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QUINTESSENCE

The Bread And The Knife

LITANY
You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.

-Billy Collins

This poem describes for me the difficulty and largesse of expressing any part of the beauty and strangeness of my recent sojourn throughout Umbria and Tuscany. My mind is full of imagery - the vermillion and azure of old paints, faded tapestries, and the many textures of stone. How do I describe the oblique translucence of light glancing off marble, the brick of Tuscany? Why the color Siena exists? North of the battered, worn and rounded, once rugged seven hills of Rome, are even more undulating hills. Steep cliffs; and rugged hollows of trees not yet leafed in March although limned in twining ivy. Glacial streams tumble down pebbled washes from the Apennine Mountains.

Everything about Italy is rich with human presence. From crumbling hilltop castle towers to fallow vineyards. The story of mankind plays out like paused chess games throughout hushed galleries. Etruscan graveyards, the battles of Goths and Romans, Hannibal at the Arno. Pagans and Christians, temples and duomos. The ghosts of a great empire cast a shadow across all that is Italy today.

Some impressions:
The racket of the cities. Motorbikes and careening cars contrast with the utter quiet of the countryside. Deep in narrow alleys the unexpected pocket of sun. A fountain in a roundabout. A square of open air tavernas, noisy with soccer fans.

The light, anywhere in Italy. Clear, warm, piercing; yet capable of melodrama, mystery, an interior color.

The variegations of marble, sandstone, limestone, and clay. The way a thousand-year-old marble parquet floor possesses a dull patina, scuffed from the hundreds of thousands of shoe soles that have crossed its surface.

Appreciation of the ideal: in particular the human form. The frank sexuality of the nude. The extraordinary curated collections. The power of the clergy in which they reside.

The art of symbolic storytelling expressed by a scene in paint. Before the book, before the photograph, before the film, we absorbed myth and history through painters and weavers and carvers of stone.

The importance of wealth to the existence of art, and to the development of science. Of patronage and philanthropy. Art as a luxury. Advancements in science driven by upper-class curiosity. The artist as both genius and bridge builder.

That art mattered so much to citizens it was often walled up in homes to hide it from invading forces.

The cross-fertilization and seeding of cultures through conquest and assimilation.

The difference in the way an Italian tomato tastes. The indigenous virtue of a Brunello, and the goodness of Italian cuisine, without pretense or artifice.

The way Italians eat together. Conversation, sharing, laughter, and debate - lingering at the table long after the meal is done.

Old ruins left exposed to erosion (and human appreciation) in the shadow of modern office buildings. The ancient and the modern in unending dialogue.

The severity of religion, and the counter-rise of the cult of the merciful. The gains and losses in cultural advancement within the ebb and tide of religion's influence across nations.

The idea of an ancient architect - using a sharp, pointed instrument - calculating measurements and designs on a stone "map" for a planned Temple to Jupiter. The fact that stone map survived the millennia.

The way Italians feel English is a polite language, but one should fight in Italian. That having a Prime Minister convicted of running a prostitution ring and graft is terrible, but not so much so that one would organize and act to change it.

That one's primary school compatriots will still live in the same village as their grandparents when they themselves become grandparents.

Why the northerners disdain the southerners. Why southerners immigrate more than northerners and recreate new Italy's wherever they go.

That all Italians believe that if you are to do a thing well, then it should appear magnificent in accordance with its excellence. Mussolini struck at the heart of Italian pride and morality dismantling of the beauty of Italy. Fashion is as much in the tradition of Michelangelo as The Vatican is the symbol of modern Christian Rome.

Italians love color. And flavor, fur and jewels, and fast cars. They adore and protect small children, gather for family meals, and love the cinema.

I rest with this last observation: Italy is a broad palette of human desires and passion. A cultural and historical record. A human point in time of all time that expresses an unparalleled creative genius, the fierce imperial, and the omnipotence of the political church. The footsteps of western humanity cross the threshold of Rome.

You might try the thin-crust pizza.

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Emerge On The Page

Swan on Lake Luzern, Switzerland
It requires faith in the process. The imagination has its own coherence. Our first draft will lead us. There's always time for thinking and shaping and restructuring later, after we've allowed something previously hidden to emerge on the page.
- Dani Shapiro, "Still Writing"

FATHER'S OLD BLUE CARDIGAN

Now it hangs on the back of the kitchen chair
where I always sit, as it did
on the back of the kitchen chair where he always sat.

I put it on whenever I come in,
as he did, stamping
the snow from his boots.

I put it on and sit in the dark.
He would not have done this.
Coldness comes paring down from the monotone in the sky.

His laws were a secret.
But I remember the moment at which I knew
he was going mad inside his laws.

He was standing at the turn of the driveway when I arrived.
He had on the blue cardigan with the buttons done all the way up to the top.
Not only because it was a hot July afternoon

but the look on his face--
as a small child who has been dressed by some aunt early in the morning
for a long trip

on cold trains and windy platforms
will sit very straight at the edge of his seat
while the shadows like long fingers

over the haystacks that sweep past
keep shocking him
because he is riding backwards.

- Anne Carson, from "Men In The Off Hours"

I chose these two things to share on the blog today because one quote is about the process of bringing our thoughts to the page - of trusting in the machinery of reflection and distillation - and the other a poem reflecting on the loss of the familiar from our thoughts.

Carson's poem is a beautiful example of the kind of poetry I feel lies within all of us. A cherished memory - Carson's father wearing his familiar blue cardigan - becomes a poem mourning abandonment by memory. Carson's observations open inward as if they were nesting dolls: the poem's primary theme of beloved familiarity is nested within yet another, more subtle theme of human connection. The poem begins with a simple blue cardigan, but as Carson lifts the layers of complexity in the memory she has of her father and this sweater, she reveals that within the beloved comfort of the personal keepsake is the memory of her father losing his memory. And in the process, the ties to his daughter.

Writing depends, as Dani Shapiro observes, on the pliable plasticity of memory. The ways we move within time as it exists in our minds to weave a narrative, a history. What is a line of poetry or a sentence of story but the distillation of the many "then and nows" of awareness ? When we describe an experience, examine something we have learned, we engage in a focused effort to scrap away reaction to reveal insight. We have faith our mental archive, our memory, holds the thread intact of all that was and is. When the thread begins to fray, or inexplicably breaks, we exist removed from our own narratives, lost and startled by all we do not recognize. "Riding backwards," as Carson describes her father. The shadows of time flying past us in the opposite direction.

I invite you to think of a "blue cardigan" in your life... an object that represents an embedded relationship or relationship of memories important to you. Create a mental picture, a poem, or perhaps a paragraph of memories connected to that object. What you feel is more than a memory. It is you.

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