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Night Train to Venice

1. Montepulciano, November 2010

Flawed premise from the start—
an hour to explore in this hill town
before joining Annie,
and I mistook Saint Donato,
buried in Venice, for the Donato
who composed madrigals,
also buried in Venice.
Happy error. Stepping onto
Via di San Donato, I sang what I knew
of ‘All Ye Who Music Love’.~

Singing from the wrong Donato
I headed from the Piazza Grande
down Via Ricci and was stopped
by the sound of sorrow.
In a courtyard of the Palazzo Ricci
a soprano was rehearsing Górecki’s
Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.
Late autumn’s early darkness.
She stopped, started again, practised
ascending grief’s ladder.~

Start off singing a madrigal, return
with words a girl wrote on a wall
of a concentration camp, set to music
by Górecki. I didn’t learn he’d died
until the next day, but lingering
beneath such sadness, I didn’t need
to know. The music
stopped, I walked on,
and the lights in the valley
were candles in a starless church.~

Down Via del Paolino to Via di Collazzi,
where last year we rented a room
with a framed print above the bed
of Piero della Francesca’s
pregnant Madonna, fitting, since I was
trying to celebrate the first birthday
since my mother’s death. I paused
above the valley, recalling
Mother’s teaching me
to make memory scrapbooks,~

then wondered if the Palazzo Ricci
might be connected to The Memory
Palace of Matteo Ricci, a book
I half-recalled about a Jesuit
who taught mnemonics
to his Chinese hosts. It doesn’t matter
that later I found no link, by then
I’d made an outdoor version of Ricci’s
inner palace, linking each street
to the memory of a loved one.~

Ricci’s memory palace was based
on a Greek poet whose works survive
only in fragments. After Simonides
left a drinking party, the building
collapsed, crushing his family
and friends beyond recognition.
Walking past the tables in his mind,
Simonides recalled where each reveller
had been, helping the living reclaim
what there was to reclaim. ~

Since then, waking at night, I often
walk this route in my mind, recalling
loved ones, and if I make it back
to Via di San Donato before sleep,
I set off on pilgrimage to Venice,
to Murano, and the Church
of San Donato where three huge ribs
hang like upturned crescent moons
beneath the Madonna’s feet, proof
that Donato once killed a dragon.

The palace collapses on our friends,
our families. Heartbreak,
and then a route through dark streets,
searching for the chapel
of the human heart. Three long ribs
shine in flickering light beneath
a likeness of a Byzantine Madonna.
Dragon or whale. Dinosaur
or dragon. Outside, the star maze
and the shining water roads.

A silent car climbs the steep hill
across the valley. Was the soprano
practising for a concert or offering
her own tribute to Górecki?
I walked on when she finished, linking
hill town streets to friends and family,
but Górecki found a way to remember
the six million dead. He created
a ladder of complete silence.
Then let one voice ascend.

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2. Antibes, March 2011

Strange, once again
to be night-journeying, it seems,
towards Venice,
though I was only there
a few hours, forty years ago,
and almost managed
to miss it completely. Only
the impossible bones
in the church of San Donato
made any sense—

Call it the Little Library
of the Road, the way the right book
sometimes waits for you
in a hotel or train compartment.
So F. Scott Fitzgerald
welcomed us to Antibes:
on a shelf in the stairwell, Annie found
a copy of Tender is the Night
which she began reading to me, out loud,
even after I’d fallen asleep.

My turn to read next night.
Didn’t try to go back
where I’d last been awake. Began
where Annie left off, trusting
my dream-self heard
all that I need know, hoping
I recalled the story enough
from reading the book
four decades ago
on a night train to Venice.

Once he said, Draw your chair up
close to the edge of the precipice
and I’ll tell you a story—
fragments then of Fitzgerald
at the rim of sleep,
like tesserae in a mosaic,
clear glass on both sides
of gold leaf so candlelight
will be more luminous
than the gold of narrative itself.

All week our day-selves drove about
looking for where our night-selves
had been at bedtime, partying
with Nicole and Dick Diver.
The Villa Diana and the village
of Tarmes aren’t on the map,
but the rose-coloured hotel
is five miles from Cannes,
so starting with that landmark
we sought out roads to the precipice.

