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Visiting Edwin Denby’s Mediterranean Cities

Although he was a key figure in the mid-century New York art world — as critic, writer, collaborator, and intimate part of the contemporary social fabric — Edwin Denby is not often recognized as a significant poet.  When he does appear in accounts of those times, it is more as an important force in shaping aesthetics than as an artist himself.  A champion of choreographer George Balanchine and painter Willem de Kooning, Denby fought in lucid, accessible prose for a kind of classicism in art, work that epitomized proportion, balance, composition, and attention to issues of experience and loss of experience.  He believed in, and was the ultimate fan of, consummate technique; he did not think great art could be made without it.  In an essay entitled “The Thirties,” he wrote about his neighbor, the then-unknown de Kooning:

I often heard him say that he was beating his brains out about connecting a figure and a background.  The basic connection he meant seemed to me a motion from inside them that they interchanged and that continued throughout.  He insisted on it during those years stroke by stroke and gained a virtuoso’s eye and hand.  But he wanted everything in the picture out of equilibrium except spontaneously all of it.  That to him was one objective professional standard.  That was form the way the standard masterpieces had form — a miraculous force and weight of presence moving from all over the canvas at once. [2]

What Denby was fighting against, sometimes surreptitiously, was art that relied too heavily on ideas.  Usually, though not always, those ideas tended to be political.  This antipathy to conceptual art set him in opposition to the seminal 1950s aesthetician John Cage, whose life’s work evolved a Duchampian brand of modernism aimed at showing that anything could be art, with the implication that anyone could make it, if he could but think of it.  No particular talent was necessary.  To some eyes, Denby’s insistence on technical precision may have cast him into a retrograde camp.  Denby would not have minded.

Modernism, reflecting its roots in romanticism, highlighted the individual’s aloneness and consequent heroic, solitary struggle, while classicism was allied with humanism’s belief that all people are equal — equally heroic and equally foolish — and that existence is played out in partnership with others.  For Denby, this meant that, while only a very few achieve greatness as artists, all aspects of humanity are worthy of notice.  His real contribution, something he shared with his close friend, photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt, was to show that anything, or anyone, if observed non-judgmentally, can be subject matter for a work of art.  In an early sonnet, “The Silence at Night,” Denby refers specifically to the grime of a city sidewalk as something de Kooning made him see as “designs”:

The sidewalk cracks, gumspots, the water, the bits of refuse,
They reach out and bloom under arclight, neonlight —
Luck has uncovered this bloom as a by-produce
Having flowered too out behind the frightful stars of night.

As can be seen from this excerpt, classicism for Denby also meant adhering to the sonnet form and using end-rhymes, although these would become progressively looser as he played with the form throughout his career.  The period when he was writing such poems — the 1940s and ‘50s — marked the ascent of modernism in American art, and thus his poems could have been seen by less perceptive readers as anti-modern.  This, combined with Denby’s reluctance to promote his poetry — he remained uncertain of his achievements and endlessly tinkered with poems, even after publication — led to a low profile for his art until the 1960s, when a new generation of poets and artists began reading and disseminating his poetry.

Denby, however, was not anti-modern.  He was an admirer of Gertrude Stein’s prose and emulated her method of using common language in sense-bending repetitions.  His poetry was appreciated by such colleagues as dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein, composers Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, painters Alex Katz and Fairfield Porter, and the first generation New York School poets.  In 1957, Frank O’Hara reviewed Denby’s Mediterranean Cities sonnets in Poetry magazine.  Despite such significant supporters, Denby was in his 60s before a wider readership started to acknowledge him as an important poet.  Even today, his reputation continues to percolate below the radar of most scholars and readers of contemporary poetry.

Born in 1903, he first emerged on the national poetry scene in 1926 when Poetry magazine included two of his poems.  In 1948, Denby published his first poetry book, In Public, In Private (Decker Press), followed by Mediterranean Cities (George Wittenborn, Inc.) in 1956.  Ted Berrigan devoted a 1963 issue of his C magazine to Denby’s poetry, and Berrigan’s second-generation New York School colleagues continued that support.  Snoring in New York, published by Anne Waldman of Angel Hair and Larry Fagin of Adventures in Poetry, came out in 1974.  Full Court Press, headed by Ron Padgett, Joan Simon, and Waldman, published Denby’s Collected Poems in 1975.

Despite being friends with, and admired by, the first-generation New York School poets, Denby is conspicuously absent from both Donald Allen’s New American Poetry (1960) and John Bernard Myers’ The Poets of the New York School (1969).  One possible explanation for his absence from most accounts of New York School poetry is his reluctance to show his poetry to others, not to mention his abhorrence of giving public readings.  His publication in Poetry magazine seems anomalous; Denby had hardly any journal publications after that, until his work was embraced by the second-generation New York School poets.  His first two poetry books were self-published, which limited distribution to a small circle of friends.  Although it was an illustrious circle, it lay outside the publishing world, even the poetry publishing world.

Working hermetically, Denby contributed something no other poet of his period did: a New York School sense of dailiness combined with an ability to reference the values of classical culture in a non-ironic way.  His sonnet sequence Mediterranean Cities is an ideal site for re-examination of his work.[3]  A series of 29 sonnets written after he had mastered his version of the form in several early New York sonnets, Mediterranean Cities takes Denby back to Europe — he spent several years there after college — providing him a setting in which to contemplate relationships between and redefinitions of old world and new, antiquity and modernity.  At the same time, and of crucial interest for readers of poetry, Denby’s inventive use of language and experimentation with the sonnet form reached their apex in these works.


== I. The Making of Mediterranean Cities ==

A collaboration between Denby and Burckhardt, Mediterranean Cities remains a signal achievement in the history of 20th-century artist’s books.  In the 1950s, sometimes traveling together, sometimes separately, Burckhardt and Denby began making a series of photographs and sonnets based on destinations in Greece and Italy.  Edited and collected into a single volume, the book’s large pages grant both images and text the expansive space they require.  Each poem takes a specific place for its title and subject; the photographs follow a similar but not identical itinerary.  The result is an intertwining, a conversation with both artists’ thoughts arising and sometimes disappearing, without conclusions.

