GAVDIVM: A Tuscan Sketchbook
He watched a long line of sea glittering with ease
And felt his own heart
Taking its time after a cold winter.
Such a way beyond the girl
Settling her hair, was a familiar distance.
She touched her phone like a swallow
Breaking the surface of a lake in flight
And let its weight slide away before she turned
And stretched out in the light, as if her body
Was no barrier to its dreaming.
Oarsmen in fours, in traditional boats
Are still crossing the sea off Rapallo
Making water and oars gleam
In a hazy aquarelle of declining light
While Helen travels through in a train,
Her arms wrapped around her suitcase
As if it were Paris
To stop it from rolling.
At three o’clock in the afternoon
The air is thick as honey, cicadas
Buzzing in the limbs of cypresses
Would annoy a giant with their noise.
Just one swallowtail butterfly
Glides and turns over the olive grove
Like a scrap of antiquity.
My rich reward, my sanctuary
Accepts that it is now too hot
To do anything except write.
A line of cypresses forms tall columns of time
On the slope leaving the village
With just enough shade in the evenings
To gather Lawrence’s Etruscans
And their ‘fanciful long shoes’.
If that’s all too much
You can still insist on
Your own style by the pool,
Those scruffy, freebie slippers
You kept from the hotel.
Early afternoon, and Wilhelm Meister
Is reading Homer by the swimming pool
Until I interrupt with a question:
‘Do you think Dedalus was right,
That no line of beauty was ever drawn
From Irish myth to match
The classic in your hands?
What is it about the Greeks
He shifted briefly on his lounger,
As if a monument had come to life.
‘Down here in the south, you have time
To shape a story free from fear.
Your peasantry were too ruled by basic needs
To take possession of the world,
Though they were good with words.’
An iron rail for safety on the terrace.
A house overlooking a wooded glen.
Green proximity, then ridges of hazy blue
And the straggling horizon of the Apennines.
Below this, as terracotta specks,
A distant hilltop village
In the manner of Friedrich
Tying society down to a dappled grove
And hills succeeding each other
Bell-strike at noon.
A landscape taking shape
Against the blare of cicadas
And the strained complaints of local women,
Powerless in this chronic inertia.
Then a buzzard, caught in an updraught,
Finding lift in space,
Going higher than we thought,
To land, shaggy-baggy on an acacia tree
In an awkward gorge
It would take hours to reach –
And certainly not in this heat.
How do you come to
That moment in the cool of the studio
When so much has been given and attained?
You browse a large quarto
Of Winslow Homer’s watercolours
Spread out on a painter’s bench
And let your soul flake off
As a white butterfly over the tips
Of trees in the lower grove.
And once you are there,
Will these marks be enough
Before Jessica comes from the kitchen
With two cups of tea?
Midnight under Jupiter and stars,
The dark sifted gently by crickets.
A lamplit pool among trees,
Swaying with the movement of bathers.
Young Beatrice is floating there
In the turquoise light, finding approval,
Encouragement and love,
As her face appears
And fades again among shadows
Tallest of all, though,
and very old,
high cypress boles
disperse into the sky.
In those rooms on the second floor,
While butterflies come and go,
Everything is ready.
Stonework has been painted,
New furniture is fitted,
The beds are freshly made,
And the view from there,
Looking down the valley,
Is to die for,
Or to lie down for.
The architect has thought of everything.
Humming-bird hawk moths
Visit the terrace at dusk,
Probing and going as they feed on nectar,
Their silhouettes suspended briefly
Before they shoot away.
Early next day, I am busy
Sweeping up leaf husks
Dropped from the loquat tree,
Another figure in a landscape,
Caught briefly before I leave.
A brew of cloud,
Then high air in a hurry
Spinning leaves, bellying deckchairs.
I run with others up and down stairs
To secure doors and windows
Before the first big blobs of rain
Darken the dust.
Is it time Lord? Is this the flash
And thunder clap of harvest?
An after-chill of rain
Drips steadily off the figs.
No matter how good your imitation
Of the golden oriole note – that rich bubble
Going higher and subsiding
In the trees washed by rain overnight
Repeated again and again
Through mist being exhaled
By the drenched, glistening forest,
You may think you can whistle
That final flourish to confuse the bird
And maybe tempt its yellow, discreet
Brilliance into visible range,
But you will only silence it
And diminish the clouded valley
When this is the morning of its song.
Goethe’s tiny untranslatable poem
About time and the traveller
Could be happening here
On a quiet evening
Stretched across the hills
With barely a breath in the treetops
And the birds gone quiet in the woods.
Then he says to wait,
We shall also come to rest,
With nothing left to translate.
The pool is one flight of steps
Down from the house
And then another set
Takes me into an old olive grove.
The footholds here are narrow
And my shins are touched
By the tough ribs of weeds as I pass.
Now and then, the hose of a snake
Scuttles away to a thicket,
Or a small deer, startled in the clearing,
Bounds away into shadows.
Getting back to the house is laborious
Under the sun of a July afternoon.
I feel a tension in my heels
From these terraces known to generations
Who kept olives and vines
And grew so much of their own.
But these contadini are all gone.
To get back to my own level
I mow the top lawn and sweep stonework.
Any further comparison with them
Would be a bit ‘arch’.
Then it’s time for a swim.
I hear the first deer barking
At 6 a.m., and again, mid-morning,
Echoing to the noise of the rut
Two months from now
Rising out of the wooded slopes
In my absence.
Our hearts are pitched forward
Into the foreknown
Because we cannot stay forever
And soon must spiral away
Like a buzzard’s flight
Lifted by the valley it is leaving.
Milan in the small hours.
We join a procession of wheelies
Rattling the cobbles
For the airport bus.
A security detail
Of police and soldiers
Keeps the peace
Outside the central station.
Migrants and homeless sleep here
In the shelter of trees
Because they are going nowhere,
Their journey halted at this thoroughfare.
We have checked tickets, passports and codes,
Then we board under a chatter of starlings
With tanned, muscular youth
And logo-rich, elegant girls.
This is the company we keep for now
As the bus pulls out.
GAVDIVM (Latin): Joy or delight.
Seán Lysaght is from Limerick in Ireland and taught for many years at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Castlebar, Co Mayo. He is the author of six volumes of poems, including The Clare Island Survey (1991), Scarecrow (1998), The Mouth of a River (2007) and Carnival Masks (2014), all from Gallery Press. He has also published a translation of Goethe’s Venetian Epigrams (Gallery, 2008), and a verse narrative of the life of Edmund Spenser. His prose work, Eagle Country, exploring the wild landscapes of Mayo and the west of Ireland, was published recently by Little Toller Books. He won the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Poetry Award in 2007 and his Selected Poems appeared from Gallery in 2010. He lives in Westport, County Mayo.