Series 3 No.11 - Frontiers

In the face of such terror language loses all relevance and ceases to matter and who is there left to speak or to speak with? And yet what else can we hang on to?

These texts were written over a period of time, roughly speaking between ten and twenty years ago. They talk, in an immediate sense, of the village in the Alta Val-camonica that my grandfather migrated to London from many years ago, and in a wider sense of language, memory and place. Originally part of a longer prose work about migration that melts together language with time, I think they are finished pieces of work, while remaining part of a larger body of ongoing texts, essays and translations. I have lived mostly in London but with a mountain culture inside me and I began to write poetry sensing a second language hidden within. This work addresses issues of mother tongue and grandfather tongue and, I hope, the nature  of memory and text – since poetry is my mother tongue and English the language I write it in. Another part of the text has been published as Mountain Language/ Lingua di montagna (Hearing Eye, London 2008) with an Italian translation by Cristina Viti returning it to the language from which in a real sense it comes. 


I can hear a man walking in front of me down the slabbed road. That should not surprise me. Nothing should surprise me in this sharp attenuated air. I know who it is: it is you, nonno, going in your hobbled boots on the uncambered roadway down from Precasaglio to the town of Ponte. You are just entering the town’s edge, going past the first stone house. Soon you will go through the gap where the road forms the ground floor of the arched house. I know without the shadow of a doubt that it is you and you are twenty-two years old and you have just decided, suddenly and in finality that you must leave these mountains and go. Painful that decision: but also without pain, holding the complexity of a world in one body and soul. But it never flickered through you then that I would have to come and find you almost ninety years later. I can hear you, nonno, a handful of metres in front of me. Your footfalls ring out from the cold flags. I can almost reach out and touch you, yet always you just elude me. It is firm but dreamlike, this vision of migration, this startled geography, this life stuttered with sudden clarity. Are only dreams the most real, dreams and death ? Why does such invisible loss seem the most palpable ? Or does death release what is real while our being alive is but a coursing of pretence and sleep ? Even these sharp and lovely moments of lucidity during daytime lives have to be likened to tiny deaths. Even though we love being alive and live our loves with passion. It is winter grandfather and you have just left the village of Precasaglio. You have just walked out of that bird-scooped cluster of houses hung above the raging river where young women wash clothes clean. Bird-scooped. You’ve walked the ridges and cart-ruts of the road. The snow-enclosed cemetery of the mountains. The church where your carved altar-rail still stands keeping separate the priest from his people. Past the flower-drained meadows and appendicitis fields. The road-fork at the church of Zoanno. The zag of the road going down to the workshop of the carpenter Ferrari. His turbid river at the corner still some distance out of Ponte. Along the narrow level in spate with the river you walk a hundred years before me and still I see you down the gradient as it plunges a little into the town (superb to look under the casual bridges and see the exploding waters). Under the floor of the road-arced house. Past the votive Virgin you painted when you were seventeen on the outer wall of Santini Giacomo’s house. The oldest part of the town, changed little from how you knew it. That perhaps is why I am able to tear a gap through the veil of history and see you. That is why I can hear you now at this end of the final century and listen to the history of your migration at its beginning. That is why a little reality can flow back through me by the rip of its veil. I thought I would not be able to finish this fiction but now maybe I can. Or start it at least and let it ravel to reality. I can hear you there in front of me, the hob of your shoes spitting on austere flags. In front of me almost a century ago. What else should there be left to hear ? Is it as if sounds were still so air-struck and clear ? What has memory done ? Down one side of the valley everything freezes, down the other are villages, earth, bodies, stone, grass in sunlight. Sat in a cart and pulled by a horse I can hear you breathing. Your stuff of life. In no time you will reach Milan. Then time will spin backwards until you swivel through Paris and get to London. But, nonno, how can I talk to you when I never met you in my life ? How is this discourse possible and the only one that has sustained me through my tiny deaths ? Such moments of reality to lead to a sort of ecstasy. Such endings at the beginning that are always …


