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.

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