Off the main sequence
Italy lead the western world three times: once as conqueror, then as teacher, and finally as chef. Using an astronomical analogy, the Roman Empire shone like the brightest star in the sky, then it faded until Italy blazed forth again in the renaissance and although it soon faded again, the residues of this period have continued to fascinate. Somewhere among them may be discerned the origin of Italy’s culinary dominance, exemplified by the pizza, which has truly conquered the world and is expected, by many, to last for the remainder of human civilisation.
The mechanisms that enable cultures to flourish and decay are not well understood. Egalitarians might believe that every country has its share of Leonardos, Michelangelos, Galileos and Palestrinas, but that they only shine out in exceptional circumstances of prosperity and semi-
Some argue that genius is fertilised by the labour of the poor and the leisure of the rich, and that indeed their fruits are purchased by exploitation of the under-
The Cinque Terre, on the Ligurian coast between Levanto in the north and Porte Venera in the south is the collective name for five small seaport villages. Here the mountains reach down to the sea and the terrain is steep, rocky and unforgiving. The conditions of life that pertained there have been encapsulated in its most famous product, the sweet golden desert wine sciacchetrà, made from grapes that have been left late on the vine and further dried after harvesting to concentrate the juice. In consequence, yields are low and the wine extremely expensive. Access the the Cinque terre villages by road is difficult and not encouraged, but they are linked by the one of the great engineering feats, the coastal railway which provides one of the walker’s delights, the one-
Right or left?
We don't know
and other questions
Hold the lens
against the porthole
when the plane banks
we might catch
the mystery that now concerns us.
Why this strange place
here against the mountain fastness?
Why this smooth part
where the hills start?
sunbaked vine slopes,
What has caused this wild excitement,
made the heart beat
and the mind race?
Words that baffle, startle, order:
"Take no pictures
in this airspace!"
We were late.
There had been a strike
and why not?
(After all, they are people like us)
He lived there, but we travelled together
and I shall never forget what he said.
The point was, we arrived in the dark.
"Is there a train ? "
"Yes, they run every hour to where you are going."
But not on the branch from here to the centre.
We could, as you know, have waited all night,
and this is a land not meant to be cold.
I shall never forget what he said,
as we ate the fruits of the sea,
among shepherds who sang,
when even the music deceived
as the wine of their sadness
unburdened the mind with joy.
My heart overflowed
as the elegant woman beside me,
whose husband imported skins,
brushed crumbs from smooth thighs
and I failed to say
"Prego, allow me."
but not to remember what he said,
and I wished I could say the same
"I am ashamed of my people."
because even he could not bear so much guilt,
"I am ashamed of my countrymen."
But the light chilled, as though a faint shadow formed,
an imperceptible web, with a cold vibrant life,
or a fruitless vine, trellised overhead
was drinking from the dry earth.
Then I remembered again what he said,
"I weep for my people.
I weep for my countrymen."
The conversation started, as it often did,
with questions and half-
to be answered with truths and half-
"Why do you have such valueless money?"
"That is easy;
One lira nearly the price
the producer is paid for the juice of one grape."
"But the water we drink here can cost more than that,
and grapes are made mostly of water."
"Yes, but you have to know this,
that the vines, which cover the hills,
are worked only for love, by men beginning to dry,
and their wish is to make this one wine
that they call 'The wine of the gods.
made when the fruit is reduced by four parts in five
in the weak autumn sun.
and, what is more,
"Then it appears to cost
almost as much as the gold it so closely resembles.
I must confess, I am lost. So far
we have something five times more precious than water.
They make never enough and have no wish to sell.
So why these old men at work among vines on the hillside
morning and evening."
"Something like this.
Their souls are filled with a strange yearning
and making ready to fly south."
Some things are meant to last
and some not,
though it is not always easy to see which.
This coastal path is undoubtedly wearing away,
even where it passes round three sides of an old house
built in an inconvenient place, but now falling,
where people flow each day, like a tidal stream,
where the kitten pounced and
to our surprise, succeeded,
then, as we neared,
abandoned its live prey.
Here was something never seen before;
a lizard's tail, threshing like a living knot
bending like a metal coil
taken entwined from a Christmas cracker,
that the very bright
could separate in less than a minute.
This, more living than the live,
had filled its role,
distracting in futile play
while life trembled somewhere else.
Also, as advertised,
(and this was something else not seen)
somewhere in Sweden
at every hour, on the hour,
two lovers would make love.
And at home (on the radio)
between half past three
a poet write a poem
on an original theme.
What kinds of arms have ever made Tiramisu?
Arms with golden skin and a light dusting of down,
cool and honey soft
that melt as butter cream and make me say,
Fold me in Tiramisu-
Now were you a man, that would be a different thing.