There is a place above the last cluster of homes but before the final and sometimes inhabited baita, where the path crests a hill and flattens out a little and there is almost a small field of scorched tree stumps, where you know that something once happened, though quite what or when is not clear. There is an atmosphere of slight desolation, that is all, but it is enough to begin a story. It may have been where a number of friends, herders fetching sheep in the fourteenth century, were overtaken by a sudden and unexpected avalanche, sheep and dogs and herders scattered and four of the men killed outright, just smashed about. Or it may have been where the village priest, on his way down from the high baite having delivered unction to a dying parishioner three centuries later, was waylaid in the dusk going on dark by some bandit who thought him someone else and who spent his own next twenty years trying to resist the overwhelming sense of guilt until he drowned himself in icy waters unable to throw off at last the black mood of despair. Or it may have been that a middle-aged mother one winter’s afternoon swooned by worry at the sudden illness of her latest child carried the babe wrapped in blankets down toward the village but slipped on the black ice of the path and cracked her lowest vertebra, the two of them held there in the gloom and savage frost of the night, she dead in the morning huddled over him and he moaning slightly under her dead weight. Just so we walk paths, like the lone traveller in Dürer’s winter scene getting past the frozen pond and equally frozen meadows while freezing birds drop out of the sky and in a far distance the white mountains glimpsed bring unaccountable tears to our eyes, that though we stop to watch even so we inevitably carry on. Or it could have been that partisans coming down off the white zones of the war were ambushed here by traitors of the occupying force and killed not far from their homes, or alternatively that partisans ambushed their fellow citizens of the different persuasion, and that murders were done quickly harshly and brutally leaving a savage mess for dear ones to find, though the partisanning must have been from centuries gone since acts from but one lifetime ago would have carried their own clear story to our ears and eyes. Or there as in the painting by Breughel we must have seen ravens in the cold and grey air as travellers passed by toward what burst stories or shattered zones we could hardly dare to imagine. What is it about time that stops or in that place where the slope evens out, flattening time totally, and a patch of scorched stumps indicate trees, trees that might almost have been human. There in precisely that place five thousand years back, perhaps five thousand exactly for all I know, a shaman left behind his slaughtered son, wiped a reject of blood on his face and his tongue and walked the few hours up to the hanging glacier by whose edge he invoked geologies we can hardly conjure and ate some parts of the mushroom de magica  right before immersing his body in the fissure’s crevice, flaming with ice, from where he was carried down all these years to be deposited unambiguously and clinically at our moraine’s edge flanked by trees that would be cut down and burnt. Whichever or all of these might have happened on this grass, there is an atmosphere here where the trees thin out to charred stumps, an aura that is strange to define …


What happened to us in those years ? What happened in the interims that we have got to where we are now ? What happened after we’d established the family tree in the house of Annibale ? What happened to his sons and his daughter who were well doing in school back then ? What happened to his nephews who drove lorries across Europe and his nieces who waited in their kitchens and domains ? How did it occur among the youth of those years that so many took to their veins dirty needles, that so many shared the communal fix from the goodness of their hearts, from the darkness of their bloods, from their urge to share and not to disdain each other. What happened to Annibale’s son that his photograph got into the wall-niche of the snow cemetery before Annibale himself could get there. What white powders gave them succour in those bloated winters. Each snowless day Annibale walks up past Sankt Apollonia of the butters and cheese to his baita where once Luigi drove me in his four-wheel through ice flows and frozen speckled pastures in an astonishing scatter of driven skills. There is a photograph of me on the snow-path, grey-hair cropped, walking shorts, a glass in my hand, a smile on my face, a delight to have held history in my hands, to have held history back a short while and looked four-square into its poor face. Every written word is lost to time, it comes a second, a minute, a century after speech or act or the science of speech acts or the violence of friendship or the silence of snow. The last time I was in Annibale’s house in Precasaglio, we had just come out of a little local harvest gala in Gadda’s church and walked the thirty or so metres to Annibale’s blue door. There he opened it and we went through into his living room and in a while back to the kitchen, the place where real conversations happen, and we were joined by many and no one, and stories blossomed from the beams and dialect flowed and red wine and salami and breads. This was another gala, unrepeatable language in the backroom of an old house, beyond the power of speech, beyond the confines of politics. This is what can only be interrupted by time or assassination or white powder or the poverty of capitalism in the heart. All of us gathered in the small room, no one on ceremony, no one caring about pretence or appearance, all as we were with song and talk. But what happened in those years, that span between the appearance of the family tree in Annibale’s front room and the gala of shared speech in the back one ? What in the boredom of village winters, in the archive of repudiated histories, in the hands that throttle time, what in the parasitic visitations of the rich and infamous or the parabolas of war, what in all this drove the children to white powders and a sweet share-out of contaminated needles ? What drove them to deal and fix in the brown sugars of glad time ? The last I saw of Annibale he was walking fixedly in the summer sun, past the meadows beyond Precasaglio where old women in blue work-shifts and shawls still raked hay into tiny wains in the first years of the twenty-first century: Annibale on his way again to the baite and the storehouse of memory, lament maybe in his mind but more than that the sanguine knowledge of our lives and celebration of the galas of language and commune. My grandfather had walked there a century before arm in arm with his contemporary the Pezzo priest, and no doubt the same had flowered through their minds and hearts, for what changes in the micas of blood, or the flakes of sperm or of kissing eggs, or the white powders of contaminated time ? 


