Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March 29, 2011

Bleeding-heart in bloom. Planted last evening eight or nine flowering trees that came as sticks in a bag from the Arbor Day Society, whatever that is. If any grow, it will be a long time before one sees them in glory.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

March 28, 2011

Cold drizzle. Early to the Y, so early that I have practically the whole of the morning yet left to me. Disturbing dream last night. I returned from long absence to my home. I visited a man who ran a gallery, and who was apparently my prospective employer. I’d left some gem stones with him to be appraised. He said he wasn’t interested in them, and after a while I realized it was because he thought they were stolen. Then I went to the house which I used to share with a man (I think it was John the film maker who lives on the corner). He had the whole house now, and had been storing some of my things. I was getting those things when he observed that I had stolen his treadmill. With a shock I realized that in fact I DID have his treadmill, and had packed it up and taken it along with me without a thought one way or the other. I couldn’t defend myself. Everything I wanted to say sounded idiotic: “I didn’t realize I was taking it. . . I didn’t really think of that as stealing. . . .” I offered to return it, but he said he didn’t really want it; it was the principle which upset him. Pondered the dream at the gym. I don’t actually steal anything, so maybe it’s about things I do for which, when challenged, I have no satisfying explanation. Maybe it’s about unearned reputation. Maybe it’s about nothing at all.

Dim gleam of golden crown imperial in the before-dawn rain.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

March 27, 2011

Late dream of flying, one of those classics that linger in memory and are brooded over by the consciousness. I was living high in the mountains, at the edge of a town built of stone, around which were great floating rocks. I ran out onto an alpine meadow and willed myself into the air, and after that it was easy. I flew over the floating rocks and found, as I suspected, that they were the perfect nesting places for birds. Diving down over green valleys I thought “how beautiful!” I even cured myself of the height-sickness that would have overtaken me in real life. After a while a little Japanese girl joined me on my flying expeditions. We seemed to be the only ones who could do it.

Thinking of the kids at the Thespian festival, their slender bodies, the wild extravagance of their dress and hair styles, the mixture of awkwardness and grace which attended their movement. I’m not used to children quite that young, and may not have been gentle enough in my critiques. I was amazed by the gap between kids-- though they looked pretty much the same– one of whom was writing goofy shtick for vampires, and the other real drama with real dialogue. They gave us gift bags with candy and pencils and notes that said, “Thank you for this opportunity.”

Internet video of the tsunami inundating the town of Kessenuma in Japan. Someone was standing on a big building filming while an estuary filled and overflowed, hurling cars like woodchips, turning a prosperous little town into–literally–nothing. A bankside warehouse disintegrated like sugar. A watertower sailed down the stream like a swan. Sublime and awful. The water which was once distant began to climb up one storey, two storeys. I wish I knew what the photographer was saying in Japanese.

Last summer I planted bluebells. They promptly died. This made me sad, as I had planted them over the place where I had buried Theseus long ago. But in the last few days they have sprung up and bloomed, and it has been a wonderful and healing surprise. I suppose I had planted them just when they were ready to die back anyway.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


March 25, 2011

Hawthorne Inn and Convention Center, Winston-Salem. Arrived late in the afternoon and strolled at leisure through Old Salem, handsome and well-kept, reminding one rather of New England, or the old section of any old Eastern town. I arrived there around 5:30 and everything closes at 5, so I saw a lot of manicured exteriors. A woman with 18th century Moravian costume billowing over her ample hips and breast waved to me from the door of her bakery shop, which she closed and locked as I approached. Wandered up Main to 5th, and the over to Marshall, to encompass what the map said is the “arts district.” Saw a few “arts cafes,” all of them empty at the hour I arrived. Until I got to the bus station I did not encounter one single pedestrian. One blesses Asheville for being alive all night long.

All the cherries in the world are in bloom. The forests along the highway flame with redbud.

The hotel restaurant turns out to have the best fish chowder I have ever tasted. How can one prepare for such a thing?

Friday, March 25, 2011

March 24, 2011

In one day I taught the sad Keats movie Bright Star, The Trojan Women, and “In Memoriam.” No wonder at the end of it I should feel spent and melancholy. Have been developing such sympathetic communion with Keats that I felt for a moment today that his spirit was entering me. For a while I thought that he entered that I might protect him. For a while I thought he entered that he might enrich and inflame me. Perhaps it was both. I actually was Keats, with all the aspirations and enthusiasms and exploratory vigor we see in his letters, except that I had nobody to talk to, so all that was lost, except to my own memory.

Renaissance viols on the CD. Melancholy chooses music to deepen its own mood.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 23, 2011

Irish music on the CD long before dawn. The petals of the bloodroot snow on the little patch of dirt beneath them. That is over. The crown imperial opens golden.

I’m in one of those phases where one little duty succeeds another, one day after another is lost in not-unpleasant trivialities, and the best one can do is keep everything in order and proceed. Ignoring the phone and e-mail helps some.

Read and discussed my poetry in SS’s class yesterday. Surprised myself by barely being able to get through the poems without weeping. Sooner or later, everyone you wrote poetry about is dead, every moment passed, and it all begins to sound like an extended lamentation. It begins to BE an extended lamentation. My work has always been dedicated to the awful necessity of remembrance. I went around saying that long before I actually realized what it meant.

Watching the film Bright Star in my seminar. It’s better than I remember it, or perhaps one gets used to its longueurs. Or perhaps my feelings are closer to Keats since I went to his room on the Spanish Steps. Moved by Brown’s dedication–however irritating–to him, one wondering why someone couldn’t have loved one for one’s words, if that’s what one had to offer. Indeed, spending a great deal of time wondering why things weren’t other than they were, often actually figuring it out, which is a kind of comfort, even when–which is almost always–nothing can be done about it.

