Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Journey to the Last Day

By: Thomas Sanfilip

Sitting on a white terrace in the hills above Lerici, meditating on the idyllic blue waters of the Ligurian coast, I remember the words that began my first book of poetry—and the poetry I began writing several years later, strangely anti-poetic in almost every sense of the word, erasing any distinguishing characteristics to my work, all imagery, passion, feeling, including my own vital presence as its author.  Everything was obliterated, but for a cold, indeterminate, distant intellect completely disengaged from its subject matter, an attempt to reduce poetic language down to its essence, influenced by the fragmented remains of ancient Greek lyrical poetry, but more directly by modernist art, trying to translate such distance into the purest abstractness of reason. Not until I moved to Los Angeles did I find my true metaphysical voice on paper again and saw all artifice fall away from my words. The tone was true and my passion found its pace, its distinctive vernacular in a natural language that fully reflected everything I strove to reveal behind all appearances, everything human, everything natural that came to me out of the world in all its sadness and beauty.

I conceived the idea of a long poem that would capture the essence of my generation transfigured through my soul, my experience of those times, specifically, the last quarter of the 20th century. For the 19th century it was Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, for the early 20th century it was T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, but for my generation reaching maturity in the last half of the 20th, there was no such poetic work that embodied its hopes and idealism, its struggles and futurity. I set out to write that work and finished it in one year. Convinced of its power and poetic value, I put the manuscript aside for another year. I was writing for a future generation that might rally around my words, the idealism expressed in this one poem a little over a hundred pages long. The first publisher that read the work exactly a year later said that, unlike most manuscripts, even short ones, he read mine all the way through at one sitting, calling it “a fine, powerful and mature work of originality and individuality.” When it was published, its first reviewer said many books might be written about it, that it was “uncannily brilliant and mature and resonant …” replete with reminders of “the poet’s black Sicilian hair, his continual homage to Whitman, his awareness of Chicago, of New York, his frequent invitations to our bellies’ delight with mention of coffee and sweet rolls, invitations to our love of the sunlight gently handed us.”

By then, I felt my poetry had achieved an almost perfect directness, expressing a purer consciousness, a perfect fusion of the subjective and objective worlds. My words reflected that synthesis, for at a certain perceptional and intuitive level the true nature of reality was clear, complete, and immediate, nothing standing between myself and the complete experience of all creation, with words no longer laboring over the question—”Is this true?” Whatever we create reflects at some level a mirror image of the universe, but if born out of purity, shares in exactly the same perfection. A poet knows at a tactile level this instinctive, preconscious grasp of essence and idea without ratiocination.

The intoxicating perfume of true language mixes in frightening, but exhilarating expressions saturated in the ethos of addictive extremes; all the while from these disjunctions of mind, like cracks along the ocean floor, we suspect comes the breath of our true oracular voice, but like the Sirens calling Odysseus, brings with it the fear of madness. It is this fear which promotes the harried search for poetic form as we set out to master the mind’s dissociative powers lying below the surface of our reason, and from which we suspect our truest connection to reality is found. There is no question the very basis of social order is often threatened by such linguistic dissonance of self-possession as expressed in literary or liturgical language. One need only remember the ancient Greeks’ Delphian oracle influencing the direction of an entire culture at times of extreme stress and turmoil. And what of Augustus who, after taking the office of Chief Pontiff, burned more than two-thousand books of prophetic verse in Greek and Latin? If a poet does not confront their daemon, they are but the author of tepid words, for in essence we look for oracles which in our age often lie in the metaphors of extreme states of mind. Therein, exists the liberation and freedom we have been denied as a world, and it is precisely those who have tipped over the edge that have left us the most interesting remnants of an often ambiguous self-reality to examine against the world, becoming at the same time our symbols of value as we struggle to self-realization. Percy Bysshe Shelley was such a poet who challenged the very limits of our human experience, while at the same time showing us the inerasable face of beauty as a key to our liberation from darkness.