Nonno, didn’t you love trees as much as I love trees ? I’m sure you must have done. You must have walked up beyond Canè or up Gran Viso and gone through thinning trees until the last few remain stormed in late spring by white horses. Look, this is a matter of meditation, of meditation where time stands still and whole worlds can be sucked in or out of white and black holes ! This is what history is, not the batter of commerce, not the mass murder of innocents by imbeciles, not the constraint of hope by injunction. Trees turn into people and people into trees, as surely as a sleeping man in his troubles becomes a cockroach. Haven’t you seen high spruce bent slightly in the wind in the final meadows near the tree-line, how they sway and soak into bone and skin, how they moan and dance into blood and heart, how the bole is like a tower of blood and bone is meshed into the memory of bark. Dear heart, we destroy trees for our own peril. Or can I describe for you a circle of sycamores in St. James’s Park: how their great bowl of air swirls and dances, how their always-smaller-becoming arms and branches capillary themselves in the fortunate air. Here between the halls of a parliament and a banal regal house we can squeeze out a free space for breath ! Or in the old oaks and blackthorn of Hyde Park, or a single lost tree beside the Thames. Or the superb deciduous woodlands on the borders of Easter Sutherland and Easter Ross, or the spring festival in Glen Lyon. I once stood up through the roof of a car moving slowly through an avenue of old larch in West Lothian. I once was mesmerised by a single white-thorn at a junction of the Ochill Hills. I once was unable to leave sight of a single stately holm oak not far from Stroud until my friends half-dragged me silent away. And I’m talking now just of the trees of one island ! Think of the trees  in the Alps. Or those trees by the railway in Satyajit Ray, in Tagore, or the flayed riverine memory of Ghatak and others in places I’ve never been able to go. One time, Nonno, I lived three years on an island without trees ! And it was so, so beautiful ! An island and a moorland and a bandaged sun ! Always a bandaged sun ! And a moorland made from decayed trees, a shepherd’s cloak of peat laid down on scoured ancient rock, across the scar-line of mountains, on schists cooled from the heat of magmas at great depths, on little protuberances amid the rocking seas. Our history, a seat beneath a bandaged sun: from galaxy to gaeltacht, from binary codes to baita, veins and capillaries mapped in the skies, models of life in the code of a leaf, the colours of butterflies’ wings more complex than even our eyes. That is why, Nonno. That is why it all matters: your being born in the mountains and then your leaving the mountains and your life in a new city, with all the global tiny-nesses in between. If I write these things in both joy and despair, it may be because I’ve not eaten enough these past days, months and years, please forgive me. 