Leonardo knew about arms,
but whether the Mona Lisa was a man or not
we cannot know,
nor whether he, or she, had ever made Tiramisu.
That mystic process,
seeing the Lord in the kitchen
who has now appeared in a new guise,
temporarily transformed into soft Italian cheese
with a chocolate coat and saying,
I have prepared a table for you
and, though all cannot be here,
what right have you not to enjoy what I have made?
But perhaps it was not Him,
because here it is easy to confuse
substance and form.
were you a man,
with flesh not of sugar and spice,
not to my taste,
I would say
I am from the North
and there are many things I understand relating to death
and accept your kisses on both cheeks,
because this is not for the chaste,
but salt, or sweet, as men or women should be;
red and threaded on the string.
I would not relish to be served this by a priest,
but pray that you might kiss me on the lips.
Fold me in Tiramisu-
Falling star. 1987A was a supernova in the Greater Magellanic cloud at a distance of about 168,000 light years.
Do you know the land where cliffs arise from the sea
and the lemon trees hold their fruit through the spring?
Do you know it
where the cliffs sweep down
Dr Wilhelm Meier did, but
came to misfortune here,
either falling below, or cast against the shore
by a wave
that, soaring with hope, bore his soul away
and laid his heart to rest.
A doctor of physics,
he would have understood the thrill of 1987A,
when almost one hundred times the space from here to Christ,
an inner fire died,
and what had seemed solid
fell faster than Lucifer
and more certain,
then burned with a new heat,
that some say
though not yet.
But that wave arrived on our shores,
for him, twenty three years too late.
The Franciscan Way
The Franciscan way is a group of high-
Se io conto,
Ci (solo) siam tu ed io insieme
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
When he walked,
the blaze of stars and galaxies
was not known as we know it now,
the many mansions almost infinitely multiplied.
He understood the call,
far from the market place,
announcing a prize
that all have won
and all required
is to be there
to see the mystery of grace
and taste the water turning into wine
after the hands have joined.
He understood our little share of time,
the divine welcome
and the cleansing fire.
All pilgrims here are seeking the divine,
but is there room?
How many souls does God need in his heaven?
At this point brothers, sweeping though the square,
their knotted cords flying,
each one of us will bring in many more.
as though a line of ants gathers the winter store,
But in the thaw
will all be washed away?
symbols of life withheld or passion stilled,
and promise unfulfilled,
reveal the naked man beneath,
his path the sheep-
Brother and Sister Birds,
who give to man
the most that he can understand of heaven,
know that there will be a place for you
The Lord has shown me this;
your lives are toil and care
(here the raptor dreamed of hurling flight
to meet his love and his desire)
and though your souls are free,
He, in his mercy,
has ensured that you are unaware.
You suffer night alone,
your nestlings fall,
do not escape the predatory jaws.
Know then that He has told me this;
though never gods yourselves,
you may become
attendants to His throne
A stillness fell.
The flock, each tail-
anointed every plume
with holy oil.
Desecration of the temple. The upper Chapel of the Basilica was being used to stage a solemn pageant, only spoiled for those who saw that the last scene included a shot of a poster displaying the words ‘Rothman’s King Size’.
All we know of him is painted here;
are all displayed, but today
although there are three ways,
along the central aisle
you may not pass.
A saintly man
with the russet beauty
reflected from these hills,
walked toward the altar,
thinking soundless thoughts.
Stern disciples cleared the holy way
and the lens took the long view.
Next, the progress of the precious feet.
But one, God’s fool,
(who, to be here, may have travelled half across the earth)
sullied the sacred path.
Did the blackbird, while St Francis preached,
sing a few loud notes,
then, in self-
but receive the saint’s forgiving glance?
Now the camera frames a king-
and the sponsors of the soul
show themselves to the crowds.
The Franciscan way. One part of the path, falling into disrepair, required that the walkers clung on to roots emerging from a stony bank. In this poem the foxy form the emerged is Bertrand Russell who, for some important period of time, was a probably unwelcome third in Eliot’s menage.
These hills wear away.
The stony path crumbles,
the bridge condemned.
Here the wayward,
or the unprepared, will fall,
clutching too late at twisted grasping roots.
Lucky are they who do not see a third
the foxy form who came to steal the bride,
leaving the wolf
and the dried grain.
It is not known how birds savour the dry seed,
nor why men read the words of old books
whose battles are not theirs.
Nor is it understood why fire
that are not ours by right,
nor why birds sing and why man
makes his sacrifice of sung praise,
not burned meat.
Where the saint once walked,
songbirds are fed to shepherds.
