O Azure Skies, O…!

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Carabinieri, sea cliffs, rabbit paths, Portovenere, electric arcs, disused quarries, parabola, relentless verdancy, garlic flowers, Lady Macbeth, Gothic grottoes, involuntary crystallization, oil refineries, star mosaics & a view of millionaires.

Portovenere! Ah, Portovenere. Portofino, yes, yes, it is very lovely, very pretty”—the Italian rocked her head a little at each adjective—“but Portovenere is grand, completely different—dramatic, ecco, diciamo così. Oh, there’s no comparison.”

I was at the house of the Italian teacher eating dinner and listening to all this a bit dully, drinking a little something and thinking of a year—less than a year—of superlatives. Perhaps, really, she was right. For Portofino is pretty, but pretty only, beautiful in parts and at times, as in the accident of the caustic white church hit by the sun and the darkly enclosed port. But I knew she wasn’t thinking of the Portofino I knew. The port is, in a sense, incidental. There is the visiting satisfaction of the shops and the tight walk to the lighthouse. But it is up the deep cleft of the valley and on the high promontories that there is real beauty. The way is very steep, very narrow, that leads to that heaven, and there below are the wide ways of the Via Roma.

Very soon—it seems almost immediately—past the old garage and the hotel hidden away by the offices of the carabinieri, there is a different world from the swish harbour shops. The rabbit paths of the farmers scamper along the terraces, and yet so very near the town. Through the olives you look down on the roofs and the tables of the restaurants just seen in gaps, and the ducking waiters. But here there is a world of green, earthly green, the ground crumbly and dark in the roots of trees and the long grasses, and the wildest flowers coming in great waves day after day, massively abundant flowers climbing up over the roots of the old.

Then it comes as a little shock to see the massive, hidden rocks like monstrous clods of earth, high up. Because here down in the terraces there will always be, even in high summer, the trickly, moist green life, and the rocks hidden and old, old and grey-green, and the still trees and heavy foliage in little gullies, sticky and slightly glistening. Whereas up above on the high farms there is the sun’s altar.

They were prisons of fertile, fermenting life and the bright sky was overgrown by clinging, brooding, clammy foliage: a bottle garden of forced growth.

It is up there, past an old Madonna shrine, by a closed greenhouse, that a rabbit path goes on to a casetta burnt out by the sun, balancing itself on a jutting wedge of land pointing seawards. The low peasant-house is quite derelict but I claimed it freely, No. 7 of no street. Once there, one didn’t even want to think of those steep gullies of the ascent. They were prisons of fertile, fermenting life and the bright sky was overgrown by clinging, brooding, clammy foliage: a bottle garden of forced growth. Here I was caught up in the stupendous sunlight with a view of millionaires. And around, great grand beauty, superhuman, that made me mad. From here one could leap off into air; the sky was everywhere. And down below, seawards, the rows of ragged, mythical cliffs and the sun that sets there in a melting crimson-gold.

Then, back and along the terrace track and the masses of garlic flowers, green-veined, and the big, particularly un-modest Italian violets, common as groundsel. And there is the lower cliff road to San Fruttuoso. It doesn’t seem really far at all, except that from the point of seeing the vulnerable little village, tight and very lonely among the hoary green mountain rifts, to the actual arrival is long. The sea seems to wash the tiny shore almost by accident, just a sprinkling. And from here, high on the hillside, it seems the valley could close up with a clap and—presto!—that was San Fruttuoso.

Gradually, the tower of its church changes its position, the houses move into my ambience, their presences become real. It’s a strange place, San Fruttuoso, still very much a fishing village with everything in ordered confusion: boats perched under arches, stuff and tackle lying around. Who would or could steal anything? There must be some fifty inhabitants and they certainly know the life, death and miracles of all. God, a weird place. Full of cats. And women, too, watch like cats from every level. One hears a cough nearby and looks about at the dusky, bleached planks of wood, the gas cylinders pushed into the great clefts in the rocks, chairs, fruit boxes, washing, chicken runs and riotous gourd plants running off across the plots. There are half-open doors and windows at every level and angle, and eventually, submerged, dormant, the cougher is seen—perhaps. Then one hears the crackling, rippling splatter of water falling flat and dead against a stone tablet, sharp like the buzz and crack of an electric arc.

