BILLY MARSHALL STONEKING

Who Do You Think You Are?

  Exile - Italy, Paris, Santa Cruz, NY

READING BETWEEN THE AIRLINES

Musings of a Performance Poet

I left Australia in 1997, a virtual exile. I was soul-sick, at the end of a twenty-year marriage, and in great need of a change. The cozy confines of inner-city Sydney no longer nourished me, not to mention the fact that the arbiters of taste and culture had grown decidedly hostile towards the kinds of plays I was writing. "They're not Australian enough," they'd say. It was a type of mentality that would've declared Shakespeare un-English on account of Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice; the same, old cultural cringe I'd come up against during the Walkabout Tour. I was tired of it. There was a world out there, and and I had remained persistently naive enough to think that maybe it would be more inclined towards the sorts of ideas that excited and interested me.

Poets are driven by images and voices, and the image of the exiled poet held me, mesmerised, like an animal in the headlight of an approaching freight train. The old-fashioned romanticism of it took over my life, which is another way of saying I was feeling sorry for myself - tragically sorry.  And it was all aided and abetted by the anticipation and dread that accompanied my realisation that I was setting out on a very long journey, perhaps the final journey - to Tuscany eventually - my own transcendental masthead where, like a latter-day Ishmael, I was sure I'd find the inspiration if not the salvation I was seeking.

My first port-of-call was Santa Cruz, California, a place I'd visited during the Walkabout Tour. Past-life counselors, astrologers, and life trainers of every variety had set upon us with ecstatic rapture during that tour. "Wow! This is what poetry used to be like back in the 60s!" they had enthused. But few things remain as we remember them, and Santa Cruz was to be no excepton. In the intervening years, the academics had tightened their grip on the poetry scene. At the University of California, the only poetry worthy of serious consideration was "language poetry". Poetry about poetry. Language about language.Its devotees were middle-class English students, and its high priests, their professors who warmly embraced Ezra Pound as their literary grandpap, though the old man probably would've cried "bug wash" in the face of what he'd wrought. To me it smacked of studied cynicism, and produced the same sense of claustrophobia I'd felt in Australia.

The prose-poem had also gained in prominence. Morton Marcus, a well-known Bay area poet and college English teacher who hosts a weekly one-hour poetry show on Santa Cruz radio, told me he'd never enjoyed writing more. "It frees me from the tyranny of the line." It also freed him from poetry. A piece from his second collection of prose-poems, published by Hanging Loose Press in New York, begins: "My Uncle Ernie found a head in his bowling ball case. It was nearly a perfect fit, a 'mob job. Probably drugs,' said the cop as he flipped over the pages of his pad and tucked it into his shirt pocket."

During my stay in Santa Cruz, I stayed in with an old, teacher-friend of mine who was living in a mobile home park. We talked about poetry and philosophy in between eating pancakes and doing laundry. Some days I'd go for long walks. I kept hoping I might get a reading or two, but after a few weeks waiting for the phone to ring, I gave up. Later, I attended some extremely depressing readings by Ferlinghetti (who is still lost in a gone world) and Robert Creeley (who uses "etc. etc." now instead of words). A dignified retreat was in order.

When California becomes too much to bear, there is always London, which offers antidotes to just about everything, including life.

 

 

 

No trip to London is complete without a pilgrimage to Pound's former digs at 10 Church Walk, High Street, Kensington. The place hasn't changed all that much. The incessant church bells that so infuriated the sensitive young poet still toll the hour, but one is far enough removed from the traffic on High Street that one imagines being in a small village in the midst of some unseen bucolic landscape.

Pound lived on the top floor, in the same room where Laurie Lee would later write Cider with Rosie, and where D.H. Lawrence crashed in a drunken heap after missing his train one night. The place is now owned by a psychotherapist, a thoroughly charming woman who coincidentally specializes in writers with writer's block. She caught me looking at the place and invited me in for tea. "What brings you here?" she asked. "Mediocrity," I replied. She knew what I meant. She had a daughter who lived in Australia. She wondered if maybe I couldn't use a session or two, but I declined.

At a reading at the Torriano Community Centre in Kentish Town, the star attraction was a rather mummified-looking John Heath-Stubbs, who managed to snooze through most of the readers, bar a woman who, in honor of his presence, read one of his poems. The ancient bard came to life, intermittently, offering an explanatory note here, correcting a mispronunciation there; and, finally, before the poor woman was done, a seemingly sonambulant, mostly inaudible musing on his boyhood home where Edward the Second - the subject of the poem - was allegedly poisoned. Then back to sleep, his huge, white head resting on wrinkled paws perched imperially atop his walking stick.