Across the bay from Lerici at San Terenzo the English poet spent his last months alive. Every morning from my vantage, I visualize him setting off on his last journey and can hardly take my eyes off the house where he lived sitting across the bay. Only the white arches of Casa Magni remain, a stark contrast to the buildings that have since risen around it. It is not difficult to imagine what the shoreline must have looked like when he lived there in 1822, thick with trees and foliage leaning over every up-thrust rock and stone right down to the water’s edge, looking as though bright, billowy sheets of green glimmering in sunlight, and in the middle of it all a white house with four arches facing off with the sea. Mary Shelley made note that the waves came nearly to the front steps of the house and went on in a continuous roar, a repetitive and hypnotic cadence impossible to escape. I too find it impossible to escape the realization that, like the sea with its ebbs and flows, so my poetic sensibilities have reached a point where words have reached their expressive limit, dry and exhausted in their concentrated purity. Like the Colorado River that cascades down the snowpack of the Rockies, feeds and siphons over desert terrain to make lush what is barren, eventually trickling to a minute stream in Mexico where the last of it finally evaporates in the sun many miles away from its source, so I endeavor to express poetically what has come down to resignation in the face of nature’s ambiguities. It is a gradual evolution of changed perspective, surely a by-product of loss and disillusionment, but then the natural world calls me back, soothing and reassuring one moment, stark and relentless the next in its assertion of ultimate dominance over all things human and otherwise.

Here is the seeming end-game to a life devoted to poetic truth and the cultivation of poetic consciousness, the door opens unexpectedly to Ligurian sunlight that comforts and seduces. Breezes off the bay swell in soft luxuriance, touching my face in sweet accord with the light, and nestled around the bay, Lerici resting in perfect equanimity to the water. Something has changed and altered in the split seconds of arriving. No one is rushing or moving or holding a time-table, something has been erased and released all in the same instance, so swiftly and without notice that it feels as if the weight of my life lifts away and is taken somewhere beyond reach, beyond knowing and for some reason leaving me no reason to care. I find it impossible to draw my eyes away from nature that grows more resplendent as the morning light grows, bathing one side of me in beneficent warmth, the other in almost chill wind blowing straight up from the bay. Casa Magni stands firm against the distant inlet of San Terenzo, like a distant, white shadow set in its archways, almost out of place in its low-slung archness beside modern buildings set firm around it. Every morning I watch the slow, graceful spin of gulls flying in parabolic arcs, whirling down, down in great wide-turning wheels to the bay. Parallel to the face of the hills, around a high promontory, they coast on the wind endlessly on out-stretched wings as white as the arches of Casa Magni. Theirs are solo flights or in groups separating in wide circles, clusters of fifteen or twenty swirling in one mass. Perhaps we are allowed to know paradise only once, if only briefly, before lost to us forever.

It is hard to reconcile Shelley’s desire to end his life in such surroundings as exquisite and beautiful as Lerici, San Terenzo  and nearby Portovenere, a brave peninsula and promontory in constant touch with the sea, sitting in bold proximity to the open waters of the Gulf of Spezia. Three weeks before Shelley died he asked in a letter to his friend, Edward Trelawny to purchase a preparation of Prussic acid, or Hydrogen cyanide. “I should regard it as a great kindness if you would procure me a small quantity. It requires a great caution in preparation & ought to be highly concentrated; I would give any price for this medicine. You remember we talked of it the other night, & we both expressed a wish to possess it; my wish was serious, & sprung from the desire for avoiding needless suffering. I need not tell you I have no intention of suicide at present—but I confess it would be a comfort to me to hold in my possession that golden key to the chamber of perpetual rest.”