The sequence of 29 sonnets is in itself a remarkable achievement in which Denby lightly sprinkles his great knowledge of antiquity over sharp observations of people and visual detail.  His commitment to the present moment controls the tone.  Enamored of the sonnet form since his teenage days at the Hotchkiss School, where he wrote poetry and studied Latin and Greek [4] , Denby fits his words into the 14-line structure with traces of end-rhymes vaguely apparent, like the pentimenti on an ancient wall.  Paired with his twisting and sometimes breaking or obscuring of syntactical logic, the poet’s use of language parallels the past-in-present he witnesses and strives to depict.

The Mediterranean journey, as presented in the sonnet sequence, begins in Rome’s Trastevere, then continues to the significant locales of Venice, Ravenna, Florence, Siena, and Naples.  Denby’s itinerary, however, is the opposite of a touristic jaunt to Michelin highlights.  Even in the most well-known places, the poet’s eyes and ears take in details of the particular day and its normally unremarked pedestrians.  For he is always interested in how the average citizen exemplifies the conclusions of the classical poets and philosophers.
Denby also takes the reader off the beaten path, exploring the Via Appia, Villa Adriana, Ischia, Positano, Amalfi, Paestum, and four towns in Sicily.  From the ancient city of Brindisi, on the Adriatic coast, he takes a boat to Greece, where again he visits cultural monoliths: Athens, the Parthenon, Mycenae, Thebes, and Delphi.  As in Italy, he imbues these antiquities with a personally realized experience, using both observed detail and syntactic tying-together.  Once again, Denby carries his reader beyond the Great Tour.  The final sonnet brings him back to Rome’s Ciampino airport for the bittersweet return trip to New York.


== II. New York Preparation ==

Much like his frequent collaborator Burckhardt, with whom he shared a loft in Chelsea, Denby honed much of his observational, technical, and philosophical skills in New York prior to Mediterranean Cities.  After spending most of his twenties studying gymnastics and modern dance at Vienna’s Hellerau-Laxenburg School, then touring Germany as a dancer, he moved to New York in 1935.  It was there, at the suggestion of Aaron Copland — the two were collaborating on The Second Hurricane, an opera that premiered in 1937 — that Denby first began publishing pieces of dance criticism, now collected in several volumes. [5]

Like many artists who moved to New York in the first half of the century, he was attracted by the city’s feeling of openness, both architecturally and socially.  Denby and Burckhardt both took pleasure in Midtown’s vast piazzas, where some of Burckhardt’s films in color or black-and-white are set.  Denby himself wrote sonnets about New York throughout his career, often evoking the city’s possible freedoms and restrictions.  In the sonnet “The Climate,” for example, he states that the climate stays “fresh and neat” while everything else wears out.  Moods change, perhaps because of the weather, but one’s mood really doesn’t matter: “In our record climate I look pleased or glum,” the sonnet ends.  Denby works by quiet invention.  His use of the word “record,” in the line quoted above, seems clear — the reader thinks he must refer to some temperature record recently marked — but the climate, as he stressed earlier in the poem, is something that does not change, does not have highs or lows.  So “record” here must mean something different.  Perhaps, it means that New York’s climate itself — including the wider connotation of social, cultural atmosphere — is the best; it has made the record.

The idea of an overarching reality, like climate, appears elsewhere in Denby’s early New York sonnets.  We find that “The season keeps moving through and out of reach” (“People On Sunday”) and “heaven lifts a hundred miles mildly” (“First Warm Days”).  The poet consistently uses these settings, if we may think of them as such, to situate his particular humans psychologically, as well as physically.  His poems, in turn, aspire to the same balance these city inhabitants feel in respect to their universe.  Denby is able to make this harmony believable precisely because he is aware of its limits.  In “City Without Smoke,” he describes the sky after a storm:

Over Manhattan island when gales subside
Inhuman colors of ocean afternoons
Luminously livid, tear the sky so wide
The exposed city looks like deserted dunes.

This scene is a kind of heaven for Denby, an opportunity to lavish attention on something that is not a usual poetic subject.  It is reminiscent of the “designs” on the sidewalk de Kooning showed him.  But even in this atmospheric poem, words like “inhuman,” “exposed,” and “deserted” hint at the disconnection an observer might experience.  For Denby, what is sad is our fleeting awareness of such moments.  As he puts it, “Soon/This oceanic gracefulness will have died.”  Elsewhere, the narrator is “sour,” or a day concludes “coldly.”  These notes help us believe Denby when he assures us we can be “Easy in the weather of our home star” and that “the separate single face” can be placid, laughing, or at peace.  His acknowledgement of the transience of happiness (“I hate how rare it is to stay near friends,” he wrote in “Elegy—The Streets”) makes his optimism, when it surfaces, more believable.


== III. Old World, New World ==

To appreciate the connections Denby makes between the old world and the new in Mediterranean Cities, it is necessary to understand New York as his point of departure.  For Denby, paradoxically, the old world is his familiar home in Manhattan while the new world is the strange one he experiences in the Mediterranean.  In some ways, the poet is moving from songs of innocence to songs of experience.  As much as he knows about antiquity, he must re-experience that world in a modern setting, specifically a post-war setting.  Denby’s poems do not comment on the poverty that lay over most of the Mediterranean in the 1950s; he prefers to paint universal human qualities.  Political contextualization emerges only in occasional references to a distant “government” that does not touch the people in the way Denby sees them touch each other in their daily lives.  Yet through his observations, the reader can feel the specific textures of those lives suspended between a final moment of the pastoral existence Denby knew from ancient poetry and the encroaching technological and social change that would forever alter that history.

Giving his sonnet sequence a sense of coming full circle, Denby begins Mediterranean Cities with a transition from the States and ends the sequence with his return trip.  In the first poem, “Trastevere A Dedication,” the scene moves rapidly, almost cinematically, away from America and into Europe, eschewing a place of bright, mid-day conviction for one of shadowy “primeval realms,” and “blurred sea-gods.”  America is referred to only in a tone of denigration, with a final look over one’s shoulder, hoping urchins who stole a statue will sell it to a Yank and take advantage of the tourist’s ignorance.  In this initial poem, there are also thoughts of friends — possibly New York artists — and their (artistic) successes and failures.  Later, in “Florence,” Denby writes that the river Arno “Licks streets glummer than New York’s but possessing/Capacious idols dead magicians begot.”  Calling the Italian city’s great artists “magicians” shortly after a reference to New York puts one in mind of that city’s magician-artists, making an equation, as these poems often do, between classical and contemporary art, putting Michelangelo and de Kooning on the same footing.