The Poetry Café in Covent Garden also has regular readings which are held in a downstairs salon under the café. A crowd of about 70 was crammed into the place the night I was there, an international mix of students, travelers, refugees and Irishmen. The master of ceremonies introduced me as "a famous poet from Australia", which was only slightly less embarrassing than what had happened in Kentish Town the night before where the MC had thanked "Billy Stonehenge for his palpably exotic pieces."

I should've known - London was too closely connected to Australia for me to ever find respite there. So I didn't feel all that bad cutting short my stay. On my way to catch the train to Paris, I had the misfortune of getting a cabbie who was a born-again Christian and who spent most of our 45-minutes together telling me why I should have Jesus in my life, if not in my poetry. Part of me said he had a serious evangelical side to him; another part told me he was a murderer. It was a big relief when he finally dropped me off safely at Victoria Station.

My presence in Paris coincided with the 15th annual in Place St Sulpice - a four-day, open-air poetry market where poets and poetry lovers, editors and critics, publishers and translators, gather to hear, read, sell, argue and celebrate poetry. There are scores of bookstalls, poster and postcard vendors, little-magazine people, calligraphy artists, discussion groups and performances of poetry from midday until midnight, most of it housed under canvas in a virtual tent-city.

Eventually, I made my way to the outdoor bar, strategically erected next to where the poets were reading. Black poets, feminist poets, jazz poets, anti-poets. There was a remarkable variety of styles, and not only French poetry, but French translations of Chinese, Bosnian and Latin American poets as well. The only Australian poetry I saw was a single, thin volume by Mark Henshaw in French translation. I sat at the bar and pretended I understood everything that was being said. Some of it I actually did understand. But overall I was beginning to feel more the idiot than the poet - language was suddenly something I no longer had access to. All my eloquence lost, reduced to phrase book. On the way home, it began to rain and I stopped under the canvas awning of a shop to wait for it to let up. A little man with a red umbrella and a great big coat sidled up to me as if he was curious about the time, or wanting to know the directions to some place he intended visiting. He smiled at me as he approached, I smiled back, hoping he didn't say anything in French I couldn't answer. But he said nothing. He looked out at the street, then at me, then he smiled again, and put the back of hand on my thigh, jerking his head slightly as if to indicate that I should follow him. He was trying to pick me up!


Staying in the heart of the Latin Quarter, I wasn't far from Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach's legendary bookshop and lending library (though it has moved from its most-famous location). George Whitman, the present owner, was manning the front desk when I arrived clutching three copies of my book of poems (Singing the Snake), which I hoped he might sell in his shop. "You just can't get good help these days!" he fumed, as if I was to blame. "What do you want?" he snapped. I showed him the books, suddenly unsure that they meant anything at all. He flipped through the pages and asked me if I knew Les Murray, his favorite Australian poet. "He's been here, y'know". What a relief! Yes, I said. Les had been instrumental in getting my Aboriginal poems published in Australia, the very book he held in his hands. "Where are you staying?" he asked; then, without waiting for my reply, pressed some keys into my hand and told me I could have the flat on the third floor. "Why don't you move in for a week or two? It's free!"

It seemed almost too good to be true. It was also impossible, this. Later I would visit again and stay for a month. But this time I had another plane to catch with readings in Vienna and Salzburg, and then on to my final destination, Italy.

 

 

In Vienna, my first stop was the Literarisches Quartier of Kunstverein Alte Schmeide, Vienna's contemporary literature centre, where I was to perform with fellow Australian poet, Rudi Krausmann. Kurt Neumann, the director, had allowed a day on either side of my reading so I could take in a few sights.

There was a message waiting for me when I arrived at my pension: "Meet me in the café. At 10. Rudi"

What the Café Hawelka doesn't give you in light is more than made up for in atmosphere. You pass through its doors and suddenly it's 1930. The place oozes history. And not all of the spirits are kept in bottles. Over a Pils, Rudi - a native Austrian who had attended school in Vienna - told me how it had once been the unofficial hub of Vienna's literary and artistic life. Henry Miller was one of its regulars for a while. "He used to sit in a booth near the door when he was with friends," Rudi said, "or at a table near the back when he was alone, where he'd drink and make notes on scraps of paper." The magic realist painters had also haunted place, and still did. Their works - payment for weeks of drinks - hung on the walls. You could buy an entire brewery with those same paintings today.

 

It was like an obscured dream, Vienna. There and yet not there. Like Paris without dirt, or litter, or anything that might've irrevocably indicated that humans actually lived here. There was too much history to see anything. Too much already made to make anything new.

On the day of the reading I went exploring, lost myself for a few hours amid the back lanes and cobbled streets of another time. Coming up a hill from the river, I turned into a narrow street and discovered another Shakespeare and Company. Its owners, English-speaking Austrians who had decided on the name in homage to the original, and because their bookshop - like its namesake - specialized in literature written in English. We talked for a while about poetry and I invited them to the reading that evening. "It always makes such a difference," the woman said, "to be able to hear the poet's words as he hears them!"

