Dante and the Passeggiata [by M.G. Stephens]


The point of the passeggiata is to take the passeggiata, which includes two or three things: yourself and others; a conversation but not a purposeful one, it should – like this sentence – roam wherever it wants; and it involves walking, taking a stroll, not jogging, not running, not for exercise, or merely for exercise, though it might involve walking after a meal, the postprandial walk, to help digest the meal, and it might be salubrious because the walk might go on for hours, from late afternoon into evening or from after dinner to after midnight. Ideally one takes the passeggiata with one or two other people, as by oneself it would lack the social element, and with more than three people, it becomes a march. Three friends go out and walk, talking as they do, about this and that, love and life and death and dreams. The passeggiata is a kind of paradigm of civilization, a marker, a point at which one can measure a culture, Italy being such an example, the peninsula one endless passeggiata from Milan in the north to Trieste in the far east, Rome and Naples and Palermo, one walks with friends, and as one walks one talks with them, and depending on who one’s friends are, the conversation can be inane (football, for instance) or quite deep, the deepest most inner thoughts in one’s mind. To walk is to think, while taking the passeggiata is to think aloud with one’s friends. But it is not just locomotion and locutions; it is also perambulations and conurbations, distilling ideas into essences, releasing these things into the air, like a helium balloon, to float off into eternity, though this eternity is a city itself, the urban world, as Italo Calvino showed us so well in his prose-poem Invisible Cities. A man or a woman might begin the passeggiata one way and end up another; a person could even begin as one type of person and end as quite another kind, completely different from who they were that morning, while to all intents and purposes, family and friends might continue to see the old ghost of who that person was, not realizing that on the passeggiata he or she had become transformed by a thought or idea, a mood or, in the case of the poet, a particular rhythm of experience.


Dante’s sonnet to his friends Guido and Lapo is just such a poem, a passeggiata poem, if you will, a poem in which its rhythms and form, its ideas and philosophical underpinnings, have everything to do with friends and walking, taking the passeggiata. I can’t imagine this poem without also experiencing its rhythms as being ones of walking. True, it is a sonnet, only fourteen lines, and because it is in Italian, its latinate rhythms are quite strong, although there is something else going on here than Latin. Here is a poem moving away from the page, the formalities of the Roman world that dominated Mediterranean culture for a thousand years. This is also a poem moving away from the Medieval period into the Renaissance. One almost sees the faces and landscapes of the Italian masters, though I mostly see Caravaggio, the darkness and the light, the complexity of the faces, the humanness, the complications. There is a new kind of music here, and it is called Italian, a new language born out of the carcass of an old one, a language which does not inhabit the page so much as the tongue, and which demands to be spoken aloud, not in the recesses of the mind. It is a social language, being spoken at table, in the great rooms of a house, and particularly out on the street during the passeggiata. Guido is the one being addressed, not Lapo, the other friend who, though not addressed, is being included as one of the parties on this passeggiata. Imagine these three friends – Guido is the equally great poet Cavalcanti – walking across a Florentine palazzo, and then disappearing down a street, and across a bridge, and out and around, walking and talking for hours. Besides being a poem on the hoof, out loud, and colloquial, this is also a poem that seems to predict not only the dominance of the visual during the Renaissance, but seems almost like a precursor of Italian cinema at the midpoint of the twentieth century. Underneath the film, one could lay down some of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and imagine a camera at a distance that is quite intimate, certainly not a Hollywood distance, more like the hand-held distance of a Federico Fellini, who is the cinematographer of this poem who comes to mind when I visual it. (Notice I am visualizing the poem, not hearing it per se, though its orality, its sound aura, is as if to say the poem would be nothing without it.) I also imagine Dante, Guido, and Lapo walking abreast, wearing their coats on their shoulders but their arms not in the sleeves, the way Marcello Mastroianni might wear a sportscoat as he smokes a cigarette and talks to his friend about something that Italian men have been talking about for millennia, i.e., women. Guido and Dante and Lapo are doing just that; they are talking about women as they take the passeggiata, including someone named Vanna and the woman who lives at number 30. Dante talks of taking a cruise and sailing the seas with these ladies, and how exceptional this voyage will be. It is not a putative holiday, though, but rather a purely male fantasy, a kind of wet dream that men have indulged in with each other since time immemorial, something that while slightly sexist, also makes this poem quite modern. There is none of the idealizing of women found in Dante’s essays and his longer poems; there is no perfection known as Beatrice, but rather these more workmanlike three women from nearby, who are very real and available.