I couldn’t stay too long; eventually I’d die miserably there. It is perhaps the gravity of the place that comes to be too much after a time. The tracks from the hills trickling down, draining through the gloomy green, so green that the rocks have no chance to show through even in spring. The sun never breaks into the village in the morning, I think. It sparkles upon the sea outside, beyond the pull of the green shadows, but never hits the village gloriously.

The older Italians, even the younger ones where they’ve not been taught to be smart and acid, live their lives by the curve.

Now Portovenere, pushed out on the edge of a cape bounded by islands, is the inverse of San Fruttuoso. It’s easy to catch the bus from the palmed promenade of La Spezia and go along the road hugging the walls of the military port, the grim, straight walls of grey stones that would be hellish but for the brightness even on a cloudy day. Then we are dipping into Le Grazie, pretty but dull. The bus swings into the main square; the locals gossip, stupidly content to see the bus; no-one stirs to get off, and with a grand sweep the bus pushes up the hill again. Above are the same savage, bristling hills as in all northern Italy. The bay below soaks up a little of the port shipping of La Spezia, while crushed into another tiny adjacent bay, a little oil refinery.

In Italy, pastoral beauty is everywhere. There is no actual place for such refineries. Not the forms such as they are. There are two natural forms pressing on the spirit: the geometric linear and the curved. The abiding power of Romantic landscapes, which are still our landscapes, the dramatic agitation, is from the implantation of line, angles, curves, parabolas into the landscape of the viewer, the continual jostling for an almost-focus into one or the other. That is why the parabola has such insidiously powerful effect on the human mind: that the radiation from its heart, the focus of the pure curve, should result in complete perpendicularity, the horror of perfect parallel lines. The pure curve touches the mind like the flesh of a body and leads to dream, relaxation, inattention, hibernation of awareness, whilst the line and angle are things which by adjusting to we die. Bit by bit we die, quite certainly. So, when we gaze profoundly at crystals, we feel our body turning us back so that we are almost afraid to touch the edges; something in us begins to turn to ice, some tiny bit crystallizes. Only now I realise why the fairy story of the little boy and the Snow Queen is terribly true, and held me trembling as a child. That tiny splinter of ice cuts into us every time we accommodate ourselves to the essentially inhuman. That is why Lady Macbeth’s cry to the spirits to “unsex me here” is terrific: the wilful forcing of her total self to one undeviating line, the complete repudiation of the curve present in all human life.

The older Italians, even the younger ones where they’ve not been taught to be smart and acid, live their lives by the curve. The perfect geometry of the tanks and pipes of the oil plant is absolutely blanked out and, it must be admitted, something of a fineness of response. Like a baby rabbit going into a semi-coma when confronted with danger—whereas in the tension of opposites there is life. As regards their active connection, the plant’s looming gantries and perfect cylinders aren’t there. An un-encompassed thing is there where the olive groves of the headland end, where the road curves up past the cemetery. It’s there below the tracks that lead up invisibly into the goats and olives on the dark side; it’s in front of the fishermen fishing.

It is in these churches that there is always the sense of danger, of spiritual unease, agony even. Churches of thorns, not roses. One looks around aghast that so much could have been tolerated.

Well, into Portovenere I came. The day was dull, but the view from the harbour was pretty with the long island pressing near and the tall, pinched houses in gentle pastels. Pretty, for a stroll. There is even a church to calm the waves on a promontory at the harbour mouth and, outside, the panning sky and sea.