The poetry reading was held in the Literarisches Quartier, in a large, somewhat sterile performance space adjoining a medieval blacksmith shop. An eclectic group of about 50 people braved a rainy night to come and listen. Among those present were a filmmaker, two solicitors, a cellist, a potter, and a squat, rather eccentric-looking woman who came to get two copies of our autographs, then left before the reading started. Neumann told me she traded them, living in hope that one day one of us might become so famous she'd be able to retire.

It was interesting hearing my Papunya poems read in German. Most of the audience understood English, but for those who didn't Rudi read translations. I'd read, then he'd read the translated text in German. Afterwards, about a half a dozen people hung around wanting to talk about Australia and Australian poetry. It was kind of weird. The irnoy of it. Here we were: two Australian poets - one, Austrian, the other American (I grew up in the States). But then this really is what Australian poetry is!

On the train to Salzburg, Rudi told me he thought he was suffering from "Salzheimer's Disease" - a condition which, according to friend, can strike anyone who stays in Salzburg longer than a week. And he'd been there three months!

It wasn't long before I started noticing the symptoms. Like strolling along the street late at night with a group of acquaintances, only to look up and discover yourself in the company of strangers, having blindly crossed at the lights when everyone else in your party had turned left at the corner. Rudi says it's a common malady because the town is so damn orderly. Everything is so well-regulated, trim, tidy and comfortable, you end up falling into patterns of behavior and abandon thought altogether. I wondered if this had anything to do with why Hitler, who came from a little town not far from Salzburg, had such success with his ideas and followers.

The highlight of my stay in Salzburg was my meeting with Gerhard Amanshauser, the 70-year-old Salzburg writer best known for his poems, and for his novel, Castle With Late Guests, who invited us to visit him at his home.

One gets there by the most circuitous of routes. We climbed what seemed a thousand steps until we reached a cliff-side track (Monchsberg, see above)  made famous by the poet, Georg Trakl. From there we wound our way along the edge of a precipice, into a forest, over archaic stone bridges, round the towering fortress that watches over the town, and into the shadow of the battlements until, breaking through into a clearing, we came upon Amanshauser's enchanted cottage. And there was the poet himself, coming to greet us, by turns humble, ironic and grand.

The conversation over wine and a light lunch ranged from Parmenides to Aborigines to China. Rudi persuaded me to do my Pound impersonation which Gerhard loved. "You know, all real poets are actors," he said. "They carry their theatres inside of them."

He wondered why I had left Australia, and what I would do living in Europe among
people who did not speak English. It will be interesting to see if one who is so wed to language can do without it for long and still remain sane, he said.

That night, Rudi and I gave our final reading at the Literaturhaus in Salzburg. An appreciative audience of artists, writers and scholars. A nervous young journalist tried to interview me for the paper, asking in uncertain English what I meant by "the dreamtime" and whether I would mind if she reprinted some excerpts from my poems. I felt helpless to comfort her and put her at ease, my German non-existent and Rudi nowhere to be seen.

The next few days were full of bars and artists, ladies and walking tours... way too much society for one rendered voiceless by the tyranny of one's ignorance. Anyway, it was time for a spell, a period of solitude and contemplation. A nesting in the masthead. So much to consider and reconsider.

And so to Italy... to my own secluded monastery ... a Tuscan farmhouse at the end of a dusty road, perched on the side of a hill surrounded by cypress trees. Most evenings I'd stand in the afterglow of a summer sunset, listening, watching, taking my bearings from where Mt Amiata, extinct, rose from a sea of sunflowers and silence.

This exile was going to be more dramatic than I had thought...

 

Experience in Sinalunga :  http://www.thebatheroomdiaries.com/italy/sinalunga.html

 

 In Dante's Country

"This time is the time when
the things we love are dying
and the things we do not love
are rushing to replace them"


Rainier Maria Rilke, "The Ninth Elegy" from The Duino Elegies

I remember the images I had of Tuscany before I arrived: the yellow dust settling round the old railway station as I stepped from the train; sunlight falling through leafy trees, a rutted, dirt road snaking towards the old farmhouse where I'd beat out my exile from Australia. These and other visions had fed me during my final days in the land of Oz.

An isolated farmhouse in the middle of Tuscany was a curious place to take my body after my sorties into the London, Paris, Vienna and Salzburg poetry scenes; but I've never been one of those who thinks a new haircut and a change of clothes can make everything right again. I felt sick and hollow inside, and imagined a year living in Dante's country might prove a healing experience.