Shelley knew the extreme isolation of Casa Magni when he discovered it, and must have sensed the seductive, but perilous beauty of the surroundings and how it might work to both liberate and intoxicate his creative psyche, which it did by all evidence of his poems left behind, particularly his very last left incomplete at his death. The very title, The Triumph of Life. is indicative of how thoroughly he was subsumed by the whole of nature’s essence in this paradisiacal bay of Italian coastline, with its brilliant, white light and dark shades between. The more I look at Casa Magni from across the bay, the more I realize the beauty and danger of such continual contact with such perfect balance of sea, light and water. They lure you and take possession of the soul without warning. You are lulled instantly by the sunlight and reflecting waters that create a broad, blue cameo mirrored by the sky. I am lost and transformed at every instant and realize death’s interchangeable presence here alongside the living moment, self-evident one instant, obscured the next, the endless cycle beginning again in a continuous rush of light.

You grasp the very essence of everything, beauty and eternity brought down to earth, all dark and beautiful, until morning when it is possible to believe again. There is no disappointment because the sun falls into your hands. All moral judgments are thrown away for the millionth time because you are brought back perpetually to the beginning point. You find it impossible to disbelieve until you are reminded of nature’s cycle, but you are ahead of it and have not been made cynical by its invisible presence. And that is how you live fully here, without being reduced to an equation, but folded into everything one sees, eats or experiences.    

But in all this Ligurian sunlight and luxuriant beauty, as for Shelley, images, defects, tragedies and sadness intrude, interpose suddenly to dictate the moment. How do I understand redemption in this light that is so natural to the Ligurian coast, nestled like a blanket in this exquisite bay of brightness, drawing me away from dark memories of unhappiness that once weighed me down, like those of my sister’s last, gasping breath? She thought I had the wisdom of the universe in my hand. She always came to me to explain some inexplicable life puzzle that perplexed her. I tried to illuminate for her the mysteries and perplexities of the world. She surprised me once with scraps of discarded poetry I’d written and thrown out, fished them out of the trash and saved. It was not the end-product she was interested in, but the fragments of poetry left behind on my way to the final poem. The real poem eventually came, but the memory of what once was she wanted to keep before my eyes.

For all the words forced out of my soul, I was caught in the wordless struggle of our one soul. The great wisdom I prided myself in having was no use. I was looking to her for a sign, but there was none forthcoming, nothing to point the way. From childhood on she had been trying to keep up with me, but I was nothing more than an extension of her arms and legs after she fell ill. Coming home after my travels, I described to her everything I’d seen, painted before her eyes pictures of the world she would never see for herself. She never realized I was simply following her path in a parallel way. There I was loyal to the end, trying to grasp the uncertainties of life and death, hoping that our insoluble link as brother and sister would save us both from ourselves, but in the end it was clear her destiny was being drawn to another shore.

I feel sudden memories most attached to the boat’s silent passage over the quiet blue waters, and the soft, sun-lit morning touching me in its steady path. It is no longer the passage of one unknown boat heading into the gulf, but a whole series of thoughts and sensations, past and present, that go with it, merging as one drinks in the whole view of the town, the bay, the water, the sky and all the rising foliage of trees and flowers that crawl up to your senses at the earliest hour of the day. If you are lucky to breakfast with such a view, there is a placid, though dramatic effect to the sun rising in the morning over the hills falling gently over the lush green. The air infuses a quietude that settles over everything one sees, from the panoramic view from above the bay to paths that lead down to the Piazza Garibaldi, to the sweep of hills rising around the town over which the sun emerges, bringing with it cool breezes that hide overnight in the lush foliage. I feel the sun’s warmth touch my face as it pierces through a billowy sheet of green to the right of the terrace where I sit breakfasting on fresh fruit at a white, wicker table laid with soft, cloth napkins that rest under my fingertips. I cannot get enough of the view that draws my senses into a quiet calm that nourishes and revives my sensitivity to the world, but does not reach far enough to pull out any poetic sentience. There is no resistance, but there is also no pull or yearning to articulate what no longer needs articulating, for it is all so evident, the beginning and the end, to trace my final steps as a poet.