Another, more modest, form of visual art seduces the narrator in “Thebes.”  At “High Cithaeron where Oedipus cried,” modern elements mix with ancient: “the bus jostles” through a suburb, the wall Amphion’s music built in myth is present in the poem as an absence (“gone the wall music built, Amphion’s”), an architectural dig is near “a Frankish tower.”  Despite proximity to antiquities, however, the poem does not visit any archeological or historical site.  On the contrary, the landscape takes on a sexual character (Cithaeron “lies bare,” two “cone-shaped hills” swell, “the bus jostles/and mounts”) and becomes, as many of Denby’s locales do, the site of a present, urgent desire.  This present-tense impulse persists through day’s end:

. . . after sunset
Wild-eyed, ragged in the crowding dusk a boy
Holds out silently for sale a toy acrobat
Daubed paper; I peer, take it with sudden joy;
On the Hudson in a room that branches brush
It lies on a table, hears the crunch of anguish

Denby’s presence in the moment — and his physical seizing of the object — bring him sudden joy.  It is significant that this elation occurs in a single daily instant in Greece; the emotion is only colored by anguish when the toy returns to the States, to a new home in upstate New York.  By the sequence’s final poem, “Ciampino Envoi,” we will see how the narrator’s consciousness has widened to understand such fleeting, but real, happiness.

The pull of here and there, of home and away, of the U.S. and Europe, does not go away in these sonnets.  Even when not explicit, the tension exists for the narrator as an unspoken reminder: eventually, this trip must end, and I must return to my “normal” existence.  In the poem “Rome,” for example, body parts and objects — “wreaths and noses/Waists and loose fountains” — are quintessential Roman offerings, blooming like vegetation from ancient times to the present.  When “they” confront

. . . an American in the exposed ruins
They meet him like a face unrecognized from home
The mute wide-angle look, to Europe alien

Denby is always layering meaning in these poems — and one of our tasks as readers is to determine what is the result of this density.  Here, the “they” is not made explicit.  At first glance, the reader may take “they” to be contemporary Romans.  Grammatically, it could be the wreaths, noses, and other objects; “the days whose blue is sweet” from the poem’s first line; or, alternatively, we may even imagine long-dead Romans proprietarily confronting American tourists in their ruins.  Equally ambiguous is the matter of whose “home” is being referenced.  The multiple “they” see the American as a face unfamiliar to their (Roman) home.  But the home might also be the narrator’s (American) home; Romans meet the American as a face the narrator himself no longer recognizes.  Denby goes on to categorize this face as “the mute wide-angle look,” a packed phrase that not only describes a person’s countenance, but also introduces the specter of American technological invasion.  The look refers to both the person and his camera and, in both cases, to a means of seeing and an appearance.  The phrase is further parsed in the following lines as both the self-conscious “stare of big men worried about their weight” and a “gaze of bounty.”  Americans come from a land and a historical moment of abundance, but they are “too clumsy to have mourned/Or held, listening to the heartbeat which was a fate…”

At this point, the poet introduces the “I” for the sonnet’s concluding couplet: “And I to whom darling Europe is foreign/Look home from here, to its mystery, with longing.”  Like the tourist, the narrator is a stranger here in the ruins but unlike him is able to perceive the mystery of their solemn ground.  We are not sure whether he is longing for America, his incipient adventure, or simply feeling a state of longing without an object.  Further complicating this concluding thought is the phrase “to its mystery.”  If he is looking home to the States, it is only by a great forcing of the possibilities of syntax that he can simultaneously be looking to Europe’s mystery.  Of course, the narrator can and does look in two directions at once; what is remarkable is how the language reflects the difficulty of that moment.  Conflicting definitions of here and there are bundled together, fostering a compelling confusion as to where the narrator feels most at home.  Meanwhile, the sensation of disorientation, the opposing pulls, and the occasion that has engendered them are all crystal-clear.


== IV. Antiquity, Modernity ==

Another tension in the sonnets is that between antiquity and present day.  Just as we saw Denby infuse ambiguity into the word “home,” by playing off multiple spatial and cultural distinctions, so does he use temporal distinction to present different historical periods as a continuum.  Frequent references to mythology, and classical works of architecture and literature complement, rather than oppose, descriptions of modern people.  For Denby, the present and its inhabitants will always have the strongest pull, but he still manages to experience Mediterranean destinations as living, ancient mythology.  After all, present-day Italians and Greeks live in a world imbued with antiquity, making the connection between past and present more tangible in the Mediterranean than in most other places on earth.

We have already seen Oedipus appear in “Thebes.”  In “Mycenae,” one of Denby’s clearest examples of antiquity blending with and shadowing the present, we meet another figure from Greek tragedy: Clytemnestra.  “By a gorge,” begins the poem, “the height where Clytemnestra slew/Scrub grows in Mycenae….”  We are not told whom she slew, only that she slew, then are plunged into the description of a place that offers “no walls/That remember.”  That job of remembering falls to the poet, who appears alongside his future collaborator in line six: “Rudy and I dark in a tomb/Speaking of the pompous Pantheon we smile/Cool underground we smoke in a sphere-curved room.”  As in “Thebes,” the present moment rules the day for Denby.  In the ruins of Mycenae, however, the violence of the ancient Greek story, preserved for us in ancient poetry, returns, merged with the landscape: “But the gorge, like a hole hacked furious in haste/At possession, gapes under the royal height/Grandly; and no need has a forgiveness.”  The poem’s final words find the two contemporary men in a decidedly non-mythical landscape:

. . . lost
We turn away to the parched plain, the desert light
To our friendship; under Greek oleanders
Blooming white in the brightness downward we wander

They may be lost in a literal sense, but, more importantly, the pull of past royal violence is lost on them in this moment.  They make jokes about man’s great achievements, implying an intimacy with them.  Together, they turn away from the ancient to their friendship, which is nourishing in a parched, desert present.  Not only are the oleanders blooming; their relationship also is.  The two have emerged from underground into the light, giving their wandering a purpose.  They come down from a physical and psychic height; they are no longer lost.