Although it would be some time before the products of the New World would inhabit Italy to the point where we associate them with this country, including coffee and tobacco, nonetheless, there is an odor of tobacco and coffee in the air of this passeggiata, just the way Marcello’s sportcoat smells of such things. So this is a poem that while spoken aloud, we hear the new rhythms of the Italian language, which is still spoken that same way today, it is also a poem full of visual impact and odors, something that most poems simply don’t have. I can only recall one other poem so odiferous, and that was one I once heard Seamus Heaney read, and the odor he evoked was the earth, and the image happened to be a potato that was pulled from the sodden ground. Dante’s poem is far less countrified than Heaney’s poem. The odors here are of the city, garlic from the rooms around the palazzo across which they walk, and the smell of the city, including rubbish and rats, the shit from toilets (for Italians had toilets unlike other early Renaissance Europeans), the smell of wine in its season, cooked bread, hard cheese, crustaceans, fish with their heads lopped off, leather and cloth, the perspiration of three Renaissance artists walking. But finally this is a poem with a core to it like no other poem in the world; it is a sonnet, so it is a little machine full of its own determination and wherewithal. This poem is rhythmical and stately, even beautiful and austere, the way a good sonnet can be, nothing wasted, every word working to earn its place in the poem, including the rhymes and the prepositions and articles, everything working like the little machine that the sonnet is. If you read the poem aloud in its original Italian language, it sings almost like an aria in an opera by Puccini or Mozart. There is assonance, alliteration, metaphors, allusions, everything one expects in a poem, but also that unknowable quality, a sound that goes up into the air and creates emotion out of its pure utterance. It is that last quality which brings me back to this poem time and again and allows me to say unequivocally that it is my favorite poem, and has been for a very long, long time. I read it in English; I read it in Italian. I read it to myself; I read it aloud. I would like to make a movie of it, with myself as Dante, and perhaps two poet friends like Andrei Codrescu and Richard Hoffman, as Guido and Lapo, respectively. I haven’t spoken to their agents about this yet, so it is only a wish, not a done deal. I have yet to meet at a poolside with the money people. We have not taken a passeggiata yet, but when we do, this is what we will be talking about. Do you know of any backers I should be calling?



mgs-19681[1]M. G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century.

Welcome to Dayton

I remember being nearly grabbed and flung out the door. Once I found out why I was being included in some invincible circle of guys now entering an old VW van I was less excited. Oh, you guys are going to a poetry reading. I do remember liking the fact that I was now being handed a beer and liking the music as the conversation started and the van sped off. I was instantly subsumed by a conversation about girls and the dramas that ensued after any interaction with them, buying a new pair of silver Doc Martins, and vintage jazz records. It seemed there was a conversation about whether anyone could really be compared to Miles Davis on the trumpet. No one seemed to mind that we were listening to The Misfits but talking about Miles Davis. In these conversations, Eli always held court. An 18-year-old Jewish guy who vaguely resembled a young Allen Ginsberg, Eli wore a pair of vintage horn-rimmed glasses with futuristic clear plastic frames, and although he looked somewhat punk, his speech patterns and knowledge of jazz cast him as more of a self-styled Beat. Everyone paused when Eli offered a comment about jazz trumpet. “Clifford Brown, just picked up another album yesterday. Has to be checked out, man. Has to be. I mean, that’s necessary. This guy has a complexity that is like geometric or something. I mean, Miles, he casts a spell but don’t forget about Clifford Brown. Kaleidoscopic.” Everyone in the van seemed to ruminate on the word kaleidoscopic for a solid minute. We stared harder than usual out the windows that day.