Abutting the dock facing the sea, boats sway like leaves in a tree, quietly and peacefully moving to gentle waves working their way into the bay from the channel to the open waters of the Mediterranean just beyond view. Did I anticipate this paradoxical moment many years earlier? Someone is speaking to me, but my eyes are focused on the white arches of Shelley’s last abode. I have come full-circle somehow, making it possible to walk in his steps and see through his eyes with parallel vision.  The ruins of my poetic sentience are here before me in the glittering shade of leaves and moving water, but it is not lamentable. It is no more lamentable than the sun setting into a soft, orange sheen over the water, coating the building faces with a quiet depth of colors merging and dissolving into one as dusk slips into the air, and the murmur of voices rise and diminish into evening.

Everything is still, the sun saturates the air and sky, leaving me waiting for something, but everything has already arrived with the afternoon light, so pure and untrammeled, so steady and insistent. Now there is no more need to lament. Everyone I loved is at peace and suffers no more. Everything takes its place finally in the grand pantheon of existence that gradually dwindles to minor notes, until reaching final silence. The passiagiata along the bay, the arrival and departure of boats carrying tourists to Portovenere and the Cinque Terra is steady and constant. I am part of life’s eternal flow into a sweet emptiness that slowly fills me at every alternate hour. Sitting at the dock suspends all this infinite arrival and departure of people coming and going across a watery plane of blue water to somewhere known and unknown at the same time, following their own destiny, escaping from themselves or finding a new place in the sun.

It is an ecstatic rupture of heart I cannot hold back, like Shelley, a prayer as longing and appeal to the ineffable symbolized by the avian soul. A passing plane is a “bird of oily invention” with “birdlike warmth of purpose,” but underlying my words an attempt to transpose the mechanistic into the organic, to humanize a world long since dehumanized. “A battle of two birds of prey, claw upon claw, blood upon blood / high into blue they circle with deadly accuracy / the rending struggle of this heart like a bleeding mind.” Romanticism has been rendered “indecent, curious, old-hat,” listening to mocking laughter “coming from the throats of men.” Above all, I hear mourning doves “with wings that buzz above day and night / perched on rooftops, electrical wire”, living their “intensity of peace.” And beyond them “one solitary bird” that sings “into twelve o’clock / an air-bright creature who stops short of day.” Flight represents one of the supreme accomplishments of humanity, but at the other end of the spectrum there is perpetual conflict between the artificial and the real.  “O, bird that suffered heart-awakened, why do you leave these branches nest of attention? / O, aviary sanctuary of song / could you know my surprise finding you / song-thrilled, happy image, stark of my conscience / since I too run from dark to dark / birth to death intending to avoid death at all cost? / Rush as I am that rush too into day where silence rules / where brethren dream creates hope.” I pause before a final appeal to our one soul. “O, bird that is my wisdom and wing / eyes of curious content taking food from no ground / are we similar, Shelley’s skylark, inheritors / man, creature of amplified feeling? … Blinded bird, we are the same spirit / still a cry and you disappeared.”

The seagulls wing and glide and land wherever they please to observe every movement from above and below. They settle on restaurant umbrellas in groups of two or more, while festivities go on, sitting like regal prows waiting for acknowledgement on swaying boat keels They fly above the ebb and flow of humanity meandering along the bay front, sometimes taking position near the dock just short of the water and boat moorings, watching all who pass with imperious condescension. The hawk, the dove, the raven, all have their character, color and symbolic significance, but the gull assumes none in the human imagination. Its expression is one of superiority and disdain no matter where it goes or what it seeks because its soul is all hunger and avarice; it knows the human condition well because it shares with us a dark calling. I have seen them fly high in the sky far from the ocean, circling and searching for food far inland, and the moon barely visible, pale-white like a washed bone cut nearly in half, but still rising to its crescent gleam. Below, far below the gulls are winging in great parabolic circles, as though calibrating their circular motion to the moon’s silent eye. I hear their cries mixing with the sound of children playing, almost indistinguishable one from the other. Everywhere the cry of gulls over land, not the sea, perhaps searching for the sea they think they have lost, but always embrace.