Forty years ago, Annie praised
Tender is the Night in a letter,
so I took it on the train to Venice.
An Austrian psychiatrist next to me
was travelling to see a French girl
in Murano. He spoke English well
and was charming, a young Dick Diver,
but he criticized Fitzgerald
for glorifying the edge. Don’t
go seeking the abyss. It will find you.

Those days, I was just trying
not to go mad. My consciousness
had an alarming ability to suddenly
lurch backward and suspend itself
above and behind my head
so I’d have to hold on to whatever
was there until I found my way back
inside the old brainpan. The precipice
for me was the fear of the broken
ladders of the family tree.

Nicole grabbed the wheel,
forcing the car towards the edge,
hitting a tree instead. The children
screamed as she faced Dick
triumphantly: You were scared
weren’t you? she accused him. You
wanted to live. What
could he say, though he didn’t.
Yes, fear of death, but also
fear of the crack-up. Precipice fear.

Made it through Fitzgerald
to the Church of San Donato
and his dragon, but returned abruptly
to the station, impatient to get back
to Vienna for Annie’s promised letter.
All these years and I’m still this side
of madness, and we read
to each other, waking or asleep.
Do you remember where we stopped
last night?—No, Love. Just keep reading.

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Pinot Grigio

Because he learned to love this wine late in life,
after his hearing was shot, he called it
Pinot GRATCH-ee-ah,
and I’d try to correct him, Pinot GREE-gee-o,
and he’d agree, Pinot GRATCH–ee-ah,
and we’d leave it at that,
which was just as well, as today I learned,
in Wine for Dummies, it’s pronounced
Pinot GREE-joe.

After the rest of us left, my sister found
Dad had stocked enough Pinot Grigio
to make it through the Apocalypse
so she brought bottles to his friends. Perfect,
since Dad loved combining the virtues
of visiting the sick and giving drink to the thirsty
by smuggling chilled bottles of wine to friends
in the nursing home—‘It cheers them up’, he’d say.
It must have cheered my sister too,

talking with his friends, and when I confessed
that I was wrong all along about the name
she described lingering over a glass
with Dad’s Italian friend Giulia
who said, ‘I never heard him say
Pinot GRATCH-ee-ah, it sounded more like
GRAZ-ee-ah. Sometimes, he could be
almost courtly. Grazie, molte grazie’,
and Giulia raised her glass to the air.

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From The Little Colloquium by the Sea

Too dark now to see the spring tide’s breakers
………..bludgeon the shore road below our house—
………………….they’re surely sundering our lane

for a second time this winter—
………..so we add turf to the fire, start to read
………………….to each other, but find

we can’t compete with the storm’s howls
………..and the stove’s answering roar. Still,
………………….there’s something companionable,

just writing and reading silently in the same room
………..while gusts outside reach 160
………………….kilometers per hour. 160, the same

speed the Turkish cab driver sustained last fall
………..through foggy rain all the way to Munich.
………………….Travelling faster than a hurricane, we

were the unrelenting wind that could upend trees
………..and bring down power lines, a yowl
………………….through the German countryside

that might at any moment be cut short.
………..Yet inside that potential destruction
………………….stories unfolded, whose tellings

began on the plane earlier: there was ample time
………..to share whiskey with seat mates
………………….and talk up there after the aborted

landing in Memmingen, and the retreat
………..back into swirling clouds, circling
………………….for an hour till the weather eased.

Finally we descended a second time
………..and just as the runway reappeared—
………………….the safe Earth a few feet away—

we climbed again abruptly
………..then flew off towards far-off
………………….Friedrichshafen. Audrey,

sitting next to us on the plane, had
………..to get to Munich to give the keynote speech
………………….at a European Union

health conference, so when we landed
………..she hired a cab then urged us to join her.
………………….No time for the driver

to look up the conference centre
………..on global positioning, so he typed
………………….the address with one hand

as we flew down a link road.
………..Tonight, back in Ireland, the windows
………………….pulse like something living,

but it’s good to be firmly
………..on the ground, this house of concrete blocks
………………….is going nowhere,

though the thrumming stillness here
………..is like being in that cab, or that plane,
………………….a place where strangers could share

a few last words, or speak
………..whatever most mattered. Audrey
………………….trembled as she told us

how she’d just cleared security in Dublin
………..when she got a call from Canada
………………….to say her brother Ivan had died.