In other sonnets that visit archeological sites, Denby shows past and present to be coterminous.  These include poems set in the Roman forum, the Via Appia, Paestum, Segesta, Siracusa, and the Parthenon.  In all of these locales, Denby creates fields of linguistic energy whose experimental condensing of syntax, guided by intense perceptivity and judicious use of details, results in uncanny senses of being in specific, recognizable, places.  In “Paestum,” the visual elements that begin the poem set the scene:

Buffalo among fields, an old bus, the sea
Rock hills grow small beyond a somnolent plain
Jacket folded placed near the bole of a tree
Between a jug stood and a wrapped package lain

This description serves as a present-day counterpoint to the appearance of the ancient temple in line eight.  The imagery introduces — and focuses the reader’s attention on — man’s presence.  (It is notable that although the setting of the three temples is a field at Paestum, Denby only loosely sketches in the natural picture.)  He is careful to include human details and the residue of actions.  A narrative can even be created, though none is made explicit: wine and song, perhaps, conjuring images from classical poetry.  The poet spends half the poem recreating the experience of arriving in the field before approaching the temples.  Even scents — “In the sweet alyssum and its honey smell” — are evoked.  “Noon-immobile,” a Denbyism, hones in on the time and the ambient lack of motion: not even a breeze stirs.  The poet adds further nuance before the line’s end: “Noon-immobile, grey and ochre-hued like dawning.”  The picture is again modified in line seven, which tells “Of edged stone pocked by sea storms and shells of snails.”

When we read line eight, we realize, retrospectively, that this most recent image introduces a temple.  The edged stone is that of the structure, whose stone is pocked by both storms and lowly snails.  In other words, Denby’s “dawning” can mean the dawning on the viewer’s consciousness of the temple’s presence.  Grey and ochre-hued, in turn, are perfect tones to describe the temple’s colors.  Observe the entire transition, which ends mid-line with a semicolon:

Noon-immobile, grey and ochre-hued like dawning
Of edged stone pocked by sea storms and shells of snails
Poseidon’s hall looms columned;

What comes directly after, seemingly prompted by the god’s appearance, is the introduction of the “I.”  What he watches seems mythical, almost mystical:

. . . I watch dozing
Merged like opposed wrestlers rear a majestic power
Clasped nape, nipple deep-chested, the crushing roof
Heaved; magnanimous the god rises toward me; prayer
Begins to spread me, trembles unused to proof;

Given that the narrator is at a temple, one interpretation of the scene is a literal one of man confronting god.  Another reading, implied by the sexual nature of the language, is that of an encounter with a godlike man, or, more likely, a vision of such a meeting.  The narrator watches the crushing roof heaved.  Is “heaved” a past participle?  The separation of verb (“I watch”) and potential object (“roof”) allows the phrase “the roof heaved” to read alternatively as a complete sentence.  What is he actually seeing?  After all, as with most ancient Greek temples, this one’s roof was made of wood and vanished in a fire long ago.  Should we conclude he imagines the visual force of the roof’s being pushed up architecturally by the angle of the pediment and the density of the columns?  And if he is actually asleep, is this a dream?

After the enjambed “heaved,” the god suddenly appears.  He rises toward the narrator (how could he be below him is not explained).  Prayer begins to “spread” the narrator.  Is it prayer as in a pleading?  “Trembles unused to proof” is a strange phrase, making interpretation even more challenging.  We might expect “trembling unused to proof,” where the “I” would be the subject; the narrator, we may imagine, is unused to god’s proving.  However, with “trembles” the subject must be something else.  A grammatically clear reading presents itself:  prayer, not the god, is spreading him and prayer itself trembles, having never been used by the virgin narrator.  Though highly unusual, Denby’s personification of prayer is tremendously effective.  As in much of his writing, this innovation allows multiple readings to coexist simultaneously.  The reader is not able to choose one over the other, as the word-rhythms refract different meanings at different moments in the poem.

In the end, “Paestum” shifts the scene once again, moving from a close-up to a long shot, leaving the reader to contemplate what has occurred:

But by sunset fired against a cloudbank of slate
And deserted, the temple burns isolate

The “But” contrasts this final moment with the earlier epiphany: the coming together of god and man via trembling prayer.  “By sunset” expresses both time and agent; for it is the sunset, fired (this participle reminds us of the temple roof “heaved”) visually against grey slate-like clouds, that lights the temple and also soon deserts it.  The temple is now abandoned, lacking the intense communion it possessed only a few moments earlier; maybe it is also without its god, or perhaps the god is temporarily elsewhere.

Buffalo among fields, an old bus, the sea
Rock hills grow small beyond a somnolent plain
Jacket folded placed near the bole of a tree
Between a jug stood and a wrapped package lain
In the sweet alyssum and its honey smell
Noon-immobile, grey and ochre-hued like dawning
Of edged stone pocked by sea storms and shells of snails
Poseidon’s hall looms columned; I watch dozing
Merged like opposed wrestlers rear a majestic power
Clasped nape, nipple deep-chested, the crushing roof
Heaved; magnanimous the god rises toward me; prayer
Begins to spread me, trembles unused to proof;
But by sunset fired against a cloudbank of slate
And deserted, the temple burns isolate



== V. The Human Figure, Alone and Together ==

Throughout Mediterranean Cities, Denby often contrasts the loneness of the individual with cities’ multitudes.  Often too, he is concerned with intimate combinations of couples or small groups of people.  The temple in Paestum was the site of a potent union, followed by a sense of burning isolation.  Similarly, in “Villa d’Este,” a scene of revelry and laughter in a fountain-filled park concludes, “Single on a desert mountain drips the locked park.”  Though the phrase “single on a desert mountain” modifies the park, it equally serves to describe the narrator after the wet pleasure he has enjoyed there.  Even the word “drips” is precise to post-coital aloneness.

As we saw in “Rome,” when people do appear in these sonnets, it is often as pieces of bodies — noses, waists, a face — which does not make them any less human.  On the contrary, there is always something exceptionally vital about Denby’s human forms.  “Swaying bellies thread the streets, liquidly proud,” in “Florence.”  In “Siena,” people “stroll cool and joking with Duccio faces,” and in “Naples,” he finds “Eyes, thousands of eyes, thousand and one night eyes.”  The hour itself takes on a public meaning in “Amalfi”: “As in citizen dusk groups strolling witty.”  Perhaps the most transformative reading of people in their environment, however, takes place in “Venice,” where Denby observes “The water-like walking of women, of men.”

