I missed the last bus and had to take the train,
an absurd route (I traced it on a map)
like New York to Philly, via Boston—
checking in at every little station stop
in western Tuscany, the order random.
But I had open treasure on my lap:
what Italians call Le Ricerche, the first volume
(a plural, since no singular sufficed,
the multiple Researches of Lost Time. . . ).
In truth, the antique carriage suited Proust,
its start-and-stop, its slow eccentric rhythm,
each square of sky intensely overcast
and then split open by a full-fledged storm
so that I kept moving from the young Marcel's
interwoven overlays of daydream
to lightning startling olive-dotted hills,
which echoed with the opera that each station
improvised from greetings and farewells.
I'd lose some crucial thread or convolution
as another chance quartet reached its crescendo
and have to keep rereading the same section
looking for the hidden innuendo
of whatever unassuming word or phrase
had been darkened by a raindrop through my window.
I was reading PLACE NAMES THE PLACE—
in which the potent, not yet sounded syllables
of names of towns were unrepeated mantras
that, once uttered, cast enduring spells.
I knew the actual cities but forgot them—
preferred the more ethereal towers and hills
of words' exquisite forays into dream,
not that Proust in any way fails Venice
(the one Italian city he could claim
as a nodding acquaintance, face-to-face
from his terrace on the Riva degli Schiavoni)
but his way of capturing the unseen grace
of a place just from its name was so uncanny
that I looked out my window in disbelief
at that fake landscape posturing as Tuscany,
the real one on my haunches, keeping safe.
The storm that had propelled my little train
through all that falseness finally spent itself,
and without the constant urging of the rain
its languid pace grew even more lethargic;
the sky went dark in earnest; night came on,
my window's black so thick it seemed opaque
and there I was, at last, uninterrupted,
reading like some emptied-out amnesiac,
so lost in the dominion I'd adopted
I mistook it for my own imagining,
everything I'd known or seen coopted
by what Proust's elliptic sorcery could wring
from the timbre of a city's withheld name.
There was nothing in that country as compelling
as his progress through the semi-dark delirium
in which I—if it was I—sat transfixed.
I'd have stayed forever in that steady hum
of thick, unhurried motion: train and text
driven by a not yet mentioned name.
No one will believe what happened next:
how the train, slower still, approached a platform
with its long, late, out-of-breath cortege,
how the letters on the sign chose exactly to conform
to what was just unfolding on my page:
as if the only word worth spelling were "Siena"
and geography were always paying homage
to the sway of syllables, unless Siena
really was a figment of Proust's dream.
Where was I? Would that Siena—
had I thought to disembark in time—
even have resembled the red mirage
perched around a black-and-white striped dome
where a high probing tower appears to rummage
through the heavens for the single hold-out angel
Duccio never managed to dislodge.
(The others, of course, had transferred, at his call,
to the gold arrested air around his Mary,
an environ far more splendid and ethereal
than the one they came from, and less illusory.
You couldn't call it anything but Maesta)
It was probably Duccio's vision, albeit blurry,
puny, black-and-white—an early replica—
that launched the kyrie in Proust's ear
for that perfect one-word masterpiece: Siena,
an enchantment I not only got to hear
but to enter for an instant when my unhinged train
found its way to that precarious stratosphere
where a word will take on actual dimension
and those arch rivals, clarity and mystery,
reveal themselves, at heart, to work in unison.
I was so hell-bent on chasing beauty
it almost seems, in retrospect, inevitable,
my stumbling on that out-of-balance trinity:
Siena, Proust, the endlessly insatiable—
if utterly uncomprehending—me,
wrong about everything conceivable.
(excerpt from: Proust on the Slow Train from Grosetto)
Dedicated to my dear Ffflaneur, who loves trains, austerity and - of course! - Proust.