Actors will often spend as much effort on mediocre work as they will on sublime. I suppose this is a way of keeping the faith. I know I have done so, thinking that if one art isn’t quite up to par, another can be. I’m wild to see a play of mine on stage again. What Sunnyspot is up to I don’t know, but, contrary to our agreement, it isn’t me. When I went to pick up my tax return, I ran into EP, and I couldn’t tell him who my producers were, I couldn’t think of the name “Sunnyspot.” Whatever that means I’m going to leave for the sunrise.

Shakespeare acting class is revealing, exhausting. My little soliloquy from King Lear was on last night. It was a work-out. I know how to do the exercise now, but when I ask myself the question “do I know how to deliver these lines better?” I don’t know. I’m not sure one thing has much to do with the other– whether interesting rehearsal techniques really lead to a better performance. I think that the possibility that they may is overbalanced by the danger that their proponents become fanatics and bores. I feel similarly among musicians, who think that singing on a different syllable or counting the beats or holding your arms like Hiawatha make the singing better. You learn to do those things, but are you better at the central task? Perhaps it’s to make you mindful, to encourage you to think of difference approaches, in which case, all are valuable. A further consideration is the awful concentration which descends at a certain point in life. I used to love to do readings and workshops and seminars, to produce plays and to be asked here and there to do this and that. Now I am obsessed by the need to create text. Speaking Lear I am thinking of sitting where I sit now, behind the keyboard, creating Lear anew, or answering him. Text. Text. I’m not yet at the place where everything but the creation of text is a a luxury, but I see it like a dark cloud approaching. Or a bright cloud, maybe.
March 21, 2011

Spring, and the day is fit for the opening of that green and golden door.

Our concert costume yesterday involved brightly colored T-shirts. I listened with amazement as man after man hissed “I don’t wear yellow!” because it made them look “washed out.”

Extended morning dream. There were wide fields and mountains and deep forests, and amid them I was supposed to adjudicate J’s degree in art, except that I could never find him. He would leave bits and pieces of his thesis, but disappear himself into the wilderness, so I could form no coherent picture of what was going on.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

March 20, 2011

First of the purple bell-fritillaria are in bloom. Cold dapple of gray and bright outside, an easing back half way to winter after glorious spring-like days. Much cultivation, much planting, much digging up of new beds, intense war on the remnants of the hated Kingdom of the Ivy.

We bade farewell to TB at Zambra’s last night. It was a happy evening with a variety of friends, new and of long extant. TB’s friendship is widespread and eclectic. I’m praying to the gods of New York to treat him well. Much talk at the table of local theater, of those who surge forward, of those who are going surely–but perhaps reversibly– astray.

Zambras had perfected the craft of giving you very little food for a very stiff price. Genius.

Completely rewrote the ending of The Falls of the Wyona, which had been its weakness. I thought there was a reason for having it the way it was, but the reason evaporated when a better story came along. I cut reams out, I thought, but when I compared the new version to the old, there was exactly the same number of pages, down even to ending at the same place on the page. My emotion at the revision was sharper than it should have been, perhaps because I had fought hard against it, using the words “it’s good enough” to deflect my energies. The Muse’s refusal can be more profound than her agreement, and a far greater wonder. It’s like going out to look for mushrooms, pitching a fit because there were no mushrooms, then, trudging gloomily home, finding one of the seven cities of gold.

Concert at St Matthias. It went well, I think, and was a happy experience for me. I sang well, and where I stood I couldn’t hear those who did not.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

March 18, 2011

Saint Patrick’s was sufficiently festive. Still wearing my green shirt at the crack of dawn.

I wish people– especially at Asheville High-- would stop telling students that English is an ever-changing language. Of course it is, but something in their half-informed exposition encourages the belief that an error is not an error but a rightful efflorescence on the great tree of language. The rules of grammar are fast, binding, objective, and do not admit of adaptation, until-- with the suddenness of the emergence of a biological species– they are different. It is not someone saying ignorantly “between you and I” or “irregardless” or “it’s tail is wagging” which makes this change. These are marks of the rube, and only that. Errors are still errors though the language changes between sunset and dawn. From somewhere comes the idea that English is governed by a snooty academy laying down high-falutin’ laws from an ivory tower in, probably, Boston. We ourselves have made the rules I am anxious to protect at least until their time is done. No grammarian ever imposes anything on our language. The rules are made by the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, to whom the grammarian listens with unusually attentive ears. The grammarian reminds the B and the B and the C of the rules they made for themselves. Maybe the grammarian is the last to go along with it–and he should be– when the language changes, repeating until the very turning, “Are you sure this is what you want?” Some time ago people started saying “Aren’t I?” when that was clearly “wrong.” Wrong or not, it is indispensable. “Am I not” is too Bronte, and “amn’t I?” simply cannot be said. That is a change that is a change, and I imagine it was hard won. “Ain’t I?” was a mark of the upper classes at the end of the 18th century. It isn’t now. But, God, I’d love to hear the occasional “am I not?” to remind me of Edens lost.

Got back to Italian after giving my head a rest. Looking at text again I realize some of the bloopers I committed in Rome. I asked the desk clerk to get me a taxi for nine o’clock. I see now that what I actually said was “ please get me a taxi for the grandmother.”

