Long flights are to be endured and in 2013 my wife Diana and I made the 23-hour flight from Sydney, Australia, to Italy. It was worth every hour in that plane. We stayed for a week in four places, soaked it up, drank coffee, ate pasta, chatted with the locals and walked a great deal. Italy gifted me a series of poems that I called “Postcards from Italy”. These three “postcards” are set in Venice, Cinque Terre, and Sienna. My blog is “Wind of Flowers. Poems by Neil Creighton”.
P O S T C A R D S F R O M I T A L Y
An Ancient Song
I walk slowly through crumbling beauty
in quiet, still, crowd-free morning,
passing by the little pontes, the Rialto Bridge,
the sleek black gondolas at their mooring,
wandering narrow lanes and alleyways
to St. Marks’ Square, that splendor of marble,
until in the Palace, beyond the Golden Staircase,
in awed silence I stop and marvel.
Richly carved and painted rooms reveal a past
when trade from the East made Venice great,
unimaginable wealth and great beauty
designed to overwhelm and intimidate.
In one room nervous ambassadors waited,
another has a Raphael painted ceiling,
more are for judgment and governing,
but then comes the room most revealing.
This room is huge. On every wall
from floor to ceiling are paintings of sea battles,
thousands of ships tangling in brutal chaos,
horrific, appalling scenes of war and death.
In the forefront of one a man in agony,
eyes rolling, mouth open, clutches an arrow
embedded in the center of his forehead.
I feel his pain. I am filled with sorrow.
I walk back into beautiful St Mark’s Square.
I see the displays of wealth and power-
gilded mosaics, golden winged angels,
a spear-wielding saint on a high tower.
My mind is troubled by those sea battles,
the thought of that sailor as he dies,
troubled too by the thought that this splendor
came at the cost of ordinary men’s lives
and thinking of that old paradox-
how rapacious commerce plays its part
not just in the beauty of architecture
but in the wonder and glory of art,
I look around this beautiful place
ingeniously reclaimed from the sea
and see in it the beauty and the horror
that characterises human society.
Then, walking slowly past the gypsy beggars,
the street hawkers, the tangled human throng
that moves in shoulder to shoulder press,
everywhere I hear that ancient song
of money, power, desire and need,
the relentless pursuit of beauty and wealth,
except Venice no longer needs ships to trade,
for Venice is trade sufficient in just itself.
A Walk to Porto Venere
From Riomaggiore the almost vertical track
rises step after step up through the terraces.
At resting points there are superb views
along the steep and rugged coastline
and glimpses of the brightly colored
ancient villages of the Cinque Terre.
Then, at over three hundred meters,
we begin to walk along the terraces,
still climbing, but less steeply,
up the west sloping mountain-side.
Suddenly, we are on a narrow ridge.
The lightly wooded land drops quickly away.
To the left, way below in the far distance,
La Spezia clings to a beautiful bay
and beyond that, on the horizon,
are the marble, snow-covered Alps.
To the right, through the light woodland,
is the glittering blue of the sea,
at some indistinct point
merging with the blue of the sky.
The day is mild and still. A single bird sings.
Our footsteps are muted on the pine-needled path.
In dappled shade, we walk in hushed quiet
and silently gaze in awe and wonder.
Caravaggio's St John the Baptist, Duomo, Sienna.
After the relentless repetition
of Annunciation, Nativity and Crucifixion,
the sadistic scenes of Last Judgment,
their florid, cruel sensuality,
their crowded, muscular nakedness;
after the ornate splendor of palaces
covered from wall to ceiling
in blue, gold and red,
depictions of battle, death and victory
or violent, Biblical narrative;
after these I walk down a darkened crypt,
past fading depictions of gospel scenes,
my mind numb from days of surfeit
and suddenly there it is,
Caravaggio's "St. John the Baptist",
not a prophet from the Judean wilderness
with fiery, uncompromising words
but a slender youth
rendered in exquisite truthfulness.
His skin is luminously beautiful.
The light, from the left, touches him
on cheekbone, shoulder, thigh, knee, calf.
The lines, composition and color are masterful
but its real wonder is its truthfulness.
He turns from his simple shepherd's task
as if you've suddenly surprised him,
a complex mixture
of amusement, confidence and shyness,
a friendly, joyous gaze,
as if the nuance of his mind
in this single, fleeting moment
has been caught in Caravaggio's brush
and effortlessly placed upon the canvas
so we, who come to it after so many centuries,
can be transfixed by its beauty and truth
and be privileged by the momentary glimpse
into the mind of that boy
and the transcendent power that captured it.
©2016 Neil Creighton
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