Judith Vollmer

    Notes on Pavese and Seeing
“I’m a fool, I thought, I’ve been away twenty years and these places wait for me.”
— Cesare Pavese, The Moon and the Bonfires



I hadn’t been away from Italy for twenty years, only three, but I had never visited Santo Stefano de Belbo. I’d lived and studied in Rome; traveled as a tourist into rural areas; and had read and taught Pavese’s poems of Lavorare Stanca (Hard Labor; William Arrowsmith translation) at American colleges for many years. From time to time I’d experienced a visceral sensation of fusion in back alleys and along the Tiber in Rome, and in the hills and mountains of the countryside. An odd, pressing feeling of twinning. The landscapes I was looking at did not merely seem or feel like those of my home in Western Pennsylvania’s Laurel Mountains and my Pittsburgh, city of three rivers and seven hills atop valleys in the foothills of the Appalachian chain—obviously an uncanny or weird comparison. Rather, they transmitted something physical into me.

I couldn’t explain the sensation of fusion, but stayed open to whatever it might transmit to images in my poems. I couldn’t call it bloodline, as my singular known Italian line originated in the mid-nineteenth century, from my great-grandmother Apollonia, Sicilian born, relocated to Bari, a woman unknown to me until I was twenty years old. Her story is sketchy, gleaned from a church registry in the unlikeliest of places: the far Carpathian Mountains. Apollonia, great-grandmother, mythic mother of cities, of dislocations and martyrdom, destroyer and muse—all of her signifiers and whisperings live in me and in my work. My most recent book, The Apollonia Poems (University of Wisconsin Press 2017), explores the voices, cityscapes, and physical manifestations her very name suggests. Yet Santo Stefano is a different, dare I say more sibling-like, presence.

The electrifying transmissions and dislocations that Pavese’s images cause within his poems are deeply embedded in my own thinking. In Santo Stefano I have fallen hard: something biochemically, psychically, enters me. On the surface, here is the town’s lovely Cesare Pavese Foundation; and here are the town’s noble public installations bearing quotes from his poems, and markers noting corners and roadsides where certain poems might have been first imagined. Here are shops with Pavese’s portrait in the windows. And in the heart of town I find a bottle of Barbera: La Luna e I Falò, the novel’s namesake wine, a treasure of the Langhe Hills. And here is the enormous gravestone, slab of rock bearing the colors bronze, gray, slate, dove, golden sand.

Now come the four houses, both ghosted and alive: Pavese’s natal home along the main road; La Mora, where he did farm work, and one of his first duties was to “break branches for the fire and grind the coffee” (The Moon and the Bonfires, R.W. Flint translation, 68); Il Nido, the “palace” where art and music lived; and, finally, La Casa di Nuto, house of amicizia, of Pavese’s lifelong, profound friendship with Nuto, or Pino Scaglione, where the clock, the paper calendar, the workbench still stand in witness to the writer’s palpably immortal devotion to place. The four houses seem to lift and extend themselves from their three dimensions into me. Each house enters me and has stayed, travels with me, amplifying the structure of my transatlantic reaching, steadying my thinking, and giving me the feeling that “I seemed to have drunk wine and become someone else” (82).

In this way, I live in two landscapes simultaneously. La Mora is the truck farm above the Allegheny River where my uncle bunked and worked from the age of thirteen, where hogs were driven down Pig Alley to the slaughtering field on the riverbank. Il Nido, the palace house of the piano, the terrace, was fronted by “curtains embroidered by Irene and the transparent alabaster lamp hung on thin chains which made a light like the moon reflected in water” (109)—and is my childhood village’s one rich family’s house lit up for the evening. People walk back and forth behind lace curtains and shining windows, and a crystal chandelier glints, while stars twitch above the cinder lane I walk home after school. Now Il Nido is one of several grand houses perched above Pittsburgh’s Frick Park and on my evening walks I see people walking back and forth inside the triple-paned windows. La Casa di Nuto is my own childhood house in Level Green, my brothers nesting with me in front of a small bookcase in winter. All summer I’m reading a book under the white pines, daydreaming my houses of amicizia, finally seen, and magnified.

My sublime lives in La Gaminella—Pavese’s “hill like a planet.” His beloved stretched-out backbone whose green spine is studded with a large green dome, and twins itself with my Round Top, said to be a Native American lookout where as children we found arrowheads; a sacred burial ground of the Delaware or the Lenape. Spines and domes I imagine to be trembling, radiating, from the Langhe to my own Northern Appalachian foothills.

Santo Stefano dizzies me, even as it locates me, sealing a bond known to anyone, who, on seeing something for the first time, discovers the miraculous quality of seeing it as one’s beloved familiar.

The Strange Building
– Fourth Avenue, Pittsburgh’s former ‘Wall Street’

Tower of verdigris & terra cotta rosettes,
temple of vaults & glass walls
trembling, fractured,
you have stitched yourself

onto me      second spine
or mind, shadow &
conductor, my walk interrupted
by your 27
convex windows moon-silvered

so I’m spangled, tilted.
Lounging genius, once you
threaded the war
money of the city fathers

up your spiral stair
counting, hiding
sons of the rich
from The Ardennes to Kandahar.
Now your bronze

doors won’t part
while you refashion,
tongue new money
through your neo-

Romanesque arches
damp with piss & blankets.

The Immolation

I didn’t know what I was looking at, driving through the storm, afraid
as I always have been, of thunder and lightning, when I saw the steaming
thing, spitting siding and roof, burst, flayed, hissing and throwing fire
down onto the porch that hung like a jaw. The cliff was pulling at it, as it too
was falling deeper into another mudslide, third this spring, the spring
after three winters, iced-over March, April, and front of May, and someone’s
own house was dying up there, someone’s one and only.

Pity this benediction on windows, and the trees,
lit up like x-rays that might show us the way,
their fine intelligence bending down to the river.

Open, Grove

I have waited all summer
to come back,
cut into the woods
behind the line of sumac

thriving at the berm I walk
afternoons, unbothered.
If I’ve studied my girl-
hood hard, and escaped
harm (or don’t remember),

if I’ve wept over my sister’s
story and learned from
it, maybe I know either
patience or a tree’s

timing. Just after first
frost, the hawthorn’s
berries are ripe.
Open, grove,

holy bramble-witch
and fence, keep
small girls from falling out,
keep men from breaking in.
No matter how many times

I call on green,
I can’t touch it.
But I’ll steep the fleshy
haws and brew the tonic
that fires its heart.

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