The poet seeks what is nowhere in all the world and yet somewhere [s]he finds it.
—Plautus, circa 180 B.C.E.
“Tevere,” he said. I was in a truck heading to Rome, hitching a ride. But when I reconstruct the conversation, when the truck driver continued to shout, “Tevere, Tevere,” as he gestured beyond the autostrada, I can’t find many details. I was on my first trip to Italy, a student in a miniskirt and with little sense of danger. I was not yet teaching in Oxford.
That he was talking about the river Tiber, flowing down to the sea at Ostia, below the Po, below the Arno, the old river that is older than the Latins and more forcefully managed than all the Roman legions, never crossed my mind. Nothing I knew corresponded to those syllables and I could not fit them to the small cars, the Cinquecentos, and shaggy eucalyptus trees along the shoulders of the road. I was stumped and embarrassed.
I had gotten that far hitching from Oslo and briefly crossing into East Berlin.
The word the truck driver was shouting was far enough from the sounds in English that I couldn’t make the leap. Why that moment in particular has remained a vivid memory, I can’t say, except that it holds something that squirms with life. The recollection physically stirs my stomach: It’s not all pleasant nor all bad, nor the only time that the perception of hurling forward without knowing enough has coincided with a feeling that an insignificant event is hinting at something greater.
The sensation of frustration exists, pristine, suspended from the exact moment I could not see the broad, often muddy river that must have been flitting in and out of view. Some memories are seeds, randomly dropped, but they hold their inheritances intact, waiting to spring from the right ground. We notice them when they unexpectedly bloom.
Four years later I came to know the real Tiber after I impetuously fled to the Eternal City, leaving a tenured job and my first marriage, which was troubled from the beginning. I chose Rome because it seemed an easy place to survive. I left Oxford overnight, hurt, angry, and frighteningly free, carrying my portable Smith-Corona and fifty pounds sterling. With that dramatic break, I started to refind independence and unbury my wish to become a writer. I stayed, living alone near the Campo de’ Fiori in 1968, 1969, and part of 1970. Later I came back to Italy, later still married an Italian, and have now lived in Parma for thirty years. The Tiber in Rome is most vivid to me as a thick brown flow lined by synchronized rowers in the spring and a steelier, stronger force shadowed by gulls in November. Most summer days toward evening, it becomes hammered sheets of copper and gold. When currents slow, its waves polish themselves into swirling columns of marble.
The Tiber is where these reflections begin. The long dialogue with Italy started with a word, Tevere, a name that I could not see and did not know. It started because I was looking for something fundamental. Often, like the impenetrable word, the real world seemed as if it were running parallel, hidden to me. A few basics in that dialogue are clear to me now. Many exchanges took place without my making conscious choices. Most let me explore what holds life together.
Italy possesses extraordinary master keys that it offers to everyone, even without their asking. It takes time to discover which ones work. Many that I tried opened strong and stunning realities beyond my shadow’s reach. Many led me, as they have so many others, to learn more about the heart.
It would not be necessary to point out my salt-and-pepper hair in order to reveal that I am no longer the same person as the girl hitching a ride. Nor do we need to dwell on disturbing spectacles of Italy’s recent leader for conclusive evidence that the Italy of modest lifestyles, the Cinquecentos, the small cars and safe rides that once existed, no longer is the norm. I think, though, if I observe, as Heraclitus did, that the river is never the same, any changes I describe will be deduced from looking at surfaces and totaling up statistics.
Instead, I want to focus on the slow moves of the self: its transformations, however sputtering and unwilled. There, change appears more circular and takes us in more meditative directions. This is the experience I wish to give words to. I want to frame the effect of time carrying earlier time in Italy and how this shapes perception. This version of time happens, in part, because Bernini’s angels and Virgil’s Bucolics continue to exist and claim attention. Paleolithic peoples’ flint blades found in the mountains carry traces of having cut grain and meat; it makes yesterday seem a very long stretch. Prayers carved in Ligurian seawalls still cry out into the darkness of today’s violent seas. My point of view dwells on depths too deep for projection; physical presences too numerous to initiate discussion without acknowledging dense, tangled, and endlessly defined human roots. Even if one has the radio on and it is tuned to the present, a battered bell from some ancient tower will still count the hour.
Sfogliatelle, the shell-shaped pastries filled with ricotta, are nearly the same today as when I first bit into their crispy layers on a street in Rome so long ago. Probably the pastry remains a quite good attempt at replicating the sweet that was made when Neapolitans rolled out their sheets of dough in the seventeenth century. The sweet is a conscious effort to deny time its novelty. It must be done in a certain way. It speaks of a certain place, of certain people: a mother and a grandmother. That particular connotation of abundance, piccolo tastes of pleasure and long gazes of time and repetition, draws on a sense that certain things, if not eternal, have reason to be perpetual. The layers of significance are the result of a particularly Italian mentality that has been cultivated, often at a great price. To those who inherit the mentality, it is a basic spell, too enchanting and old to imagine why one would ever want to give it up. Memory as time that stays never allows for a freely running river, and thus life cannot be seen that way.
When you get into an Italian river, the story is not that you cannot step into the same river twice. You know you will, even when you wish to assert that you are free of all that. You step in, recognizing that you are surrounded, as so many generations have been. Some Cassandra may warn you to look out for sharks. This will seem an absurd intrusion, another instance of myth. But the observer will insist that it’s important to keep your eyes skeptically scanning. Then he will mention evil. It’s annoying to worry about evil on a beautiful day amid such extraordinary beauty. But he will hold his ground, because Italians have tenacious memories. If a shark happens to appear, he warns, more will gather. This most probably nonexistent shark, this darkness, slithers deep, even when clear water is showing only blue sky.
Copyright © 2013 by Wallis Wilde-Menozzi