The sweltering heat of midsummer slapped me in the face as I emerged from the train station. Outside, I looked around, hoping for a taxi in a seemingly taxi-less world. Sinalunga. It was small and ugly; not the kind of place tourists visited with alacrity, if at all, despite the fact Garibaldi had once fought a battle here. Maybe I was Sinalunga's first tourist! It didn't look as if tourists had ever been an important part of the life here, and I was certain my sudden appearance wasn't going to change that. In the park across the street, a gaggle of old men lounged in the shade, gossiping regally without so much as a nod in my direction.

I left my luggage on the footpath and crossed the park to where several pay-phones stood resolute and mostly out-of-order. A young man with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth was hanging onto the only phone that still worked. His words rolled seductively from his tongue like warm dough on a summer night. He had no idea I was waiting, nor would he have cared had he known. The only other living creature in his universe was the woman he was talking to - his lover, I imagined - and that's the way it remained all the way to the end of his cigarette, which he finally disposed of with a florish before making the usual kissing sounds into the receiver and hanging up.

I scooped up the phone, coins in hand, only to discover I needed a phone card. A phone card, I thought; where in hell am I gonna get a phone card? A passerby read my mind. Or maybe I wasn't Sinalunga's first tourist after all. He directed me towards the railway station, saying I should try the kiosk.

In the café, I made hand-signs and spoke baby Italian to a skeptical, middle-aged woman behind the counter. In desperation, I reached for my phrase book, but she waved it away with a brief remark before commenting loudly to a rather sporty, coffee-drinking couple at the other end of bar. The man replied in Italian, then all of them laughed uproariously. I smiled as if I understood, and tried my best not to look entirely helpless. The woman behind the counter pushed a 10.000 lire phone card towards me, then took my money and rang it up in one seamless motion. You can make your call now, she said in perfect English.

Someone else was on the phone when I got back - a small man occupying a very large conversation that went on for at least ten or fifteen minutes, despite audible sighs, groans and glowering looks from my side of the glass. When he was done, I inserted the card, and carefully dialed the number Ugo had written on a scrap of paper before I'd left Sydney - the number for Gianna, the cab driver.

The phone rang... and rang... and then it rang some more. Maybe it was the wrong number. Or maybe the cab company had gone out of business. Moments before, I'd been hoping that whoever answered the phone would speak English; now all I wanted was for someone to answer the damn thing. I was on the verge of hanging up when I heard a woman's voice. "You speak English?" I asked. No, no English," she said, and remained stonily mute while I struggled to explain my need. Her silence was broken at the mention of Gianna. No, nooooo, she said, Gianna not here. Is he coming back, I stammered. But it was useless. Where Gianna was I have no idea, though I'm sure she must've told me. He might as well have been dead for all the good my Italian was doing me. With false conviction in my mastery of the language, I set about trying to explain my predicament - enough to express my grave dismay at there being no cabs. I'm not sure it was so much what I said as how I said it that made the difference - a slight quavering in the voice which spoke volumes of dread and uncertainty. People usually respond to expressions of fear, and my friend on the other end didn't let me down. My howling lament set her to speaking, more quickly now, nervously, as if there was some urgency that I not be left to my own devices in the middle of Sinalunga with nothing more than sunset to look forward to. Pressing the receiver closer to my ear, I gathered together enough key phrases to imagine she was telling me to wait, someone would come.

In the park, the old men went on gossiping and fanning themselves with folded newspapers, oblivious to my plight. 

At the side of the station - which had been built during Mussolini's reign - I discovered a card game in progress. Four men sitting around a portable card table were playing pinochle, surrounded by twelve or fifteen other men who followed the throw of cards with a intense and shrewd expressiveness. The players, themselves, never changed expression, but the ones who were watching them "spoke" silently, showing their approval or disapproval with a uplifted eyebrow or an almost imperceptible nod. I have no idea what the stakes might've been, but I began to surmise in the game itself a complicated dialogue with all the gravity of life and death. In short, I became engrossed, watching the players and the watchers with equal interest, long enough to be surprised by the young man shouting through the open car window, asking me I wanted a taxi. Yes, it's me, I said. I hurried over to the curb and collected my bags. Petroio? I said. Si, si, he said. Trove? I said. Si, si, si, he said impatiently, climbing from the taxi to help me with my luggage. We threw the suitcases into the back, and I climbed in next to the driver.

Bertoli was a would-be Andretti in a clapped-out Chevy. Seconds later, we were flying out of Sinalunga, whizzing past olive groves and 500-year-old farmhouses, communication reduced to little more than place names and finger pointing. Here, the road to Trequanda. Over there, Pienza. This place - this is where the big pots are made for the world. Buongiorno, Buongiorno, with eyes and the flick of a wrist towards those at the side of the road. My country - very beautiful, he beamed, his white teeth flashing. Up, up into the hills - an almost-voiceless passage into the dawning of the Holocene. For an eternity we drove.

