Saturday, August 6, 2011

Burckhardt abroad

Florence, Italy

How exquisite the fall and cast of sunlight in late morning!

That glow on these hills is living
also in the quiet gleams of this wine.
Woodsmoke drifts from somewhere.
Warbling thrushes unseen in chestnuts
or from thickets bordering the spring.

Vineyards ripen and orchards of olive trees are still in the haze.

The bottle nearly empty beside me
on a table holding shadows in cypress,
here on a Tuscan terrace some golden miles
from the city, here where the wild is sloping.

Are my lids falling down into a revery
or am I seeing ghosts in the landscape?

Far down there, a Roman bridge of stone
and dark poplars standing – silent centurions.
Young women laughing, clothed so strangely --
broad-sleeved garments of moss color and lavender.
As they stroll languidly one's lips are reciting verses.
Poems of subtle satire or ribald country romance?

Emerging from trees men pass them mid-bridge,
rougher appareled – wanderers from Abruzzi?
The lively girls curtsey and the youths are abashed,
heads bowed in shame at meeting such wonders.

These must be legends of air and strong wine,
for they quiver and lose their solid resolution.
Leaving now the bridge of arches they disappear
into seams of grottoes and the lattices of trees.

Wide this city seen from surrounding hills,
as if a basin of forms dreamed up from earth!
Now walking the Via de Corso, I seek knowledge
between architecture of cathedrals and commerce.

Again this Italian light!...
glancing from wall to wall,
as if a series of mirrors reflecting.
Until I am almost lost or hallucinating
a new world that is also deeper in time.

Angles and planes hold memorial penumbrae implicitly.

The afternoon is warm and the people are moving.
Serious monks, gentlemen, and dark-browed donne.
But the texture of buildings is what I am hearing.
Sacred shapes murmur their myths of provenance.
And rumors of genius hang on symbolic façades.

I listen until I am lost in allegories of rebirth
that play upon this stage for an audience of one.

The citizens of Florence are dissolving!
A feint of this light or a symptom of mind?
Other folk come, at home on cobblestones --
in rhythms of gesture and alien demeanor.

Yes, I must be sun-stricken and feverish...
the antique finery of their genteel couture...
eyelashes fluttering, coy smiles, and rouge...
the gallant ones moving with a roguish stride...

I gaze into strange eyes and see the birth of irony.
An awareness of self burst from chains of convention.

They speak!...the undertones of consciousness are unjaded and revelatory!

My footsteps echo in the Uffizi Gallery,
the grand rooms in awe of their wonders.

Botticelli's Birth of Venus – audacity of beauty!
And no longer heavy pigments of a sunken age.
The movement of fabrics and the moving of beings –
an unlocking of forces pushing blood through living.

In all of these chambers of the masters,
a paradox of sensations is perplexing me.
Rhythms of form and dynamical expressions
and hues of brilliance and blooming of planes...
they all share dimension with uncanny depth,
a womb-like quiet of soul mirroring soul.

I leave this magnificence
and enter again the street.
Now the conjured free folk
have gone back to centuries.
And I move among my own –
contemporaries of a duller day.

How brief that spark of opening
to world as spellbound inspiration!
How fallen into a moribund trudging
our present pulsing and eyes of coin!

As I move among these contemporaries,
a haunting absence lies between the figures.
From paintings of new-dawning psychologies,
I retrieve certain things that are missing now.
Life for life's sake and damn all the Devils!

An urbane gentility and graceful wit
and a noble bow to things of the mind.
A glancing into ideals of old Greek visions
and a fascination with the enigma of Woman.

As I walk onto the Ponte Vecchio,
the evening ripples on into night.
Boatmen ply the quiet River Arno.
A vagrant call is answered with ennui.
Soon lights are lit along the shore banks.
I stand listlessly, and a low fog is forming.

Surely there was no scheduled celebration!
The river must now be giving up its spirits!

Unnaturally come strange barges aglow,
emerging within this false moonless spell –
a festival of floats, a naval Carnivale!

This file of blossom-decked boats
holds all manner of posing creatures –
silver masques and plumed wide hats
and laughter on the torch-lit water.

A procession of colorful tableaux.
A series of aquatic phantasmagoria.
Allegories acted out in pantomimes
and all manner of histories confused!

A great argument has sprung on the air –
Herod is losing his will to lovely Salomé,
who stands with her hands on hips
amid a pooling of seven pastel silks.

Another barque is filled with musicians --
lutes, drums, and flutes are delirious
with modal tunes, as a Fool sings forth.

Another is garlanded and eerie with gods.
Genii comport with damsels and nymphs!
Incense flutters from hieroglyph banners
that catch a sudden-rising nocturnal wind.

Another conveys a tower of scaffolds --
an uncanny Machine of new philosophy.
Its gears and other workings not visible,
and braced atop is a sphere of glass plates.
It turns gyroscopically as a Franciscan inside
is drunken and pleased by the phases of Saturn!

Astrologers mingle significantly with vagabonds.
Jealousy argues with Irony while Fate sits brooding.
Fear is hounded by Hope, Spectacle slays Tragedy.
Midgets dance as Bacchus stomps Misery into juices.
A masquerade of comedians goose a great Caesar.

Finally the last boat and somber it sails.
Black of hull and moaning its passengers.
Ostensible ambulance of the plague-doomed,
and Death at the stern cracking jokes aplenty.

Silence settles over the now-calm river.
The fog has misted off to a returned moon.
Those creatures of night drift away into mind.
I go with perhaps wisdom, phantom-gleaned.

* * *

Away homeward with my satchel of impressions.
This carriage is rocking, my thoughts are dubious.

The countryside also jostles, with luminous shadows.
Oaks and hedge and the summer grasses emblematic
of mysterious mood – a dappling of being onto forms,
somehow yearning, forthing, an energy unceasing.

Every object seems now suffused
with message and gleam of meaning.
I attend them with a new way of sensing –
with a new science of temporal space!

But I am also shaken...

My well-thumbed Schopenhauer always with me,
the effect of it appalling with coloration of truth.


Is it perhaps a better madness to plunge
from dark abyss into affirmational abyss?

There!...amid thick tangles of light and brambles –
a numinous wink from transient, renascent shapes.

He said time is a form of being inside my head.
Then I have indeed laughed on a Stygian boat!

Jacob Burckhardt (1818 -- 1897)

Burckhardt was an art and cultural historian, with an original approach: instead of focusing on political and military historiography, he delved into the social fabric of an era. His most famous work is The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860).

"This meant arriving -- through an interaction with materials, since this is the only way in which any knowledge of the past can be arrived at -- at an understanding of how things looked and felt to the people of the time: the possibilities of a situation, the mood of an assembly, the flavour of a place, and in aggregate a view of the world, a whole vision of life....Because of the indispensibility of intuition, imagination, empathy and psychological insight to the historian, plus the ability to make artistic use of given materials, Burckhardt insisted that his task could not be systematized into any so-called 'philosophy of history.'" -- Bryan Magee

This poem is an imagining of how Burckhardt might have imagined.

No comments:

Post a Comment