Issue 168, Winter 2003
He says he is a friend. He is no friend of mine. I have been saying that since I arrived here in Sarzana, to whoever will listen. I sleep on a thin wooden bed. I take my meals alone. I have no visitors except my memories, and they are jumbled by sadness and by age. Time runs away from me.
My wife, whom I have not seen in some months, wrote me a letter in which she confessed her fear that I might be mad: You seem to forget so many things. I wonder what you remember.
I feel the pressure of this question more pointedly than she does. Since I arrived in Sarzana, I have resolved to create a record of my past. Starting with a few large sheets of parchment, and then tearing those sheets into smaller pieces, I have jotted down dates, places, anything that might trigger my memory.
There are scraps of paper that note first meetings and others that record deaths, scraps that record simple impressions and others that represent complex discussions whose meaning I still, after all these years, cannot fathom. The scraps of paper are stacked at the edge of the table, against the wall. Sometimes I pick up a single scrap and try to summon up the piece of the past to which it corresponds. Sometimes I arrange a set of scraps in order, left to right, on the thin wooden table that runs parallel to my bed. Pieces of paper, laid end to end, in danger of being disarranged by a breeze: That is what passes for time these days.
Just this morning, I recovered another memory, one for which I do not yet have a corresponding scrap of paper. This was a memory of Durante, and how I once chanced upon him sitting on a flat, gray rock. The sky above him echoed the rock. “What is gray,” he said, “but black and white in battle, neither able to vanquish the other?” This was in Florence, some fifteen years ago, when he was a young man— when we were both young men—and I could laugh with a light heart and move along, pleased with his wit. I remembered him as a child, remembered how I had thought myself a young man then. I had recognized a brightness in his eyes and befriended him, and we had walked the length of the city sometimes, talking about poetry. We were both students of Brunetto Latini, and we amused each other with imitations of the old man. When I saw him sitting on the rock that morning, I took a step forward and left him at my back. I should have taken a step backward and kept him in my sights.
That would have been more circumspect.
Flat gray rock, I scribble on a strip of paper and place it on top of the pile.
I pick up another scrap that reads God made a wretch when he made you, and turn it over in my hands. On that morning, the sky was bright blue, and the sunlight was loose and wild in the Piazza Santa Maria Novella. I paused to wash my hands in the fountain and then continued on my errand. “Please say that Guido Cavalcanti is here,” I told Brunetto Latini’s servant.
Brunetto Latini had a jug of wine in his hand when he rose to meet me. It was a surprisingly large vessel, and it must have been heavy as well, because it tilted Brunetto Latini to one side, lifting his opposite leg off the floor. “Dunce,” he said. “Welcome.” That’s what he called me, although he insisted it was a term of affection. You had to take Brunetto Latini in small bites, or else you would choke. “You do not know how to perform the simplest task,” he croaked. “God made a wretch when he made you.”
“Can I pour you a glass?” he said, indicating the wine with his chin. I declined. “Only a fool says no to wine,” he said.
Time with Brunetto Latini had always been like this. When I was a boy, I came to study with him, to learn about poetry and politics, to hear him read selections from the Tesoretto.
As I grew older, I brought him my own work to read, and he mocked me and called me dunce before plunging into the poems with an intensity that approached trance. When he finally lifted his head, he gave me his opinion: The opening stanzas struck him as poor, but the language toward the end was superb; or the wonderful beginning was squandered by impure motives. The older he became, the deeper were his silences, and the more wine was needed to fill them. Finally, there came a time when I did not care to sit and wait.
This particular afternoon, Brunetto Latini asked me to sit.
“What do you have for me, dunce?” he said. I told him that I had one new poem. “What is it about, dunce?” I told him that it was about my wife. “Ah,” he said. “And do you want to know what I have for you? ” I did, and he produced a sheaf of poems that I had brought him a few days previous. The papers were ripped at the corners, and stained along the edges with wine. “Let me recall my thoughts,” he said, and bent his head to the page. I studied his face. The skin had grown cracked with age. A pair of bristly hairs protruded from his chin. The tip of his nose drooped so low that it looked as if it might fall into his wine. “Idiot,” he said, straightening up suddenly. “To what does a good verse bear greater resemblance? A chalice or a candle?” I didn’t like these questions.
Even though they sounded philosophical, there was usually one right answer, and the wrong answer would bring his index finger, the boniest of several bony digits, into a position of cocked disapproval. In this case, his age worked to my advantage; he had asked me this question many times before.
“A chalice,” I said. “Because it yields its secrets when tipped, but keeps its form always.”
“Very good,” he said. “And yet, this work you have given me is a candle, whose mission is to burn with light and heat both, yes, but until it loses all shape. ” He picked up the jug.
I heard the wine slosh against the bottom. He had enough for at least two more hours, and so I stood to leave.
“Fool!” he said. “Where do you think you are going?”
“For a walk. I will leave the new poem with you.”
“And what am I to do?”
“You are to read it.”
My tone must have been harder than I intended, for his shoulders slumped. “Good-bye,” he said gently. “I will see you tomorrow, then.”