Just before the hill town of Petroio, we veered to the right, then went another kilometer before making an abrupt left onto a narrow, gravel track full of pot-holes. I gazed from my window, peering down into a deep ravine, as the car plunged on. In the distance, through the blue haze of late afternoon, the village of Castelmuzio reached ambitiously towards heaven. Beyond that, one could just make out the bell-tower of the monastery where The English Patient had been filmed.

Slowly, slowly, we drove, past the farmhouse of the Bindi, down the windy, rutted road into the enclosed valley where the red, roof-tiles of Trove floated in a sea of green, surrounded by an ocean of sunflowers five weeks short of harvesting.

Nothing was exactly as I imagined it, yet everything was strangely familiar. High up on a high ridge, fifteen erect cypresses stood in one long row; and behind them - maybe fifteen miles away - the extinct volcano of Mt Amiata, Toscana's highest peak - towered over the Cassia.

 

 

I paid the driver and watched forlornly as my last link with civilization disappeared in a cloud of dust. Not yellow as I had imagined, but a volcanic grey. After all these years, I was finally alone.

Looking up at the empty house, I could see it wasn't as dilapidated as I had thought. In fact, it had a curious nobility about it. And it was much grander than I would've dreamed. Tall weeds grew on either side of the path leading up to the front door, and plaster had fallen from the outside walls, revealing the ancient brickwork underneath. All this only added to its charm.

The ground floor had been set aside for horses and farm equipment, but it didn't look as if either had inhabited this place since the end of the war. Somewhere down here was the toilet I'd been told about, and the bucket of sawdust one used to cover the evidence. Too many snakes, I thought, and decided I'd use the woods at the back of the house.

I climbed the steps to the second floor, unlocked the double-doors, and pushed inside. It was cool, dark. The living room and kitchen shared one vast space. Kitchen on the left, living room on the right, and a rough-hewn, wooden dining table in between. Trove, I said under my breath. Trove... Trove... as if the sound possessed some kind of magical power; as if by merely uttering it I could conjure the company of spirits, good spirits I hoped, who might well inhabit the shadows which fell about me in a room of brick and slate and stone. I was alone. And yet there was a presence here; invisible forces dwelled within these walls and I knew almost at once that I'd have to make a some sort of peace with them if I was to survive the isolation.

I dropped my bags and breathed in the deep silence, an engulfing, claustrophobic silence. Trove. What place was this? What was it I had hoped to find here - without telephone or electricity, three kilometers from the nearest village? Trove... Trove.

The house seemed to go on forever. It had a roominess I had often longed for, having been forced to live for so many years to live in tight quarters with no space to move. There were two large rooms off of the kitchen - one for storage, the other a bedroom. From the living room, a long, narrow corridor led to three more bedrooms, lavishly furnished in antique Italian wardrobes, dressers and beds. I selected the room closest to the kitchen for my bedroom, and the one furthest from the kitchen for my study.

Looking from my bedroom window, I gazed out on a sea of sunflowers; golden heads dipping in the wind, rolling in great waves as far as the eye could see. I threw open the window, and breathed in the exotic perfume of earth and growing things. Within arms' reach, little green figs hung from a tree. I would take these figs as my calendar. Instead of counting the days I would watch them as they softened and changed color, knowing that September had passed into October by the taste of ripened fruit. After all these months, I was finally here, or least my body was.

I unpacked my bags, placing socks and underwear neatly in the dresser drawers, hanging my shirts in the wardrobe. My commitment to the place growing evermore certain with each action. This was going to be my home.I set up the portable CD player I'd bought in Vienna. The tiny musical library I had with me was a rather strange mix of blues, pop, jazz and classical. I selected Vivaldi and cranked up the volume.

How like desire! I mused. How the reality of what one has hoped for settles into one's being. I'd come seeking solitude, and now that I was here I was surprised and a little dismayed there was no one to greet me. Nor was there anything to do, other than get on with my writing - a new play about Soutine and Utrillo, and whatever else was thrown up by the extraordinary adventure upon which I had embarked.

At the end of Vivaldi's last season, the silence was still there. Nothing but the ticking of my watch and my heart's own gravity. Then I heard another sound. A kind of knocking on glass. It became more violent, as if someone or something was pounding on a window at the other end of the house. I went to investigate. A strange, mad bird was smashing up against the window pane in the store room, as if he might be trying to break in, or break me out. I tried to shoo him away, but he kept coming back, like a warning: bird's bones on glass and feathers everywhere. I closed the door, hoping to muffle the sound and, after a while, put it out of my mind.

