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When I read the anonymous email I knew immediately that it was you. The urgency in your voice sounded loud in my ears like Sunday church bells, shimmering in the distance, echoing through leap years. It called me like a cow bellowing for her lost calf. To ignore you was to be haunted by you.
I took the car keys and drove. With the late spring heat and a broken AC I pulled the windows down. The air around San Giuliano a Terme was heavy with the smell of hay. I kept thinking about your words… between subtlety and memory…I swerved to the left toward Grezzano…between one book and the next…I was suddenly gripped by doubts. All my life, rarely did I allow rationality and calculation to guide my decisions; but heeding your call was my nearest approach to anything as mad…between untranslatable pages… figuring to myself when and where I had ever set my eyes on you…on the far side of what you can barely remember I will appear. Who are you? The sun was beating on the windshield with splendour and certitude. I was a little blinded by incredulity.
Mystery speaks as it can only speak—touching us without really knowing why and how.
I parked close to the train station and walked straight to Via Corso Italia. A Ukrainian violinist was playing in front of the sombre statue of the medieval sculptor and architect Nicola Pisano. She was playing a lively famous pop tune arranged for solo violin. People stopped to listen. On the open violin case among coins and bills was a placard that said “Stop the war in my country, I want to go home.”
As of today, there are about ten million Ukrainian refugees since the onset of the war. I wondered: when the war ends will there still be a home to go back to? That is the implacable tragedy of wars: more than the physical destruction of the place which in time can be rebuilt nothing of the home can be reassembled. Even in the eventual making of daily life after the war there is no way of gathering back together of what was once a home. Exiles know this.
When I reached the bridge over the river Arno, I stopped to admire a gull asleep on the water. It drifted peacefully while swarms of people passed the bridge. Above it the presence of the half moon in the powder-blue canvass of the afternoon sky looked as though it were a lost cloud, stoic and indifferent like the sad look of old men. Tourists took pictures of the cappuccino-coloured river. It was indeed a tremendous challenge to keep one’s phone in the pocket; to resist the itch of taking pictures or of simply checking the phone. But in keeping so I began to look about patiently, gently, attentively, not hurrying to capture anything and everything, but slowly taking in what was there, a noble “pretext for sweet staring idleness” as Henry James put it.
The cafés around Piazza Garibaldi were densely packed and vibrant. Raucous voices, a confused counterpoint of local and foreign sounds. Such an irrepressible instinct for idleness in the Italian people at large. I could have sat in one of those cafés and abandoned the search when I came across the bronze statue of Galileo at Piazza Ciro Menotti; I felt admonished by the statue’s gaze which stretched far into the universe. With the globe and the telescope in his hands, possessed by a singular purpose, so boundless was his curiosity he never abandoned the search even for this he was so close to losing his head by the Church:
“Who will indeed set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known?”
I imagined the ageing Galileo over the bridge at night, alone, with one eye blind, raising the telescope made by his own hands to the sky searching for an unknown planet, a new star, an answer, drowning in mystery, loving the darkness around him.
I wanted to borrow Galileo’s telescope and globe to find for myself the point where memories converge. Is not memory a universe in itself? Where does the frontier of memory begin and end? How can one even measure the immeasurable subtlety and the permanent ambiguity of a single memory? One remembers always differently each time.
A barista stepped out of the café across the Piazza. She looked tired and stressed out; she took a pack of cigarettes out of her black apron and lit one. She had dark olive skin and beautiful, large dusky eyes which gave her face a pensive character. Her fine black hair with streaks of purple was tied into a ponytail. She looked around her while blowing out huge puffs of smoke. When our glance met she nodded her head with recognition as though she had foreseen my coming.
Even before I could open my mouth when I approached her she was already giving direction. See that narrow opening there, she mumbled, pointing her fingers which squeezed the burning cigarette towards a certain direction; that’s Via delle Collonne, enter that street, go straight for about 300 meters then to your right is a very narrow street Vicolo Quarantotti; there’s the bookshop. She was so decisive in giving directions that I could only nod my head in bafflement with a startled grazie erupting from my throat.
