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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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