Next morning he was back, body crashing so forcefully it woke me up just after sunrise. It was so damn insistent; and me, not knowing the habits of birds, I became a little frightened. Perhaps it was a sign, an omen, a messenger with a message I was incapable of deciphering.

Later, I went outside to investigate the old, stone well by the side of the house. Peering down its throat, I could see the silhouette of my head back-lit by sky, thirty feet below me. I pulled on the rope tied to the cross-beam, and a blue plastic bucket, half full of water, rose from the darkness. The water was undrinkable - only for bathing and washing clothes I'd been told. And it was freezing. Something I'd have to bear. After the train trip from Florence and the drive from Sinalunga, I needed a wash, so I stripped off, and ladled the water over my body, naked in the heavy, warm air, attuned to every sound and movement, ready to make a mad dash to my towel in the event of any uninvited passersby, but there were none. The only people who came down this road were the Bindis, to attend to their sunflowers, and sometimes you wouldn't see them for days.

Near the well, the flowers droned with large black and yellow bees, and a persistent march fly, not easily discouraged by my waving hands, dive-bombed for blood. I lifted my face to the sky, feeling the sun on my face and chest, water streaming down my legs. In future I'd fill containers and let the water warm itself in the rays of the sun before using it to wash with. There was something delicious and sensual about being naked and unashamed in the full-bodied heat of the Tuscan light, the sound of summer buzzing in the air.

The house hadn't been inhabited for quite some time and I could see right away there were a number of provisions I'd need, quite apart from some good vino. I'd need candles and food, and some paper and pens. Petroio wasn't that far away that I couldn't walk there, so next morning I set out on foot, back along the route the taxi had taken - a long three kilometers, mostly uphill. On my way, I called in at the Bindi's farmhouse and introduced myself. The Bindis, I'd been told, were the most marvelous people on the face of the earth. And this may have been true, though I never found out, as they spoke no English and my Italian was still at the stage of baby talk. Most of our "conversations" were composed of head shaking, shrugging, and nervous laughter, though their eldest daughter, Mikalia, and I did manage a fairly lengthy discussion about the occult once, with the help of my pocket phrase book and a lot of mental telepathy.

The store in Petroio was small but had everything I needed. Wine, wurst, candle and cannelloni. I bought as much as I could stuff into my backpack and headed down to the village's small piazza to rest before the long trek back. I was in terrible physical condition at the start of my time in Italy, but would soon become quite fit owing to all the walking I'd be doing. The complete journey from Trove to Petroio and back again took nearly three hours. Had the store opened early, I could've left in early morning before it was so hot, but I usually left at about nine when the heat was already quite intense, and by the time I returned it was nearly 100.

 

After the first couple of weeks, I began to enjoy my sojourns into Petroio. By the bridge at the foot of the town, there was always an old man, leaning against the bridge, cane in hand, taking the air. We got into the habit of nodding to one another and saying Buongiorno whenever we'd meet. It was always a highlight of the trip, finding him there. I often wondered what he thought about me - who I was and what I was doing there. I seemed so out of place, as though some big, omnipotent hand had stuck me, willy-nilly, into the landscape.

If nothing else, walking gave me time to think, and what I kept thinking was "what they hell am I doing here"... It wasn't going to be easy to stay, and yet the idea of leaving, without giving it a chance, seemed weak and cowardly.

How I survived... hour by hour, day by day, has been lost to me. I spent much of time naked, indoors and out, and read as much as I could - Moby Dick and Dante Aligheri. But mostly, I sat and thought about my life and busied myself with the little things, completely conscious of each movement - of how a jug is filled, or a stove is lit - appreciating in these simple actions life's fragility as well as its endurance.

Eventually, I settled into a kind of life. Though my loneliness was always with me, I discovered I could hold it at bay through a kind of inspired diligence to routine. Outside, I washed all my clothes by hand and pegged them up to dry, marvelling at how quickly and easily the task was done. Trips into the village were best when commenced early, and the return trip was made easier after a spell under the trees in Petroio's small park. On Thursdays, I'd walk up to the main road and flag the bus to Sinalunga and spend the day at the outdoor markets. Amazing how much can be done when there is nothing to do! Some evenings, coming back from a walk, I'd spy one of the Bindi brothers on a tractor and we'd wave or nod to one another, and I'd think of his life and of his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who had been nourished by this land, and how much richer their lives had been because of their essential connection to the earth. And I felt blind and helpless and ashamed, that I - who had learned so much - was unable to be simply happy, to take delight in my own nothingness.

Some days, having completed all my tasks, I would seek escape in long walks. Every day I managed to walk somewhere. Every second or third day I'd walk into Petroio to replenish supplies. By now my body had become lean and stronger than it had been in years. No more panting and struggling for breath. Five miles was nothing. Walking uphill was just as easy as walking down. My mind seemed clearer too.