There is the loquat tree outside the hotel, its fruit dropping to the ground every morning in lush abundance, yellow and sweet, there at breakfast, and the lemon tree along the walking descent down from the hills with bulbous, ripe fruit out of reach. The sweet, rolling carpets of flowering white jasmine, gelsomino, bunch in thick clusters so heady with perfume and fragrance, they overpower and seduce, and the brief images that hold for some reason and never dissolve, take on a poetic fecundity in their own right. Like the sudden appearance of a new bride in white walking across Piazza Garibaldi holding a red bouquet, or the four, young Australians in sunglasses with grass-stained feet talking soccer at breakfast. And the fish caught at night or early morning, sold in Lerici’s fish market by the wharf, anchovies, sarago, orata, marmora, triglia and rombo chiodato, their eyes still gleaming and clear, the boats that brought them in swaying gently in the port waters, the Argounata, the Priscilla, the Gionata, the Giovanna, Le Gemelle, the Bonaccia and the Luigi Padre, their prows pointed away from the sea, their owners nowhere seen, but home sleeping before the early morning again and another round in open waters. There are large wooden boxes on the wharf filled with netting and white buoys, sometimes a fisherman standing and knitting away a hole in a net, patiently taking needle in and out of the broken line, the Piazza Garibaldi in late evening nearly deserted, except for a stray couple here and there, lights glistening across the bay, San Terenzo a string of glittering, flickering lights in the night slowing moving over the inky surface of the bay’s waters, a chill, damp breeze as night covers the hills as you watch the boats still sway at mooring in port till morning.

You turn and face Lerici’s facade of surrounding apartment buildings, dwarfed by uplifted hills that embrace the bay and the piazza from all sides. They are warmly painted buildings, yellow and orange and beige, with green and white shutters, some partly closed throughout the day depending on the intensity of sunlight, some partly open to let in soft bracelets of light swimming, almost like rays of light arcing and bent through honey, leaving a soft glow everywhere they fall. As the afternoon pauses in pivotal swings of light, a dog sticks its head between the railings of a black balcony trellis on an apartment balcony and

barks at other dogs below skirting the piazza. No one is distracted or even cares. It is all part of the life that flows like a steady stream across the Piazza Garibaldi, merging with every other sound of voices or laughter coming from every corner of the long strand in and around the bay. A man appears suddenly on a balcony with a cigarette in his hand to look down on the piazza, as if to confirm life’s ceaseless flow. He is exactly like the dog, some strange need to satisfy, looking for assurance that all is going on, all is certain, all is still flowing like a great river into the great soaring gulf beyond the bay that can be seen but not reached except through a momentary exercise of imagination.

The boats in the bay are motionless, even though a cool wind blows from the south, their masts drawn, leaving them simply bare, wooden sticks gently poking the air. At a point of curvature in the bay short of San Terenzo a man in a black rubber suit swims away from shore. His body rises and falls above the waves, reminding me of some strange sea animal. Then there are massive stones laid along most of the inner shore of the bay to blunt the force of storms, but they are also places where sunbathers find their favorite rock and absorb the sun. Between these massive piles of shaved rock are several beaches that are empty and closed, but for the walk and a beach running along the shore of San Terenzo and Casa Magni, there are rocks where the shore came right to its doors. Further out a breakwater of more rocks keeps the waves from crashing to shore and upending bathers from the beach front below. In 1822, Shelley and his whole entourage arrived and looked out over the bay and the fishing boats plying passed the frontage of Casa Magni. Mary Shelley said so close that the water moved in at tide where boats under the portico were stored. It was on the balcony above that Shelley gazed out over the glimmering waters on which he wrote all his final poems in a boat built especially for him in Genoa. So much trouble on land, so much etheric beauty on water. I feel the irresistible draw of the landscape around, imagine the wildness, the Italians laughing on the beach, thick trees coming right down to the shoreline then and encircling Casa Magni in isolation from all around.