 There was something about Eli’s observations that sometimes made him seem otherworldly. Eli had lived for a short while in Northern California and his natural disapproving facial expression gave him some air of complex superiority. A certain kind of kid would follow Eli around forever after 5 minutes with him, sensing that Eli was a font of copious helpings of knowledge. Eli also seemed to always have weed on him. Other than chain-smoking Camels, Eli could be counted on to always have just one more roach. Suddenly a voice rose up from the back. A flannel-clad Steve, was asking about this poetry reading. Eli responded that we were going to a poetry “slam” and he said it with a certain odd gravitas. We stopped short of glancing at one another and yet wondered without vocalizing it. “What’s a poetry slam?” We would soon find out.

We made our way down Third Street from the suburbs toward the center of town. Dayton, Ohio. On a Saturday it was hard to tell who might be out and about. If it was summer, there were bound to be a fairly wide variety of people. No crowds but always the predictable panhandlers. Some fastidiously dressed, some looking like rocked-out zombies. Hispanic mothers with a child or two. Poindexter guys in their 30s walking alone, looking for a deal at the local record shop, meeting a friend for a movie, or on the way to one of the porn shops. Kids with frisbees. Stray dogs. Dayton was a contradiction. On most weekends it resembled a welcoming ghost town.

The van puttered along through the streets and we soaked it up. A Bible store complete with blinking marquee could be found right next to a porn shop advertising Anal Bangers 5. Another of the inhabitants of the VW van offered a comment. “Eli are you going to read?” Eli looked up as Steve lit a clove cigarette and the scent wafted throughout the van, mixing with the smell of old cheap beer and Saturday nights. Eli answered with a knowing wink and said nothing. We knew we were in for something but nobody but Eli seemed to know what. The van was parked a few blocks away and on the trek to Canal Street Tavern we all felt a camaraderie of some kind but Eli seemed distant.

Eli had the sense of purpose of a samurai warrior roaming the countryside à la Yojimbo. Confidant yet somehow distrusting and vaguely shifty, I noticed that Eli seemed a little bit anxious and walked a bit quicker to catch up to him. I started to recite a bit of poem I was reading the night before “Among twenty snowy mountains, /The only moving thing /Was the eye of the blackbird.” Eli smiled and responded with the mash-up “Where are we going, Wallace Stevens?/The doors close in an hour./Which way does your beard point tonight?” Eli claimed not to like Allen Ginsberg’s poetry but he seemed very familiar with it. We’d argued recently about surrealist poetry and Eli compared much of it to intellectual Mad Libs and I couldn’t convince him otherwise.

Poetry for Eli existed so he could divulge his secrets, exact revenge on enemies, and also win over new loves. In that sense, he had way more balls about putting himself out there in front of an audience, dropping literary asides, and adopting a persona that was a cross between a James Dean wannabe, a stand up comedian, and a villain from the 1960s TV show Batman. Eli would take notes during most poetry readings and work clever hints about other people’s poems into his own nascent pieces. When he read them it was understood immediately whether he was offering up a flattering portrait or using the shout-out as a prop to illustrate what a shit the poet in question really was. Either way, when Eli got up to read, people listened. There was no clinking of glasses or whispered side conversations. Eli’s poetry also produced snickers and laughs. People truly got it, which was one of the points of contention between us. I once mentioned that the best poems produce a silence and he thought that was a heresy of some sort. Eli was a huge gossip and poetry was his AK-47, which he spewed blithely at the audience. Either you were completely with him on his ride or not. This is also why he had a couple of avowed enemies. Usually when we left these readings as a small group it was half-likely that someone would want to step up to Eli, most likely to offer a compliment but he also always glanced around nervously because he was fully aware that there were a few audience members who would gladly punch him straight in the face given an opportunity.

Little KingsWe entered the Canal Street Tavern for the first “poetry slam.” There was a small crowd of mostly familiar faces. At that time if you could pass for 19 years of age, you could be served a beer at Canal Street, no questions asked. A Miller High Life tallboy could then be smuggled into the bathroom and given to the person who actually paid for it who would proceed to chug it down within seconds. These poetry slams I would learn were considered “all age shows.” That meant there were usually a few giggling gaggles of high school girls who always dressed like acolytes of the band The Cure. To wear all black and sport a crucifix and wear heavy eyeliner and reek of patchouli was still rather novel at the time. No one had yet described these dark young girls, mostly fans of The Cure and The Smiths and possibly also Depeche Mode, as being “goth.” Being that everyone in my crew had recently turned 18, we thought of ourselves as old and above it and tried our best to avoid anyone still in high school.

