Venice, Paola Bruna's "City of the Mind"
city of the mindThis 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."
by childlike fantasies and
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
lulled by the sea like a fish
—by Paola Bruna
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 cityI 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:
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
desert cityIt 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."
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
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:
...And the final line, looking towards the future, the surrender of a drowning city: rien ne va plus, the die is cast.
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