Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Lemon Trees

I just returned from a week in Florence. I am reeling. I am settled. Sometimes one must leave for a place the opposite of everything that is familiar to know what is real.

Florence is filled with art and poetry. Dante and Boccaccio, Bernini and Michelangelo. To see their work is to feel inadequate, is to feel inspired. To be drunk at 2AM in front of The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna in the Loggia dei alters all your perceptions. The moon seemed full every night. I cannot write. I can do nothing but write.

To travel, to live in other countries, to speak with someone whose language is not your own, is to see the world from another chair. It is to learn how things smell differently, sometimes better, it is to relearn how to see and taste and think. Even if the experience is filtered through your own culture and biases. It changes you, not just for those few days, forever. You can’t help but carry something of the scent back with you.

For me, for me as a writer, going from place to place is crucial to my creative process. I know it is the same for others. Though not for everyone. Travel estranges everything, especially what you return to. When I returned from Italy, even wine and bread smelled differently. And lemons. I spoke with an Italian man about what I loved about Italian poetry. Most of all it is Eugenio Montale. Most of all it is his poem "The Lemon Trees." The man I spoke with knew very little English. I speak no Italian. But we both could say Montale. I pasted my favorite translation below in which the last stanza explains everything I’ve just said. Where the sight of a lemon tree can remind you of everything amazing in life, where the sight of a lemon tree can “blow your bones wide open.”

Listen, the prize poets stroll

only among the trees

with uncommon names:

boxwood, privet, acanthus.

Me, I love roads that run out

among grassy ditches into

mud-puddles where kids

hunt skinny eels; lanes

that follow field-banks down

through beds of reeds and

end up in back gardens

among the lemon trees.

Best if the birds' chatter-prattle

is hushed, swallowed up

by the blue: then you'll hear

- clearer in the still air – the whisper

- of companionable branches,

and catch a sense of that smell

that can't tear itself from earth,

drenching you in edgy pleasure.

Here, by some miracle, the battle

between one distracting passion

and another dies down, and here

even we who are poor
up our share of wealth –

and it's the scent of lemons.

Look, in these silences

which things sink into

and seem on the verge of

opening their closest secret,

you'd expect once in a while

to uncover some mistake

in nature, the world's still point,

some weak link, the loose thread

that leads us at last

to the heart of truth. Eyes

rummage in every corner:

the mind seeks agrees argues

with itself in this perfume

that floats – as day fades –

over everything; a silence

in which, in every dwindling

human shadow, a troubled

divinity could be seen.

But the image fades, and time

takes us back to the din of cities

where you see the sky only

in bits and pieces, off up

among the chimneys. Rain then

wears the earth out, dreary winter

settles down around the houses,

light grows miserly, the soul bitter,

till one day, through a half-

shut gate, you see

among the trees in someone's yard

the yellows of lemons –

and the heart's ice melts,

and with their music

the golden trumpets of sunshine

blow your bones wide open.