Hillsides, save for shotguns,
elusive swifts survive.
In the sheep shed,
now a ristorante,
quails are piled, part cooked,
beside hot coals.
It is said that after red-
pierce their living eyes,
they see perpetual sunrise
and sing incessantly,
beguiling their still-
into the net, or the limed twigs.
The Saint scattered rough bread.
The birds came and he preached the new dawn.
The birds of heaven sang.
The kestrel hovered,
his head bent down, like Christ nailed to an invisible cross
and his eyes magnified all beneath.
Of all his flock
these alone have kept the faith,
heirs to the flesh,
yet in the flesh made whole.
They carry the divine spark,
the olive branch that never dies
and, in the square,
ascending and descending
outline his golden form.
They, and their seed,
would blacken out the sun
but he has promised
there will be a place for all.
love keeps them all apart,
love will bring them all home.
He walked high hills alone
and knew this Val-
named when Lake Tiberius
washed around the base of Mount Subassio,
then retained by folklore,
rebuked the waves of passion,
stilled the seas,
and brought the peace that spread beyond these hills.
Something of him remains.
Dogs barked, as for pilgrims everywhere;
behind a shed a shepherd
cutting his father’s hair,
paused to see us pass.
The old man gleamed,
the light reflected in his eyes,
wide as the seas beyond a mountain range.
Children at their first communion
are not as innocent
and Holy Fathers sanctifying souls
are less benign.
Not everyone who comes will find this way,
and stand beside these shores,
shorn and prepared,
one step from God.
On this path he was carried home to die.
A storm hung round the mountain’s eastern edge;
the torrent beds were dry.
Friends guide the horse,
his earthly form
tied to his heaven by sacred crimson threads.
Lightning held its force.
Above them buzzards turned,
but birds that had no song for grief,
He understood that every soul was one
and that one
passed through time’s door.
On a low balcony in Florence, a ‘God of Love’ blesses young espoused couples.
Recently carnated as an animated marble god
in bridal white,
with baby voice and grin,
playing with his toys,
he lines them up before him;
reads the secret of their hearts,
and with a single finger gesture,
to the everlasting past.
Non mi ama!
skipping down the Corso Garibaldi
leads the laughing group,
with some flamboyance,
tears a page
from her fashion magazine,
and lets it drop.
Hard not to think,
If he loves you now,
it’s for your body.
If he loves you not,
it’s for your mind?
confident of confidence itself,
seems not to care
what might happen
when the leaves run out?
In Italy the code of honour ensures that the good is not all good and the bad not all bad. The word Agriturismo evokes, with characteristic subtlety, a blending of the humble with the sublime, and if this suggests a verbal deception, here even sleight of hand may not be what it seems.
An Agriturismo is a farm dwelling approved for tourist accommodation. The quality is variable but we were dismayed to be taken to a room in what appeared to be an enormous, isolated, deserted factory and then given to understand that our rustic host expected us to take our evening meal in his small dilapidated house a kilometre or so away. Expectations were low, but only after the second course had been served did it become clear that this was going to be a quite exceptional display of generosity both of food and of spirit; a long haul, requiring judicious restraint. Our subsequent best estimate of the number of courses served, excluding wine, was 12-
The poor are always with us,
as we are with them.
Hills of the north rejoice,
rivers and mountains sing
because this land
sailing on its magmatic sea
at two centimetres a year
encountered a southern shoreline.
Yet while that meek subduction
raised, on its back,
ranges of raw rock,
rains etched and ice
expanding as it formed
Scree slopes funnelled re-
and rivers snaked over flooded plains
What muscle could bend such strata
forming the concertina which will
Only in a furnace of red fire
could this be done
the head down
and horns tossing aside
before the turn
that will follow
because this rage
has not yet been appeased.
‘ The concertina that heralds spring’ is from the popular song ‘Poppa Picollino (1953).
Who can find all of the secret places
who can uncover that which has never been lost?
Not man! He is too upright!
He has lost touch with his roots
and must send out someone else
who knows the dark places
and can return
all he has found.
( Fruit of the Garden)
Lord Jesus had a garden
and what little evidence exists
shows that he was mostly interested in wheat and fish. He
was acquainted with olives
And, maybe, anointed by their oil.
There is no reason to suppose
that the tomato,
the pomo d’oro,
double cause for man to fall again,
No mention of its near immortal skin,
and this cannot be gainsaid,
it is here now
And together with the flesh of tuna fish
forms garden fruits which say
that he became the lord of all the land
and of the sea
in the middle of the eart
(The earth shaker)
As ye do,
so shall ye be done by.