Scattered among Mediterranean Cities’ observed strangers and handful of references to an undefined “we” are a few friends the poet names directly: Olga, Rudy, and Rudy’s son, Jacob.  More frequent is the appearance of an “I” in the poems.  We have already seen how this “I’ is capable of significant intimacy with friends, as well as quasi-religious ecstasy.  It is also capable of great empathy — of observing Italians and Greeks and of feeling solidarity with people in their daily settings, their landscape.  In these moments, the narrator becomes a champion of the lives of those he encounters.  A prose text by Denby, “Naples Children,” gives insight into the attitude embedded in his Mediterranean poems:

Poor or not, each city proud of its name chooses its own particular kind of luxury and has it.  That of Naples is to have the brightest, prettiest, and happiest children; the most everywhere underfoot too, mixed up in everything that goes on, up at all hours, quickwitted, graceful, each one different from all the others and perfectly sociable…Ancient Naples has chosen the sweetest luxury of any city. [6]

Given his strong identifications with people from diverse settings, it is no wonder Denby’s sense of home is complicated.

In “Via Appia,” the poet uses this empathy and solidarity to move the “I” from a sense of distance to one of proximity.  The poem, which chronicles a walk down the famous ancient road, begins dominated by “turdlike” or “fungoid” tombs found near “dead aqueducts, discolored by distance.”  He names the feeling: “solitude.”  The stillness here, unlike the pregnant immobile noon in “Paestum,” is stultifying:

by a parked scooter a couple quarrel
Intently, standing in stillness anonymous;
The solitude has the face of an actor who
Sits in his wrapper and hears silence return
But not yet vanity;

Then suddenly, as if the poet were willfully manipulating the situation with his bare hands, he turns depression into joy: “so giddy, so free/As if one were dead, were dead, the heart becomes.”

It is this giddiness that drives the final couplet, where he is able to leave the entire Via Appia scenario behind.  The poem ends, seemingly out of the blue, with this couplet:

At dinner with lively friends, drinking Tuscan wine
In Rome that night, how I loved the restaurant’s shine

We don’t know which night Denby is referring to, nor which friends.  He does not have space for a fuller picture than he gives, but the fleeting tableau is enough.  We see and hear the friends, smell and taste the wine, feel the Roman night.  What the poet remembers most of all and leaves us with, though, is not the people, but “the shine” of the restaurant.  In the beginning of this poem, as at the end of “Paestum,” the “I” is separate, isolate.  Yet by conscious literary and moral strength, fortified by memory, Denby rescues the subject from a dark place and returns him to a brighter one.


==VI. The Power of Sexual Metaphor ==

We see in “Via Appia” how the poet is able to will a poem into a more positive position than the balance of its tone would have predicted.  In that particular sonnet, he does so by painting a picture of solidarity with friends; elsewhere he uses sexual metaphor.  While not surprising that sex should be used to counter death, Denby’s word choice and the way he anthropomorphizes landscape and architecture make his sonnets particularly effective.  In “Siena,” “cool small sane hills” and drowsy palaces provide the backdrop for a surprising observation: “Far above a shaft adolescently swells/To stiff blossom, a tower like a still girl.”  This unexpected description ignites a series of local experiences “luxurious as memory.”  The Sienese are “fine-boned”; “they stroll cool and joking” with faces from paintings by the trecento master Duccio.  By the end of the poem, the Madonna in a painting — a Duccio, one supposes — is “exalted.”  The narrator in his turn is exalted by the painting’s baby Jesus:

c        . . . omes forward like a heaved bell
The fat pearly Son frowning into the surf-beats
Of my heart, till where an overwhelmable shore lies
Citied, in almond-blossoming foam, deep-sea selves rise

As in “Paestum,” the narrator experiences a moment akin to religious epiphany, though his enlightenment is more likely of an aesthetic nature.  In any event, Denby transforms the moment into ecstatic poetry.  Significantly, unlike some of Denby’s other sonnets, which hedge back to grief or madness, “Siena” ends with “an overwhelmable shore” and, in its final line, an image of rebirth: “in almond-blossoming foam, deep-sea selves rise.”

Occasionally, the “I” is allowed to achieve full harmony with a natural setting and its people.  In “Segesta,” another Greek temple poem, the “I” sits on a mountaintop, “in the ghost stones/Of a theatre.”  Despite being set in a hard place haunted by phantoms, the poem is full of sensation.  There are sounds of singing, sheep bells that chime like music, “a reed pipe/Sweet.”  In lines six and seven, a goatherd, a youth who smiles and smells of milk, enters, seemingly stepping out of a poem by Theocritus (who is named here).  As the narrator earns the boy’s trust, the speaker’s desire rises.  “So slowly” — is it “thus, slowly” or “very slowly”?— desire is able to transform the narrator’s recurrent suffering into song:

Doric tongue, sweet for me as to Theocritus
The boy’s mistrust and trust, the same sky-still air
As then; so slowly desire turns her grace
Across the years, and eases the grief we bear
And its madness to merely a powerful song;

A vision of the origin of poetry presents itself.  The music that dominated the first half of the poem returns, only here it is “merely” a powerful song.  Desire is more potent than the song it gives rise to and the grief it transmutes.


==VII. Departures into Darkness ==

Inevitably, these poems of travel are also poems of leave-taking.  “Brindisi,” for example, is a classic departure poem in the tradition of Horace and Propertius, marking the point at which the narrator not only literally leaves Italy for Greece via boat but also leaves ancient Rome for the ancient Greece that preceded it and in whose historical shadow it lies couched.  On the most personal level, the departure evokes a transition from life to death, reminding us of Dante’s passage through the gates before his descent into hell.  Indeed, the sonnet begins ominously: “Where nervous I stand above nocturnal ships/The Appian road ends with one pillar at the shore.”  The pillar is solitary, like the locked park, Villa d’Este, isolate like the temple at Paestum after sunset; the trip through Italy is over.