The church is very old, sixth century, so it says, in parts, and small and bare, very simple like the churches before the Baroque. It is in these churches that there is always the sense of danger, of spiritual unease, agony even. Churches of thorns, not roses. One looks around aghast that so much could have been tolerated. One looks at an unknown, slightly sinister animal. “Unchanging, unwasting…God only wise”: so went the hymn of my childhood. Yet the first part is palpably untrue. The church here is witness to that. God was dangerous, had not dissolved into the warm embrace of candles reflected in gilt and all the anthropomorphism of the Maria-mother cult. Or if there was, there was no certainty of resting in “the everlasting arms around, about.” He had long since gone as imminence in this church and only the pitifully puzzling star mosaics, very broken near the side door, are left. Through the door is a little cloister, fouled with urine, with romantic “fairylands forlorn” window arches. The view is grand: this is the drama of the signora, operatic. The cliff sheers up to a peak, and there are little caves poking below. It is here that Byron started his swim to Lerici from the grotta, as the painted text runs on a stone. One can imagine the operatic gestures: “Addio, carissimi!” “Ah, l’inglese e’ bravissimo! Bravo! Bravo!” “Grazie, tante grazie,” and the town band tuneful and un-harmonic. Even today the untameable, Gothic, operatic grotto remains.

I wandered a bit, feeling indolent, in the upper streets and outside the castle in the little grassed area overlooking the Byron grotto. Below was a man tearing off handfuls of grass and herb leaves and pushing them into a sack. This was on an old terrace next to the cemetery crushed between rocks and the sea cliff. Above was the big, bullying castle; here, the shady pines where I sat relaxed. And, strange, there he was again, the grass-gatherer, scratching about under the pines. And the sun, there, always in the sky. The castello behind me seemed closed; the sunburnt doors looked pretty firmly shut. Not that I was greatly interested—you tire, eventually, of the tyranny of the eye. But then a woman in black made her way in the blank heat and sun up the steps cut almost unnoticeably into the rock, and went in at that formidable door, leaving it open. It was strange, the woman going in alone under the great wall falling to its base, and leaving the door half open. And there was the bullying castle still, now somehow looking wilder, little cared-for; succulents had made a hold of the castellations, grassy tufts in the angles. I thought of going up, to feel inside the massive presence so that it couldn’t crow itself over me. So I did go, into the dark forecourt.

Then one hears the crackling, rippling splatter of water falling flat and dead against a stone tablet, sharp like the buzz and crack of an electric arc.

A woman came quickly from a little shed box to a table by the door. No ticket, no fixed entrance fee, just a donation, she said, singsong. She flattened out scraps of greasy brown paper with all this in German, French and English.

She stood, patiently.

“Where do I put the money?”

Qua,” she said, as if all were totally obvious. She pointed to a corner of the bare table.

Then she waited, firm as an ox.

I paid a little, and immediately knew it was too little. The woman stood there bullyingly and left the money to accuse me as I went up into the causeway that led to the upper brightness. The castle was used for that kind of chaotic small-hold farming still everywhere in Italy. Plant pots and flowers were lined along the sides and at the top there was almond blossom and grassy vines on broken canes. And there were—pure accident—Gothic-Romantic arches festooned with ivy. From the battlements, deep views of the town.

It was then I noticed a thin, white, straggling track going up behind the piazza where the bus huddles in, and up and away to the hill cliff. Perhaps it was a dried stream: it looked very broken and rocky, but I had a mind to try it. It was a pity to leave the castle, the pleasant, pottering chaos of the farming plot and the thrushes poking about. Why on earth leave it then? Why move away down, away to that dried bit of track—and then perhaps not even a track? It was a pleasant cat-purring place. “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) Beethoven had the right question: to move on or remain in the cat-purring place? “Muss es sein?” Well, “es muss sein.” (It must be.)

I came down past the table—there was no-one—and down deep fishermen’s steps to the town gates. Then it was a matter of starting up again, up by the great walls stalking the hill. It was a path, cracked, fallen away. And there were curious holes, man-made, in the surface of the rocks, a place where rope or cable had actually scooped out smooth grooves like those made in the sides of canal tow bridges. Then, farther up by the cemetery, it became clearer what had happened, though the strangeness was still the same, almost tactile. There was a disused quarry. Great blocks of stone, cut like giant bricks, lay there discarded. I was almost afraid, the old fear of the symmetry of these things in front of me, these things that I had to pass.

