Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Tuesday Poem - Getting to know you, Venice


Pigeons in Venice are born mathematicians.
Under their wings, the flash of fob watch
and compass with metal point sharpened.

Kohl-eyed from nights spent marking
and route-mapping, they leave their ledges
in the mornings, the distance between dome,
cornice and cobbled square plotted ahead
for ease of business. The city is theirs - a lavish
3D drawing of scrubbed stone and stolen-gold
mosaics, an almost-place conjured by saints
and lines, angles and lions, and - of course -
the pigeons' squawk. Raucous at ground level,
they are silent in flight, daring to keep
the company of angels, graceful enough
not to graze the pinnacles of temples.
Down a side street, away from the crowds,
a gondolier monitors his comrades' movements
via cellphone; the smells of garlic, myrrh
and dead fish mix. And above it all, the quiet
white whirr of pigeons' wings. I imagine
it might be possible to attempt the impossible
here - grow feathers, dissolve solid marble
on the tongue.

In this city, where rain falls from frescoes
and children fence their shadows in courtyards
at dusk, even the gutters and drainpipes
and dirt bins shimmer.


A decade ago, I was lucky enough to spend some time in Venice, a city that had (as is true for so many) occupied the vaulted basements, tiled rooftops and watery alleys of my imagination for years. Before I'd had any inkling I might actually one day go there, I experienced two especially powerful encounters with the place - each time through a book; the first, whilst reading Jeanette Winterson's The Passion where I seemed often to be walking a few steps ahead of one of her characters, Villanelle - a cross-dressing, web-footed, red-haired young woman living in the city during Napoleonic times - so that I found myself somehow knowing before 'we' got there which street she'd choose to turn into, where she was heading, who she would meet, the nature of their exchange and how things were likely to end up. Villanelle's clothes and attitudes, the city's sounds and smells, its bridges and flat-bottomed boats, interior spaces and outer features were as familiar to me as if I'd lived there - or at the very least pre-read and committed to memory, that story. I have no way of explaining this. It was not something that had happened to me whilst reading a book before - neither has it happened since; I was both fascinated and a little unsettled by it at the time. 

Venezia - 1613

My second significant encounter came whilst reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (you can read Jeanette Winterson's compelling review of this book here.). Again, it was as though I'd been listening in on a conversation from a bygone time. It's probable both these experiences can be explained away by linking back to art school where we studied Venetian art and architecture in quite some detail, but I'm content to consider life is sometimes more mysterious and unknowable than we can imagine.

When I did eventually get to Venice, I was woken in the pre-dawn hours of our second night there by a massive thunderstorm (I wrote in my journal afterwards that it had sounded like 'a marble sky cracking'). I have always adored thunderstorms and the pull to be outside in one in Venice was too strong to resist. I  crept out of the bed where P, my then-husband, was sleeping, pulled on the nearest garments and headed barefoot into the dark. It didn't occur to me that it might be a crazy, hair-brained thing to do; we had barely arrived, let alone oriented. I couldn't speak Italian (although I do have a reasonable handle on Latin!); I might have gotten horribly lost, been captured or mobbed down a side-alley and dumped into an oily black canal. . . and how on earth was I going to find my way back to our tiny hotel without a torch, candle or map? These thoughts and details only occurred to me in retrospect, hours later when P and I were standing in front of Tintoretto's heart-stopping paintings in the Scuola Grande di san Rocco.

In the moment, I was beyond hesitation, beyond fear or good sense; I took to the streets with exhilarating joy, running with bare arms outstretched to drink up the rain, my face turned not to the ground but to the sky so I could bear full witness to its drama. Heaven was in the mood for tantrums, belting out its protestations and indignation with the most terrific lack of restraint. I cannot recall how long I was out there, only know that the hair on my arms, the skin on my throat and the nape of my neck still remember the texture and temperature of that rain. The soles of my feet still carry the memory of the city's stone streets.

Running through Venice in the fist of that storm remains one of the most vivid - and deeply free - moments of my life.  


For more Tuesday Poems, please visit the hub where Jo Thorpe's poem Hunt the slipper: a romantic divertimissemente begins 

'Taglioni's lilies,' he says
handing her a long-stemmed
bouquet in the bar near
his chambers. . . 