Here at the shore, the ghosts of Greece whisper to the poet “in the waves’ lapping lips,” and he in turn addresses the water:

Harbor, lost is the Greece when I was ten that
Seduced me, god-like it shone; in a dark town, trembling
Like a runaway boy on his first homeless night
Ahead I rush in the fearful sweep of longing

At the beginning of the poem, he stood immobile like the pillar.  Now, he is rushing; his insides are in turmoil.  For what is he longing?  The past — or a past — clearly, as well as perhaps a sense of home.  Throughout the sonnets, we have seen the narrator’s ability to locate home compromised.  Is home to be found in the place he is leaving or the place to which he is going?  This question keeps coming up in these quintessential road poems.  Unlike the word “lost” in “Mycenae,” where the two friends experienced a powerful bonding in the shadows of Clytemnestra and paradoxically discovered they could never be lost while together, here “lost” takes on a darker pallor.  The godlike Greece of the narrator’s youth is lost, and as a result, he is turned into a boy again

In the final couplet, the poet tries to define the longing that emerges: “A dead longing that all day blurred here the lone/Clear shapes which light was defining for a grown man.”  Yet how can the longing be dead?  Doesn’t longing indicate desire, a life-force opposed to death?  Maybe his longing is for the dead, or perhaps a longing so strong it results in a kind of numbness, or deadness, in its human subject?  Answers may be found in the juxtaposition of light and dark.  The poem takes place in darkness: seeing ships in the night, the poet imagines he hears whispers of ghosts.  During the day, light had provided clarity, but that clarity was “blurred” by longing.  The word “blurred” brings to mind the hazy sea gods of “Trastevere A Dedication,” where night was also complicating vision, albeit endowed with a sense of longing that was giddy, forward-looking, desirous of adventure.  The longing in “Brindisi,” on the other hand, is strange, complex, mixed with dread.  Daylight defined the shapes, but a dead longing blurred them, and all that is left is an unknowable desire that returns him to the insecure state of “a runaway boy on his first homeless night.”  Given the trouble the narrator of these poems has defining “home,” this use of the word “homeless,” coming at this crucial passage, strikes a disturbing note.  Unlike the young goatherd in “Segesta,” who knows exactly where he is, and where home is, and has known it for centuries, this boy is without place, stranded in the dark.


==VIII. Darkness Meets Light ==

Denby further builds on the interplay of light and dark two poems later in “The Parthenon.”  In this sonnet, “homeless” has a positive connotation; it means “universal”: “She lifts from men dead into my passing life/A beauty of doubt that is homeless and not brief.”  “She” is the Parthenon, distinguished from the “Propylea spread like a male hand.”  What does Denby mean by designating the Parthenon “womanly,” except to attack every previous historical interpretation of its architecture as the epitome of male rational intellect?  “Her maturity duplicit like a richer kiss” gives a clue as to his interpretation.  There is something more complex to the Parthenon than raw logic — “white light/like an intent silence enjoys the languor/Secret in her dominion.”  There is a secret — almost like a religious mystery — leading to an erotic or emotional charge, a kiss deeper than that of “her Ionian companions,” who are merely rational.  The consolation she offers is “a beauty of doubt.”  This is the opposite of a beauty of clarity, what Frank O’Hara called “marvelous joy of being sure.”  Here, Denby hungers for something that, in his view, respects the combination of light and dark, (one cannot avoid the term in this terrain: the chiaroscuro), the seen and unseen, that represents reality.  He finds this coexistence of light and dark again in the next sonnet, “Attica,” which offers the poetry of Vergil as a source of solace: “There on brown Egina this light broke a Roman heart/Vergil’s, whose voice comforts in our unlimited dark.”

We find in Mediterranean Cities a struggle between the forces of light and darkness, with no possible victor.  In fact, the meanings of light and darkness seem to shift throughout the sonnet sequence.  Color itself is carefully calibrated by Denby’s critical eye to reflect both his observations and the particular light-and-dark pattern he wants to effect: series of browns and yellows, “slim greens” (“Olevano Romano”), “pastel-hued” ravines (“Sant’Angelo D’Ischia”), and “purple cliffs/Pink and yellow sky” (“Positano”), also black, grey, and ochre.  In Rome and Athens, the sky is painted in brighter hues: “Pear-brown Rome, dyed for the days whose blue is sweet” and “Desert blue of Attica’s heaven.”  By and large, however, Mediterranean Cities is a world of little color, or of colors that have been bleached by centuries of unrelenting sun.

Tracing Denby’s use of light and shadow throughout the sonnet sequence, we uncover a deliberate progression.  At the beginning of the trip, darkness is soothing; it provides a place to be anonymous, whereas daylight can painfully reveal one’s unacknowledged desires.  In the moment of transition from Italy to Greece, which can be seen as symbolic of other critical passages, the darkness becomes a place of doubts and fears.  Finally, near the end of the sequence, the poems’ light-shadow interplay gives way to a predominance of brilliant illumination.  Denby’s conclusion seems to be that in moments of darkness, art, nature’s quiet beauty, and quotidian humanity, fraught with complexity and an insatiable hunger for life, all can provide a comforting light.


== IX. Visions of Irrationality ==

Mediterranean Cities’ exploration of light and dark also provides a locus for the tensions between rationality and irrationality.  In Greco-Roman mythology, Apollo is the god of the sun, which symbolizes the powers of reason.  Yet throughout this analysis, we will see phrases — “wonders of senility,” “rosmarin’s/Savage scent,” “seas rainbow-fickle” — that seem to reference an irrational quality.  Standing in clear opposition to the Apollonian sense of rationality, this quality falls on the side of the torments accompanied by darkness, dreams and nocturnal disquiet.  The irrational can be thought of as a mode of action or thinking that cannot be explained, engendering anxiety in most subjects. [7]  The irrational can also be thought of as opposed to sanity, as a kind of madness.

Chronicling Denby’s sojourn, we see that it begins in a kind of pleasant shadow — Trastevere’s “summer dusk,” in which the narrator, freshly arrived, is happily taking note of his new environment.  With “Florence,” the scene grows less innocent, as the poet exposes us to an erotic madness, describing the river Arno in the opening line as: “Delicious tongue that poisons as it kisses.”  By the end of the poem, troubling “shapes” are noted in a withering atmosphere whose destructive power is palpable: “Shapes in the confined landscape where August seethes/Wasting, present Tuscan violence untamed.” [8]  Hillocks and a plain “lie insidious in the blaze” of the sun.  In “Villa d’Este,” by contrast, darkness is a cover for pleasurable pursuits.  Indeed, throughout these opening poems of the sequence, darkness provides comforting shelter, whereas sun exposes and burns the observer with physical longing.

By the time Ischia is reached in the 12th sonnet, the part of the journey close to the sea, light becomes blinding and is used as a foil for the narrator’s darker worries.  On a “white beach,” the narrator notes “wonders of senility” as an old hermit pokes a lame boy, his servant apparently, with a stick.  Although he does not comment, the “I” admits to being “astonished” and describes the elderly man as “smiling weird and ravished.”  In the poem’s concluding couplet, all is resolved and potential loss of sanity ceases to be an antagonist: “So at a wild farmer’s cave we pour wine together/On a beach, four males in a brilliant weather.”

