I knew that the city of Ferrara would be the perfect meeting place. It was in October 2014 when John was a guest of the annual festival organized by the Italian culture and world affairs print magazine Internazionale to engage in a conversation with Teju Cole and Maria Nadotti about ” what we have in common “. And he is there today as I see him sitting at a bar table by the street, with his umbrella leaning against the chair and his signature shoulder bag.
That day, precisely the fifth day of October, seven years ago, I asked John Berger to sign my copy of his book Understanding a photograph. I waited for most of the audience who had attended the debate to leave the theater, which just that year had been named ” Claudio Abbado”, after the conductor who had been its artistic director for many years. Impatiently I made my way advancing through the long line and finally arrived in front of him. As he signed my copy, I barely had enough time to tell him: “How I’d love to talk about poetry with you!” He smiled at me and replied, “One day, who knows…”.
And here it is, that day!
“Remember John”, his mother’s ghost had once told him, “the dead don’t linger where they are buried, they go back to where they were happy when they were alive.”
“So time doesn’t matter but place does?”, asked John.
“Not just any place John, places where people meet.”
These words came to mind as I approached his table, observing him sitting ever so still, like he sought to draw attention to himself. No doubt he wanted to get noticed. He really wanted to get noticed. By me.
“It’s true I should have told you where we would meet and not one day, who knows … ” and he smiled at me the same way he did on that October day.
Thus, a conversation that had come to an abrupt end seven years earlier resumed, most naturally, thanks to the place where we were and in spite of the time that had elapsed, our ages and most of all, our origins. It took my surprise.
“This has always been my experience since I was a young man; I was always someone who came from somewhere else,” he told me. Even today, in fact, it is like this.
That sentence, however, made me fall into the right Bergerian mood, a condition resembling that of a precipitate, which I was always reduced to whenever I read his works or heard of them.
On the other hand, it is thanks to him that I learned this: every one of us comes not from a place but rather from a language and, therefore, we belong to the word rather than to the place.
“So, you said you wanted to talk about poetry, well? You will surely realize that talking about poetry is a matter of… the gaze rather than words.”
How could I forget that! I was in front of … a man who had spent his whole life looking and had explained to everyone how to observe a work of art and how we are observed by it.
I had in front of me someone who had been dealing with ‘the gaze’ throughout his life, reminding us that “seeing means having seen” because our sight (but we could say that for all of our senses and, therefore, for every thought) is trained by perceptions that have gradually become stratified in our species and in each of us as individual specimens. It is those very perceptions that orient us.
I could not ask him for … words about poetry and so I took shelter in the poems he wrote.
I asked the waiter to bring me an espresso and took his book of poems out of my backpack.
“See John, this book, Il fuoco dello sguardo, this book contains your collected poems, found scattered in essays, novels, short stories and even in notebooks with your drawings, published over the years spent together. Let’s start here? What do you make of it?”
John smiled and leafed through the pages of this posthumous book of ‘his’, a book that perhaps he would have never ever considered publishing during his lifetime. He then started reading one of the poems in a soft, level voice,
“ In a pocket of earth
I buried all the accents
of my mother tongue
there they lie
like pine needles
assembled by ants
one day the stumbling cry
of another wanderer
may set them alight
then warm and comforted
he will hear all night
the truth as lullaby.
What do you make of it?” He continued in a louder voice, “It doesn’t seem as pessimistic to me as the Soviet agents told me when they searched my luggage and peeked into my notebooks during my trip to Russia in 1983 …”.
“No, not at all!”, I replied, “Probably they came across another one of your poems and maybe this is the point, if I may, of your poem …”
“Please, go on, tell me more. I’m listening”, he continued and kept staring at me.
“Your poetry emerges. Appears. It rises … I have no other words to explain. It emerges from the… tale… from the battlefield… from the woods. Here it is: your poem emerges like a … clearing in the woods”.
It wasn’t just his forehead that became furrowed, but his whole face: the big, deep wrinkles around the mouth and the smaller lines that radiated from the corners of his eyes. He smiled with that expression of quiet happiness of someone getting off his motorcycle and removing his helmet after a nice ride; taking in the place that has just welcomed him.
Reassured by his face and the shiny sky enhanced by the contrast with the pastel shades of the cathedral and bell tower, I continued:
“Clearings, your poems are clearings. One walks in the woods of your language and when you feel that spatial sensation of “loss” or “discovery”, suddenly, there appears the clearing, the poem, to return the wanderer to that process for which loss or discovery are only accidents”.
“Good. We have said everything that could be said about poetry”, he said rising from his chair and adjusting his shoulder bag. “Now let’s go to Comacchio to welcome the eels arriving from the Gulf of Mexico”.
He probably noticed my embarrassment and awkwardness in getting up from my chair to follow him. I saw him stop near a pine tree planted in a small flowerbed nearby and bend over to look at something on the ground.
Right then the waiter caught up with me and stopped me in a rather abrupt way. I had forgotten to pay for the coffee.
“I’m really sorry, I got distracted. Here, I’ll pay you for the two coffees,” I said.
“You sure are absent minded”, he replied, “You only ordered one.”
I looked in John’s direction and yelled unsteadily, “Wait for me John, I’m coming.” Then I turned to the waiter and said, “Get yourself an espresso, it’s on me. Goodbye and I apologize again.”
I turned to join John but he was gone. I looked in every direction: towards the street, in the direction of via Mazzini, at the entrance to via San Romano. Nothing. John was gone.
I approached the flowerbed where I had last seen him and there, placed in a pocket of soil, pine needles attracted my attention. No doubt they wanted to get noticed. They really wanted to get noticed.
Giuseppe Ferrara was born in Naples and grew up and studied in Potenza, southern Italy. He earned his degree in Physics from the University of Salerno and has been living and working for many years in Ferrara, as a physicist at a private Research Center. He has published five collections of poetry: L’Orizzonte degli eventi (Event Horizon, Este Edition, Ferrara 2011); segnicontroversi (controversialsigns, Edizioni Kolibris, Ferrara 2013), Appunti di viaggio di un funambolo muto (Travel Notes of a Mute Tightrope Walker, Tracce, Pescara 2016) and Il Peso e la Grazia (96 rue de-La-Fontaine Edizioni, Follonica 2018). His latest poetry publication is Raccolta differenziata (Separate waste collection, InternoLibri, Latiano 2021). His work is included in several anthologies including I poeti del Duca- Excursus nella poesia contemporanea di Ferrara (The Poets of the Duke – Overview of the contemporary poetry of Ferrara (Kolibris Edizioni, Ferrara 2013); Riflessi , n ° 40 (Pages, Rome 2015); Il mio mandala-Antologia 114 haiku (My mandala-Anthology 114 haiku (Cascina Macondo series, 2015) and Folate di versi ( Gusts of wind, Paolo Laurita Edizioni, Potenza 2019). He writes about poetry and more in his blog Il Post Delle Fragole ( www.thestrawberrypost.blogspot.it ). He is a member of various cultural associations and contributes to many literary journals.