Vigorous day. Notable workout at the Y, then practically the whole bright day spent gardening. The temperature hit 70, and I dug out the north terrace, facing Zach’s, from under its tangle of ivy and greenbrier. Bought blue and deeper blue veronica to cover the shovel wounds, and yellow.. . . something to fill the space between hibiscuses. At the moment my most precious possession is the patch of bloodroot–all blooming–on the back terrace. It’s twice the size it was last year, and I praise God. When I was in a heat to move I didn’t realize how attached I am-- not to this house, but-- to my garden. If I bought property with a solid acre of bloodroot I’d still worry about the welfare of this little patch. Was someone keeping it clear? Did someone take care to watch its changes every day, and several times a day, and its thin spears of bud slumbering by moonlight?

Towhee twittering in my rose tangle. Maude on the desk, watching him with onyx eyes.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March 15, 2011

Cold going the wrong way– worse instead of better. Pressure in my head makes my eyes water, allowing me to look very tragic.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

This Time of Year

The bloodroots
this time of year must be
freed from the crowd of wild strawberries
that grew up in the summer, when it is
possible to forget the snowy blossoms
which were April’s all-in-all.
Nothing against the strawberries
and their tenacity, the buttery gold
of their own flowering.
It’s a matter, simply,
of the few and precious to the memory,
against the throngs of which one
has known nothing but the plentitude.
Everything is so small. You must
press ground down with one thumb
to keep the fuzzy baby bloodroots
from uprooting.
Pull with the other, the pitying hand,
the interlopers, up.
You must say something.
Forgive me. . . forgive me. . .
There is enough room now for only what I love.
March 14, 2011

Memory from Rome. A girl stops me near the Colosseum and asks me to sign a petition against trucks. Trucks? I say. She nods. What’s wrong with trucks? Have they been rattling the ruins or something? When I get to the petition I see that she was trying to say “drugs.” This turns out to be a scam anyway. Once you sign the petition the girl says, “ I have survived drugs. I’m two years clean. Wouldn’t you like to contribute to my further progress? Forty euros. I have change.” I did so, of course, because I fall for everything, but the same thing happened at every Important Site, and the scammers were targeting specifically those people speaking English. I guess we’re soft touches, or perhaps have certain advantageous delusions about drug use. Many things in Rome were scams. Often at restaurants I did not get what I had ordered, and I was charged too much. I knew, but didn’t care. It was a not-very-hurtful game which I was willing for new friends to win.

Odd rehearsal last night. C has created two factions in the bass section, one for him and two buddies, one for me and G (because G is oblivious to the whole enterprise). C thinks that politicizing the dynamic within the section makes up for singing the wrong notes.

More extended narrative dreams last night. In one that survived even my getting up in the middle of the night, I was an arts leader in a small town which had been attacked, unsuccessfully, by fundamentalists trying to equate art with vice. No outcry of outrage followed their expose, but rather a bright and gratifying light cast on our efforts in national media. One boy was a hold-out for the Fundies, and in the dream I was trying to wear him and his father away into rationality on the subject. The boy was a talented artist who refused to develop his gifts because he was convinced they were Satanic. At the beginning of the dream I was hugely fat, and through it I slimmed down dramatically. This was part of the plot, but I forget how.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Approaching the Piazza Novonna

I know too much history.
Without it I would have thought this
some happy city which had, not too long ago,
suffered a mishap, an earthquake,
a contretemps with some neighboring, bombardiering power.
All these ruins– brick and concrete, for the most part,
look like home when they were ramming the Interstates
through the old neighborhoods.
The buildings are the colors of bodies:
ivory and sand and cinnamon and sapwood.
Even the churches under those great domes
do not scorn to be–let’s face it– silly,
with their Baroque saints lofting to the sky,
hinder parts inevitably toward the audience;
the popes, having outlived their moment
even a thousand years ago, forever building
something beautiful to be looked at,
instead of them.

Rome, in the house of garments
yours is veronica and robin’s plantain (whatever
they call them here) that nod and gossip in the Circus Maximus,
weeks before spring, the green robe they decorate
tied by Frangipanis’ tower so it drapes and billows in the wind.

Rome, in the sea of song
yours is bel canto sung from memory
by a boy in the street, made playful and sexy
in his mouth, changing the heroine’s name
to the name of a girl who smiled more than once
in that slanted brilliance at winter’s end.
It does not need to mention wine
to run with it, red and sweet.
It does not need to mention the white flowers
gripped into the ruined walls, holding with such
suavity their difficult place.

Rome, thy river among rivers,
the green Tevere tamed by so many bridges,
needs only the mention of its name
to shake the Amazons, the Congos
all be-crocodiled. The stone I tossed in
rattled Caesar’s bones.

Rome, the end point of thy story, now, is
ten boys playing soccer in the Piazza Navonna,
letting Neptune assist with his burly shoulder,
scattering the camera-ed tourists, making Bernini’s
fountain-whitened visages, Pamphili’s pale ghost
gliding under the porticos, making them smile
that all their strife had come to this.
The white ball goes into the air.
All are watching, holding their various strange breaths,
lordly bloodstains, the bent daggers, Muses, Demons--
even the stones.
March 13, 2011

Slept twelve hours last night. Lay down after I got back from the studio around 4. Woke after 8, shut the door, turned off the lights. The last thing I remember until waking at 4 this morning was thinking, “I wonder if I’ll be able o get back to sleep.” Virus and exhaustion. The dreams were prolonged and elaborate. In one I had bought an enlarged version of my apartment house in Syracuse, at the edge of Thornden Park. Even dealing with very bizarre tenants, I seemed to attack the labor of landording with gusto.