  1. maggie@at-the-bay.comDecember 7, 2010 at 10:05 AM

    Oh Claire, your passion, eye and voice for beauty is extraordinary - my recollection of Venice is far more mundane - on a gondola with hubby and the Gondolier and his partner who was supposed to serenade us, argued the entire journey until they settled on a rate (well, we think that's what they were arguing about) and finally, just as we were about to disembark, the musician burst into song... :)

  2. I like both the poem and the story of your own time in Venice. I, too, am a fan of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities but you made the queen of the Adriatic--intriguing how she also remains queen of our imaginations--live for me in a different way ...

  3. I've always felt that anythig real or unreal can happen in Venice..you've sort of proved it..thank you..

  4. And the birds never suffer from Stendhal Syndrome!

    A wonderfully evocative poem. Calvino was really something. I love that book and of course Six Memos ... and all of them right back to Borges.

  5. Dear Maggie - your experience of Venice sounds every bit as memorable as mine! It's a place of incongruities, that's for sure - a no-holds-barred expression of the sacred and profane, the mundane and profound,grubbiness and shimmer. I loved every bit of it; ah, the mirage city ; ).

  6. Dear Helen, together we create a composite, our different impressions and experiences like parts of a puzzle waiting - and happy - to be placed on the table together. Thanks for your comments. Long may the queen of the Adriatic live, and in as many different ways as there are people who visit her!

  7. Hello Lyn - welcome, and thank you for coming. I have enjoyed visiting your site; am so glad you found your way here.

  8. Hi John - thanks for reminding me of Stendhal Syndrome; I haven't thought if it for ages. Wikipedia's definition is rather amusing, I thought -

    "Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal's syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place. The term can also be used to describe a similar reaction to a surfeit of choice in other circumstances, e.g. when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world. . . "

    I think this might be something I've experienced in Antarctica! Imagine a young Venetian pigeon, off on his/her first flight across the city, catching a glimpse of St. Mark's mosaic floor from a dizzy height - or seeing one small corner of Tintoretto's Last Supper through an open window,and then plummeting to the ground with awe.

    Italo Calvino was certainly something - 'If on a winter's night a traveler. . . ' Oh, and 'Under the Jaguar Sun' which he never completed; his essay on the nose still open-ended, as if waiting for some new scent to rise up and nudge the story to a close.

    Thanks for your comments, John.

  9. Your poem is very evocative. Another author who writes wonderful prose about Venice is Michelle Lovric - who I first encountered through Sarah Salway's blog.

  10. Wow! I read your poem and your description of your Venice experience with bated breath, Claire. I have yet to visit Venice, but you have truly created a seed of longing! I love the defiance of the lines, 'I imagine it might be possible to attempt the impossible here'. It drives your poem and the narrative of your experience. Stunning!

  11. Something happen to me last week as well - to meet a storm, to be a part of it. It's crazy isn't it? To be drawn so strongly to something. I was terrified of the storm at first, the wind was of another world, but I had to be a part of it, no matter how crazy it made me "seem"
    I'll never forget it.

  12. Claire, glad to see here that you've included in your Venice-song the "dead fish mix" and "dirt bins shimmer". It's certainly a city overflowing with both the extraordinary and the, uh, smelly. (I was there in 95 degree July).

    And "the quiet white whirr of pigeon's wings" stopped my breath for just a moment.

    This poem, and your commentary, was a perfect accompaniment to my morning coffee!

  13. i am happy that you have conjured up visions of venice for us, claire...of course your visions are as always so wondrous, so watery, so luminescent.

    i was there many years ago...and then again, in a february -- it was snowing (fairyworld) --not so many years ago, with matthew...my then husband. oh dear...is venice fated to be a place so beautiful that sadness insists on being a part of it?

  14. Claire, under your wings too, such a precise navigational instrument. That you could abandon yourself with such joy to the dark and in the storm, and find your way home (and love the journey...) px

  15. Hi Catherine - Thank you for this reference to Michelle Lovric and her writing. I didn't know she'd written so extensively about Venice. Here's a link to her website for anyone who'd like to follow up.


    It's a difficult place to write about, Venice - at least, I find it so. I always feel I'll fall short. I feel like that about Antarctica, too. How does one capture/communicate places that seem to be inhabited by an Elusive Other? Seems to me they require an altogether new language. . . but stubbornness keeps some of trying!