As I walked towards Via delle Collonne I felt her gaze following my back as though directing me to my destination. I also sensed her smiling—smiling like a conspirator whose role she had played so invariably well that things could only go as they should. For a moment I had a strange feeling that she was you; that you were disguising yourself partly to amuse yourself and myself. But you were too subtle for disguise. You were an ironist: someone that could only be real in memory.
Mystery speaks as it can only speak—touching us without really knowing why and how.
If it weren’t for the sign I would not have thought that the place was a bookshop. Tucked in a corner of a very narrow street, the shabby wooden doors looked like the front of a 19th-century local tavern; you’d imagine working people in overcoats with cupola hats and cigars enter and exit from these doors; you’d hear the raucous laughter of half-drunken men, the desperate pleading of the owner, and the shrieks of tipsy ladies behind tables. It looked like a place where voices conspire to make history, where revolutions are planned, a refuge of the defeated. But you could hear nothing of the sort now, only a signboard that said pull the string to your right if you want to enter. I pulled the string which hang at the side door left ajar. A loud sparkle of wind-chimes echoed behind the door; soon after a tall man with long, glossy salt and pepper hair, and imposing, thick-rimmed eyeglasses appeared. He was in his mid-fifties and had about him an air of a formidable reader, of one who had spent the solitary years of his life inside the temple of learning. Something I found lonely and unenviable. Buonasera, the store is open, right? Oh yes! he chimed, I keep the doors closed to keep the cool temperature inside, it’s been very hot and it’s not even summer! I could hear classical music playing inside the dark room. Come in! come in!
As the door closed behind me the lights were turned on. The room I was let in brightened with wide walls of books. There were rows of chairs at the centre of the spacious room. Tall piles of books in one corner and a wicker table beneath a Renaissance window burdened with an antique typewriter and gorgeously stacked volumes. A spiral staircase in the corner led to the open second floor which held the seemingly floating shelves of books. There’s a chair over there if you want to read, just help yourself, he pointed out. He disappeared into the next room where the book counter was.
It wasn’t your typical bookshop. No bestsellers were displayed in the window, no new books fresh from publishing houses; it kept only used books, some rare editions, some antique, some unknown authors, and some least-read books. Even the place, a small renovated 14th-century building possessed a sombre charm, a late medieval gloom lingered in the air.
I stood there breathlessly for a while, admiring the melancholy beauty of the scene around me. For a moment I had forgotten what I came here for. The books stared at me with wild indifference which wove into the live recording of Mozart’s piano concerto. I was filled with a rare sense of gratitude for simply being. How did I know it was Mozart? Because the music exuded a joy so radical, so darkly exuberant it verged on dangerous. The feeling that I could risk everything for the gratitude of being here and now. That is the rescue of music. Longing does not need a comprehensive philosophy or an elaborate theology, nor does it demand of us competence or self-determination or mastery, what it calls for is humility: the capacity to descend to find out that life is a serendipitous, unrepeatable, unprecedented moment. And give praise.
Slowly, I paced the floor in all directions. The daunting proximity of all these books gave a sense not simply of one’s ignorance, but the unutterable loneliness of intelligence. The dazzling ideas and theories and philosophies—the immensities of the mind, the indefiniteness of thinking, the bottomlessness of imagination, the silence-filled life: tantalizing, beholding, and stabbing in a world afraid of silence, awash with the white noise of information, so phobic of attention, so bereft of concentration, constantly distracted and occupied. Perhaps what is needed today more than intelligence is the need for solitude, learning how to be still, which has become subversive.
I like the term second-hand books, because it’s as though if you picked one you’d feel the hands of the previous owner, and that is a subtle kind of intimacy—a fellowship in anonymity and distance and shared solitude. I was thinking of that one book, hidden away on a shelf, in which our fingertips would suddenly touch. Come closer.