Saw the toadshade spreading out its weird mottled leaves. I pried the ivy from around it, leaving it a dancing floor. One white bud announced the emergence of the bloodroots. I cleared the wild strawberry from around them. This was a delicate operation. I had to hold the dirt down around the fuzzy fine bloodroot stems while the other hand uprooted the strawberries, slowly, delicately. One apologizes to the strawberries, but they are unoffendable; they invite themselves in again at the next opportunity. Planted the white sorrel everyone sells as shamrocks this time of year. Perhaps they are shamrocks. I have never seen any in Ireland, and what the Irish told me of them conflicts suspiciously.

My father’s 92nd birthday, When someone is dead, one thinks about them with more confidence, like an archaeologist digging up a lost city, knowing nothing more is going to change but the interpretation.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

March 12, 2011

And every single leg of the flight from Rome to Asheville– except the brief hop from Rome to Munich– was disastrous. Had literally to run the length of O’Hare to make the Asheville flight after late arrival of an 11 hour flight, after waiting for another plane to vacate our gate, after going through the idiotic US Customs ordeal. I was the very last person to board. The gate lady looked at me as though I had been deliberately lounging about. So I dropped sweating into my seat to hear the news that the open luggage door warning light was on, and that would have to be checked, and then there would be paperwork about having it checked, and when the paperwork was done our grounds crew had somehow wandered away . . . . and half an hour later we were still on the tarmac. They gave me the one seat in the plane where I couldn’t stretch my leg, and if I can’t stretch my leg my knee turns into a knot of agony within twenty minutes. I had to stand through the flight, and so I did, the unforeseen pleasure of which was getting to know Andrew, the flight attendant, whose speech has a beautiful, unexpected lift at the end, and who fixes a kind of motorbike in his Chicago apartment in his free time. He trained to be a pilot, but the hours were too much. Naturally my luggage did not get on with me, and seems to have abided in Chicago. The luggage guy at the Asheville airport, David, was trying SO hard to be sympathetic and conciliatory, while I couldn’t get the stony, fed-up set out of my face. Proof of the existence of Satan is that the people who are to blame for our misfortunes are never present when we experience them.

Caught a significant cold in Rome, and spent my first day home achy and feverish, sleeping most of the time. Multiple systems failure. I’m glad it waited until yesterday, when I had nothing to do but sit for hours on end, and then run as though the blue devils were on my heels. Lufthansa is so good; why does United have to be such crap? Is there something about America? I have contemplated why exactly we allow air travel to get more and more expensive while the service gets worse and worse. THAT doesn’t seem very American.

Arrived home to hear a phone message from Alex to say that my studio had been flooded. “It’s pretty devastated,” says he. Though feeling like crap, I went there. I didn’t see any permanent damage, so I restored things to their original positions (Alex had tried to save what he could) and even painted a little. They only time I didn’t feel bad all day was when I worked in the studio.

In any case, I had a better day than Japan.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


March 11, 2011

A few birds--piccolo ucelli-- twittered before the morning traffic began in the city below. Walked the streets of Trastevere last night, then home along Tevere. The winding streets were joyful, full of life, and it is to there I must repair should I return again. Everything in my life should have been done twenty years before it was. I was not happy on the walk home, and my dreams before waking this morning were turbulent. Maybe just travel anxiety. One of my plays was being done badly in the choir room at Frohring Hall at Hiram. Several of us were trying to organize a summer camp, and quarreling bitterly. Something about having to sleep on a steeply pitched roof—. So I’m up much too early, but it gives me time to prepare, and it was better than the dreams. Remembering the moon gliding across the dome of St. Peter’s.

There will not be the heart-stab at leaving Rome as there is at leaving Ireland. For one thing, I wasn’t here long enough; attachment had only begun. For another, there is no sense of a plausible life alternative lost. Though I could have been an Irishman reared up in any little town I ever entered, I could never have been a Roman. I can’t even put my finger on what the Roman’s have that I could never– ease? Suavity? It is attractive, but I see no use in wanting it for myself.

Bought only my Italian Whitman. I go home lighter than I came.


March 10, 2011

Strange passage last night. When I left the hotel, the crescent moon was high and icy-white. I first spotted it at the end of the Borso Pio. I decided to see it in as many memorable positions as possible, so I moved around the city, catching angles of the moon above the dome of St. Peter’s, above Tevere and his bridges, beside the archangel n the roof of the Castle St. Angelo. At one point a handsome man in a silver car began honking at me. I waved friendly and went on my way, thinking it was a case of mistaken identity which he would notice when he saw me full-on. I got a good enough look to know I didn’t know him, which would have been a long shot anyway. But he followed, honking, and, when I turned to look, gestured for me to come to him. The wheels of choice moved heavily, slowly, but at last I turned down a street when it would be difficult for him to follow. I think at another time–certainly any other time before this– I would have gone to him. The chances that it was something disappointing or dangerous outweighed the chances that it would be something wonderful many times over, but in the past that wouldn’t have mattered. I tell myself I wasn’t feeling well–which was the truth. I hope he comes again tonight. I am feeling quite well. Maybe I would make the same choice again, in which case I would know a phase of my life is over.

Arrived at the Galleria Borghese at opening. Let me say of the house alone, THAT is the way to live. Greater elegance cannot be imagined, though greater vulgarity from a similar intention can– for example, the Biltmore House. The gallery rivaled the Vatican for famous pieces, and here they were accessible without hurry and press. I suppose that’s why only so many people can get in in a day, which turns out to be a lovely idea, if you’re one of those who get in. Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne has to be the most remarkable achievement in Western Sculpture; it denies the very existence of the stone of which it’s made; it is alive. Michelangelo has been on my mind, for it seemed to me his paintings in the Sistine Chapel were not so good–as paintings– as those lower on the wall, even though now I forget who the painters were. Likewise, Bernini seems to me much the better sculptor, if not quite the better artist. But this is like comparing a zephyr to a rushing storm, for Michelangelo’s power is Homeric, unequaled, a wild forest beside the perfect gardens of his rivals. Some artists seem to capture popular imagination, while the shades of the equals- sometimes their betters– drift in the shadow and murmur Che?