I linger near the white portico of Casa Magni that is blinding white and can be seen quite clearly from the hills above Lerici, though close up is less imposing and almost shrinks into irrelevance against the surrounding buildings that loom over and rise behind it. A locked black iron gate prevents anyone from stepping down a few steps below street level under the portico that in 1822 was used for fishing boats pulled out of the water that came nearly to its doors. The noise of passing traffic and double parked cars intrude on the meditative moment as I step back to get some idea of the veranda above where Shelley looked out over the bay and saw a vision of Allegra, Byron’s young daughter who died in a convent, loom before his eyes, rising and laughing from the waves. Somehow the connection between visionary and the role of prophecy escapes the modern imagination; instead, we are asked to enjoy endless symbologies as a means of self-liberation. Are we to marvel at linguistic games, or in truth are they merely pointless mental exercises that only make sense in a world of conscriptions such as ours?

I imagine many things, the how and why, the paths physical, emotional and creative Shelley took in those last months of his life, the details of his last days from his poems, the words of others who lived his time with him, the mercurial substance of his vanished life resurrected, walking the same landscape that overran his senses with its beauty as it does mine via my own passage to silence as a poet wherein I too become enfolded inside the mercurial substance of the world that reaches toward me like a lost neriad, tempting me to fulfillment. Like Shelley, an indistinct pattern of life dictates my passage and brings me similar visions of my end. Here to find traces of his physical being that never left and still here, though undiscovered or overlooked after all these years since his death, my hope to find something of his poetic vision in the living spirit of everything around that only I might see. So like the great poem that would encompass the world, I note each impression along the walkway that seduces me into the exotic stream of the afternoon bathed in pure sunlight.

The same myth called me in California along the Pacific shore. “Another headland pierces the sea / terrain of lichens, sea-crab / clinging shellfish /heartless breakwater / A roar returns a myth outside myths / we and our absolute freedom . . .” I struggle to remember lines, but they come back to me only in fragments. “Sea-drawn, breathing to satisfaction / wind of endless structure / sea-broken voice washes recedes to its outline / dispute crushed million-grain chemical sea / you are what we ask / immensity, immensity.” They remind me of my efforts to retain my poetic idealism in the face of nature resonating behind everything I see before me in the bay. Is it possible “in our nameless light” to “bear ourselves through turmoil” to “bury the shore / locked together, fearless, with closed eyes? . . . two emerge from the force of one . . . two bodies / creatures of metaphor . . . nothing of coldness, nothing forgotten / death frightened, joy surprised.”

There is no way to understand this paradox, no way to understand Shelley’s last months and the poetic forces that played into consciousness those final days unless, like Shelley, one decides to embark on sustained travel over these waters to grasp the unique essence of the air, the light, the land joined in one inviolable marriage. Shelley was drawn to water all his life and sought it out as continual psychic comfort to his fraught emotions and extreme sensitivity. It is no wonder that when he came to Casa Magni, he ordered a boat built in order to spend the majority of his time reading and composing on the waters of the bay, one might even say to give himself over to the all-encompassing embrace of the mercurial sea in which under the circumstances he was most logically fated to expire. One can argue such fatedness is not provable except after the fact, and it is logical to assume that Shelley did not foresee his death, but the heightened level his psychic life may have predisposed him to the greater will of nature, with little or nothing left but to accept the inevitable. This in no way inclined him to fatalism, but given his idealism, it may be safe to assume that the two psychic propensities of mind formed an irreducible paradox made to live in the shadow of nature’s mercurial will as played out by the elementality of water. And so to trace Shelley’s path thereon one finds his true point of engagement with poetic consciousness, while at the same time recognizing the subtle and overt factors of character that played into his unfortunate death.

