Friday, 30 December 2016

Birmingham/ Italian {from fiction in progress}

The only person I saw there was an old Italian man in a pale blue tailored suit and matching fedora; a man who doubtless "cut a dash" in his day, a man on the wrong side of retirement, which is to say the right side of retirement, blossoming as only the retired can do, knowing that work is behind them, enjoying the new vistas of earned freedom, and sketching each day with a free hand. He was all croaks and gesticulations, gimlet eyes and knocking joints. He'd sit at the bar, sipping espresso slowly as if to summon the Old Country, like Tiresias in the underworld drinking the blood. He would chat to the baristas, this old fella, about football and food. I could only catch half of it. I was learning Italian, or making gentle and respectful forays into Italian, which I had always thought the most musical language, for in each phrase there is a quiet rapture, a slow and rising ecstasy, or, alternately, a note of plaint, of maternal lamentation. For illustrative purposes, we can say that this is, in every respect, phonetically and rhythmically, the exact opposite of the Birmingham accent, wherein one hears only the murmur of diurnal disappointment, and which, defined by bathos and anti-climax, is quintessentially English.

I had occasion to visit Birmingham very recently. There was a woman on the bus reading a newspaper. Apropos some article in the Birmingham Mail, she turned to her neighbour and said "You can tell they’re a murderer by their eyes," where in that final word, "eyes," such a sad misshapen diphthong, which rhymed almost with "toys", you could hear not only all the air escaping from the end of the sentence, as from a punctured tyre, but also the pneuma escaping from the body, and, finally, hope escaping from the world. And someone unfamiliar with English, would infer from the cadence alone that the speaker was entirely crestfallen and defeated. And these words, so flat, so despondent, would stay with me for the rest of the afternoon, tracing through my soul their falling arc, again and again, so that by evening I was appreciably sadder.
If there was a child who grew up half in Birmingham, half in Italy, with a Birmingham parent and an Italian parent, the result would be a monster, a living contradiction, confused by its own existence and barely able to speak. A bum note would stop every rapture, “Bonjourno” would skid and sink on the second syllable. The truly gormless fact that Birmingham has more canals than Venice (a fact that must immediately cede to parenthetical laughter), can only remind us that Birmingham is not so much the opposite as the active negation of Venice, an attempt, point by point, to invert and destroy the impulses and principles that built St Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace, as if what was causing Venice to sink, inch by inch, was not natural subsidence and rising water levels, but the building of the Rotunda and the 'modernisation' of the infernal New Street Station.
In any case, in my efforts to learn Italian, I'd meet with Faustina from the university, we'd have lunch and work on an Ungaretti poem. She was an administrator, but had a better understanding of poetry than most of the faculty, which isn't saying much. Poetry can be taught to an extent - the techniques, the metrics and forms. You can measure the distance from ordinary language, or the rediscovery of ordinary language via a different route. But to be a poet is to have a certain kind of soul and only those with a similarly disposed soul can truly understand you. Poetry, the faculty members fail to see, is not just a form of words but a form of life, a form of life which, if it blossoms, must blossom in words. It would not surprise me if the old man, wizened but twinkling with life, had such a soul. Such souls cannot be easily put out. As I say, he was the only presence in that cafe, in the early hours, in the pause before day gets started. Until Cahun started coming. Then the old man left. I saw him a few times in Bar Italia. Cahun had driven him out. Cahun as an emissary of the contemporary world, Cahun as a destroyer of language, an anti-poet.