Arranged to come down again along the Piazza de Spana, which pleased me again as it had done before.

Changed the plans I had and hung out around the Piazza Novolo through most of the day. I am just now–when its almost time to leave–easing over from monument-hunting to people-watching. Given a few more days, my experience of Rome would be ripe.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


March 9, 2011

Walked longer today than yesterday, though perhaps not quite so far. When I start out I’m running in front of traffic like un cerva; by the end I’m shuffling like una taratuga. I’m full of animal names because I went to the sad little Roman zoo. Climbed from the Piazza di Popolo up into the Borghese Gardens, which are vast, Central Park vast. Cherries are in bloom there. I would have lingered and tasted more, but I was anxious to find my way around. Stopped at the Museo Pietro Canonica, in a house the Commune gave Canonica because of his fame and excellence as a sculptor. I’d never heard of him, but his execution was quite good, quite individual. His subject matter was historical, heroic, as dramatic as one can get without crossing into the histrionic. The pieces which were not historical seemed to have been portraits of aristocrats, czars and grand dukes and popes and infant barone. It made him look like an artistic social climber, but he might have been hugely popular, and all that commissioned. His garden gleamed with orange trees, with a well brimming clear water. I’d been aiming all the while for the Borghese Gallerie, but when I arrived, though it was barely noon, it was “sold out.” How does a museum get to be “sold out”? So I bought a ticket for domani il nonno, an absurd time to be looking at art. Thwarted by culture, I hiked on to the zoo. While the Gallery was full to overflowing, the zoo was almost mine alone, an interesting state of affairs. The names of animals are easy to remember, so I hope to encounter more discussions of zoology. Three or four of us were treated to a domestic moment when the lioness nuzzled the lion, and he groomed her for a while, and they snuggled, and then he walked away, finished with that long before she was. The tiger, in plain sight, did not deign to move. The oranutans were holding hands. There in an aquarium coiled the adder which bit Eurydice. Dragged my exhausted carcass past the Belvedere to the Piazza di Spana and the Spanish Steps. I had some refreshments– an elegant, pricey daiquiri–at the top, and then plunged down among the thousand or so kids who played on all the steps. It was quite lovely, and made me wish I’d found the spot forty years before. I was looking for the Keats house, and found it. The girl who sells the tickets is from New York, and told me she had studied Italian for four years before she came here, and still couldn’t understand a thing when they began to talk. I felt better. Her boyfriend is from Limerick, and we shared our affection for the rough, very-unlike-Rome little town. Keats’ last home is a little pale blue room, long and narrow, with a very high ceiling. It has a window open directly onto the steps, and I know the sounds of the piazza delighted Keats as long as he could be delighted by anything. Looking at the tiny bed in the tiny corner– I wept. I wept still in the street making for my hotel. I thought all the ridiculous things you think– maybe I could have comforted him, brought him a whole chicken, smuggled tetramiacin in from the XXth century, held him when Severn was weary. Anything. The other literary place which moved me like that is Yeats’ tomb in Drumcliff.

The trees I misindentified as date palms are Canary palms. There are wild parakeets in the Borghese, zipping by in a flash of emerald.

But, where do the Romans buy groceries?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


March 8, 2011

Twelve hours ago I began tramping around Rome. I come to rest now with boards for legs and stone for a back.

Found a bar last night only one door down. Who should be in it but an elderly couple from Fermanagh, who said they were not enjoying Rome very much, as there is nothing to do. I do understand what they mean. If you’re used to a bar as a center of social life, you’re thrown, for there aren’t that many. Today I found two more, which I may get to yet tonight. They’re both Irish. One is called The Abbey Theater. There are, however, plenty of restaurants; the Irish (or American) idea of drinking without eating is just plain odd to the Romans. As this is Shrove Tuesday, I sat me down to a regular Italian lunch at Re Papa’s in Trastevere. It nearly killed me. It’s as mortal as an Irish breakfast. Still rifting up the remnants. Delicious as sin, though

Set out in the morning light across the Castle footbridge, following a path Simon had laid out for me the day before. The sun was so brilliant and low I could see nothing so long as I was headed east or south–which was most of the time–but a white glare as comforting to the touch as it was blinding to the eye. The Piazza Novollo lay white and sunstruck between its glowing buildings. In the center a Ramesean obelisk floats on a cloud of Baroque river gods. On the south end was a little square stage and a punch-and-judy cart, probably waiting for tonight. On the north end, a fountain where a studly bearded dude is locked in mortal combat with an octopus. I wanted to sit and write there– I did a little–but the Pantheon lay nearby, and it was calling my name.