She’d had to continue towards Munich
………..to give her speech but now it seemed
………………….impossible we’d get there in time

so our gentle cab driver leaned forward
………..as if being a few inches closer to the road
………………….would help him see

and let us get there faster.
………..Passing an exit, I realized the road
………………….led to the Alpine foothills

where the novelist W.G. Sebald was born,
………..and I tried to imagine that side trip,
………………….fog probably freezing

or turning to snow as we entered
………..the village of Wertach, but we tore on
………………….instead towards Munich,

the speedometer still at 160,
………..the highway signs warning
………………….of slippery conditions,

and I remembered how Sebald
………..died at the wheel.
………………….As if to keep her brother

with her in the car, Audrey was telling us
………..a story that Ivan told her
………………….that their mother told him,

which felt like the way Sebald’s character
………..Austerlitz
………………….recounted intimacies

several speakers deep,
………..and there was a fine balance
………………….of terror and camaraderie

as we learned that Audrey
………..had known our late friend Patrick
………………….on Cape Clear Island. Annie and I

first faced winds of 160 on Cape Clear,
………..where Paddy said, Island life is like
………………….being in a boat together, eight miles

out to sea, and we just have to make sure
………..we all stay in the boat.
………………….Then Annie told Audrey

how Paddy had died on Cape the same day
………..she’d had emergency surgery in Boston.
………………….Annie woke to a comforting

hallucination of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
………..dancing cheek to cheek. She’s written
………………….about this—how Astaire

sang at the foot of her bed, Heaven,
………..I’m in heaven—but what connects for me
………………….now is that Astaire’s name at birth

was Frederick Austerlitz. So Austerlitz
………..danced for my wife, who lived, and Paddy
………………….died way too young,

and we’d met his friend Audrey,
………..we were in this boat together
………………….with her now, we were travelling

faster than some hurricanes
………..and the cab seemed filled with shades—
………………….Sebald and Paddy

and Audrey’s brother Ivan,
………..and the cab driver’s wife whose photo
………………….was taped above the dashboard,

the beginning of a story we never got to finish—
………..and maybe even Fred Astaire.
………………….The distance between life and death

felt very short as we hurtled down the Autobahn
………..and I recalled how Austerlitz thought
………………….the dead and the living

might occupy the same space,
………..but those who are already dead
………………….must find the living quite unreal.

And I recall staring out into the night,
………..off in the direction of Sebald’s birth,
………………….then wondering

if 160 kilometers per hour was the same speed
………..as the firestorm he described
………………….that rushed through Hamburg

after Allied retaliations, flames reaching
………..a mile in the air as they sucked
………………….the oxygen from everything.

It will be a long time before I forget
………..roaring through Germany
………………….as part of that imagined inferno.

I turned the conversation back to Paddy and Ivan.
………..Destruction and horror are never
………………….very far off, but in the meantime,

there is the chance
………..to be part of this colloquium
………………….between the living and the dead.

I wish it did not feel so one-sided.
………..I wish the ones who spoke
………………….were the ones who knew anything.

—Theodore Deppe

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Theodore Deppe is the author of Children of the Air and The Wanderer King (Alice James Books, 1990 and 1996); Cape Clear: New and Selected Poems (Salmon, Ireland, 2002); Orpheus on the Red Line (Tupelo, 2009); and Beautiful Wheel (Arlen House, 2014). A new collection of poems, Liminal Blue, is due out from Arlen House in 2016. Ted holds an MFA in Poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts. A recipient of two grants from the NEA and a Pushcart Prize, he has been writer in residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, CT, and Phillips Academy in Andover, MA. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Ireland Review, Harper’s, and the Forward Book of Poetry. Ted has taught creative writing in graduate programs in the U.S., Ireland, and England. He is on the faculty of the Stonecoast MFA program, and directs Stonecoast in Ireland. He worked as an RN for twenty years while teaching poetry and fiction classes. Since 2000, he and poet Annie Deppe have lived for the most part on the west coast of Ireland, and they presently live in Connemara.

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  2 Responses to “Night Train to Venice: Poems — Theodore Deppe”

  1. Lovely, thoughtful, nuanced work. A pleasure traveling with such a companion.

  2. Wow, I love these.

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