Friday 22 November 2019

Gerrit Komrij: 'The Stones of Venice'



You saw a rowboat coming from the Lido.
The oarsman’s rudder was a stave of glass;
His oars two stockfish; burly of frame he seemed to
You, through sluggish strokes, to hint of tenderness.

His countenance was pearly in its sheen.
His eyes like phantoms gazed towards the mainland,
His lips were trembling wordlessly. He seemed
Entranced, enraptured by what flimsy dreamland?

You studied him from the Campanile through
Opera glasses - caught your breath, when, pale as
Marble, he hauled his bulk up on the near-shore.

You saw him toil. His movements now appeared more
Jerky, till he began to come apart, to
Crumble into blackish, repulsive pieces.


We found out in the Calle delle Case
Nove we could go no further, admitted
We’d lost our way. Oh dear, we were now facing
3am plus. Above, the stars acquitted

Themselves, in quite unmatched magnificence, of
All their accepted, decorative duties.
We could but praise the light they shed - the sense of
Place their beacon gave, alas, was muted.

At quickened pace we hurried back, through all
Those alleys, lanes, those passages and byways -
Meeting no living soul in all the tried ways -

Faster we went, still faster, glimpsing all
At once a bridge we thought we could recall!
Thank God! we cried, collapsing gently sideways.


The quays, I know them all now, the alleyways
And the Palazzos. Makes me feel real warm.
I’ve left my heart behind here, lots of places,
(And on the Academy bridge my arm,

The Rialto my kidney. And my liver -
Left at the Arsenale I recall.)
Oh, Venice as a city can deliver...
Though it’s a peep-show and a magic-hall.

Here you can snuff it in the poshest style
In some old locked-up mansion stuffed with riches,
Even a swindler needn’t feel a heel.

Oh, on my exit, hope you’ll stand awhile
On one of the huge Grand Canal’s fine bridges
And watch me gliding past just like an eel.


On board a ceremonious, decked-out sloop
They passed the rows of undermined old houses.
And from the formerly well-trodden stoop
The one-time water-pipes stuck out like hoses.

They proudly passed through locks in need of pitching.
We’re putting out to sea, they sang aloud.
Their jerkins were embroidered with gold stitching
From the caboose their emerald swelled out.

The smoke still came from the now distant housing
Dead sand was swirling in the gutter-drain.
Upon the water old stoves drifted, drowsing,

Though all was miles behind their craft’s long train.
No sooner did they hear the sea carousing
Than they sank too. Like someone with no brain.


Here dead birds roam, above the towers the grandees
From times so long since flown are gently floating,
The graveyards now are higher than the Andes!
Quiet, laddie, quiet. (Calm down.) This is worth noting.

You can of course remember the first hour
That we were here? The square becoming round,
The footman emperor, the water fire,
The sun a leper and the club-foot sound?

(Keep quiet, calm down: it’s only poetry,
It’s only turns of phrase.) But ow! That roar
Of the dead in the water, listen, more,

Listen how your entire life is in touch
With everything that hankers back to such,
And not with god-knows-what or he-or-she.


Today the stench was really twice as bad.
From every chink thick smoke rose to the sky
That almost made you gag. The dregs that had
Come gurgling upwards looked like bile or lye.

And from the rebates percolated gas.
You asked the gondolier to move on faster.
You saw in houses cracks in walls and plaster
And how the paint was peeling off en masse.

‘Hurry, please, hurry!’ You would bear no more
That canal sewer full of slurry, slime,
And sought Palladio’s cathedral door.

But you were stuck there in the leaden sump
At the palace of Peggy Guggenheim,
That old, decrepit, vulgar Yankee frump.


The street musicians on San Marco square
Departed at the signal from the two Moors.
You scarcely heard, borne on the distant air,
Their chorus’ and the clock-tower’s final tremors.

Over the stones there scurried scraps of paper.
In some quiet gallery you sat, unseen.
The lights that first had been the square’s slim tapers
Went out. Only the cobbles softly gleamed.

Then all at once the Sirens were heard singing.
So rare. So high. The setts danced to a samba.
A pinnacle collapsed. The Moors were floored.

The waves slapped round your legs, now gently stinging,
The Sirens shrieked and whistled round the ramparts,
From the basilica a fire-gush roared.

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