The Winter Rain of the Poets: A Report from Civita di Bagnoregio and The Bronx
“You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall.” With resignation, I note this power of God during my everyday prayers in Civita. Shakespeare, too, comes to mind every day. “With hey, ho, the wind and the rain, . . . the rain it raineth every day.”
Civita, the city that dies, is the remnant of an Etruscan and then medieval cathedral town north of Rome. It is built on volcanic material that crumbles and landslides nearly every day and, despite the intervention of modern geologists and engineers, still cracks and breaks in response to earthquakes. I am here alone, a guest of the Civita Institute founded by Astra Zarina and Tony Heywood in the town they helped revive. I believe that Tony is the only other person who sleeps in town on a regular basis though some of the weekend people and some of the owners of B&Bs keep their lights on at night, which arrives early in January.
From the first day of winter, we all know, spring is always on its way. Here, the almond trees bud and bloom. I visit them when I can.
And when the downpour doesn’t stop, I am indoors reading an amateur memoir called In the Heart of Civita: Memories of a Lost Civilization. Vilma Catarcione is my mother’s age, which is to say, she was a teenager during World War II. Catarcione’s stories remind me of my mother’s. They match piquant wit with an observant eye. At the end, Catarcione includes a chapter in dialect that she calls “Various Sayings and Nonsense.” I love the phrase for nonsense: “Ninne-Nanne,” an onomatopoeia that is instantly comprehensible and suggests, tentatively, the Yiddish “Bubbe meises.” Some of the dialect is slow going for me, but pian, piano, I’m getting it. And I try my hand at rough translation. This one leaps out to my wet self:
Pe’ piova e pe’ caca’ nun bisogna Dio prega.
For shit or for rain, to God we needn’t pray.
As does this other, for a different reason, alas:
Un fijo e’ uno spasso
dui so’ ‘na frulla,
tre, quattro fanno fracasso,
cinque, sei fanno ‘r ghetto dell’ebrei.
One son is fun
two are a spin
three and four make a din,
five and six turn your home, O, into a Jewish ghetto.
There were never Jews in Civita but thirty miles up the road, in another tufo city, sits the Jerusalem of Italy, Pitigliano’s now-emptied ghetto. You can visit a recently spiffed-up synagogue, no longer used, and a small museum. Below the synagogue and carved from the tufo is a complex of rooms that include what was once a kosher winery, kosher butcher, matzoh bakery and oven, ritual baths, a dye-works and a tannery. At its largest the Jewish community made up twenty percent of Pitigliano’s citizenry. Once they relied on and supported these institutions that are now relics and hypotheticals.
I am sitting at the big kitchen table in Il Nuovo apartment of the Civita Institute. Beside me in the fireplace is a vase of laurel branches I collected as the gardeners pruned next door. I’m reading An Infant in the Storm: Memories of a Child in Pitigliano during the Racial Laws by Ariel Paggi. A hailstorm comes in. The hailstones are so small I can only see them if I squint. They make a tinkling on the roof-tiles like a rain stick or a bead curtain. At first I don’t notice. I am deep in the grotto which gentile friends carved when they could no longer shelter the Paggi family in a farmhouse basement.
It’s early 2018. The confusions and betrayals of the Fascist era become ever more pressing to me. Pressing and distressing. Enlightening and disabling. So many people in the States are declaring, “This is how Fascism starts.” For the young Paggi and Cartarcione, Fascism started like the weather. Which you can’t do anything about. The hail begins and you don’t notice until your toes are wet or the streets are white with hoar. And then the Racial Laws and then Fake News and Alternative Facts and False Facts and Self-Censorship come so much into the mix you don’t exactly know how to follow the conversation. You don’t know what your neighbor is doing or thinking. To whom she is talking or to whom you should talk. Speaking the truth falls to the poets who sharpen every word and demand a divorce from easy language.
Ariel Paggi writes about one of his Jewish neighbors. Well into the German occupation, when the Jews of the area were in one kind of hiding or another, a community leader, Tranquillo Servi, belatedly following official orders, presented himself and his family to the local internment camp. They were released in a month, and they subsequently went about encouraging everyone to do the same. To follow suit or not was the open debate throughout the winter in the Paggi family’s cave. It was December, it was dark, they were wet, they were cold. They were tempted, but they did not leave by choice. They were eventually deported, survived, returned, but they didn’t live in Pitigliano much longer. In middle age Paggi researched the background of the Servi episode. Paggi is withering in his assessment of what Servi, the Fascist Jew, did to save his own family and the devastation he brought to those who took his advice.
American Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reminds us that “Poetry is not the language we live in. It’s not the language of our obligation-fulfilling, not the language with which we are asked to justify ourselves to the outside world.” “Poetry,” she says, “frees us from the tyranny of literal meaning and assures us of the credible reality of emotional truth.”
