Stanley Plumly looks, with a poet’s eye and across the sublime landscape of northern Italy, at a certain day from early in the 21st century.
That afternoon we’d finished up early, at about two-fifteen, and decided, since it was a particularly pristine day, to make the long descent to town. Maybe to get coffee, shop, whatever. We were fifteen minutes getting ready, and it would take fifteen minutes more to reach the exit gate.
We were in lucky residence at the Villa Serbelloni, centerpiece of the Rockefeller fifty acre holdings spread out on the high hillside overlooking the village of Bellagio on one side and the meeting place of Lakes Como and Lecco on the other. The villa and its grounds and gardens are a sight to behold, located among some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world, the Pre-Alps, as they’re called, which serve as green and granite precursors to the real Alps, the great gray mountains whose ghostly, snowy forms loom almost invisibly.
Much of this height and majesty are grounded in water, in the famous Italian lakes out of which they rise. The lakes are vast, and the rich moraine shore that constitutes the hemline around them is peopled with innumerable lovely towns, Bellagio being the “Pearl of the Lake,” as Shelley once wrote. Lake Como is the largest and deepest.
Anyone who’s been to Bellagio knows the beauty of the place, its special lakeside, mountain character in the midst of what surrounds it, sitting as it does at the very tip of Punto Sparitvento, “the point that divides the wind.”
The boat and ferry traffic on the lakes is not only necessary but from a position of perspective gorgeous to see, while the long drives around the lakes are no less spectacular. The charm of the whole area derives in part from its narrow-road, water-borne separation, even isolation from an otherwise busy Northern Italy.
This was a warm, sweet day—big, clear blue overhead, blue-green in the distant view of the water. Veduta means view in Italian, and from top to bottom, from the villa on down to the village itself, and from the tops of the cobblestone streets to the diamonds on the lake, the view is everywhere, from every moment.
Walking the elegant stone switchback path into town it’s all visible all at once—sky, Lake Como, and the green, sheer mountains in between. You could lose your balance stopping and looking too long, the way, in Manhattan, when your eye follows the line of a building into the open sky you tip over.
We reached Via Garibaldi, the main one-way circular through-road well before three, well before nine in the morning on America’s East Coast. J_____ went into the pasticceria for biscotti and to chat with Maria, the owner. I sort of lingered on the street, people-watching and looking up at the sky, a heavenly blue Duomo interior.
A loud TV voice started coming from the coffee bar nearby. It straightened my attention—I hadn’t heard an American amplified for quite awhile.
I followed the voice, then there it was: a great glass tower on fire, with an equally great cloud billowing worms of gray-black a few floors from its top. On the screen it all seemed smaller than it should. I remember that, and remember that I wasn‘t certain where it was happening—Boston, perhaps, the Hancock Building, the voice-over saying something about Logan Airport.
Planes run into mountains, I thought, not buildings. CNN was going back and forth from English to Italian, both of which constituencies, plus a few others, were beginning to crowd the bar. Then we saw what came to be known as the second plane swoop in and make its turn and crash into a now suddenly apparent, within the little window of the screen, second tower.
This was live. The tourists and locals who filled the confinement of the space spoke out in their several languages, bewildered, many in tears. The point that divides the wind, the end of an island.
And here we were, on another kind of island, heaven on earth, someone within my hearing had called it. It all tested one’s sense of reality, especially since the messenger was television, the ultimate verisimilitude, the medium that needed to print live, like a label, in order to distinguish the living from the taped. I was sure there were those in this audience thinking to themselves that the whole thing was a movie.
I went outside to find J______, who was just emerging from the pastry shop, and pulled her in among the rest of the witnesses. I didn’t have to say anything, the scene was immediately apprehensible. The barman had by now switched exclusively to English. I couldn’t watch anymore.
It was four or so, Italian time. And all the shops had reopened from their long lunches. And it was September 11, the day John Keats had had to return, in 1819, to London from Winchester to try to raise money for his brother George in America, who had been swindled into bankruptcy by John James Audubon. Keats would fail his financial mission, though a week later he would write “To Autumn,” his last great lyric poem. I’d been taking notes on this interlude in Keats’s short life when we’d taken our break to walk all the way down into town.
Of the many terrible images of that terrible day one that must stand out is the confirming sight of that second plane finding the second World Trade Center Tower and the sequence of death that followed. The small screen in the coffee bar, four thousand miles away, did not diminish nor contain the event. It merely made a window and supplied a separation. When we finally, two weeks later, were free to fly out of Milan for a connection at Heathrow, air space, mind space, heart space were still without schedule.
At Heathrow it was pandemonium, a human mixture of those who had, since the day of the attack, been living at the airport, those who had somehow got there in the meantime, and those, like us, who had been at last granted permission to show up. Reservations didn’t matter, nor even first-come, since hundreds in every terminal were vying for the same attention.
Security was makeshift and arbitrary, which meant, inevitably, the Middle Eastern population was set apart, though to the degree it mattered we were all now refugees—battering and pushing forward, arguing and insisting, finger-crossing and praying, all to find a seat on the next, whenever that was, plane.
I didn‘t want to spend another day in Europe. It felt wrong. We got lucky and got a flight within twenty-four hours. It was officially autumn.
It felt wrong, as if a war had started. The path back on British Air would lead us near New York, so the pilot steered the plane as close as possible—miles but close enough—and again there was only a piece of window to see through, to frame, to magnify, and to bring to scale.
I remember, again, some wept. And I remembered clear, late winter nights returning to Manhattan from distant places and for the fun of it the pilot cruising, within acceptable space, the length of the island, the whole lit beautiful ocean liner of it.
Here, though, in this interminable moment, at this sad distance, there was only diminishment, a naked sun’s neutral glare, and at the end of the island a void, a filled emptiness of still deadly ragged smoke staining and drifting higher into the open sky.
Stanley Plumly has published over ten books of poetry and prose including his most recent volume of poems, Old Heart (Norton), Argument & Song: Sources & Silences in Poetry (The Other Press), a collection of essays, and Posthumous Keats (Norton), his meditation on John Keats. He is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland.
Additional work appears from Stanley Plumly in Poetry Northwest Fall/Winter 2012-2013 (v7.n2)