If I were to try to describe Silvi’s house, I would find it almost impossible, though in some ways it is not unlike my own home in London. But Silvi’s is on the outskirts of the mountain town, really outside it on the main road that runs above the village of Pontagna, the cluster of houses where Silvi was born. It is a large house, not only the basement for storing cheese and salamis but two storeys and a loft in addition to the ground floor and all the rooms high-ceilinged. Moreover each floor has four rooms and to the side there is a yard and stables and hutments and enclosed chicken runs and covered corners. Silvi’s father had it built in 1919, a strange time after the war, and used it not only to house their family, including at times uncles and aunts and cousins, but also as the office and stage post for the carts and horse-trucks he ferried goods with between the railhead at Edolo and the town of Ponte. Probably the war had served him quite well, with all the soldiering and trade that Gadda refers to in his Giornale di Guerra. There is a photograph from the workshop of Pino Veclani dating I imagine from the early 1920s, a sepia print of three shepherds leading a flock of sheep along the road away from Ponte. Silvi’s house is in the near mid-distance, perhaps two hundred metres behind the sheep, standing on its own in the morning sunlight and its huge sloping outhouses in shadow and cool for storage. It stands there in wide isolation starkly but warmly and in total contrast to its present setting since the whole road on both sides is now crammed with modern and expensive houses. Indeed Silvi’s house that must now be sold is also today expensive and in a way that would have dumbfounded Silvi and her father since the whole impoverished upper valley has been transformed by the tourisms of skiing. But it is not this makes Silvi’s house so extraordinary, but rather the fact that it is almost wholly unchanged inside from the mid-1950s and in some ways totally unchanged from when it was first built over eighty years ago. Because Silvi after the death of her mother in 1964 never threw a single thing out: what couldn’t be given to the pigs or chickens or manured for the vegetable garden or stored in the cool of the basement or burnt in the fireplaces, what couldn’t be disposed of naturally or given away was, in its entirety and its complex quotidian variety, simply left in her home. In this way many rooms retained their ancient beds only one of which Silvi slept in and that in a room piled high with clothes and old clothes and furniture. The yard retained its ancient farm and garden implements, its harnesses and halters, its cheese packs and butter churns, its sheep bells and bum-shaped tractor’s seats, its horse tackle and its horse, for Silvi lived on there with the animals. If an inventory were made – or the attempt at – of the contents of Silvi’s house even now five years after her death and in its empty months before any final sale, if an inventory were to be made a whole domestic and social history of the past century would ravel and unwind and furl itself into openness of our faulty senses. But the house now must be sold, because Silvi in her years of abandoning her home and her self, in her years of sadness and her years of work, in her years of giving and giving and giving, forgot to leave her home to her nearest dearest and thus the house – far from being upkept in its most pristine disorder of abandoned disinterest – must be sold for the purpose of legal equality and with regard to long-left sisters in Vienna and Graz.


