THE THEATER OF MEMORY
And even oblivion is a memory and oceans of sleep
In their jumbles of darkness seal up within us what we loved
And who we once were
Or never were and yet continues to set us alight
Carlos Drummond de Andrade
We all know it. This war will never end.
I am calmly, painstakingly shaving in front of the little tarnished mirror with oxidized silver, which lends my face dark stains and discs, like mildew on the rind of an orange. While I shave I hear explosions that come from the war outside the window.
Who am I? I am a sort of spectre, I think. Or something very similar to a phantom. I am the mental image of an ancient face, one which has remained in the subconscious mind of a woman, Giovanna. A face which for a long time she has endeavored not to remember, a face which usually shows up in her dreams, but which is also apt to be brought to her consciousness (although by now faded and pale) by a song, a photograph, another similar face, a scent.
The explosions which I listen to undisturbed are the final bursts of other images such as mine, which disappear continually from her memory, like soap bubbles, only heavier and more corporeal. Those burst and can never again be recalled, while other impressions, other fresher faces, arrive through her untiring eyes and quickly arrange themselves around me. The endless war is the war between memory and knowledge.
For some time now I have been part of the world of memory, and so, sooner or later, I too shall burst and disappear without leaving either a shadow or a trace. The bursting of my image as she remembers it will probably surprise me in the act of shaving, because this single still-life is all that Giovanna has preserved within herself of our love affair: the unmade bed, the books and bottles on the floor, the ashtray full, the walls with the wallpaper peeling here and there, and me standing there without a shirt, with half my face hidden by lather, a cigarette hanging from my lips and an open razor in my hand, with its ivory handle, making a big letter V in the air.
I realize that the explosions around me have become more frequent and ever more dangerous. Maybe I am mistaken? Am I misinterpreting them? No. Poor memory slipping into the void…. If they are recollections of people dead for a while, perhaps these are their final traces, and they will have to die a second and final time.
I ask myself why, recently, these characters explode so often, like fireworks on the New Year’s Eves of our childhood. Perhaps they are the first signs of Giovanna’s senility, or her simple desire to forget. And in that case, who could blame her?
A cockroach scurries out of the drawer containing love letters. It seems to represent the final product of all those sighs, numbered days, stolen kisses and racing pulses…. The cockroach flees from the mouth of a dead person with eyes wide open. And this is the past. A dead person who does not find repose. The present is full of butterflies everywhere. (Perhaps it is because of this that they have such a brief life.) Only cockroaches, rifts, shudders, shivers, and wretched ghosts such as me are what emerge from the detritus of your past, my Giovanna.
I can’t avoid asking myself: do I truly exist or am I only a sliver in the memory of a confused goddess, who was alive in a world so different from the present one and by some miracle is alive even today?
In that memory I appear young, poor, and strong. I have my hair pulled back. A bit balding, Levi jeans with the first button open. From some point in the room Giovanna observes me while I shave. Perhaps from an armchair? I can’t say if there was one. Maybe from a chair near the bare table? No! Now I see! She watches me from the threshold of the door of the tiny rented room. She was on her way out just at that moment. That morning it had already gotten late. Perhaps she had to go to work? No, I don’t think so. Maybe she needed to flee from there, escape in a hurry, but why? There was music in the air, I can hear it, the sound of an Andean flute. Yes, I was observed while I shaved and smoked the first cigarette of the morning and listened to a sweet flute which seemed to enter through the window together with the rays of the sun and the scent of jasmine. Those were bright days, prodigal with sunlight and with bottomless skies. The darkness then was inside of us, and one glimpsed it only through the windows of one’s gaze.
Through this other window that makes its appearance next to me while I am shaving, one can see illuminated roof tiles, showy clumps of geraniums, and in the distance the gray green of the silent hills. Everything immobile, peaceful, as if no one had the courage to awaken the city to tell it of massacres and tragedies. And so the cities became the perfect place to safeguard that wrinkled old Italy, so ignorant of the facts.
The long time elapsed since then has rendered me more real, since only its naturally slow passage, its tarnish, has lent me this sepia color, this aspect of a watercolor, and the tension surrounding me like a frame, one that previously seemed just like an abstract halo which then turned into a metallic, smooth, tin- colored rectangle.
The music wasn’t the only sound I was perceiving. No. There was something else, a certain insistent sound interspersed with it… It came from the open door. It was the sound of sobbing. It was she, Giovanna, who was trying to hide her weeping from me and was making a sequence of small strangled sounds, soft beats, which arrived feebly to my ears, feeble enough to let me pretend not to have heard them. Yes, because I wasn’t supposed to, or didn’t want to console her in that moment. Perhaps she knew that this would be the last time we would see one another. Maybe even I knew it, and in reality I felt relieved by her future distance. (But what “future distance,” if I am still here with that razor in my hand and half my face covered with lather….)
Truly I had wished that Giovanna would leave and she knew it. Perhaps I had actually told her so myself. Because of this she was crying, and probably that’s the reason she had left me alone in that room. Now another doubt comes to me: was I shaving to find a pretext to look at myself in the mirror or to turn my back to her and not see her leaving? Yes, because certain departures resemble executions: one throws oneself blindfolded from the ship down into the unknown sea.
Her tear-filled eyes were the true frame of that blurry picture, not an aura or a piece of metal. Because of that, of the intensity of that ancient love, the image has survived so many events and so many changes and has arrived here now. But enough. I hear burst after burst of memories exploding around me. And that is rightly so. Memory is not afraid of nothingness. The opposite is true. Memory is tired, and yearns for nothingness. One can’t accumulate images forever, all the way to infinity…. And now it’s my turn to go. I will let myself dissolve. The last glimmers are dimming. I am resigned. Soon I will be rewarded with the faithful blessing of oblivion.
Lucca, from 22 January to 23 February 1997
With the kind permission of the heirs, from the collection Racconti italiani, Besa. Translated by Donald Stang and Helen Wickes, who gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Pina Piccolo.
The translators: Donald Stang is a longtime student of Italian. His
translations of Italian poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in
Carrying the Branch, by Glass Lyre Press, Silk Road, Pirene’s Fountain,
Mantis, Newfound, Catamaran, Ghost Town, Blackbird, Apple Valley Review,
Apricity Magazine, America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and
Resilience by Sixteen Rivers Press, and thedreamingmachine.com.
Helen Wickes’ work appears in AGNI Online, Atlanta Review, Boulevard,
Massachusetts Review, Slag Review, Sagarana, Soundings East, South
Dakota Review, Spillway, TriQuarterly, Westview, Willow Review, ZYZZYVA,
thedreamingmachine.com (poems and translations of Italian poetry), as
well as many others. Four books of her poetry have been published.