In the following poem, “Positano,” the land itself becomes a site of implicit madness: “the mountain hunches blindly forward/Hugely falling crowds close, and a caverned head/Grovels between foam.”  The landscape is out of control.  Other words of description further paint an unsettled picture: “from blackened lips of shore/Grinding, the waves,” “Averse sea,” “rosmarin’s/Savage scent.”  Denby finally likens the mountain to grief and jealousy in a marvelously unliteral metaphor: “the mountain of groveled grief/Jealousy falling forever inward unlike ours.”

Stormy weather can often be read as a sign of mental or emotional unrest.  Rapid changes in weather convey changes in mood in “Amalfi.”  The city itself is “candid” — that is, shining, bright — but boatmen’s eyes are burning, and bad weather threatens the atmosphere:

Down the peaks a tempest plunges, flood yells, drowned
Screams from alleys, then a dripping and warm skies;


The storm has evaporated as abruptly as it arrived, and the shock of warmth leaves in its wake a transformed populace:

Altered, the throaty voice rising sinuous
Caresses, antique look deeper than a kiss
Melting, the longing body smiling like a face
Sidles heavy-curved; and gratefully it lifts its grace
As in citizen dusk groups strolling witty
Provocative meet foolish eyes and sweet;

The poem’s last line, “That far in storms Amalfi’s hearts would swallow,” is ambiguous.  It seems to refer to a moment (“eight hundred years ago”) when Amalfi was subdued by Pisa and forced to resign its position as a major sea power, but Denby’s syntax makes it possible that Amalfi’s hearts did the swallowing:

. . . a Pope
Old Briton, found the honor here as pretty
Eight hundred years ago, who watched without hope
Widen the sea, lilac below his palace
That far in storms Amalfi’s hearts would swallow

In Denby’s poetry, weather is often a code for emotional weather, and the storms in this line, combined with the phrases “without hope” and “hearts would swallow,” end the poem on a negative note.

In “Forza d’Agro,” in Sicily, the irrational results in a sadness bordering on depression that is associated with night.  An unidentified “we” are “unguided,” “lost,” as they wander “past a wild sea-keep.”  After a hike, they run down the hill, “lost” again even after having been shown the path by a priest and a youth.  Though the winter is “black,” they arrive safely home (here the temporary “home-base” of the traveler).  The poem seems to end with a glimmer of hope as “The lithe girl watching her goats, sparkling and fifteen/Smiles her clear smile.”  She is not enough, however, to avoid the chilling phrase that completes the fourteenth line: “as sleep and tearing grief return.” Darkness is now becoming the natural site of suffering.  This nocturnal brand of uncertainty and homelessness that will soon find its fullest expression in the poem “Brindisi.”


== X. The Greek Difference ==

When the sonnet sequence moves to Greece, there is a noticeable shift in visual tone, as well as a stepping away from madness.  The “I” of the poems finds his way in a decidedly mundane Athens, “past tennis courts and refuse,” but “in noon whiteness” finds Ilissus’ trickle on his way to Colonus.  Ghosts smile at the narrator’s discomfiture; he is able to observe their joy, and the poem ends in laughter.  In “The Parthenon,” as we previously witnessed, “white light/Like an intent silence enjoys the languor/Secret in her dominion.”  The only “droop in her candor” may be the shade inside the temple.  Her “ample clear” walls are compared to the “straight” and “pure” walls of another temple on the Akropolis.  In “Attica,” “flowers/Individually blooming in the stone landscape/Firm in brightness, bloom with a deeper color/Heavier fragrance than at home a namesake.”  Here, the idea of home returns with the suggestion that things — landscapes, nature, life itself — are brighter and more fragrant in Greece than at home (they are firm in their brightness), meaning, paradoxically, the narrator feels more at home away from home.  After the dark madness encountered in Italy, the light in Attica is so generative that it causes an entire ocean to flower: “And deep blue as violets blooms the Protean sea/Heavy-petaled in the noon’s inclusive delight.”  Not only is it generative but also consoling: although “this light broke a Roman heart/Vergil’s,” it can give us solace in our dark Brindisian nights of memory and dread.

The “majestic summer” from “Mycenae” is again referenced in “Delphi,” where an unidentified “we” immediately observe “Heat on the majestic flank of Parnassus.”   Without missing a beat, the poem continues, “Blazing noon; sunsick we reach beyond ruins/Cold Castalia’s source.”  Shadow provides the relief in this setting.  If we take the sun to represent reason, it is almost too blinding here.  “Majesty/Is its vestige in the mountain peace we see,” the poem ends.  In “Delos,” bright white and “Dark pure blue, deep in the light,” form the picture.  “We” take a boat to the island, the site of Apollo’s birth, “in a radiance massive like sex.”  After noticing that “Left among the Hellenistic marble scum/Glistens a vivid phallus,” the poet observes “marsh-born here before/At a palm, cleft-suckled, a god he first came/Who hurts and heals unlike love, and whom I fear;/Will he return here?”  The idea that knowledge, one of reason’s fruits, is painful, is a classical trope, familiar, for example, from a famous speech in Aischylos’ Agamemnon.  We are caught in a dilemma: light brings burning knowledge, darkness terrifying doubt.


== X. Denby’s Sonnet and Language Innovations ==

Throughout this discussion of Mediterranean Cities, it has become increasingly clear the originality Denby brings to the sonnet form.  Upholding a modern commitment to experimental use of language, he often uses ellipsis to create a highly condensed syntax (he would have appreciated that the German word for poetry has as its root the word that means “to condense”).  Denby’s ellipses appear within a framework that seems non-modern, yet by the time one reads several of the sonnets, it becomes apparent that, through his use of the 14-line form, Denby essentially reinvented it, making it new for another generation or so.  The language is fresh, and the classic structure provides an inevitability of scale rather than a strict set of limitations.  He does use end rhymes but regularly blurs them.  These innovations make Denby’s poems a critical stepping-stone in the evolution of the sonnet form towards an ultimate statement of scale — the fourteen-line poem.  Indeed, in the decade following the publication of Mediterranean Cities, as heralded by the publication of Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets, line count would become the sole restriction on the sonnet’s form and content.