In an obscure corner beside the Piazza Garibaldi is a tower and beside it an open door to a small oratory. I pause at the door, but its quietness calls me in. Shadows pass behind me, the door is open, but no one is there.  I am a late pilgrim here to revive my soul, a devotee who comes too late for the chapel’s consecration in 1523 to give thanks for warding off the plague. I sit alone in quiet meditation, watching a woman pray before a string of votive candles strung along the chapel’s white-washed walls. The woman is praying with deep, religious reverence. She takes only one glance over her right shoulder to note my presence. Perhaps she wonders what my prayers are like now that I have walked through many dreams, humbled at their intense solemnity that washes over me like holy water. A few curious faces appear and disappear at the door, afraid to enter, everyone walking by, put off by the peculiarity of the chapel’s open door meant as a refuge, no one knowing why, but whispering as they meekly disappear from view. The sun slants through the half-open doorway, but it shows there are two worlds separated by a clear mark of demarcation. Only shadows remain as a reminder that existence dissolves somewhere beyond our human understanding.

The way that leads down to the piazza from the hills above Lerici is a combination of steps and stones and measured tiles evenly laid, at points pitched because of the hill’s steepness along what becomes a picturesque walk. A black cat is sentry to a small estate covered with gnarled trees crawling up the hill’s flank, as though desperate for life, but they are covered with leaves. Everything is safe because the cat gazes down with imperious calm on all who pass below on the walkway from the top of the gate wall. Small, green lizards race into crevices in the walls, through the grass, and birds pause to rest momentarily in tree branches nearby. The cat’s shiny, smooth coat attests they have been fair game, its cold, aqua-green eyes expressing a primal chill with piercing directness. Further along is a lemon tree, fruit just beyond reach, like the fat, sweet lemons, so luscious and bright. On a balcony stands a woman, back turned as she talks on a cell phone, never looking down at those who pass. The walkway continues, sometimes steeper, sometimes level, passed well-plastered walls covered in billowy carpets of green leaves and white flowers, some like bougainvillea, smelling particularly sweet and fragrant. By then you are tired and rest, pausing between the upper and lower worlds, wondering how you can descend from the etheric to earth so swiftly. Finally, you come to a cool, darkened passageway that allows you pause before reaching the light that wells up in a blinding glare off the gray stones of the piazza. I reach its open expanse fanning out before me. People are seated and laughing and conversing at tables set under restaurant umbrellas, catching and holding the sunlight that pours down in  beneficent, yellow light that belies the notion we have lost the advantage of the heights. We have found the beauty of the world again without fear or remorse.

But the night passage upward is different, more ominous and uncertain. Now it is not the gradual euphoria of descent into light, but the ascent into near darkness and the unknown that overwhelms and makes you draw back from the climb. You move upward now on the downward angle through a passageway, listening to happy, laughing voices disappear behind you coming from the piazza, from narrow streets surrounding, but every sound begins to fade as you begin to climb in dogged steps. Now it is a struggle to lift your legs, back bent forward as the humidity from the night falls over you in steady streams. To reach the heights you push against unknown forces, silence encloses your being, your steps like tired, dragging efforts to find once more the height you left so effortlessly behind in the morning, as if falling clouds dispersing on contact with water, air and sunlight, when flowers were fresh, and the hills exuded solemn permanence. The way upward is enveloped in a strange, empty darkness that contains little but isolation and indistinct shadows pushing in every direction. You wonder what lies behind each wall. The blanket of leaves and flowers that during the day seduced with their gentle calling are damp and cold, almost deathlike in their stillness. This is not the ascent back to the etheric world, but to a strange facsimile calling you from above. You continue forward as though in reverse, climbing into the unknown. What is this uncertain destiny that holds us? You go to it as though to death, but nearing the end upward, reaching the heights above Lerici in near dark. A strange relief of emotions overcome, as though you have completed a perilous ascent to another world that allows you grace to look back into darkness.