And this explains why the steady, clear-toned memoir An Infant in the Storm is most moving when the workaday prose won’t suffice and it yields to the poetry and prayers and songs which broke through the violent weather of that time.
Candelora is the original Groundhog Day. Is winter almost over? Depends on whether there is wind, rain, or snow on the Feast of Candlemas. And depends on where you are. Different dialect versions of the same proverb assert opposite conclusions. We have the same weather as Maria Luisa Venti up north a bit in Umbria where Perugians say: La Madonna candelora dell’inverno semo fora, ma se piove e tira vento dell’inverno semo dentro (By Candelmas morn, winter is gone, but if there’s rain and wind, winter we’re still in). Conversely, Civitans say: Per la santa Candelora se nevica o se pioa dell’inverno semo fora (On Candelmas, raining or snowing means winter is going).
I think the point of all weather proverbs is to train us to look carefully. They don’t predict but they prescribe. Sometimes we find what we want to see. And sometimes we squint into the weather for some bit of bracing truth. Strongmen who call the press the enemy of the people use this disconnect between words and weather to sever causality. It’s always something. It’s part of God’s great mixed-up universe. As the weather wasn’t created by any individual, so the violence under which we suffer is just the weather of bad politics.
Civita’s Chiesa San Donato holds mass only on Sunday mornings and special occasions. On Candelora afternoon five people are in the pews. The sexton; Rosanna, the woman in charge of the presepio, which I’m to help dismantle on Candelora; Rosanna’s husband; me; and a young photographer from Milan who is photographing the meager service in the town that is dying. I’m holding the mass card of a dear friend’s child who died in a car crash years ago. The winter of that loss has never left me. Don Luca agrees to say mass for Steven on his birthday, this Sunday. Our long-burning now-blessed candles flicker through the indoor fog. Rosanna and I set them on the altar’s candelabra and collect wooden sheep and donkeys to pack away for next year.
When I’m alone, things that go bump in the daytime woods, things that crack, things that whistle and whoosh, things that huff and rustle terrify me. I imagine the worst, and the worst for me are human predators. I imagine the madmen, the Misfit, Cropsey, even just a kid out to steal my iPhone. Yeah, it’s plausible to me that there could be a larcenous kid waiting out in the chestnut groves of Bagnoregio. I’m a city girl at heart. I don’t feel so vulnerable out at night in New York City as I do in “the woods” anywhere anytime. Tramping through ankle-deep mud I come upon a collapsed house. A bathtub is outside up the trail a bit. And further, nylon rope and a roll of barbed wire. My mind goes crazy. What lunatic violent squatter hermit is lurking in the rubble? No Saint Francis for sure, though the good church father is said to have spent a winter nearby in a cave beneath Bangoregio and saved the young Giovanni Fidanza. This child became the theologian and fiction writer Saint Bonaventure. Bonaventure wrote the first narrative of Francis and set about destroying whatever documentary evidence contradicted his story. Mud or no, unsettling objects or no, I am stalking a good view of the sun setting on a particular rock outcropping called the “Gothic Cathedral.” So I summon all my bravery and march on. I live to tell the tale, of course, though in bed I think I see a hand hook hanging from a far ceiling beam. And I recall Czesław Miłosz’s words in “Ars Poetica,” as translated by Lillian Vallee:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
This Pole saw what happens when violent speech causes violent acts. Saw what happens when dog-whistle speech calls back the ancestors, our invisible guests, the good ones and the ones we thought we’d buried and forgotten. Our polity is an open house with no keys in the doors.
The mud puddles in the square are coated with ice this morning. By afternoon I find a harbinger of spring. A lone ginestra blossom along the donkey path. Ginestra would be on my flag of Italy and on my coat of arms if anyone ever asked me to design such things. Ginestra means Italy to me. It means Umbria to me. My first book includes a poem in direct conversation with the Romantic poet Leopardi and his great and grand and definitive poem “Ginestra.” In December I got to talk about some of this with Maria Luisa’s students. They were like high school kids everywhere. Some had heard of their country’s second most important poet and some had not. Even the students who had heard of Leopardi had not read him. In my horrid American accent I quoted him. I doubt that my performance encouraged anyone to go to the Canti. But maybe my passion did. Poets are the only ambassadors for poetry. I kept telling those open-faced teens that poetry matters because it calls our attention to words. Poetry demands that we go beyond slogans and beneath the superficial promises of the public square. Poets write nationalism for what it is, as Leopardi does, early in “Ginestra”:
See your reflection here,
O proud and foolish age
Who stumbling backward
Trumpet your retrogression as a gain.
Your maunderings have made
The brilliant (if unlucky) gather round,
Like children smiling to a father’s face
And muttering to his back. . . .
The thought which helped us rise from barbarism,
Alone encourages civility,
And guides us better in our general life.
You did not like the truth.