You tire, eventually, of the tyranny of the eye.

Then came the thought of that half fear in the church below that God had vacated: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.” But it was the wisdom of the unending fixed line, horribly unchangeable. Like these stones. Their age—that is, when they were formed as static blocks and laid there utterly useless—was impossible to guess. And fear comes with the ageless, fixed form “from everlasting to everlasting.” Uselessly fashioned cubes and rectangles. Whereas before they were cracking rocks half rounded into the body of the hill.

I had to pass feeling already touched—a little stunned, even. So I was happier to be moving up and up into the finer and finer views of the island. Far away below, the little sea-stilling church of San Pietro and a bristling, tiny blur of tourists jam-packed onto the sun-terrace cloister of the church, very tiny and rather silly there.

Above, I passed an old steam-engine house and tackle for lowering those huge blocks. But all rusted, dead machinery. I was surprised by a sudden flat walkway and then, like breaking into an Egyptian tomb-temple, the cliff quarries, great, great caverns of smooth-cut rock, partly polished. One side opens directly onto the sky with an utter drop straight to the sea flushing far below. I braced myself on the smooth lip, the step to the air and sky. There were ragged, raging cliffs, stupendous, impossible forms. I was already shaking, unstoppably afraid. The fear, the old horror at uncivilised, untameable natural forms, comes back. Those enormous pendant masses of stone, and only a fist-sized rock would kill me! They weighed themselves so heavily that I had to assert myself or be crushed in spirit there and then. Timidly, for fear some jelly-bodied human was, as it happened, there below, I went to the silk-black lip to throw stones, small ones, into the void. They cracked and spat awfully below after a long, long pause. The fascination was hypnotic, cruel. I threw a big lump of rock out into the blue. It cracked loudly—too loudly—and I looked over gingerly to see the spinning shrapnel flying away and silently dotting the sea with white blots. But to see the awful nakedness, the sheer helplessness of the rock plunging after a gentle push into the air—that made me very afraid. Perhaps it was the sudden uncontrollable suction of gravity which can only destroy with terrific force from the moment I launch the rock into the air that terrified me. And the concomitant reality that just one step, something involuntary, a momentary flicker in consciousness, and I too would be drawn into that terrible suction, be utterly, utterly falling into the void, helplessly conscious. There was the horror of half wanting to. Not suicide, but here one was at the cutting edge of life and death. The slightest movement and the taut membrane splits open instantly and irrevocably. It was the greatest temptation, I think, that Satan offered Christ because it is present already in man. And there was, I trembling and looking blindly at the distances, the totally inaccessible deep coastline.

Suddenly there was a great flapping of wings. A helicopter shot out of the cliff, then another, a twosome of army grey-green. I rushed back and hid. What had I done? They seemed to hover very near, peering, searching, their sound gathered in the hollow depths, a great thwacking in the air. Then they pushed off into the fine horizon mistiness, dissolving, smaller and fainter. I sat on a bit of rock, half stupefied with the exhaustion of fear added to fear—this sound, when I could hear fishermen shouting from their boats outside the harbour mouth of Portovenere a mile below!

Peter De Ville now lives in the UK, though he has lived and worked in Italy. He writes poetry and prose, mainly short stories, and has been published widely in British, other European and American magazines—including The New Welsh ReviewPN ReviewThe Rialto, Chapman, Poetry Salzburg Review, Critical Survey, Poetry and Audience, Orbis, The Wolf, Seam, Staple, Smiths Knoll, The New Writer, Decanto and more—and in anthologies and Internet magazines. He also writes literary reviews. He has poetry collections, Open Eye and Taking the pH (Tuba Press UK), and 25 poems, Ciao Marco Martial (Shoestring Press UK), inspired by reading the Latin poet. He has been awarded fellowships in poetry by the Hawthornden Literary Foundation (USA/Scotland) and by the Bogliasco Cultural Foundation (New York/Italy).

Lead image: Aleks Dahlberg

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