  16. Elizabeth, thank you for your full response. I would certainly encourage you to make the journey and when you do, to stay in the back streets, away from the crowds. You can stay in convents and monasteries where ancient arts such as illuminated manuscript painting and chanting are still being practiced exactly as they were centuries ago. It's a bit of a time warp, that's for sure - but then again, so much of Venice is like that. One stumbles upon decay and magnificence when most and least expected, so that one's eyes are constantly having to adjust to extremes of dark and light. It's not a place one can erase from memory - it seems to take up residence, and stay. ; )

  17. Hi Rachel - our experience of storms was similar, yes. Like many fears (all fears?), when we meet them head on, they are less likely to fell us. We may be momentarily stopped in our tracks, all a-tremble, but as we move towards them, so our courage grows until we are able to hold them in the hand, turn them about, examine them, set them down, or place them in our pockets in a manageable shape and size. I am often struck by your staying power. L, C xo

  18. Dear T - 95 degrees F! Phew. (I had to do the conversion - that's 35 degrees C.) It can be a sweltering, sticky place that's for sure. Did you write about your time there? I'm sure you did. . . perhaps you'll post a Venice vignette or poem, too, some time? Lovely to think of being your company over morning coffee, T. Thanks ; ). xo

  19. Dear Susan - hmm. I wonder about Venice and sadness, fated-ness, too. It seems inevitable in some ways that it would be a crucible for 'everything and all sorts'. There's nothing half-hearted about it. Does it then follow that one should be warned before going there; Venice is not a city for the faint-hearted?! I don't know. Perhaps the same can be said of love and romance? We are required to have great measures of stamina, spontaneity, clear senses of creative boundaries and happy abandon.

    I digress . . . Love to you in Maine (one of my Dunedin friends is on her way to Maine for Christmas, lucky her! Her name is Jenny - she will love your lakes and mountains. Look out for her? ; )) C xo

  20. Dear Pam - one of our life tasks is to learn to trust our internal navigation systems? We might not always feel ready, willing or prepared for certain parts of the journey, but by putting one foot in front of the other we find our way forward? And, too - the surprise of it - every so often we remember, or find, we have wings to unfurl, too. Some stretches require us to let go of the ground and fly - others, that we keep our feet in direct contact with compost and ground. Whatever the way, there's hardly a dull moment. (Perhaps our challenges can also be considered our privileges? They are certainly our places of learning.). L, C xx

  21. What great images and sounds brought out in your words. I'm glad I found your blog!

  22. Wow....that's an amazing poem.i'd love to be able to write like that someday:) I just started dabbling in poetry and look up to poets like you with an original,unique voice.
    Will definitely drop back for more

  23. Dear Gordon - welcome to this little corner of the blogosphere. I'm glad you found your way here, too. I wonder if it was through Annie Kerr, where I found my first references to your poetry? I'm pleased to have discovered your blog and work, too, and look forward to reading more. All the best - and thanks for coming, Claire

  24. Claire - yes, I found you through Annie!

  25. Hello Zarrin, poet from Ireland - welcome to '... All finite things reveal infinitude... ' I am glad that you have come. Thank you for your comments on this 'Venice' poem. You might enjoy visiting our Tuesday Poem communal site - www.tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com
    All the best with your writing. Claire

  26. Gordon - all thanks to Annie then! I have added your site to my blog roll. . . am enjoying Thunnerplump (so many great first lines - 'A grouch of eyebrows', 'Like the paper birch, my heart/ has cast its bark.' ) I am curious about the title. . . the word 'thunnerplump.' Google reveals nothing about its origins or meaning. Would you you give us a hint, please?!

    The Red Ceiling press is a rather wonderful initiative, too.

    Have a great weekend. Claire

  27. The surreal, certainly non-ordinary literary experiences you described are the Venice of my mind. The process, as best I know it, is the unconsciously intentional disengaging of gears that carry us forward at a predictable pace. When those teeth no longer interlock, all is free-wheeling and possible. I so love traveling with you.

  28. Dear Marylinn - you have a beautiful gift for synthesis. . . we are indeed held between the teeth of so many things; not least our fears? How much more becomes possible when the jaw of those (imaginary) restraints relaxes and we give ourselves permission to tumble into cartwheels and forward-rolls; and sometimes on and up to the trapeze high-wire? Where ever we end up - whether burrowing beneath the ground or on the back of an albatross - is important. The view from one can't help but enhance the other?

    I'm ever so happy to be traveling with you, too.