convenience store that sold milk, butter, and a few dusty bottles of wine. It was a town that was, for the most part, empty of all but retired people. A few younger couples lived down near the bus stop. The top of the hill was reserved for houses scrupulously tended by stoop-shouldered women and gardens planted and puttered over by silver-haired men.
For the first two months I was recovering from the birth of our daughter and so stayed in the house except for a few brief walks. Later I would push the baby in her stroller to make the loop of the town on the one road that circled through it. At the top of the hill on the sunniest spot there was a bench across from some houses where I would stop and look down the hill at our town and the others below. It was here that I first met Carlito. He was carrying a bag of leaves down from his garden to the dumpster by the side of the road and stopped on the way back to get a look at little Robin. Italians are crazy for babies and Tuscan people are in some sense the quintessential Italians, falling right between the extreme hospitality of people in the south and the blinkered, work-horse mentality of the north.
When I was talking to Carlito I was looking into the sun and noticed only that he had a deeply lined face and spoke haltingly…a Da Vinci drawing of a slightly grizzled old man. Several walks later I noticed that while others asked new questions, he always asked the same ones: “Is it a girl baby or a boy baby?”, “What’s her name?”, “You live in Torano?” After this brief exchange I would head of down the hill to the sound of the 4:30 p.m. detonation of explosives rumbling down from the quarries as regular as the church bells ringing vespers.
The fourth time I saw Carlito, Matthew was with me as we took the baby for her afternoon stroll. Matthew’s Italian is fluent and so he asked Carlito if he had worked in the quarries. Carlito told the story of how he got the dent in his head in a quarry accident when he was 25. Now I saw it, the concavity of the left side of his scull…I suppose that 40 years ago in a provincial Italian hospital there wouldn’t have been much they could do. There may not be much more that they can do now. How do doctors treat accidents that happen between men and 8 ton blocks of stone that make giant drag lines and front-end loaders look like bright yellow Tonka trucks?
Later, Matthew pointed out to me how dented and battered the men of the town were. One missing a leg, several limping, many wearing thick, smoke-tinted glasses to save their eyes damaged from squinting at the brilliant white stone for years on end…and above the town the quarries were stunning, beautiful. At sunset the flat white faces changed colours like a magic mirror: silver, blazing orange, downy pink as a baby’s cheek. Down from these mountains had come the marble from which some of the most famous monuments in Italy were made; The Colosseum, Michelangelo’s David. Now it goes to make, the tourist-trinket sculpture sold down in Carrara, floor tiles, and pedestal sinks; the gravel paves roads, the dust goes into toothpaste. What remains the same? Quarry men have been taking take their bite of the mountain for the last 3000 years; and the mountain…
To Carlito di Torano
‘Lizzatura’, impossibility of scale.
The slipping of the lizard ton, slow heave:
Skittering run of started stones, pale
As the knuckles above a dust-rimed sleeve.
What chemic system drives the reptilian mind
Of these men, of you, to scatter with wet
And laboured breath the dandelion seed
Of your life across this osteal range
Of unrelenting, unrepentant, white?
White, heavy enough to burn you blind;
Grind bone and work-hard skin to paste and lard.
As Atlas’ report rambles down the quarry hour;
You turn your head towards the hard, square place
That men dented, limping leave
At twenty-five to tend their flowers.
To see the poem published in the “Blood Orange Review” click HERE.
Who knows how the helix wound,yours and mine together bound;to make the round globe of my eye insocketed belowthe straight line of your brow.And so this pale pink and golden flower of a girlflings her narrow arm, in sleep, across my breast:A peach.A wing.How came we, so patently imperfect,to make this perfect thing?
Saturday, April 21, 2007 for Robin Kay Broussard
by Bonnie McClellan
On the 15th of April 2007, I woke up at six a.m. I was, at the time, 8 months pregnant with my first (and so far only) child. Even lying very still on my side I could feel a trickle of water on the inside of my leg along with an achy squeezing sensation across the lower half of my stretched, egg-shaped belly. I thought, “Okay, this must be it.” She was a month early and also small for her gestational age but my daughter was about to be born.
We live in Italy and at that time were staying in an apartment in the basement of an old mill in a valley outside of Florence. Picturesque and romantic, a wood stove for heat and a camp stove for cooking; cold running water and our friends Sandro and Adele upstairs with a working bath. I spent my mornings lumbering along the paths near the stream gathering kindling or sitting next to the stove reading. We had already rented a new apartment in Carrara and had made appointments at the hospital there to go in and get the final tests and find out what we needed to know about what to do for the birth. I remember when we visited the hospital there, as I stood outside the maternity ward, I heard a woman in labour screaming and thought, “Can it really be that bad? Maybe she didn’t prepare well? I certainly won’t be that hysterical.”