One morning, I woke up and went to the kitchen, which was where I brushed my teeth. I turned the tap, the same as I done every morning, but nothing came out, only a distant sigh, as if dust had grown a throat and was trying to clear it. So I got myself dressed walked up to Senor Bindi's place and told him I had no drinking water. He frowned and went to investigate. I went with him. Halfway between his place and mine, on a flat plateau a hundred feet higher than the roof of my house, we unbolted the trapdoor that covered the cistern, and flung it open. It was dry. Senor Bindi sighed and scratched his head, then shrugged. Maybe a blockage, maybe a pump somewhere. He had no idea. He would ring the Commune. He couldn't tell me when I would have water again.

Thus began several weeks of me carrying water from the village to my house. A daily event. I remembered Jean de Florette, and suddenly understood what he had been faced with. It was so hot, I usually ended up drinking half the water before I got home. Next morning, it was all gone, and I'd have to make the trip again.

Poetry, as much as anything, had led me here. Later, I would buy a cheap Vespa, and explore some of Dante's country more fully. The landscape near Sovana, which had provided inspiration for Dante's concept of the Inferno, is one of the places that will always remain in my memory. Sheer cliffs fall on all sides into a tangle of dark ravines and crevasses. It was while Dante had been journeying on this road that he had had chanced upon this image of Hell. The volcanic rocks and escarpments present a cruel, unrelenting aspect that is only neutralized by one's arrival in the village at the top. But whose Hell was it really?

I re-read Dante during my time at Trove, and imagined that what had led him to write The Divine Comedy was not so very different from what had led me to seek refuge in the wilds of the Italian countryside. Both of us had felt thwarted, both had fallen from grace, both had come to a "pathless wood", and the empyrean plain, which all true poets have some inkling of, seemed unreachable. Caught in the suspense of Limbo, stuck between torment and bliss, I could only marvel at his words, standing on the brink of the very cliffs where he had dreamed his great poem, seen visions and heard voices. "Why harbourest cowardice in thy heart? Why act thou not bold and free...?"

Poetry is always more than the poet, always more than method and technique; and never a matter of what one learns or knows, but what one is. More than a way of saying - it is Being itself; and the Etruscan hills were no less a part of this epic - my epic - than they had been his. They were as true or false a sounding board as what I had left behind in Australia, because the voice is not OUT THERE, but always lurking inside, making the soundless sound in the interior landscape of the human heart - the source of all those sounds which make up our endless howl. Dante speaks of a way out, and it is not a way one buys for the price of a map. If one must speak of ways, it is the quiet inner-looking by which the poet, Virgil, guides Dante in his migration from the labyrinth of the "littleness of soul".

I had come to the beginning of the civilized world to forget the crassness of civilization, and what I found was history. A weighty history of done things without vitality for change. Could I write in this place? Could I live here without the torment of the darkness within? Some nights I'd lie in bed, staring up at the ceiling, illuminated by candlelight, imagining I'd fallen into a huge grave. In my notebook, I wrote things like:

Coming back from the village
I spy two stag deer grazing
Raising their heads
catching my scent
they bolt
leaping into the woods,
becoming invisible -
like those Etruscans
barely hidden by the trees...

Ah, to become invisible! To return to the earth! Where does one go to learn this? Into the desert? Into the unknown? Into the Voice?

 

BREAKFAST FOR HOW MANY?

I didn't exactly wind up in the Catskills by choice. Okay, okay! I'll admit I DID pour myself into a racketty Mexican bus one night in San Miguel, but that had more to do with escaping Mexico than coming to Woodstock.  (See Woodstock)

I'd gone to Mexico (see Mexico) after a rather disastrous four months in Santa Cruz, California, where I'd shared a sweltering, book-stuffed mobile home with an aging philosophy-teacher and mentor/friend of mine. He used to ask me questions like, "what is the flower in the flowerpot outside your window saying?", and then wait patiently for a response. He was speaking metaphorically, of course, but it used to make me miserable because I could never think of a good answer. We'd spend our evenings talking about paideuma and the application of modus tollens to the mistake of humankind's situation of irony - me, lying on the floor, and he, ensconced in the only easy-chair, valiantly striving
to make each dense philosophical proposition as clear and simple as possible, inspite of the stroke that had made speaking almost impossible. More than once, I was thankful for the fact that the slowness of his speech gave me time to think about - if not fully digest - the ideas he was determined to communicate. It was dense and heady, and frequently frustrating. Now and then I'd ask him a question, or burst into tears.

