Lost in Venice

Henri Cole

Which is better—the world or seclusion?… So much is certain—either life entails courage or it ceases to be life.

—E.M. Forster

    Across the Continent the operator
crackled on the line. Three rings and a faint
        voice, bolted from sleep and snorting:
My card, Did it reach you? Its grainy
    intaglio scene etched in mind,
        posted from Paris, escaping delays—
            the view: a gothic palace riding
        the canal, his flat designated

    by eight blacked-out windows
in the crown. Can you come?
        his saintly query. The train inched
through the alps, my neighbor’s plump
    poodle asleep between us.
        Our bellies filled with lunch,
            our heads shook on their rests,
        and the track bore us sunward…

    Glints of Adriatic blue and the cars
lifted onto a viaduct arching
        across a spit of land and sparked
to a halt on the choppy canal.
    These things hold through weariness:
        my host’s white silk pullover,
            his tanned arms waving in the air
        (Here we are!), the slow, autumnal

    cumulus plumped overhead,
mirrored in his cataracted eyes.
        Duffel bag shouldered, we headed
for home, my eyes tracing the liquefied
    city, its parquet of streets dowsed
        clean and interlaced with a spate
            of churchbells. A treasure heap of houses,
        as Ruskin declared, partly gold, maybe,

    partly opal and mother-of-pearl.
Nights and days blur
        under a roof with sparrows,
entered from an atrium
    of stone steps, pillows nearly,
        draped in ivy and rippling three
            floors high into the palace eaves
        where his rooms were situated,

    where we lingered at sunset with drinks
in the library beneath a vaulted
        cavernous ceiling of gesso washes
and ornate stuccos to recount each
    day’s aquatinted discoveries,
        the canal’s rosy surfaces peeking
            in upon us. Was this where James slept,
        having penned in one infectious

    sitting “The Aspern Papers,” a story
smoking with thwarted will? So
        palace legend had it. Charmed by the notion,
if doubtful, my host
    lifted his tumbler, toasting the rooms
        and his seclusion there. A halo
            of white hair, turbanlike, illumined
        his head in a vertical ray,

    and in the faint sunbeam shaft,
this unmeaning apparition passed:
        At a gallery on the lagoon that day,
near the foot of Proust’s double chain
    of marble cliffs, houses really,
        angling in sunlight, I’d paused
            before a massive canvas
        of the shepherd boy, David, caught

    with his sling in action.
The Philistine giant loomed
        above him, yet David, the beloved one,
steadied his aim for slaying.
    It drugged me for a moment—
        his unpitying task—when a
            sudden knowledge floated
        into the gallery like a dove

    wobbling high against the domed sky—
lights, lost in the honeycomb
        of endless rooms.
It was not Goliath’s
    spasmodic growl that spoke to me,
        or even David’s cautious approach,
            but a kind of rudderless knowing
        that sequined in his eye, as if we

    all uneasily inherit
his path: the humble origin,
        the unblinking test of faith,
the final anointed killing.
    A bitter fountain to drink from,
        though rejuvenating… my host would live
            on a year, and young David
        reign half a century as king. Had one

    of us strayed those long illusory
days lost in Venice,
        what could have happened? And the legacy?—
for that one dreamy scotchlit moment, we
    were inured to it. In the darkening
        night, black gondolas skimmed beneath us,
            and a tenor’s silver crescendo touched
        the air like a shepherd boy’s sweet harping.

(David Kalstone, 1932-1986)

Henri Cole is the author of Blizzard and Touch, as well as the memoir, Orphic Paris.
Originally published:
December 1, 1989


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