Three Poems

Peter Porter

Pisa Oscura

You know how images keep coming back,
The lifted arm before the heart attack,
Yet out of all the basket-work of shapes
And plots, those vandalised electroscapes
Of daytime dreaming, how remarkable
The least significant of them is able
To light the mind and flood the memory!
Don’t introspect if you want honesty,
And that’s what Freudians presumably
Intend when fixing eyes upon a past
That’s like a slow vertiginous open-cast
Whose work load is regrettably colossal,
Its every truth impacted like a fossil.
So holidays from thinking look like cards
Of saints in shrouds and girls in leotards
Proclaiming less a haunting charm of face
Than unexpected valency of place,
Or so I felt, midway from sink to freezer –
When there before me hovered dusty Pisa.
The town’s historical, a saucer round a cup
Of regional accidie, a dried-up
Vacuumed-out Ligurian emptiness –
I’ve been there often and enjoyed it less
Each time until this year when suddenly
Of all the history-pitted bits of Italy
I found it most like home, a proper cage
(Not Pound’s) to hold the aging spirit’s rage.
Streets almost empty, traffic ice-cream slow,
The silent squares out of de Chirico,
All tourists heading for the Leaning Tower
(The bars have yet to learn of Happy Hour)
And history’s ghosts so sullen they won’t come
Into the present at the Guide Book’s drum.
Of the famed Piazza dei Miracoli
This poem has nothing much to say – degree
Of leaning from the vertical perhaps,
The bombs that made Benozzo’s frescoes maps,
Incorrigible youth which carves its name
On G. Pisano’s pulpit without shame,
Perhaps to discount in one heresy
The intolerable weight of history
And catch the tired tourist as he gapes
In wonder at the time-defying shapes
And with a CARLO or an ELVIRA
Restore the present in a vandal’s scar.
The private miracle the site enshrines
Is in the meeting-up of marble lines,
Geometry inscribed on empty sky,
Invisible gods held fast by symmetry,
And all the dead, great figures in their day,
Not knowing that their names have worn away,
Insisting still in pompous silence that
A Campo Santo is no Ganges ghat
But, filled with dust brought from the Holy Land
And peregrine of faith in sacred sand,
Retains a monumental gesture for
The rotting body and redundant law.
The rest of Pisa sleeps beyond this square,
Few tourists break their scheduled journey there
To wander back towards the river and,
Cascading maps and ice-cream cones in hand,
Quiz Ugolino’s tower and Shelley’s garden
Or Byron’s palace – value judgments harden
When dull façades and husks of buildings lour
On a weedy yellow river and each door
Is fortified by bars and rusty bolts
And echoes only to the Fiats and Colts
And Renaults charioteering the Lungarno,
Italia martire ma cum grano.
Yet here, before a bridge, tucked in between a
Lorry and the sky, the della Spina
Church appears, God’s jewel-box, a toy
Created for that icon’d marvellous boy
Italians in their hearts have made of Christ
(His rape of Heaven, His Redeemer’s heist!)
To shrine the thorn which tore His silver skin
Before the clause of Godhead thundered in.
This Lilliputian church, not Dante’s spite
Brings Pisa from an untransfigured night
Straight to my dreams – this is the grace of love
That Dante’s terza rima cannot prove,
The reconciling shape which frees mankind
From murderous faction of a poet’s mind.
If medieval wholeness ever was,
This is its only symbol, its True Cross,
This, while the burning wheel of faith revolved,
Showed saint and sinner all would be resolved,
That, with his fondness for ‘I told you so’,
Dante was just some foiled Castruccio.
A similar anathema still sends a
Shudder through me in the Sapienza –
No university could survive that name
And modern seats of learning trim the flame
To safe and low accountability,
Their Galileos home in time for tea;
Though one emboldened tutor broke the spell –
‘Let me be Virgil, I will show you Hell!’
For Hell, as Shelley said, might be a city
Much like London, dressed in cold self-pity
Fanning-out in grids from dread of death,
Its towers of hate above, its sewers beneath
Where flows the dreck of self – the squares, the prisons
All at the service of destructive visions.
This in my chill mid-morning I recalled
As Autumn vapour pecked and spilled and stalled
Around my window: a city of the mind
Whose used-up living lives on in its rind,
A Pisa worse than the exhausted South
Despairing ever at the river’s mouth,
A shadow city, formed of self and soul,
Its past pristine, its present on the dole.

Small Latin, and Less Greek

The mind has bias like a bowl, it will keep moving
round and away from how you want it to go
and so you must allow for this by aiming
indirectly when you cast. Perhaps you can’t.

I want to say something with no reference
to names or culture, something about Autumn
and wet leaves scattered like the cardboard tops
of oven-ready suppers. Odds on I shan’t succeed.

Instead I’ll remember aphorisms, lectures
and the curious choice of music at Lowell’s
Memorial Service in Redcliffe Square. Childhood
found a way with facts, it collected them like stamps.

The things which are going to count play second fiddle
to the really interesting things – thus Physics
and Euripides alike are soon found under
‘Plots of the Operas’ by J. Walker McSpadden.

The most to hope for is to hit something good
when you’ve missed your target. A lot
of learning is a dangerous thing, and leaves
will turn and keep on falling. The trees are erudite.

A Bag of Pressmints

In the middle of a difficult book,
called I see ‘The Allergy of Love’,
I ask through a cloud of interference
or is it the Claud of Unknowing
why the spectral voice of truth
is fiddling with my chosen words.

It’s not that these are simple messages,
God getting in touch with Pharaoh
or the dog of death mooching with the Furies,
rather it’s the sky unscrambling
in its joy of chaos: everything in place
but huge disorder in our view of it.
The world was misprinted its first day.
In the beginning was the lord;
Coercion or Correction was His name;
He hungered in the Book of Genocide
and the great beast, the Adversary,
was Grauniad, the ever-eating mother,
appearing soon afterwards at the breakfast table
as reason’s voice, the Guardian.

This is to snatch significance
from decadence of purpose. Language,
though it says it knows its place,
will always try to be subversive,
telling the eight a.m. analysand
that jokes or tumblersful of sherry
won’t blunten Grandma’s teeth one bit
and little girls will never get out of the wood
even if they do know how to spell.

Here it comes again, like an ellipse
of the sun. I’m correcting proofs
in a dream and find I’ve written
‘Patriots always stand for the
National Anathema.’ And two lines later,
‘Seven Hypes of Ambiguity’ –
I’m quite relieved my misprints
make such sense. A pity my books
are kept so plain by too much meaning.

Help yourself to a strong mint from my bag,
it will take responsibility off your breath.