L o v e ,  W a r   a n d   L a s t   T h i n g s
   n z e p c



Paula Green    (b.1955)


Paula Green



Letter to Anne Kennedy

Flying above Rome in the summer heat, and ordinary things
become ancient through the marvels of time, the city fits in the palm

of your hand like a book. Above the modern staircase and the patron of the arts,
the great grim palaces and the enduring masterpiece, you read

the rust-coloured walls and the fountain’s music, the lines of acquaintances
and the loss of freedom, you reach the crowded trattoria in the half-dark street.

You have landed in the shadow of kings and beggars and ruined houses,
you fear the city will fly past, and you will lose every golden door and tree-lined road,
but there is a hole in the page and there it stays. You are consigned to walk

like a character in her novel, The House on Moon Lake, first in a small way,
then large like the rich sea. At first it is the world of illusions, the voice

on the end of the telephone, unfamiliar as the empty page, and you call,
you call out to the flabby cheeks and the fanatical eyes, you call out

for the door to be opened, and you see your arms and feet embroidered
with the stomach of the child who cannot eat, and the arms

of the woman who cannot hold the child who cannot eat, and the tongue
of the man who cannot sing the arms of the woman who cannot hold

the child who cannot eat, and the life of the world who cannot feed the song
of the man who cannot sing the arms of the woman who cannot hold the child

who cannot eat. You have seen palaces decorated with portraits of great
subjects, knowing the subject of your page yearns for the resources of words,

and in a few months you will be home with a fullness of body. In the fanciful
light you are told the stories of the most unbelievable things, not in themselves,

you can believe in the utmost boundaries of the sea or the white shoots of plants.
You can believe in the fabric of a long black cloak or the essence of a spade

or spare tyres, wallets, and high trees, yet you are told the most outlandish stories
where everything is double. Like Carlo Levi you almost believe you live like a tree,

planting your roots in the soil, flowering, bearing fruit, and then withering away or
you believe that if you suddenly turn to catch the last light of the day, you will see,

in that band of pink or gold, the future. For a whole day you hear the clanking of bells,
the goats clambering about the cottage, and you fool yourself into thinking the wolves

are still there with the timid moon and that the people are disguised as something else,
patron saints are disguised as bleating cows and twisted bundles of rags are babies

or babies are unburdened of secrets in the lament for the living. You are calling
out to someone who is far away, as though you will find poetry in the distant people.

It isn’t quite clear how the private lives have such a miraculous power as you sit
on the Spanish Steps or circle the points of the Four Rivers Fountain. Presently,

with Italy ahead of you like the symptoms of love, you begin to count the storms at
sea. It is not as though you are lost, it is not as though you are tattooed in fever and pain,

and that the disasters strike at every turn. In many ways you have a need to adjust other
stories, like how the manufacturer of spiral staircases was a complete fraud, how he

cheated on his wife and she threw him out into the wet streets so that she could read
every book in the house, whatever the subject matter, in her thirst to find something

new. No sooner was he thrown on wet stones, did the manufacturer
pick himself up and wander about the old city dreaming of a way to draw

the scales of history. You say she quoted from Dante and he from Leonardo
as if in the midst of the barren landscapes of loss the only comfort was

in the great men of the past. It takes courage to say this but you are travelling
along the outskirts of Francesca’s plot believing that in the outskirts of anywhere,

where there is thin reddish mud and roaming clouds, few shops and countless dogs,
you will understand everything. You give yourself over to the art, to the walls

of a chapel, the doors, the windows, the rising currents of air.
You hear the hum of television channels in another language, reality tv fans your head,

ants come in through the window, moths, cockroaches, wasps, you mill over what
happens on the news, and as if you don’t exist, the world goes on in spite

of you, the houses, the sky, the gutters, the voluntary support groups do their best
to help the great disappointments, our great muteness is poignant as you watch

the passing buses, the quarrelling parents, the money from the cash machine spilling.
Our great inattention in the course of the day is a burden as you try to think the thoughts

of others, no real thoughts of your own, you clear the table and fall asleep in the armchair,
episode by episode you talk very fast to make up for lost time, in your own language,

about your preferences in Renaissance art but really you are listening to your inner
voice that harps on about the state of things, when people beg to be fed

and every kind of poverty touches and envelops things.
The traffic is stuck to the road in a long stretch,

and you find yourself joined in the vast movement
of arrival and return, you see the light on one side

of the bridge and the shadow where the road is narrower,
and you are drowning in the people waiting for the bus,

the squat houses with the squat shops, the clouds
that wrap the traffic, the clouds that are difficult

to observe, the clouds that bind us to our
ancestors, one breath against another breath

against another breath in the milky fog
of time. You are in search of Francesca, but you

are sidetracked by the huge warehouse of art,
each painting is an immense hole dug out in the lives

of mothers and fathers and babies, all in glass
lit by a sweeping light that bears the words of all

those who are interested in art, the scholars
the philanthropists, the sign writers, the speech makers

whose words break into the hole to remind us that things
appear indistinct and shifty. You can’t manage to paint it

but you collect your thoughts in a small book like a collection
of embroidered samples in the hand of your grandmother.

This way the shrouded world becomes a list of important
details, the corner of the footpath where Gaspara Stampa

stood to watch the movement of the street in shadows and twilights
or the lively colours on the skirt of the woman who served

your coffee. You get drunk on the reflections in the windows
in Florence, you get stuck in the frescos at Padua, each
encounter you want to slow down in time to feel the spasmodic

tremor that produces accidents and decay and then leaves
things in peace. It feels like you are in another world

where you are hanging from the landscapes, the children’s
faces, the bowls of fruit, painting for yourself the long road

that can never stop, painting yourself in the high-rise flats,
the uniform cubes that are dead in the snow and sun.

For a long time you tried to understand the meaning of the world
by walking down certain streets or into certain buildings,

and you began to distract yourself by trying to understand
what the first rains of autumn and the texture of looming walls

meant to others, and the more you walked and the more you
read the signs about you, the more you decided the world

was full of little holes that opened like little books
and little windows that were kept shut like people

that never looked anyone in the eye, and this disturbed
you as much as horror movies or the sight of blood.

Looking at David it feels for one moment the terrible
obligation to call out to the slaughtered whale,

to the shackled prisoner, Muslim or Christian,
to the poisoned skies and the wasted land,

is the call of a madwoman, and you crawl into the pores
of the torso to feel that when someone speaks out

it is never loud enough, that you sleep in the dream
of an endless desert or upon the back of a burning dune.

You have stayed in a little room in the Italian Alps,
in a sprawling villa in the Umbrian hills, in one

pensione after another, in an apartment in Milano
and now you are in the vast world like a single

word and what you have written is already in the air,
giving and taking, tossing and turning, in the dust.

You have quickened your step, you have already moved
out of the course of the conversation with Francesca,

you listened to her stories, and she remembered everything
about herself, and yet once you had made a list of her

characters and her calamities, you wanted to put yourself
out in the open under the cover of the threshing rain

or on the doorstep where everything seems different.
You have travelled so far believing you can be rescued

by stories and by art. Gianni Celati says the universe
is like a giant bladder driven hither thither in the wind

but we cannot be aware it. You my darling are coming
into the Venetian pavilion, you are walking over to the objects

on display looking at the barometers of the body
and of the mind, and you feel the clash of smooth

and rough that Eva Hesse understood was something
in nothing, or that you think in a fit of unknowing, something

in something and so on. You see a shy seam of latex and filler
on mesh wire that will soften over time or harden or break

apart in the harshest light. You feel unease yet
the clash and chime of dreamy hangings is

an unbearable stillness. You want to hold the dead
material to get closer to the dead woman but your mind wanders,

and you proceed from one word to the next in a kind of chain.
You are still making links out of plastic clay

or acrylic colours or little lamps in the garden. Remember
you were lying in bed for all that time unable to eat

or write but in your willingness to sleep, unwillingness to sleep, you
stared at the paintings of Frances Hodgkins

in a book and undertook to make lists of your daily
admissions to the colour plates. The berries

and the laurel next to your yellow skin
the wings over water next to the bellyache

of traffic. The months of long dreams and inactivity
and you open The Time of the Giants you turn

the pages and you hide between the lines
and let the immense beautiful spaces become a refuge.


Making Lists with Frances Hodgkins (Auckland UP, 2007). Recorded 2008 by Paula Green at the University of Auckland.




Last updated 26 June, 2008