Remember that beneath the earth
that cannot be resisted
and never forget
that down in the southwest corner
something is simmering on the back burner
but quite satisfactory bubbles
and causing temporary craters
to form in the rich earth
in historical times,
and even within living memory,
Bread and circuses must not be underestimated.
Wheat has conquered the world three times
from its birthplace in central Asia,
or on the shores of the Black Sea,
where genetic mutation,
tortuous as Genghis Khan’s rise,
turned the wild bearded grass into the golden king
and his seed
But after that first empire foundered,
though leaving in its wake a heavenly host,
it rose again
and, with new learning,
craftsmen moulded shapes
that will endure for ever.
Then bloated with success
delivered hot over the whole world
(wheels within wheels),
has become farce.
We have travelled a long way now.
Our strength is starting to fail
I think we may not be able
to go any further
for these are the city states
more than a day’s march from each other
set apart like stars in a beautiful constellation.
(Death and transfiguration)
Who could scratch a living from this bare land
eking out subsistence, then fix us with his golden eye
which shows neither pleasure nor hate
in equal measure, while no trace of recognition escapes from it?
But those golden irises are not designed
for introspection and he will be undermined
by his own success. His scion rising up
and stretching out his wings
will overtake him, the Emperor,
King of all he knows whose reach must yet exceed his grasp
and who expects, after his crowning first, by force,
to maintain his hold over his own
by force, then by vanity,
which raises him up
and then brings him down.
Yet he is not false to himself.
(Forgiveness of sins)
We have crossed the summit,
descending into a green col.
This is a good place to rest,
but we must go on.
With each turn the valley broadens.
There is dust
and houses take up all the available space.
We can not stay here now.
Perhaps we can stay beside the lake.
Perhaps we have left it too late
and the sun will soon
be going down beside the mountains.
The plain is not as we expected.
The houses have ceased.
There is space for trees,
which was not the case on the precipitous slopes.
But here a man’s worst enemy is his neighbour
and from this we learn that a neighbour’s neighbour is a friend,
but not the kind of friend that you or I would like,
because all this goes back to the time of the blood feud
which itself may have had its origin in cherry picking time.
This is the bread of life,
the golden staff made for all of us
at the beginning of all time,
and these are its guardians,
its high priests and its sacrificial virgins,
and we have come here to watch.
We observe that each act is governed by certain rules.
Even saints may seek some place out of the light.
We have seen the martyrdom of San Stefano
how many times,
and are not impressed.
This was no black on white;
no winter journey,
hugged by its ghoulish host.
lie with me,
touch my lips
and fill my veins with night.
(day of reckoning)
Yes, there has to be a settling up
and who will pay?
It has to come,
the day of sorrows.
Reaching for his purse
the everlasting martyr,
he can’t conceal his disappointment,
though attendant angels fly
and trumpets sound as if to say,
‘Something profound is going on,’
but he is not,
A little plate of biscuits comes.
Only ‘San Sebastien himself
such pain this is going to be.
No wonder he is so revered.
It’s not too bad at all.
They pass it round
and all chip in. Then
shall we leave a tip?
The wine says, ‘Yes,
we all are brothers here!’
‘Leave that to me!’
The new learning began here,
piano then forte,
but has died away
donating graffiti, the people’s art.
halo on halo, gold cast, scape goat,
cast down cast, cast out.
What was the motivation, tell me this?
Surely not to dream that truth could here
betray itself, no-
bound in rock, would walk to stare at light,
or even, planning its next move, make certain,
in the circumstances understandable demands,
‘An army of us
is entombed in there’.
Then they replied at once
and with one voice,
and worked away
only to find,
only to find!
Men are weak,
they know that
or think they do.
but pride will not let them concede
that they could be sons
of a weak God.
Consider, just for now,
his servant Job.
there was no-
none at all
and so the tempter took him up,
unto the highest place and said,
‘all this, that has been yours, is taken back,
because you thought that you
could not want enough,
after the tears of the poor had assembled it
brick by brick.’
Hear them calling below,
‘we need it
we need it now to escape this place.
We can wait
if does not happen this week
It may be the next.
when the joy will increase,
or else roll over
until he, or she, comes along
who will walk away with it all!’
So he asked
is it better that many should give for one,
or one for many,
or can we have both?
You figure it out.
At this point it became clear
that the new learning
had been going along for quite a long time
and, although much remained to be done,
those who thought about it
looked down and said,
there are certain gains in maintaining the status quo,
because this is our land,
in which we are well pleased.
The evil men have done goes on,
downgraded to nuisance status,
men being boys,
a mother’s son.
and he good,
which most may not appreciate,
The Franciscan Way
The Altopiano of Castellucci
The Altopiano, a dry lake-