Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Venice, Paola Bruna's "City of the Mind"

city of the mind
by childlike fantasies and
worries exhausted
of my mendacious mind
at nothing laughing
and for the flower crying
'cause it dies
not knowing how to save it
so nothing remains for this
fickle mind of mine but
to forget now and hereafter
— as it did before —
and thus continue on its own
to rhyme
lulled by the sea like a fish

by Paola Bruna
This poem is taken from the Venetian poet Paola Bruna's book of poems, which takes its title from the first line of this poem, Citta della mente (City of the Mind), published in both Italian and English (trans. Emma Sereni) by Supernova Edizioni in 2004. I was delighted to find this collection early during my first visit to Venice last year, and bought it less as a memento of the trip, but more as a guide as I anxiously sought to get over the shellshock of arriving at the fabled La Serenissima and find a vocabulary with which I could engage in dialogue and grasp with the wondrous, dreamy realm that had so enchanted John Ruskin when he described in his Stones of Venice like "a ghost upon the sands of sea, so weak—so quiet,—so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might as well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow."

In his poem called "Glass", Robert Francis writes, "Words should be looked through, would be windows. / The best word were invisible. / The poem is the thing the poet thinks." (The reference to a Venetian glass trinket in the poem is purely coincidental, but isn't it amazing how Venice is immortalized in art throughout the world?). Paola Bruna's eighteen poems in City of the Mind, in my opinion, are models of this idea. It was through these lines that I acquired the idioms that would inform my experience of Venice. From the title poem itself I discovered a city with walls shimmering from the sunlight reflected in the canals and a perpetually shifting, watercolour on emerald ground. It is a city that, from the sky, takes a curious resemblance to a fish, "lying pink in the green of the lagoon", says the poet in another piece, with walls of the fondamenta lining its canals rising and falling with the tide. It is "city of silences" where one can wander through a maze of narrow and shadowed alleys to pass by "the dumb fountain / the shattered window / the unhealthy house/ the crumbling canal bank", images that speak of the wabi-sabi quality of Venice, to stop at an unexpected view of the Grand Canal where one might give voice to accompany the sounds of waves lapping on stone to a lyric poem that in its first stanza reveals Bruna's profound existential identification with Venice, a city that hovers between being and nothingness:

double city
contemplating your unquiet image
in the liquid mirror where like you
I see myself
desolate shell on the shore
you oblivious of your pearly heart
I of the sea's voice
I would always remember my late night excursions into the "city of the shadow / darting stealthily along mouldering / walls ...", seeing silhouetted glimpses of other night-walkers flitting across bridges and suddenly disappearing through a darkened opening, "... and farther and farther I track / the trace of the crab that will lead me / out of the labyrinth into the open sea / where to shipwreck at last peacefully," and learning the truth behind the lines of:

desert city
dessicated and shattered
as this soul of mine
that in the labyrinth got lost
and wonders now along shallow
nocturnal canals which cannot
reflect the feebly lingering light
that still shines hidden in its
It is true. Having gotten lost and sat myself on the ledge at the end of a calli that had led to yet another opening to a canal without a bridge, poring over a map, I saw the stagnant water glow dimly from the lights of faraway palaces shimmering through the submerged forests that supports the stones of Venice above, what Marcel Proust described as an "imperceptible echo of a last note of light held indefinitely on the surface of the canals" — "Paola Bruna's Venice is real," says Bruna's compatriot, the literary critic Bruno Rosada, in the preface to The City of the Mind, "Ruthlessly real."

Clearly there is still much to be said about Paola Bruna's poetry. How the unpunctuated verses and indented lines give a sense of flowing water, and if we were to somehow relate the sometimes strangely inverted phrases (which in my opinion is a consequence of translation that leaves something more to be desired, judging by what little I could take from the Italian version presented alongside each poem) to Robert Bly's notion of shaping a poem's flow by —I'm paraphrasing from memory here, having lost the source—introducing linguistic obstacles like rocks in stream where pools of meaning gather and the energies inherent in a poem are shaped.