Nonno, I am walking behind you. You are walking down Frith Street. You are holding by the hand a young girl, perhaps six years old. She is your eldest daughter, my mother, and you go into the café at No. 13. I follow you in. I am the young man in a woollen hat who looks across at you from time to time and who you are absently gazing over at. I remind you of a Polish or a Catalan anarchist, but more likely I am an Iranian revolutionary from the time of Mussadegh. For how long will anything last ? It seems I am much older than my mother. It seems I see her across the café air and she is a brave little girl. I say to myself ‘there is my mother and she is hardly past six’. Claustrophobic in the corner of the table. From time to time you look across at me and increasingly the shadow of a worry passes across your smile. Only some time later will it occur to you how appalled you were by my presence, fear at a politics you didn’t really know, despite Malatesta. You are thinking how difficult it is to get good waiters these days, you are saying as much to Gaetano Crammeri who comes from the same village and almost the same house as your wife in Switzerland. ‘If you could find for me just two good waiters …’ Nonno, I am walking behind you and you are perturbed. Because the blue bag slung across my back might not contain its wet fish and ginger, its ciabatta and fresh pasta that I am carrying for my mother eighty years later. I will cook it, pasta and fish with some tarragon when I get to her house. From the wine shop on Old Compton Street. God knows what fruits of the market may grow in our hearts. But I am interested only in you and in the girl who is going to be my mother. And for now, while I am intently observing the art and craft of your posture and conversation, you are drinking coffee with a finger of grappa and trying to fathom the credentials of possible waiters with your friend Crammeri. Your daughter is bored by all your business and talk. Dreadfully bored and she cannot stand cafés and moreover she cannot understand your Italian, much less the dialects you are trading with Gaetano. She is trapped by you against the café’s walls, between the table and bench back without even a window to look out from and you have forgotten her existence there. ‘Papa’ she is trying to say but cannot. Curt and rapid sentences splinter about her and you have misheard her caged voice. I from across the tables can smell hay and cow’s breath and meadow flowers and I know that something will break inside her soon. Something from that array will wet her a very little, unexpectedly and she will whimper a few steps on the way home. Still young, from here will grow a great need to be alone, together with a yearning not to be when she is. Sewn tightly inside her and then petalling open. I am the anarchist from the year 1912. Nonno, you are going out again into Frith Street and I too will get up in a few minutes. You will buy pasta, some tagliatelle, wine, tarragon, tomatoes, mountain cheese. And a brown coat for my mother, just in time you remember Nina had told you to pick it up from Arturo’s. And now she is sitting here in her eighty-sixth year with myself the anarchist at this other table. We are under a cherry tree in the mountain town, under the cherry tree planted in the front fork of the hotel garden, looking out into brown time, talking a little to the waitress who has brought us some tea and whose English is broken but not broken too far …


Nonno, I had a dream. Fire destroys memory and memory is overwhelmed by flames. I dreamt that fires were raging across the whole of Europe. They were preceded by months of spring drought and at first there were isolated forest and scrubland fires in parched parts of Portugal and Italy and southern France. But then they spread and became more continuous, both in time and space. By the middle of August the whole continent seemed one fiery inferno: or black scorched on brown. Even the parched boglands of Tipperary and Cashel treeless as they were had scorched and burning mosses and top-peat. Even the northernmost treelines of Scandinavia and the high Alps and Pyrenees were reduced to stir-pots of ash and a dried grey scum. Cities were not spared at all. I thought as I dreamt this that there must have been signs or precedents, and I recalled fires in Sardinia and Corsica, fires on Majorca and in the wooded hinterlands of Lisbon, of trees struck down by lightning in the high Alps or the remote Scottish Highlands, of stark tree stumps in the midst of mild fields. I thought of the National Library in Sarajevo bomb-burnt to rubble  and of the solitary cellist playing chords on huge lumps of stone. I thought of all the times fires had been lit across Europe in desperate attempts to keep warm. I thought of the dream some mind-madman – maybe it had been Jung in his beatific calm – had had in the months before war, of a great flood of yellow water rising up around the Alps and engulfing even them. And I thought of the waters of the Vltava, Danube and Dnieper – alter-egos to fire, sisters in love and destruction – rising through their cities of Praha and Dresden and Budapest and wreaking their havoc and damage. Fire destroys memory, nonno, fire destroys everything and of a sudden nothing is left. Even the superb and ancient forests of Lithuania, their inland corals and seas were reduced to a ravine of steaming stumps. Even the oak and elm of Moravia, the spruce and larch of Sweden. Olive trees in Sicilia and Campania, dry enough in their summer seasons, were blackened scars on a violet sky. The beautiful trees of Swaledale and Norfolk gone to blurry wind-scarred remnants. Even the baite in the mountains, nonno, even their trees and their dwarf-birch above the tree-lines. Mushrooms, wild strawberries, snakes, many many birds, all that had accumulated in thousands on thousands of years of balance and chance.  Nothing was left, nothing and no one. In the face of such terror language loses all relevance and ceases to matter and who is there left to speak or to speak with ? And yet what else can we hang on to ? Or are we such a small print and prick on life that earth will hardly notice our going and maybe celebrate as much as lament. Nonno, I craved to have another dream …. 

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