This was during the time I came down with e-coli poisoning, which nearly killed me. Every night, a huge clown with a spinning bowtie appeared at the edge of my bed. Shivering under the blankets, I'd stare as its head bobbed up and down like a giant inflatable straight out of the Macy's Easter Parade. This was usually accompanied by the voices of a million bad but insistent journalists, prodding me for information. When
it felt like my head was gonna explode, I'd scream: "Shut up! SHUT-UP!!!", and everything would be still... for a minute... then a voice... and then another one ... and another, and soon they'd all be back, jabbering away like I was the last great interviewee on the face of the earth.

It took two months to regain my strength, and another month before the letter arrived from Mexico telling me the University of Sinaloa Press wanted to translate and publish one of my plays and a collection of poems, and that I oughta get down there pronto.

I was met at the airport by a short, studious-looking stranger, a bespectacled Mexican with a five o'clock shadow who worked for the minister of culture. I'd been told he would look after me and make sure I got on the morning bus to San Miguel. His name, ironically, was Angel.

"Do you have a car?" I asked

"Yes," he said, grabbing one of my bags, and quickly headed off, up the corridor, leaving me to struggle with the remaining luggage. After following him for what seemed like miles, I asked him where his car was.

"At home," he said. Then, as if cued by my question, he turned suddenly and pushed through an unmarked door. Outside, we found ourselves in an empty parking lot, surrounded by mother night. I needed to catch my breath and give my arms a rest, but Angel was off again. "This way," he said. Over an empty pedestrian bridge. Me, struggling with two suitcases packed with half the Library of Congress; and he, swinging my carry-on bag. Down the iron steps on the other side, I plummeted into an alley whispering muffled laughter, cigarette smoke and a dozen bleary-eyed guys claiming to be cab drivers, though they looked more like lifetime members of the homicidal maniacs' society.

Twenty-four hours later, Angel deposited me in San Miguel, in the house of Charles Hasty, the expatriate American poet whose urgings had brought me south of the border. Charles threw a party to celebrate my entrance into oblivion, which ended up with me nearly drinking myself to death. Next morning, I woke up in a strange bedroom, alone, without any memory, and still in the clothes I'd worn on the bus from Mexico City. I went outside and wandered the streets for an hour, looking for a familiar landmark. The only thing I knew for sure was that I was still in Mexico.

A week later, I met a crazy Polish painter, Voytek, who ardently propositioned me to go to bed with him and drink vodka! Some nights he'd show up at midnight and stand outside my window second-floor window, crying: "Billy! Billy, please! Come down! We must talk! There are things that must be said. Come, let drink and talk!" And like any damned fool, I'd drag myself into some clothes, and ten minutes later we'd be holding up the bar in Mama Mia's talking nonsense and drinking margaritas 'til two.

As for the translations... well... I waited weeks, months, for Enrique to transform the play and my poems into shapes that a Mexican audience would understand. Each time I asked how it was going, the answer was always "manana". Twelve months later, it was still manana, and I imagined it always would be, even if I'd hung around long enough to be buried there.

I didn't feel like waiting any more. Anyway, I'd swallowed enough tequila to kill the poet whom eric beach had once referred to as "a two-pot screamer", and figured it was time to take my leave. I thought about going back to Paris, or Tuscany, but Mexico had made me intolerant of non-English-speaking locales; and besides, Terry - an American woman I'd met - was keen that I came to New York. "New York will love you," she assured me.

For those who are inclined to romanticise Woodstock, while conjuring fantasies of "three days of love and peace", be advised: this ain't the place where the rock festival happened. The city fathers wouldn’t have a bar of it - not then, not now, not ever.

Woodstock was an artists' colony, and might've remained one had it not been overrun by so many Sunday painters, sculptors, photographers, furniture makers, antique collectors, electricians and tourists. Bob Dylan lived here in the 60s, and so did Albert Grossman. Al's still here, of course - buried behind the Bear Café.

There’s actually precious little poetry in Woodstock, owing largely, I suspect, to the fact that all the Indians were wiped out more than a hundred years ago. Nestled in the Catskill Mountains, it’s really a rather haunted place. You can understand how Washington Irving came up with the idea of the headless horsemen. Ed Sanders – of Fugs fame – averts his eyes and voicelessly slinks by every time we chance upon one another. I bailed him up in the post office once to pass on a message from Gary Snyder, and he looked at me as if I'd made it up. It must be difficult, handling the obligations of being "beat". I won't mention the other people who live round here and claim to be poets, though I do tip me hat to local poet and publisher, George Quasha, for his wonderful anthologies, including, America : A Prophecy.

Enough of this. I am here, you are there, and the subject was, is and always will be... POETRY. So peruse the poems I have left here (on the next page), and keep coming back to check for more. This site will will change and grow. Also... leave your mark in the guestbook if you wouldn't mind.

Love & pecans

Billy Marshall Stoneking
123 Tinker Street
Woodstock, NY 12498