I have not read these poems for some time, until I decided that I would write about them for Puisi-Poesy today, and reading them again I found myself returning to Venice. These poems were the glass through which I saw Venice, and looking through them again, I see my memories more clearly than a photograph or a painting could evoke—Robert Francis' "Venetian trinkets".

It seems that I could go on, because I've barely scratched the surface of the wealth of poetry and art that has been inspired by Venice, but I leave you now with the final lines of the last poem in Paola Bruna's The City of the Mind, where the poet resorts to French phrases, as a way, perhaps, to tell us, how much of its story of it's past and present is left untold, ineffable:
dell'incontro e dell'addio— e
cosi sia piacendo a Dio —
del je t'aime e dell'I love you
dell'io e del tu
del rien ne vas plus


of encounters and adieus
— God willing it may do —
of je t'aime and I love you
of me and you
of rien ne va plus
And the final line, looking towards the future, the surrender of a drowning city: rien ne va plus, the die is cast.

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Blogger Leon Wing said...

I'm so glad someone here has finally posted some Italian poetry. Incidentally I wanted, earlier on, to post something about the way rhythms work in some Italian arias, but was persuaded out of this, as it might be too high-brow and put off a lot of people. Thanks, I enjoy this posting.

9:29 AM, June 27, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Haha, Leon, guilty as charged. :) Not that I have anything against Italian arias... in fact, I would love to learn more from you over a cup of coffee in an open air cafe, though not on this blog (we could put it to a vote if we all do meet at the readings this Sat). Interestingly enough... Leon, you brought back memories of me listening to an old Italian man singing O sole mio at his cafe where I was having breakfast. Though it wasn't in Italy that I met him, but his warmth and love for life was simply infectious... I am really missing the coffee there, as I am sipping some poor 'imitation' of coffee here at my uni's canteen.

Speaking of translated poetry, it's really nice that we had Latin American and Tamil poetry on this blog, not forgetting Sharon's Malay pantun. Now, we have Italian poetry here... :)

Thanks Machinist, I really love this piece. Though you don't write here as often, whenever you do, it's a definite gem, like this one, where you share with us your romance of Venice....

I love the water-mirror metaphor that where both poet and city come together as one. It's lovely... You know, I told myself some years ago, when I read an article on Venice that if I ever do get married, with enough money to spare, Venice would be the place I would honeymoon, Now, to find a girlfriend, hahaha....

10:43 AM, June 28, 2007  
Blogger enar arshad said...

always wanted to be in venice...far away dreams...for a far away city.

10:43 PM, July 01, 2007  
Blogger Ben Samin said...

hey guys, try and check out my poems and tell me if they're worth a rat's nut... : )

and that's poet's wallow FYI, not poet swallow... we dont.. heheh... thanks all

2:14 AM, July 08, 2007  
Blogger msiagirl said...

Thanks so much for posting this lovely and evocative piece about Venice and the visions of Venice. Good to see some of Bruna's writing here, I enjoyed what you said about seeking the imagery/language of this city.As Venice is one of my favourite cities, I hope to go back sometime soon. All the words you have chosen bring back its true being and I love your beautiful photos too. As always, so very well written.

3:25 AM, July 10, 2007  
Blogger Ben Samin said...

hey, what do all of you think of Pablo Neruda? i believe his words can pierce my heart literally because i can feel the pain, the love, the heart... and then surprise surprise, he had the same birthday as me! 12th July 2007... i want a preasent guys.. a BIIIIGGG one with ribbons... kaw-tim?

1:10 AM, July 14, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Thanks for the kind comments all, I am very pleased to have found Bruna's book... it is one of the better keepsakes from my travels. I just wish that I could appreciate it in the original Italian.

Ben, happy birthday. We had a poem by Neruda at Puisi-Poesy before called "Your Laughter". Maybe you'd like to share with us your thoughts on that poem?

9:21 AM, July 14, 2007  
Blogger Abhinav said...

Very wonderful. Venice is one of my favorite cities. I loved this post!

1:29 AM, January 10, 2008  
Blogger sneexe said...

Wow! Hello everybody, it feels like home!


am linking you from my blog. And will be visiting regularly, if not often.

3:06 PM, January 14, 2008  

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