I climbed the spiral staircase to the upper floor. Here, one found sections on poetry, cinema, art, architecture, and photography. The wooden floor creaked melodiously as I walked towards the cinema section. Do not films, great films, augment our experience of life? Does not life create scenes derived from films and not the other way around? Was this very moment a scene in one of those films I had seen, a mute black and white with only the background music? The delicate noise of the wooden tiles assured me it wasn’t so.
A contemporary poet approaches the poetry section at a very oblique angle with reverence and anxiety. To read deeply one’s poetic forebears and to give praise to the conviction and affirmation of language is an appreciation of the highest kind. Appreciation, wide and absorbing appreciation leads to the creation of personality. I randomly picked a book from a shelf, turned the pages recklessly and led me to…
Sometimes it strikes me what poetry stands for in a time like this: a time of collapse, of fear, of death-making. What role it plays in a life permeated by unceasing distractions—social media creatures that we are psychically and physically imbued in the lordship of technology—whether poetry could still love and be loved, touch and be touched, endure and be remembered. If so, how do we approach poetry?
There is something heroic in those who are able to snatch a runaway time to read poetry, something strangely radical in those who sneak into invisible corners to write their own, and something saint-like in those who memorize, remember by heart poems in the face of the colossal noise of distraction.
When daily life is immersed in the onslaught of information poetry becomes the one place where memory can claim us, invoke us, behold us. Poetry accommodates us in an extension of time not in the form of nostalgia the desire of which is to go back but rather in the form of longing where the present is continually reaching out to our memory. Thus there is no looking back but the keeping of the appointment of the moment: the tremendous present: the only time.
I closed the book. Poetry: the stuff predestined memory is made of.
That’s five euros, the man said and took a brown paper wrapper from the table drawer. I searched for a five euro bill from my wallet. She was here an hour ago, he said nonchalantly as he wrapped the book. Stunned, I looked at him, my heart beating fast. His face turned on an expression of one who doesn’t welcome any casual conversation or intrusion. Oh! my voice cracked in bewilderment. Here’s your book, he said with a forced smile, driving me away.
The sycamore trees in Piazza Santa Caterina were glowing gold with the last streaks of light of the sunset. University students in pairs and in groups were scattered around on the grass sitting, relaxing, chatting, some smoking cannabis. The pungent smell of that forbidden plant wafted across my face as I passed weaving itself round me a delicious abandon of physical weariness. I sat on one of the metal benches beneath a sycamore whose gigantic branches crooned above me inducing a pleasant spell of the desire to search and roam. The weather was turning cool. I unwrapped the book I purchased from that mysterious bookshop and noticed right away that something was not right. Whether the continuous brewing of cannabis into my nostrils was already exacting in the mind or simply the bookman committed a willful blunder I couldn’t tell. But I was sure that I picked a slim volume of poetry of Salvatore Quasimodo. How could the bookman mistake a book when I was the only customer at that time? Or maybe he was playing tricks on me—another one of your bewitching jokes?
A taxi stopped round a bend. A young couple, tourists, got off with heavy travelling bags. No sooner had they walked a few steps than when the lady noticed she couldn’t find her phone. She was desperately searching her pockets and shoulder bag. I can’t find my phone! she exclaimed. In panic, her partner dropped his bags and ran immediately towards the taxi that was already manoeuvring to leave. Both the taxi driver and the man searched the vehicle. Not long after the lady called on both men waving the phone in her hand. I found it! A marvel.
On the front cover was the name Pedro Salinas. I looked around trying to catch you—your shadow, your glance, your smile, your perfume, your murmur. I’ve heard of the Spanish poet’s name but never had the chance to read his poetry thoroughly. The slow blue darkness of the evening was descending on the square. The lampposts began to flicker one by one as they lit the dusky streets. As I opened the book where chance had marked it for me I felt our fingers touched, our memories joined.
A marvel: searching and searching, you have always been with me.