I did notice that Cara was sitting at the bar. Wearing fishnet stockings and a pair of Doc Martins and a jean shorts/flannel shirt combo with dark purple hair, she seemed more sophisticated than any of the friends I rolled with. In fact, she was sitting at a slight distance from them and tipped her head back for a second when she saw me, which to my disbelief was a quasi-acknowledgment of my presence. This hadn’t happened before and I realized, as sweat broke out on the back of my neck, that I would have to get on that stage and deliver or this moment would pass and Cara would most likely forget about me forever. I don’t really remember how I managed this minor epiphany and also mounted a line of attack in such a short amount of time. I hadn’t brought any of my own amateurish poetry to read, and what little poetry I had actually memorized would not go over well with this crowd, which was a conclusion I reached very quickly after scanning the room and seeing a guy applying the Public Image Limited band logo with a magic marker to a ukelele.

I had to act fast. Eli had already set up camp in a far corner with his ever-present cup of coffee, pen in hand, sitting cross-legged on a chair, applying the finishing touches to whatever snark-ridden piece he’d decided to perform. The piece of information that had not yet reached my ears was what a “poetry slam” actually was. I had no idea that the point of this event was to not necessarily elicit an audience reaction but at the very least be prepared for it. Especially if it was bad. Had I known, I probably would not have gone through with my hastily hatched plan to get Cara into some state of mind where she would at least consider making out with me. I glanced over at her again and in my fevered state I actually believed she was looking in my general direction by using the mirror behind the bar. I doubt she was thinking about much more than the array of neon beer signs that the bartender had finally switched on. I mean, this place just opened and it’s Saturday afternoon. I must have a solid 5 minutes to write some genius poem that will demonstrate, finally, to Cara how funny and therefore sexy I thought I was.

I slid into a booth near Eli and could tell he didn’t want to be bothered but soon he was rifling through his rucksack to hand me the pen and slip of paper I had asked him for. The next move found me sauntering back toward the front door to make my way out of the building. I planned to sit in the alley behind Canal Street to have 5 minutes alone to write. Now I needed a cigarette. No time. I nearly jogged behind the building to find 3 guys sharing a bottle in a bag. I stopped for what seemed like a mini-eternity because I knew there would be no other spot for me to really concentrate. One of the guys motioned for me to come over and to my surprise I did.

 They all looked like they were 100 years old. Haggard and worn out. I was being passed a bottle of mystery booze and I took it and proceeded to take a big slug. Instantly I felt the burn of some kind of rotgut whisky but also a self-confidence. I sat down on a crumbled parking block next to this trio of filth and nearly instantly had an idea that I wrote down as fast as it came. I signaled to these generous old guys that I had to run and, head whirling, I was suddenly standing again at the entrance to Canal Street.

I must’ve been outside a bit longer than I thought because my crew of poet types were all sitting together at the side wall and the lights had been dimmed. A few more characters had filtered in and despite the light of a summer afternoon, inside the tavern it felt more like being in the dark guts of an old ship or a casino. Magical neon signs advertising Miller High Life, Black Label, Wiedemann, Little Kings, Schaefer, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, beckoned another few patrons to grab a last beer before the festivities began.

I had a slight head rush as I lingered for just a minute near the card table set up near the entrance. A voice from the darkness asked “are you reading?” and I answered “damn right.” I didn’t feel like myself and noticed Eli across the room sort of glowering in my general direction and Steve looking amused, probably wondering what I was up to outside and why I hadn’t invited him. Still not knowing what a poetry slam was and noticing Cara sitting at the bar but now facing the stage, I heard my name being called and for a hot minute the room grew quiet.

I hadn’t expected to go first and to have to get right up in front of the room right after emerging from that whisky-fueled huddle in the alley with my new found friends but in my sudden drunkenness I understood the logic of getting up immediately to share with the world what I’d just written. Why not? Eli started a slow clap and some nameless figure in the back gave a slight guffaw and I quickly took the few steps up the stage and now stood behind a microphone and a stool. I set the stool aside and looked up for a second at the blinding spotlight above me. I heard a wiseass in the audience call out “you’re on a stage” and then chuckle stupidly. Next I saw a trembling hand gripping a rumpled sheet of paper coming into my field of vision and words were coming from my mouth. People listened. I was hooked.