A dark, flat terraced road disappears into wet darkness. You walk slowly after the climb along the road, without words because they are inadequate or too exhausting to articulate, for really there is nothing to say. You are on the heights again and beyond reach of all water and air and earth below, but it is still there shimmering in liquid darkness. The quiet hills bend over great canopies of black cloth. You are offered the sweetness of a supreme vantage overlooking illuminated waves of darkness. You have arrived to meditate again on the open expanse below that spreads in sparkling darkness before you. You cannot see the bay, but for a broad sprinkling of reflected lights over a black mirror. It is a darkness redeemed by the evidence of life below. Over the bay’s water, lights shimmer like stars in inverted patterns of fixedness. Looking out over the glimmering landscape of land and shore, you point to a tight cluster of lights across the bay. “What town is that?” San Terenzo, the answer comes, and you point again.  “And that town?” Glittering points of lights string along the opposite peninsula, hugging the blackness of the water’s edge. Portovenere, the answer comes, and you wonder how such beauty and mystery wraps itself around such a permeable cloak of sheer air and darkness.

You realize you are looking down on the underworld, and the paradox is startling because you see dark waters outlined by lights. Disappearing into a darker mist between night clouds, I imagine the course of other black waters feeding into the bay, an inverse landscape at night that is something other what it is by day, beneficent and sweetened by an ever-constant sun. I see divinity in nature, its changing moods and masks, its inevitable movement forward, visible and hidden, its paradoxes and mysteries. I am not oppressed by the awareness that all constancy is but endless flux dictated by a hidden order of design. I do not resist the churches and their open doors, the candles lit in votive supplication to a god that works its hand. The church in its own way understands the object is to recognize the sign, the order. Do you see the work of a greater, force that calls you to humility? I am not afraid of that humility because it strengthens my humanness, it places me where I belong in the scheme of things, it brings me to reverence the earth and sky that blazes overhead in peaceful calm or rage. Somehow I am purged, still purging, withdrawn in my purgation. All I grieve returns and haunts me, but also purges and pulls everything out of me, leaving me silent and withdrawn. Everything resurrects memories, recreating them in ultra-sharp detail. I try to remember my dreams, even their last images waking, sometimes escaping, other times like film over water whose depth is obscured, but then they begin to dissolve in slow meditation, one image after another. Or an image stays like a balloon thrown into air, becoming something other than itself, disconnected from reason and purpose, revealing itself in sudden awakened insight, until struggling to hold to some form of itself, dissolves in a tepid cloud of memory.

I am sitting in the Oratorio, taking refuge from the sun, always there as sanctuary no matter what time of day. I seek refuge almost by instinct, sometimes from the rain, at others to escape midday heat, or merely to absorb its meditative calm after enduring for too long the noises outside in the Piazza Garibaldi, listening to passing cars, buses, motorcycles, human voices, all of it blending into one voice outside its sanctum. There is an invisible line that separates the two worlds, the inner from the outer, the spiritual from the worldly, this small place of prayer set at the doorstep of Lerici where I sit and meditate on the past. I am certain there is purposeful design in its placement just at the right angle of entrance and exit to the piazza, but no one enters when I am here now. Some peek in quickly at the door, but few enter. Those who do venture inside are momentarily disconcerted by the spiritual calm that pervades, yet some devotedly visit, quietly like ghosts I never see. New rows of burning candles reveal their invisible presence, each candle’s single flame steadily burning in tall, white perfection, each representing the dead. Two marble angels flank both sides of two black marble columns behind the small altar set back directly opposite the door, and over the altar near the ceiling, two cherubs balance on two marble pediments rising to the cupola. The four small alcoves that flank are covered in wilting flowers set beside burning candles as well. I hear the echo of chirping birds somewhere resting on the roof above and search for their presence, an open window perhaps, but I see none.

In a little over an hour, the candles have burned down to the bottom of their wicks. Only two are left, burning weakly on a small iron tree near the altar, its black branches stretched outward, but acting no more than burnt effigies to the dead. Why do I think of them now, the loved one who linger in the shadows of the naves? How is it they speak in some broken language of the soul I can barely decipher? Here the romance of death is transfigured into life, and in our respective ways we test the paradox of life and death.


  1. A magnificent piece of work. Poetically captivating in its descriptions almost sacred. I really enjoyed reading it. Took me on a journey of self-awareness.

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