The Pantheon, now called St. Mary and the Martyrs, springs up out of an ordinary piazza with no fanfare whatever. One might miss it if one didn’t look in the right direction at the right moment. Is it the most famous building in the world? The Parthenon and the Taj Mahal might ace it, but not that many more. It deserves whatever praise, for it is suave and essential, and only a precise combination of efficiency and vision–the kind that, in a different mood, builds durable empires–could conceive it. On the inside it looks like it was finished yesterday. Flashbulbs flashed beside the signs that said, “No photography.” A bunch of Japanese kids set a camera on the drain and then circled around, so the camera would snap them in the dead center of the structure, heads framed by the sky blue oculus. The oculus threw a blinding oval on the north wall. I must say that the imposed Christian iconography is alone loathsome, presumptuous, infantile. It’s like a dog pissing on a statue and thinking it owns it. I suppose if that was what was necessary to preserve the masterwork through troubled times, then so be it. I remember in the Sistine Chapel an attendant rushing in and shushing everybody, trying to restore the illusion that it is still a place of worship. The Catholic Church has always tried to have it both ways, to be removed and holy and at the same time a profit-taking power of the world. That might be the center of its absurdity. I have never hated the Church Political more than now I’m in the capital of it.

The Trevi Fountain was my next stop. The playfulness which I find throughout the monuments of Rome is nowhere plainer than here. It was surrounded by laughing children and–for some reason–soldiers. Two gulls perched on the fountain, looking at us as we at them, every now and then squawking something to one another which must surely have been a comment on somebody in the Fellini-esque crowd.

Walked to the Colosseum through the ruins of the Forum. It must have been beautiful then, for it’s beautiful now as a few columns and tortured brick walls softened by pines. Roman building practices are so like ours that the ruins do not give off an air of antiquity, but rather of a bombed city just now being restored. All the African boys were selling tiny model tripods. I have no idea what that was about. They must have been illegal, for they all swept up their goods and pretended to be walking idly along when the polizia drove by. Simon warned me don’t bother to go into the Colosseum, so I didn’t–however doggedly I was harassed by the tour salesmen–but I could see enough inside to appreciate how gigantic it was. Still, however, without feeling oversized or looming. The only building in Rome which looms inhumanly is the nearby, snow-blind white Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the gawky giant-child of the whole city. Did the fascists build it? I think they must.

Beautiful shade and suave ruins of the Palatine Hill, the source of the word “palace,” so the tour guide said.

Spring flowers in the grass of the Circus Maximus.

Temple of the Vestal Virgins, the oldest building in Rome, looking very Greek. A man was peeing on it.

I did–again–as Simon suggested, and crossed the Tiber into Trastevere. In some ways, though lacking famous monuments, this quarter is the best yet. It is a keenly liveable and heavily lived-in place, with chaotic brick streets and the most elegant vernacular architecture in the world. Everywhere you looked was something– I hate to use the word–picturesque, a crooked street with laundry flapping from the windows, an angle of walls, a flower pot sitting just so in a patch of Roman dirt. I longed for my paint and bushes. It was the end of the day and I was shivering with exhaustion, but I lingered and lingered. Found what is to this point my favorite church in Rome: Basilica de Santa Maria in Trastevere, a Romanesque jewel-box, creepy and holy and dark, the way an ancient church should be. The faux beggar at the door said, “The Virgin Mary watches you.” My Italian isn’t quick enough to reply, “And you too.” Roman beggars– most of whom are pros and therefore frauds-- genuflect in the street, face down, like slaves before pharaoh on the old movies.

Took advantage of information on a poster and went, finally, to a concert at the Chiesa Valdese, not far from my hotel. The title was: Festino nella sera del giovedi grasso avanti cena di Adriano Banchieri (1567-1634). I didn’t know Banchieri, but some of the music was familiar. Maybe Praetorius used it. It was less a concert than a masque in honor of Carnevale, and very charming. The homey chaos in the church before it started– performers and audience chatting, costumes being donned, all sorts of “unprofessional” behavior– led to me to expect less than I got. It was rambunctious and playful and yet musically tight. The performers were people to whom music came easily, so they could afford not to be so serious about it. The main tenor was crystalline and perfect. A good actor, too. It was quite wonderful, a Renaissance romp in the place which, after Florence, invented it all. The old woman who sat next to me spent the half hour before the concert throwing her coat up against me, saving the row for her family, incidentally expressing her vexation that I had been there before she could claim it all. Her daughter would move the coat, asking her mother what if I had a friend coming, but when her back was turned, nona threw the coat against me again. Naturally she chattered through the performance, twisting around in her seat, fixated on her granddaughter, patting everyone on the shoulder so they could see what cute thing the granddaughter was doing at the moment. My Italian was not up to either “stop being a schoolgirl and pay attention to the concert” or “if you want to watch your granddaughter, why don’t you stay home and do it?” I did have the revenge of making her chatter to me a long time before saying, “No parlo Italiano.”

Which, at this time, is only 99.5% true.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Rome II

March 7, 2011

Couldn’t figure out why there was confetti on the ground everywhere, and why little girls–le bambine-- were everywhere dressed like princesses, and little boys– i bambini-- like animals. Then I realized I’d come to Rome during Carnevale, and that tomorrow is in fact Shrove Tuesday. By some good fortune I walked last night past the ara pacis–looking like it had been carved yesterday– and Augustus’ mausoleum to the Piazza del Popolo, where a great festivity was going on. Hundreds of people were watching light shows on the facades of the buildings, milling about, shooting glowing toys into the air. Horses were running around and around in a little arena. I couldn’t figure out what that was–a race without riders?– but it was grand. A baby less than a year old was in papa’s arms, pointing at everything with a look of transported wonder on his face. I prayed that emotion might remain with him through his life, even if he didn’t remember why. The jewel-box Baroque churches on the Piazza and along the Via Corso were all open, each gaudier than the next. I went in to each. In some there were worshipers, singing and praying aloud, either ignoring the tourists or courting us. Some of the art was exquisite, some of it was overrun by its own emotion. One woman had a show of her own paintings in a side chapel. Unfortunately the art was crap, so I didn’t try to talk with her about it. A South African couple had left a bitter comment in the comment book about how rude all the Romans are, and how back in civilized places you retreated into churches for comfort, whereas they had found more rudeness inside. One could just imagine those two. I wrote underneath my testimony, which was that the Romans had been endlessly patient with and kind to me, and that civility is as deep here as I’ve ever seen it in the world.