In addition to reviving the sonnet form, Denby also pushes the limits of logical syntax.  He mixes archaic or poetic words — “gloze,” “capacious,” “humped,” “insidious,” “freaking,” “squamous” — with conversational phraseology.  He also combines mythological and mundane imagery.  His talent for poetic invention can be seen in such comparisons as “luxurious as memory” (“Siena”), “antique look deeper than a kiss” (“Amalfi”), “as remote as meaning” (“Delos”), as well as in such similes as “like a blond savory arm” (“Venice”), “Her maturity duplicit like a richer kiss” (“The Parthenon”), “massive like sex” (“Delos”), and “The rose like our blood in its perishable bloom” (“Mykonos”).  These usages of language function in a traditional way — they give us deeper insight into the poet’s meaning — but at the same time they are complicated and challenging.  They force us to think about each of the comparison’s individual terms before weighing the collective result.

Even as he takes the reader through dense, difficult passages, Denby still provides senses of solace within his Mediterranean landscapes.  Sometimes, our reassurance comes from the knowledge that, for all the devastating change that can occur in the world, some things remain the same for centuries:

. . . Dante woke too
To dawn of rain, thrush, of farmers’ and beasts’ tread
Leaving the cold alleys tight about the keep
Driven diurnally from the mountainhead
Down to farm”
(from “Olevano Romano”)

Other times, as we have seen, comfort comes through art: Vergil’s voice can bring peace in our unlimited dark.  Still other times, tranquility emerges from humanity itself.   In “Sant’Angelo d’Ischia,” for example, we find a clear recognition of the post-war setting, intertwined with a recognition that good, or “sweetness,” as Denby puts it, can survive so much evil: “As if in the whole world few people had survived/And man’s sweetness had survived a grandeur extinguished.”  This collective reality supersedes any one individual.  It reminds us of the New York “climate” in Denby’s early city poem  “The Climate.”  It is floating around and among us, an intangible quality that lives in individuals but is expressed only in interactions and groups.

As we end this journey with the final sonnet of Denby’s sequence, “Ciampino Envoi,” the word “already” sticks in our throats.  That tiny recognition at the beginning of the poem reveals the feeling we have on leaving such a rich experience:

Flying from Greece to see Moscow’s dancing girl
I look down on Alba Longa, see Jacob’s house
And the Pope’s, and already the airplane’s curls
Show St. Peter’s, and the Appian tombs’ remorse

The sonnet could easily develop an emotion of loss.  However, the thought of Rudy Burckhardt’s young son, Jacob, spurs a series of humorous observations as the child quickly grows from two years old to three.  In August, he runs in a garden; by November, he states “‘Forum not a park, Forum a woods.’”  Then, without any further description of the airplane trip, the scene shifts back to New York, where both Jacob and the narrator are reinstated.  The almost-final thought of Mediterranean Cities is a question of continuity:

Now in New York Jacob wants to have my cat
He goes to school, he behaves aggressively
He is three and a half, age makes us do that
And fifty years hence will he love Rome in place of me?

The poem and sonnet sequence end with a couplet, lightly combining the turbulent emotions that have marked the entire experience:

For with regret I leave the lovely world men made
Despite their bad character, their art is mild

“The lovely world men made” refers directly to the classical world — the temples and paintings Denby has seen on his tour and which he may never see again.  It is surprising and terrific that he can use the common word “lovely” to describe the great achievements of Western civilization, implying both an intimacy and a sense of criticism.  The final line refers to classical artists and their patrons, but it may also refer to the post-war environment; “bad character” is an ironic, but ultimately accurate, way of describing fascism.  “Their art is mild,” in typical Denby fashion, has at least two readings.  One is to bring human achievements — pretentiously great in politics or art — down to earth.  Their effect is not so great on the common man, who keeps on living as best he can.  Another, subtler reading of “mild” would take it to mean soothing.  The traveler is leaving this world with regret, because the art he found there and the humanity it implies are consoling, and they survive.



Flying from Greece to see Moscow’s dancing girl
I look down on Alba Longa, see Jacob’s house
And the Pope’s, and already the airplane’s curls
Show St. Peter’s, and the Appian tombs’ remorse;
But Jacob, a two-year-old American
Is running in the garden in August delight;
‘Forum not a park, Forum a woods,’ he opines
In November quiet there on days less bright;
Now in New York Jacob wants to have my cat
He goes to school, he behaves aggressively
He is three and a half, age makes us do that
And fifty years hence will he love Rome in place of me?
For with regret I leave the lovely world men made
Despite their bad character, their art is mild

(Edwin Denby, “Ciampino • Envoi”)





[1] Special thanks to Vivien Bittencourt and Brooke O’Neill for their help in editing this essay.

[2] Edwin Denby, Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets (New York: Horizon Press, 1965), reprinted in Edwin Denby, Willem de Kooning (Madras & New York: Hanuman Books, 1988).

[3] The Mediterranean Cities sequence can be found in Edwin Denby, The Complete Poems (New York: Random House, 1986), edited by Ron Padgett.

[4] For an excellent account of Denby’s life and work, see Ron Padgett’s introduction to Edwin Denby, The Complete Poems (New York: Random House, 1986), edited by Padgett, with essays by Lincoln Kirstein and Frank O’Hara.

[5] The most recent publication is Dance Writings and Poetry, edited by Robert Cornfield (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).  In 1936, Denby began a column called “With The Dancers” for the journal Modern Music, and from 1942 to 1945 he contributed dance criticism to the New York Herald Tribune.

[6] Edwin Denby, The Complete Poems, Edited by Ron Padgett (New York: Random House, 1986).

[7] E.R. Dodds in The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), begins with the irrational as action that goes against the best interests of the actor.  He then goes on to note that Plato in the Phaedrus outlines four modes of divinely inspired madness that can be observed in ancient Greek culture: prophetic madness, whose patron is Apollo; ritual religious madness, whose patron is Dionysus; poetic madness, inspired by the Muses; and erotic madness, governed by Aphrodite and Eros.

[8] “Shapes” is a word to which Denby will return.  Here, in “Florence,” “slopes of soft olives/A prospect of humped tower and of floated dome” — nature and architecture — are reduced to “shapes” by the scorching atmosphere.  As we have seen, “shapes” is the key term at the end of the transitional poem “Brindisi,” where longing blurred the few shapes the man was able to define.  “Shapes” is a shorthand that simplifies landscape, art, and even people, and it is a simplification against which the narrator struggles.

Previously published in Hidden Agendas: Unreported Poetics, ed. Louis Armand (Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010)