One Song: Massive Attack’s Protection [by Shawn Charles Baker]

On the first cool nights is when it’s the loudest. Through the open windows the Night whispers a message. The Night often has the will to speak, however it requires those who can sense this intention to provide it with a voice. If you can find this voice then you can learn from it. This sounds a lot more esoteric than it actually is. If you can simply learn to pay attention then you can learn some interesting things from the Night. There are many different voices the Night speaks through, but perhaps the most eloquent is the music of Bristol, England’s Massive Attack.
There is a certain otherworldly, 2AM tone on Protection, the title track of the band’s second record. It is mysterious. It is dangerous. It asks questions that most are unable to answer. This is especially true for me, as the particulars of how I first encountered this song still haunt me to this day.
The first time I heard the stilted beat drag darkness over a telltale sample from James Brown’s classic “The Big Payback” I was on a tour bus in pastoral Bath, England. My wife and I were on a three-week adventure across the pond and we’d decided to spend one day doing ‘the tourist thing’.  A tour bus would help us knock out several sites we would otherwise probably have been unable to fit in as we prepared to hop the Channel to Ireland. The bus began early in the morning and hit Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and finally the ancient city of Bath. With all of the activity bookended by a lot of driving it’d been a busy day and by the time we hit the turn-around destination we were feeling it. The tour guides showed the group around the city the Romans built on top of the area’s naturally occurring geothermal springs sometime in circa AD 50. They did an excellent job guiding us through the small, winding roads and through buildings that were equally Medieval and modern at the same time. After this requisite history the guides turned us loose for forty minutes or so before we had to meet back at the bus to begin the long journey back to Piccadilly Circus. I don’t really remember how my wife and I spent that time, but we were two of the first back on the bus. I fired up the Sony discman (still a year or two before the iPod would antiquate this device) and popped open Protection, settling into my seat to stare out the window and allow the music to seep in. I don’t know how long we sat there but it must have been just over forty-eight minutes because as I faded in and out of a semi-conscious state the disc began again and as that first wave of familiarity with it gave way once more to the fluid, almost underwater guitar flourish of Protection my peripheral senses keyed me in to the fact that something was happening around me. I opened my eyes and sat up, not yet ready to remove the music from my ears. My wife tugged my sleeve and the headphones came off. She quickly filled me in – one of the other passengers on the tour – a middle-aged woman who had been traveling alone – was missing. Apparently she’d struck up a traveler’s acquaintance with another lone woman on the voyage and the two had sat together since Windsor. As I slipped into the present this other woman spoke frantically to one of the tour guides, pointing out that her temporary companion’s purse and shopping bags were still beneath the seat she’d been in. No one was panicked, but as more and more of our fellow travelers returned to the bus they became engulfed in the same enigmatic, ominous atmosphere the rest of us felt at the mysterious disappearance.
The tour guides attempted to dissuade our fears. They assured us they were doing everything they could. I went back to my headphones, my wife’s arm coiled tight around mine in a moment of absolute uncertainty. I hit play and the Night began to whisper again, carried on the breeze, translated by Tracey Thorn’s voice in my ear.
After this night Protection took on an especially forlorn air. Bath is only twenty-one kilometers from Bristol, and perhaps because of this proximity it felt as if the musicians were particularly attuned to the area’s mystery, that it was in fact this ingredient that helped to elevate their tone beyond the late night, chill out tags so commonly associated with Massive Attack. They – and Protection – were bound to become mythic because they were born of a place and time that bridged the quaint pre-internet world with the world we know today. This is not unlike the Picts of the country approximately seven-hundred miles north of Bath; a Celtic tribal society that long ago helped bridge the gap between the mystic cultures of the tribal state and the reason and commerce of the city-state empires that would follow. Likewise the song became a bridge to the invisible world that surrounds us all the time, doorways into it opening and closing at random, the only one of us who knows how, when and where to find them, the Night.
Shawn Charles Baker is a writer, filmmaker, and musician living in Southern California.