Bought a copy of Walt Whitman in Italian, Folglie D’Erba:.
Demonio o ucello! (esclamo l’anima fanciulla)

Evening: Attempt at writing this interrupted while I get up and stamp around the room, trying to get rid of gigantic leg cramps.

Last night when I arrived at the Piazza del Populo, the thinnest curve of moon shone above Rome, like a goblet so fine it was transparent except for a few drops of liquid at the base, the color of pearl. I’m wondering where I will see it tonight. I know I shall, for the sky all day was blue, clear, absolutely cloudless.

I was making for the Pantheon early in the morning when I was stopped by an Indian girl who wanted to know if I wanted to see the Vatican. I assumed her salutation was portentous, so I said Yes. Our guide was piu bellisimo Simon, every drop of whose considerable charisma was necessary to get us through the ordeal without somebody’s losing his temper. Simon was eloquent, funny (I’ve already mentioned handsome) informative, and wrong only every so often. His mild homophobia (he assured us that all the handsome employees of the Vatican were boyfriends of one cardinal or another) was made funnier because he was practically designed to attract the gay man’s eye. He was so Catholic as to believe the Donation of Constantine was not a forgery. I was the first in the group of what would eventually be 40 or so, and so had a portion of his time that I found at once pleasant and exhausting. A tall blond flame he was, burning us through the crowds and with some dispatch from sight to sight. We paid 45 euros in order to avoid the lines. What is the first thing we did? Got into line, in the cold shadow of the Vatican walls on a cold if sparkling morning. He almost lost us then. There was an explanation, some snafu within, but it doesn’t matter that much when one has paid to avoid the precise thing with which one is subsequently confronted. Anyway, inside we got. I had such a crush I was determined to give Simon the benefit of the doubt, but even I kept muttering within , “It’s been an hour. . . it’s been an hour and a half and I haven’t seen a single work of art.”

Simon hates Dan Brown as much as I do.

Well, we did see the art at last. It was astonishing, overwhelming, a glut, a hecatomb, a tsunami. Hardly a square inch lacked something famous, and there were acres of beautiful things I had never heard of. Does the Pope walk through those galleries, rubbing his hands, glorying that, in terms of the value of masterpieces, he is the richest man that ever was? In one round courtyard the Apollo Belvedere and the Laacoon stare whitely at one another from a crowd of statues as beautiful as themselves. The Sistine Chapel was the last thing we saw as a group. The build-up may have slanted my perceptions a little. The effect was not what I expected, not better or worse, but far more available to the emotions. I expected to be dumbstruck, but it was like seeing an old friend and being relieved that he was everything one expected, all the power and excellence and additionally–it’s hard to explain this– good humor thrown in as well. Not exactly funny, of course, but smiling, God’s bare butt mooning the kneeling Pope being just the sharp end of it. What I noticed about the whole Vatican is its emotional availability. It is not profound, exactly. It is far too busy, far too Italian for profundity. It is immensely beautiful, but manifesting more a superstitious and very rich nona’s imagination than a saint’s.

Now the Basilica itself. One familiar with St. Paul’s can’t be too astounded by St, Peter’s, though the vastness of the latter exceeds any comparison my experienced can make. London and Rome are constantly comparing themselves in my mind, their public buildings, their central churches. It is as if London took its title of world capital from Rome fully conscious of what it was doing, but with less of the Roman verve and humanity. The big British Imperial buildings are arrogant and horrifying, blocky, sometimes defiantly ugly, the way a rich man will do nothing to hide his paunch. The Basilica, however big, is not too big. It redifines enormousness, perhaps, but still allows proportion and availability to have the upper hand. It also does without those grotesque statues of generals and dukes now lost to history which clutter St. Paul’s glittering space. Popes and saints seem somehow more fitted to the occasion, and the sculpture is better anyway. I expected my spirit to be flattened by the Basilica. Instead, my senses were piqued to look at everything, as a man looking at the works of man, delighted.

Gothic is Christianity’s architecture. Baroque is essentially a secular style, fitted for rich burghers and self-satisfied kings, and when Christian spirit is poured into a Baroque shape, created is a hybrid that no one has explained satisfactorily. The Basilica is a holy place of civilization, but not of God. In some ways it is too perfect. A place of the spirit would honor the Creator by being, here and there, a little rough, a little incomplete. Nevertheless, in the light of the descending dove, I prayed until tears stood in my eyes. I will never say what I prayed for.

Where I felt holiness was in the crypt. There lie dozens of dead popes. Paul VI and John Paul I have flowers on their stones. The tomb of that absurd saint-to-be, John Paul II, was surrounded by rosary-tellers, so that one had to edge gingerly by not to disturb their worship. But the tomb of Peter the Apostle exuded sanctity and beauty at once. There I was awed. There my spirit caught up with my eyes at the banquet.

A couple from Arden were in Simon’s group with me. Mondo piccollo.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Rome I

March 6, 2011

Every single leg of the flight from Asheville was delayed or weirded in some way. The plane that took us from Chicago to Munich had been struck by lightning, and had to be checked out. I slept heroically across the Atlantic, and so have very little jet-lag. I almost never do on this side. Munich might have been Cincinnati for all I saw of it. What struck was that German men are tall and masterful looking, an observation rather disturbing now that I consider it.


