That week in late September when Massimo first appeared, she was laboring with more than the usual pain on a few pages where her central character–an American woman who was also working on something called The Italian Novel–sees she is no longer interested in the man she lives with. They have very different ways of thinking about things, the contrast has lost whatever charm it once had, and she has come to feel they are a poor erotic match. The difficulty Whitney the actual writer was having with the material was that it all seemed so conventional. In trying to convey something about the main character’s desire, for example, she had actually written, She wanted a man who would take her. Still worse, having drawn on her own experience to give form to this character, there was a difficult moment when she had to wonder whether she herself was also in some way poorly imagined.
In fact, for Whitney the two things were rather desperately tangled up with one another— the problem of her book, the problem of desire. Her working title spoke well enough about all of it. She had hundreds of manuscript pages, but it still seemed more like an idea for a story rather than a story in the making, and so the placeholder title, The Italian Novel. And how was she to write the kind of story she imagined in outline while living a life so empty and gray? She had watched herself struggle to catch hold again the pulse of desire. Over the last few months, for instance, she had begun to conjure up for herself one after another imaginary lover, like the young man in the dream, like a couple others in the waking world. There was cheerful Nicolo the butcher’s son, so handsome in his blood stained apron. There was the very good looking older gentleman sitting across from her on the train from Bologna. Not a word passed between them, but their eyes met once just after they left the Centrale, and Whitney at least felt herself at the edge of abandon. When she got back to the apartment, she lay down on the sofa, closed her eyes, and imagined the stranger fucking her.
Every body has a language all its own but
we held each other like tangled trees,
folded each other’s clothes, wept
in the garden under a daylight moon.
No one learns anything without help.
The dog stumbles fording a salty creek.
The crow in the walnut tree isn’t quite right.
The palm trees are twisting like angry women.
Still, on Friday, there was a big swell,
and you with your Warhol hoodie, looked
at the great abundance of lemons
and quoted Baudelaire.
D’un ait vague et rêveur elle essayait des poses,
Et la candeur unie à la lubricité.
That third shimmering day
we laughed each other silly,
then dined on veal cheek and
lemon sorbetto. At the river
the spillway above ponte alle grazie
burned like a ribbon of phosphorus.
One goes up il duomo
between its two stone skins.
From the cupola you can see
to Fiesole. Now you are washing
dishes while I try to write poetry.
No, I tell you. I want, you say.
In one of the old churches
we went down to the crypt.
Your sister stopped me on
the impossible stairway there
to say to me softly,
This is where I fell in love.
Here is what I remember:
Standing you up to kiss you.
I am cold, you said.
Be cold, I told you. Outside
there was a long Roman wall
crumbling to pieces.
When you lay your hands above your head
and I have all of you like the king’s peaches
or the limbs of something very lithe,
the thin tendril of espalier in winter,
the pert bud of a fig like a button,
the furtive primrose at the dark foot
of the old wall where the late light
of this last January day shines as if for angels.
In Trieste and our difficult bed you sat
back on your heels and instructed me
in French about délicatesse
in an altogether different sort of light,
like the silk of your blue camisole
or the half moon through a grey scrim.
Tu es la femme assise ici. Toujours.
These old walls are still alive with us.
When I arrived your terrace glass
was open a hand’s width.
There was an almost breeze, a quite breeze
that stirred the air like a ghost.
I lay there on the sofa where you
kissed me. My skin remembered
how it once was. We made an apple tart,
you folded my clothes.
I can hear you laughing in French
in the bedroom, where at night
I hold you like the sun
of these first warm days.
At the park the fuschia sky
went all the way to the tour Eiffel.
Yes, my face fills with the same light
when you appear.
You see, you have a passenger.
At the market
the fruit vendor says, Let your husband
take the cart,
and when your sister calls
to ask the difference in English
between from and by,
I am too dizzy to know what to tell her.
The day before I leave, thinking
you are just sad I say,
I know you don’t hate me.
Yes, I do, you tell me.
Let us never speak
of the fractured china,
nor of the swans
or the lamb
and the rosemary.
Let us never speak
of Beckett’s grave
or the ruined bicyclist
and the dog in the air,
of the mercury light
and the mosque,
of the skin of your thigh,
of my white shirt.
Everywhere the air
seemed lighter, and you,
I watched you, dancing
in the terrace window
like a girl
in any spring.
Imagine a shape eased from perfect marble
in the white light of a November noon,
or drifting through mist on a thatch
of sycamore leaves. Both of you, from
hips to plinth, at the sauntering center
of something we all wonder at. Not everything
needs right angles. So let us rethink this:
the feel of the sheets that first night,
the whitefish, courgette and viognier,
your arm holding on, our hands,
that kiss on your cheek as the Arabs watched.
Yes, I must touch you to see you.
During this humid month
the hummingbirds hover
like small angels,
and Agnes goes to Rome
in a long, light dress.
What should one think?
It is only now we see
the goldenrod is also blooming.
It will be hot like this
until October when
everything softens to
In the hard hills
of this our lost place
we gather lavender and sage,
then evening opens,
there is that closing
of the fragile sky.
We sit together in
a kind of garden, there
is musical water,
there are shapes
of things without shadow.
It seems impossible.
In my very small
dream, I lift her dress off,
she is like a slight bough,
like a limb that bends
We pull each other
close. Outside the street
makes its noisy song.
Then we dance,
if one can call it dancing,
our slow gathering
in another deep sweetness.