Andrea Bajani: a building in Rome to be found by poetry

Two months among someone else’s furniture, portraits of ancestors on the walls, grating on the windows to discourage burglars, and outside Rome’s sky. For the Italian writer, this is where the verses of L’amore viene prima came.

This article was originally published on Domus 1067, April 2022.

Unlike prose, there’s no way to make poetry find you at home. Poetry is unruly and unfaithful, and it has no interest in the homes of those who put it down in black and white. I’d add also that poetry is disrespectful, if it weren’t for the fact that every time it has knocked at my door, I’ve been happy to let it in. This is why I welcome poems resignedly, and why I’ve never tried to look for a house to start writing them in, as I insist on doing whenever I get it into my head that I’m going to work on a novel.

I attempted once, at a writers’ retreat in a baroque villa not far from Nuremberg, and I waited in vain at the window for 11 months. I occasionally took out my notebook and forced my hand, as it were, to write down verses. But poetry is anarchic and uncooperative and won’t take orders, so I wasn’t so much writing as bludgeoning words onto the page. They would settle listlessly on the paper, then cross their arms and sit on the floor. I could have formed them into a queue and deported them to paper, but they would have been words in a line, not poetry.

Poetry – or at least the poetry that comes to visit me – doesn’t love houses, and only rarely has it found me sitting ready at a table.

So, it all proved pointless in Bavaria, rearranging the furniture in my room, with its view over the Regnitz, the river that rises in Upper Franconia and ends in the Main. Whether my desk faced the water flowing by, or I turned my back to the scenery, or I walked along that branch of the river, looking for inspiration with my Moleskine in my pocket, it was always the same old story. Little or no writing, a crushing defeat that only ended with the conclusion of the residency, exchanging fond farewells with the other prolific writers involved.

Poetry – or at least the poetry that comes to visit me – doesn’t love houses, and only rarely has it found me sitting ready at a table. It loves transport more. It often taps me on the back on trains, planes and the metro. From experience, I know that if I don’t pick it up when it expects me to, it drifts out the window, and is lost. So I open my notebook and let it in, like a butterfly in a net. Then, if anything, I take it home, and there I set it free and fine-tune it on the page.

Illustrazione Raikhan Musrepova
Illustration Raikhan Musrepova

The only time it found me at home consistently was autumn 2019, in a 1950s apartment building a few hundred metres from the Janiculum in Rome. It was a sort of temporary sublet, a loan in return for an amicable sum plus cleaning expenses, sheets and towels waiting folded on the bed. Everything was condensed into two months among someone else’s furniture, portraits of their ancestors on the sitting room walls, grating on the windows to discourage burglars and, outside, the Roman sky.

At the entrance, a dappled marble corridor led to the sitting room with its red designer armchairs and sofas, which opened out into the kitchen. From there it continued across parquet floors to the sleeping area, where there were two bathrooms and a bedroom with a double bed. In a box room by the entrance, our transatlantic suitcases were ready to fly to America, where we were to land at the end of the year to start our life in Texas. I believe poetry looked me up in that period because our son had just been born. For that reason it was easy to find us at home, where we passed him from one pair of arms to another, unprepared, exhausted and elated. Proudly gleeful if he eventually fell asleep on our chests, pleading for mercy if he cried without end.

Poetry – or at least the poetry that appears to me – slips into the gaps between thoughts orchestrated in our minds. The more structured these thoughts are the less it dares to enter, since it would only find a blockade. A baby a few weeks old, two inexperienced parents in love – the father very awkward and sentimental – work against any structured thought. Hence carte blanche for poetry.

I believe that somehow the tempo acquired by the words that my right hand was writing was the same tempo my left hand was keeping to make sure our son slept serenely.

For that house on the slope that led down into Via dei Quattro Venti and on to Viale Trastevere, I feel both infinite gratitude and a sort of oblivion. Gratitude, I believe, needs no explanation, whereas oblivion is the result of the metamorphic nature of an apartment when there’s a newborn baby in it who has little experience of what dimensions and spaces are. Or what that chaotic business that they’ll teach him to call life is. For both these reasons, the allocation of spaces becomes arbitrary.

In the two months we spent there, the bedroom was hardly ever the one with the double bed. More often it was the kitchen or the lounge, where in the most disarming, sweetest shipwrecks I’ve ever experienced, one of we two parents would end up beached with the baby to allow the other a bit of peace. It was there, in that forced insomnia, while the new life was knocking down the door of the old, that the verses of L’amore viene prima (“Love Comes First”) came along.

I carried the first poem around in my head for several days for fear of forgetting it, and also because it was literally impossible for me to write it: either I had both hands occupied or I’d be exhausted and lose consciousness, with or without a pillow. I couldn’t say whether what was born of it was a canto for my son, for that dumbfounded love, or an invocation for sleep. The fact is that I wrote virtually all of it in the kitchen, holding the baby in my arms while he slept. I believe that somehow the tempo acquired by the words that my right hand was writing was the same tempo my left hand was keeping to make sure our son slept serenely.

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