Atlante Garden, Via Crescenzio, just off the Piazza Risorgimento. I’ve been in Rome for 22 hours. The pines are the first thing exotic you notice while being whisked from the airport, the bare tall trunks with viridian bowls set on their heads. They are very beautiful, and strange, like looking at a painting. You think the old painters made them up, but they didn’t. The streets are lined with orange trees, heavy now with oranges. In the courtyards are lemons, also heavy laden. I walked in the evening and into the night, after I was settled in this heavily-curtained, dark green room. I ate at a ristorante near the Piazza di Cavour, ordering in utter ignorance of what I was going to get, which turned out to be pasta with prawns in it, and a fried ball of. . . something. . . with a mixture inside which included peas. All was, nevertheless, excellent. Their house wine was a sparkling red, sweet and bubbly, exactly the sort of thing I could drink forever. Three young men sat down beside me. For a while I despaired of what Italian I had learned, until I realized they were speaking Spanish. They were handsome and each subtly perfumed, a feast for all the senses except–alas–touch. I wandered about until I came to the Tiber and the Castle Saint Angelo. There I burst into tears, for I was standing in Rome, at a FAMOUS PLACE, and everything was lit with the soft gold glow of European streetlights. An old man was playing Bach on a guitar. As a river the Tiber is hardly more impressive than Liffey, much less so than Thames, but so full of history its waters might as well have been running gold. Despite the actual age of everything, Rome does not give the impression of antiquity. All seems alive in the present, vital, and unexpectedly colored in the shades of healthy human bodies–from pale ivory to pinkish to sand to café au lait to sunny golden-brown. The buildings are never African black, but the vendors in the street are, and so the spectrum of flesh tones is complete. This morning a billion people were lined up in the Square waiting to get into St. Peter’s, so I passed that by and got on one of those tour busses where you sit on the roof and listen to history, and Mozart, and, on a day like this, freeze nearly to death. Ho freddo. I’ll need to trace the route on foot to have full benefit, but the tour rang with names one has heard forever– St. John Lateran, Borghese, Circus Maximus. Again, nothing looked “preserved” or sacred, but all part of a living city. It’s hard to dodge the impression that the history of the papacy has been far more political than spiritual. If the popes had not sponsored great art and architecture, they would have been no use at all. I loved the wall that allowed the pope to flee in times of siege from the Vatican palaces to the safety of Castle St. Angelo. The seven hills of Rome are scarcely what we would call hills at all, but I suppose they stood out where everything else was marsh.

Something in my walk must say “American,” for people start speaking to me in English before I open my mouth. Those times when I’ve tried my Italian, they have been kind, repeating what I just said as though making sure they understood, while gently correcting pronunciation and ending. The hotel staff has no English (except for the bartender) so I’ve practiced on them a little. I was chatting with the desk clerk in what approached fluency, and then I had to ask about WiFi, where my Italian promptly collapsed. It is exhausting to be constantly groping for comprehension. I went over Italian idioms and grammar before sleep, trying in those last seconds to figure it out. I bet babies do the same when they’re learning the first time around. The cheerful waiter at the café in the park–which served me a nasty salad, but no matter–corrected a number of idioms for me. People are all the time saying “prego,” which must mean everything from “welcome” to “OK” to “don’t worry about it.”

The best thing I’ve seen yet: small, old-fashioned wind-up toys running by a vendor’s stand near the Castle. The sunlight blazed on them. They seemed so distant, so precious--

Friday, March 4, 2011

March 4, 2011

Cool winter-spring. I threw ageing sesame crackers out onto the lawn for the crows, who dip them in the birdbath to soften them before they eat.

Budget debates in the States and in the Federal Government have reached a pitch that amounts to idiocy. Everyone is striking poses; no one embraces the two words that would solve the problem with the least and the most evenly distributed misfortune: raise taxes. Or, if we want to stretch to five words: raise taxes on the rich. Legislative jackals grin their jackal grins and vow to axe the NEA, with its thousandth part of a percent, to whittle away Unemployment and Headstart while with the other hand hoarding their own selfish riches for that second beach house, for that roomier corporate jet. Recognize those services which should be offered, and then figure out how to pay for them. There must be something desperately wrong with this line of reasoning; it seems so clear, and yet nobody mentions it.

Off to the airport in–what?– twenty minutes. One is never ready.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

March 2, 2011

Acting class last night. G, a high school kid, was doing an exercise, breathing on every phrase of his speech (Oberon), and the effect was striking, overwhelming. It revealed a life the words owned beneath the life of the phrase and sentence, as if the words were stone and each syllable had to be carved by labor and concentration. As an actor I have typically worked on a level above that, concentrating on the meaning of the whole, trying to deliver a speech to the comprehension of the audience. Delivering the inner life of each word is a different process, and one so applicable to all poetry that my head spun with revelation. As a playwright I have felt that most “methods” were superfluous, a sort of self-indulgence on the part of those who taught them. Maybe not. Maybe I thought that because I resisted doing any of them. Day by day am more honored by the labor that an actor puts into the words he says, which are sometimes my words. It humbles me into trying harder to make those words worth the effort. Even if I don’t hear it in the finished speech, G has an understanding of those lines which must communicate, must make a difference on some level. My understanding of them was altered. Errors in fact are made, and I’m the sort of person in whom that instills mistrust, but all those are borne away by the laborious, awkward revelation of a boy on a stool, speaking words as though they were the first words spoken by anybody, ever.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

March 1, 2011

First daffodils blooming in the yard, the tufts of lavender crocus aspiring to a blanket.