Venice Notebook

by Diane Fahey

Diane Fahey

At first you want to restore each façade,
remove each trace of centuries-old dirt,
modern acid — all to please your eye.
Next morning, a river of light bathes
wounds in crimson plaster; a sparrow
perches among ancient geraniums.
You open window, breathe — you are here.
From a balcony, greenery grows down
towards a white sheet edged with heavy lace,
and another, sky-blue with swirls of cloud;
both are of vast proportions.
Behind glass, an interior gleams
with cameos, figurines, spring flowers —
life flourishing in miniature,
with scope enough for grand gestures.
The water's glitter
makes its way up walls,
a ghostly creeper,
moving inside your
room, over the ceiling,
down your arms
as you sit writing.
Once, music floats
over a sill crowded
with tulips. You hear
Vivaldi swallow-weaving
Venetian light, imagine
that light flowing
over him as he sits,
dreaming, inscribing.
With people, I only glance, stroll past;
but with cats, pigeons, and masks,
I am studious.
The pigeons see all,
see nothing, mesmerised by a dream
of showers of corn.
Cats give back
stare for stare, too insolent
to take offence.
And the masks
are watching before I stop at
their windows, or as I walk away —
not looking back, unsnubbable.
Pigeons live in crevices, behind gargoyles —
they live everywhere. Today, thronging in
the square, they form a collective of
bright-eyed indifference. Suddenly
the air is fanned by their wings,
hundreds are following an old man
to his door. Soon he stands among them,
flinging seeds from a paper bag. They are
his disciples; layered wing on wing, they feed
on his smallest words.
The mask-maker stands in the dusk
at the back of his shop, hunched over
a sun which radiates from his hands;
its gilded rays frame a too-cheerful grin.
On the bench, a new moon smiles softly.
At Carnival, you become what you are not,
or what you are — some secret self.
But who will assume this old woman's
face with its maze of wrinkles
and Medusa-tangle of white hair?
Centering the display, it is surrounded
by Scorpion, Double Face, Jolly Old Man.
From her verandah, my neighbour
starts arguments with passers-by,
lifts agèd hands in greeting.
Above the canal's grey sheen,
light etches her face more deeply
each day. No need to tell her
the great river is always moving on…
Witch-like, she contemplates
mist, falling away or rising;
geraniums, shrivelling or blazing;
hears cat fights, the play
of children, songbirds in cages.
Along cobbles by the canal,
young girls are playing late,
will come to no harm.
Their laughter punctuates words
I am beginning, at last,
to recognise:
domani, luna, stupido.
When Carla's mother calls
down to her, the sound is
a shimmering orange scarf
unfurled in the night air,
As the island becomes
a familiar labyrinth
you uproot yourself,
probe vicolo, cul-de-sac,
till you light on a hotel
known six years before
in another existence
you do not want to remember.
Clean, anonymous, austere,
it is eminently erasable.
You turn tail, head for the water.
As if it were a bar, young men
smoke, stub their butts
in the portico of Saint Mark's.
Among fanta cans, film boxes,
I stare out from the gallery
to where a girl spits at her lover
in the centre of the Square.
They argue till wordless
inside a space filled with
pigeons and schoolchildren,
corn sellers, spivs…
Lenses close in on pearl-
pink walls, forked shadows,
the lagoon at midday
a mosaic of gold leaf.
One doorway leads in to another.
Baroque saints, fresh flowers,
votary candles askew, as if
pulled by different winds.
Crimson drapes frame the altar's
drama, ornate boxes set high.
With roof-windows open,
the church is preserving itself.
You are here to light candles again,
ask for modest, essential things:
good heart, common sense,
a measure of hope.
But this is the land of opera!
Why don't you ask for something
extravagant, like an unselfish
lover, or one moment —
only one — when you stand,
alive to every petal and shadow,
your hand a glitter of dust motes
in stained glass air.
It would be good to have a painter
who knew everything about red —
how it lies hidden in rust and gold,
holds multiplicities of rose…
It would be good to have a painter
who knew that red never really goes away:
first bud of spring; last leaf of autumn;
winter-hard berry; summery hibiscus…
So shall I toast you, Titian,
in burgundy, claret, or rosé?
Now I am opening this peach-tinted grappa
which I should not have bought,
should not be drinking…
I raise a small measure
into the light that follows sunset.
Interesting! Salute!
On the one morning I am hungover
the police call. They want to know
when and where and why and what.
I offer dates, hypotheses,
false regrets for unsigned forms.
They juggle notebooks, words…
Fortunately, two half-languages
do not make a whole…A far cry
from inquisitive forbears,
they wear broad gold bands,
sport avuncular bellies. Concerned,
one points to my bare feet on marble.
The final week… Saturnine eyeballs
confer. What to do but shrug,
set shadowed jaws, leave?
The church is a maze of altars and angles
at any time, but today, Holy Saturday,
a mammoth Christ-on-the-Cross
slants through reshuffled pews.
Against the cavernous dark,
candles, electric and real.
With even his dog at a loss,
a blind man stumbles, displaces
a woman in black. Decades of piety
have not prepared her for this: she sidles
away, unable to find the gesture. The squat
priest bends at his shoulder, offers words' solidity.
Matteo's nonna wheels his pram over
cobbles, bundles it over bridges,
singing his name and shouting:
‘Piccolo bello! Piccolo bello!’
Matteo's almost transparent lids
are closing: now he no longer hears her
but has begun to dream her voice…
Hard work, being a baby in Italy.
Today, the peace summit.
In a gilded room, the President
talks and smiles beneath unseen
cobwebs woven by very old spiders…
His face to the sea, a monk
in saffron robes, white shirt,
prays for peace on the Zattere.
His figured drum beats
A roar in ripples, a well-aimed splash
flushed triumph behind a wheel…
Slowly, the monk gathers his things,
shifts ground, resumes his chant.
The sun is beginning to set.
People stroll past his back,
look out at gold light, gold water.

The body in time

Last updated August 18, 2022