(translated by Ottavio Mark Casale)
Poets ask, “What is it like?” Metaphor is our medium. So because we are the best ambassadors for poetry we are also the best ambassadors for peace, justice, wildness, resistance, beauty, and, yeah, truth.
Fog. Civita Fog. A horse or a cat of a different color. The lightest of drizzle when I wake up, but I can see the wall a meter from my window. Gradually I realize there is no more rain but also nothing whatsoever visible from my window. In the street I only make out general outlines of familiar buildings. I walk toward the bridge. Immediately exiting the Porta Maria, the fog is so thick I can’t see ahead or beside or behind. It feels like a long-ago November trip when there was Acqua Alta in Venice and so much fog in Ravenna I couldn’t see my own hand while inside Galla Placida. I stumbled toward Dante’s tomb feeling like a ghost ready to meet another. The political fog through which Dante cut clear words hovering still over his permanent exile.
There are Guelfs and there are Ghibellines and, further, there are White Guelfs and there are Black Guelfs. If you can’t get this straight, you can’t really get Dante straight. I confess I struggle. Still, there are dire consequences if you don’t get your words straight.
The main gate in Civita was built by the Etruscans and the lower part still has their big tufo blocks. The arch was restructured in the late Middle Ages and again in the Renaissance with a protective fortress above it. Two matching bas reliefs flank the gate. Some writers believe that the reliefs are repurposed Etruscan pieces that represent the triumph of the forces of nature over mankind. They point to the fact that the Etruscans already suffered the worrying landslides and building collapses that are still going on today. And they already used the decorative basaltina stone which is still quarried nearby. Most writers, however, believe the bas reliefs celebrate the victory of Civita over the Monaldeschi family of Orvieto. The Monaldeschi were Guelphs and they controlled Civita to keep it out of the hands of the Ghibellines of Viterbo. In 1457 Civita, “tired and exasperated,” according to a text I found in the Landslide Museum, rebelled and destroyed the castle of Cervara, home of the Monaldeschi. That’s what the human heads within rampant lion paws are supposed to remind us of. At the center of the arch, threatening above both lions, is a single bas relief of an eagle grasping the head of a lion—a political version of the synagogue command “Know Before Whom You Stand.”
All this predates the decisive earthquake of 1695. Much of the ground on which the town was built disappeared. Deemed unsafe, the cathedral was demoted to an ordinary church. Most everyone including the clergy were evacuated to the outlying area that is now the dominant town of Bagnoregio. Some stragglers returned and stayed and had children and grandchildren and so on. But pieces kept breaking off. Over the years St. Bonaventure’s house, which had become a small church in 1524, fell into the valley. The southern gate collapsed. Poets remember and wait. They sharpen their language and they insist. Civita’s most famous epithet, “the dying town,” comes from the writing of native son Bonaventura Tecchi in his 1928 collection The Wind between the Houses.
I wish that among the little statues and household gods on the fireplace mantel in the institute’s library were a bust of Dante. You probably guess why I want Dante to hover over me as I read and write. How can I not? His genius provides infinite inspiration. And, as his writing is a compendium of landscape and character sketches of greater Italy, he often functions as a Baedeker. You may wonder, as I do, if the poet of The Divine Comedy therefore provides us a few lines about Civita. The answer: about Civita only the most modest fact: it is Bonaventure’s birthplace.
Dante has a lot to say about the spiritual value of this landscape in which St. Francis laid hands on his biographer Bonaventure. Dante tells this story in his characteristic sly and teasing way. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio is in the circle of the sun in Paradise. The saint speaks from a ring of moving musical lights to tell Dante the story of Saint Dominic, as, in the matching previous canto, St. Thomas tells the story of St. Francis. Dante switches biographers and their subjects to emphasize the match between the foundations of the religious orders they founded (Franciscan and Dominican). At first, it feels like a strain to have the gentle Francis made a soldier of Christ. After a while, Dante’s exhortation becomes clear. For Dante-the-poet, military, imperial and political fighting are metaphors on the way to the highest spiritual end.
It is late 2018. I’m home now amid the verbal earthquakes and landslides of America’s president. Lock her up. Build the wall. Murderers and rapists. Knock the crap out of him. Every day Trump and his enablers send out minor temblors and landslides. I write at the end of a week in which pipe bombs were sent to critics of the president, two black people were killed in a Kentucky Kroger parking lot and a Pittsburgh synagogue endured the massacre of eleven people at prayer. Some of us are required to reject, again, after so many previous rejections, the rhetoric that “good people with guns” are needed to combat the “evil people with guns.” I can’t believe there are still those who don’t see the link between mass shootings and assault rifles. But there are. To them I say, automatic guns do not belong in schools and places of worship and post offices and factories or any public space. He’s not my president, and I won’t live his atmospheric violence. Today I enlisted in Dante’s and Leopardi’s army. I’m a warrior for peace.