Now all of those plans and appointments were off. Matthew helped me out to the car and we started the bumpy ride up the stone paved road that led out of the valley. About half way to the nearest hospital the contractions were five minutes apart and for every other one we had to stop so that I could open the car door and throw up…it was about then that I started wondering how many more hours of this I had to go. I was excited, we would finally see her! I was worried, why was she coming early, was there something wrong? I don’t remember if I was scared.
The one comforting thought was that it would end, I tried the slow breathing, tried imagining the contraction as a squeezing wave and tried relaxing into it. All of that worked, well, sort of worked on the alternate contractions when I wasn’t having the uncontrollable, stomach-emptying, nausea. Still, there was the space in between to gather my wits and try to get my brain around the idea that the baby was finally coming.
It took us twenty minutes to reach the emergency room at Ospedale S, Maria Annunziata at Ponte a Niccari just outside of Florence. In a very brief time I had a bed in a room with about a dozen other women, some in labour, some there for tests, some there because they had a scheduled birth. They may have done a sonogram, they may have done a quick cervical check…I don’t remember. I will say now that despite having read descriptions of labour, listened to friends describe their childbirth experience, and seen preparatory films, none of it truly prepared me for the experience. I suppose that would be impossible, each labour and birth is as unique as the child that comes forth from it and the woman who experiences it.
It is true that I don’t remember the pain, per se. I remember it like I might remember a photograph, in describing it, it’s as if I were watching an almost silent film of myself. I remember more than any other sound, the sound of the monitor that kept track of the baby’s heartbeat. I remember Matthew asking the nurses and obstetricians questions, or at least I remember the sound of his voice. I remember hearing sounds come out of my mouth, and not really caring what they were, being surprised to hear myself saying in Italian, “Dio Santo, aiutami.” But mostly the beeping of the monitor and the red numbers that went up and down.
So the labour continued…contractions closer together and they decided to move me to the birthing room, which was cool with low lighting. Our girl was very small so I had thought she would come quickly but instead she kept starting out and going back in again. The obstetrician checked and indicated it would be soon but then no. The baby was turning and so they were moving the monitor around to find her heartbeat and then the surgeon came in. I didn’t understand what he was saying but I saw Matthew’s face blanch and knew. I said, “They want to cut her out don’t they?”
A cesarean section was the very last thing that I had wanted. I had made a list of things to tell the hospital staff when we had planned to have the birth in Massa, #1. No Cesarean unless absolutely necessary! So here we were. Matthew asked him if it was absolutely necessary and the surgeon said yes, the baby was small and her heart rate was going from 40 to 200 she might not have the strength to do that much longer. I could tell that the obstetricians didn’t agree with the surgeon, they were saying things I didn’t understand completely with clouded expressions. Now I was scared.
They wouldn’t let Matthew come with me into the operating room, they took my glasses off so that all things except the anaesthesiologist’s hands were blurry. The obstetrician leaned my head against her shoulder, and put her arms under mine to help me hold still. Nothing like being told to relax and not move so that they can put a needle in your spine while having a pushing contraction! After that they laid me back down and within a few minutes, no more contractions, no pain, nothing. I was so frightened and tense that I was shaking uncontrollably, could not hold the top half of my body still, could only unclench my teeth with great difficulty and I felt terribly cold. The anaesthesiologist was a gem, he spoke some English, was careful to ask for my name and say it correctly, he held my hand and explained the one of the reasons I was shaking so hard was an effect of the anesthesia. He asked me about what I did. When I told him I was a poet he teased the surgeon into reciting some Wordsworth. He explained everything that was happening on the other side of the drape where i could vaguely feel some pulling. And then I heard her…she was out, she could breathe, she was safe. That sense of relief and joy was as profound as any I’ve ever known. Matthew said that standing outside the door of the operating room he heard her and cried and checked the time, 3:39 pm.
The staff in the operating room kept saying, “Look, you have a beautiful daughter!” I kept trying to explain in my inadequate Italian that without my glasses she was a small fuzzy blotch in the midst of a sea of blue scrubs. Finally they brought her over to me. I was still flat on my back and unable to move so I saw her upside down little face. I wanted terribly to hold her but was afraid to touch her with hands still shaking so uncontrollably. I touched her only lightly, she took her tiny hand and put it in my mouth. She weighed just under 4 lbs. so they took her immediately up to the neonatal unit to stay in the incubator, stopping to let Matthew see her for the first time.
It was 24 hours before I could see her again, between her need to be monitored and my inability to get out of bed I had to wait. Matthew went up and down between floors and told me how she was doing and what she looked like. The next day I went up in a wheelchair to see her (right side up for the first time). And, I imagine, like most new mothers, I thought she was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen.