THE ADVENTURE OF A POET

by Italo Calvino

THE LITTLE island had a high, rocky shoreline. On it grew the thick, low scrub, the vegetation that survives by the sea. Gulls flew in the sky. It was a small island near the coast, deserted, uncultivated: in half an hour you could circle it in a rowboat, or in a rubber dinghy like the one the approaching couple had, the man calmly paddling, the woman stretched out, taking the sun. As they came nearer, the man listened intently.
    "What do you hear?" she asked.
    "Silence," he said. "Islands have a silence you can hear."
    In fact, every silence consists of the network of minuscule sounds that enfolds it: the silence of the island was distinct from that of the calm sea surrounding it because it was pervaded by a vegetable rustling, the calls of birds, or a sudden whirr of wings.
    Down below the rock, the water, without a ripple these days, was a sharp, limpid blue, penetrated to its depths by the sun's rays. In the cliff faces the mouths of grottoes opened, and the couple in the rubber boat were going lazily to explore them.
    It was a coast in the South, still hardly affected by tourism, and these two were bathers who came from elsewhere. He was one Usnelli, a fairly well known poet; she, Delia H., a very beautiful woman.
    Delia was an admirer of the South, passionate, even fanatical, and, lying in the boat, she talked with constant ecstasy about everything she was seeing, and perhaps also with a hint of hostility toward Usnelli, who was new to those places and, it seemed to her, did not share her enthusiasm as much as he should have.
    "Wait," Usnelli said, "wait."
    "Wait for what?" she said. "What could be more beautiful than this?"
    He, distrustful (by nature and through his literary education) of emotions and words already the property of others, accustomed more to discovering hidden and spurious beauties than those that were evident and indisputable, was still nervous and tense. Happiness, for Usnelli, was a suspended condition, to be lived holding your breath. Ever since he began loving Delia, he had seen his cautious, sparing relationship with the world endangered; but he wished to renounce nothing, either of himself or of the happiness that opened before him. Now he was on guard, as if every degree of perfection that nature achieved around him a decanting of the blue of the water, a languishing of the coast's green into gray, the glint of a fish's fin at the very spot where the sea's expanse was smoothest were only heralding another, higher, degree, and so on to the point where the invisible line of the horizon would part like an oyster revealing all of a sudden a different planet or a new word.
    They entered a grotto. It began spaciously, like an interior lake of pale green, under a broad vault of rock. Farther on, it narrowed to a dark passage. The man with the paddle fumed the dinghy around to enjoy the various effects of the light. The light from outside, through the jagged aperture, dazzled with colors made more vivid by the contrast. The water there sparkled, and the shafts of light ricocheted upward, in conflict with the soft shadows that spread from the rear. Reflections and flashes communicated to the rock walls and the vault the instability of the water.
    "Here you understand the gods," the woman said.
    "Hum," Usnelli said. He was nervous. His mind, accustomed to translating sensations into words, was now helpless, unable to formulate a single one.
    They went farther in. The dinghy passed a shoal, a hump of rock at the level of the water; now the dinghy floated among rare glints that appeared and disappeared at every stroke of the paddle, the rest was dense shadow; the paddle now and then struck a wall. Delia, looking back, saw the blue orb of the open sky constantly change outline.
    "A crab! Huge! Over there!" she cried, sitting up.
    ". . . ab! . . . ere!" the echo sounded.
    "The echo!" she said, pleased, and started shouting words under those grim vaults: invocations, lines of verse.
    "You, too! You shout, too! Make a wish!" she said to Usnelli.
    "Hoooo . . ." Usnelli shouted. "Heeey . . . Echoooo . . ."
    Now and then the boat scraped. The darkness was deeper.
    "I'm afraid. God knows what animals . . ."
    "We can still get through."
    Usnelli realized that he was heading for the darkness like a fish of the depths who flees sunlit water.
    "I'm afraid; let's go back," she insisted.
    To him, too, basically, any taste for the horrid was alien. He paddled backward. As they resumed to where the cavern broadened, the sea became cobalt.
    "Are there any octopuses?" Delia asked.
    "You'd see them. The water's so clear."
    "I'll have a swim, then."
    She slipped over the side of the dinghy, let go, swam in that underground lake, and her body at times seemed white (as if that light stripped it of any color of its own) and at times as blue as that screen of water.
    Usnelli had stopped rowing; he was still holding his breath. For him, being in love with Delia had always been like this, as in the mirror of this cavern in a world beyond words. For that matter, in all his poems he had never written a verse of love: not one.
    "Come closer," Delia said. As she swam, she had taken off the scrap of clothing covering her bosom; she threw it into the dinghy. "Just a minute." She also undid the piece of cloth tied at her hips and handed it to Usnelli.
    Now she was naked. The whiter skin of her bosom and hips was hardly distinct, because her whole person gave off that pale-blue glow, like a medusa. She was swimming on one side, with a lazy movement, her head (the expression firm, almost ironic, a statue's) just out of the water, and at times the curve of a shoulder and the soft line of an extended arm. The other arm, in caressing strokes, covered and revealed the high bosom, taut at its tips. Her legs barely struck the water, supporting the smooth belly, marked by the navel like a faint print on the sand, and the star as of some mollusk. The sun's rays, reflected underwater, grazed her, making a kind of garment for her, or stripping her all over again.
    Her swimming turned into a kind of dance movement; suspended in the water, smiling at him, she stretched out her arms in a soft rolling of the shoulders and wrists, or with a thrust of the knee she brought to the surface an arched foot, like a little fish.
    Usnelli, in the boat, was all eyes. He understood that what life was now giving him was something not everyone has the privilege of looking at open-eyed, as if at the most dazzling core of the sun. And in the core of this sun was silence. Nothing that was there at this moment could be translated into anything else, perhaps not even into a memory.
    Now Delia was swimming on her back, surfacing toward the sun, at the mouth of the cavern, proceeding with a light movement of her arms toward the open; and beneath her the water was changing its shade of blue, becoming paler and paler, more and more luminous.
    "Watch out! Put something on! The boats come close out there!"
    Delia was already among the rocks, beneath the sky. She slipped underwater, held out her arm. Usnelli handed her those skimpy bits of garment; she fastened them on, still swimming, and climbed back into the dinghy.
    The approaching boats were fishermen's. Usnelli recognized them, part of that group of poor men who spent the fishing season on that beach, sleeping against certain rocks. He moved toward them. The man at the oars was the young one, grim with a toothache, a white sailor's cap pulled over his narrowed eyes, rowing in jerks as if every effort helped him feel the pain less; father of five children; a desperate case. The old man was at the poop; his Mexican-style straw hat crowned his whole lanky figure with a fringed halo; his round eyes, once perhaps widened in arrogant pride, now in drunkard's clowning; his mouth open beneath the still-black, drooping mustache. With a knife he was cleaning the mullet they had caught.
    "Caught much?" Delia cried.
    "What little there is," they answered. "Bad year."
    Delia liked to talk with the local inhabitants. Not Usnelli. ("With them," he said, "I don't have an easy conscience." He would shrug, and leave it at that.)
    Now the dinghy was alongside the boat, where the faded paint was streaked with cracks, curling in short segments. The oar tied with a length of rope to the peg oarlock creaked at every turn against the worn wood of the side; and a little rusty anchor with four hooks had got tangled, under the narrow plank seat, in one of the wicker-basket traps, bearded with reddish seaweed, dried out God knows how long before; over the pile of nets dyed with tannin and dotted at the edge with round slices of cork, the gasping fish glinted in their pungent dress of scales, dull gray or pale blue; the gills, still throbbing displayed, below, a red triangle of blood. Usnelli remained silent, but this anguish of the human world was the contrary of what the beauty of nature had been communicating to him a little earlier. There every word failed, while here there was a turmoil of words that crowded into his mind: words to describe every wart, every hair on the thin, ill-shaven face of the old fisherman, every silver scale of the mullet.
    On shore, another boat had been pulled in, overturned, propped up on sawhorses; and below, from the shadow, emerged the soles of the bare feet of the sleeping men, those who had fished during the night; nearby, a woman, all in black clothing, faceless, was setting a pot over a seaweed fire, and a long trail of smoke was coming from it. The shore of that cove was of gray stones; those patches of faded, printed colors were the smocks of the playing children, the smaller watched over by older, whining sisters, while the bigger and livelier boys, wearing only shorts made from hand-me-down grown-ups' trousers, were running up and down between rocks and water. Farther on, a straight stretch of sandy beach began, white and deserted, which at one side disappeared into a sparse canebrake and untilled fields. A young man in his Sunday clothes all black, even his hat with a stick over his shoulder and a bundle hanging from it, was walking by the sea the length of that beach, the nails of his shoes marking the friable crust of sand: certainly a peasant or a shepherd from an inland village who had come down to the coast for some market or other and had taken the seaside path for the soothing breeze. The railroad showed its wires, its embankment, its poles and fence, then vanished into the tunnel, to begin again farther on, vanish once more, and once more emerge, like stitches in uneven sewing. Above the white-and-black highway markers, squat olive groves began to climb; and higher still, the mountains were bare, grazing land or shrubs or only stones. A village set in a cleft among those heights extended upward, the houses one on top of the other, separated by cobbled stair-streets, concave in the middle so that the trickle of mule refuse could flow down. And on the doorsteps of all those houses were numerous women, elderly or aged, and on the parapets, seated in a row, numerous men, old and young, all in white shirts; in the middle of those streets like stairways, the babies were playing on the ground and an older boy was lying across the path, his cheek against the step, sleeping there because it was a bit cooler and less smelly than inside the house; and everywhere, lighting or circling, were clouds of flies, and on every wall and every festoon of newspaper around the fireplaces was the infinite spatter of fly excrement; and into Usnelli's mind came words and words, thick, woven one into another, with no space between the lines, until little by little they could no longer be distinguished; it was a tangle from which even the tiniest white spaces were vanishing and only the black remained, the most total black, impenetrable, desperate as a scream.

from Difficult Loves


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