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"And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of morning to where the cricket sings..." -- W.B.Yeats
On the Terrace of Casa Vivaio
The roadside's lemon yellow with ginestra giving off the sweet smell of clove. In the ditch, sprung from the Chianti shale, grows the palest rose wild rose. Hares sit up limp-wristed by the blackberry briars at the edge of the patch of wheat. You can set your clock by the cuckoo: half-past 28:00. And all's well with the pheasants-- The chicks at their scratching lesson. Magpies whirr up, major black-and-white productions. The purple iris is in bloom, the giglio fiorentino, and the giant lone lilac, hung with scented plumes, just up the slope from the dooryard. The simultaneity of the place, this house of nurture! -- flowers in a warm clash of colors, the old cherries in fruit and blossom, the various birds all happening at once.© Carl Selph, 1999
The House in TuscanyFor Nancy P.
...a mirarla intenerisce il core.I wanted and found Casa Vivaio. It is astonishing what the convergence of desire and chance can sometimes manage to arrange. At seventeen I'd fled from a little town. Half-way through life, lost in a forest prowled by lion, she-leopard, wolf, I moved to Florence. Passing Palazzo Pitti on my way to work, nodding to Perseus on his pedestal, Medusa's severed head streaming bronze blood, I never stopped feeling a little amazed. On my way to Casa Vivaio, in the Chianti hills, I'd think it was remarkable I knew the road to the old stone house, that my heavy key would turn in the lock of its front door. One cold, clear morning, a January Saturday, I drove to Tavernelle, past wintry fields, black rows of vines, gray olive groves. Nearby, in San Casciano, they press an oil -- a green and cloudy gold -- the best in Tuscany. A narrow street led to a gravel track dividing groves; more vineyards, fallow fields; cypresses, a villa behind great walls, yoked white oxen drawing a high-wheeled cart; thrugh dark woods and down a rocky hill thick with green sedge -- in bloom a lemon yellow, scenting the air with clove. I stopped the car on a threshing floor. The stone-and-rubble house, that twenty generations built, rambled in shabby stair-steps down the hill. A weedy, graveled terrace; a bare acacia tree; two gnarled vines against the wall. In the years to come I grew roses, oleanders -- pink and white, a trumpet vine, and lilacs, irises -- hundreds of irises, the lily-flower on the Marzocco's shield. On every window ledge bright-red geraniums. The kitchen was five-centuries old and had a fireplace I could step into, with a tiled bench against one inner wall -- Cinderella's place when her work was done. A door opened to rooms where a stone manger scoured by the tongues of centuries of cows still stood along the walls of rooms where we talked and laughed and ate long meals through years of Sunday afternoons. From the downstairs bath-tub bubbles I looked out past manger into twisted cherry trees, in white each year well in advance of Eastertide. The spring brought on a gluttons' war, il padrone against the avian hordes -- bright, fluttering rags in the alien fruit welcoming signals to the greedy birds. Through centuries the fissured red-brick floors had settled into troughs and waves. Upstairs were six bedrooms, one toilet, and a shower that sprayed the bather and the room. The chamber at the end of the hall was mine: for the fan of rough-hewn beams holding the roof, its level floor, and a view past the acacia tree -- flowering in spring like white wistaria -- to a vineyard sloping to a brook and up to the village, profiled on its hill. My bed was covered by a quilt, a double-wedding-ring pieced by my great-grandmother's sister Blanche. She and her husband, Uncle Billy, lived in a house they'd bought from a Sears & Roebuck catalog. The next eleven years I plastered, laid on paint, weeded, planted, furnished, and, with great care and a dust-pan removed a baby hedgehog from the bath. Friends (I counted) came to visit from five continents. Barefooted Samia, great-grand-daughter of a poet-warrior-king, made bread no kneading could persuade to rise. A Capetown florist told me why my agapanthus didn't bloom. Well-fed I Tatti men swapped chilling tales of those who published not -- and died. From Scottsdale Pat and Bill drank morning coffee on the terrace in dressing gowns so grand the farmers thought I'd had a pair of popes spending the night. Under the mulberry an Italian with a canvas on his knees all one hot day worked on a portrait of the house, but -- adamant and shy -- refused to show his work and tore it up. Nancy picked blackberries big as quail eggs, and I made cobblers, deep and sweet, and we sat by the fire for hours playing dominoes. Cleo and I took long, meandering walks through wheat standing in shocks, flushing whole whirring pheasant families and big, sedate brown hares, that after a mild regard loped off. My mother and my cousins sat -- shoes off, feet up after museums and a shopping trip to town, and gossiped about the neighbors back in Arkansas. I played long, squabbling scrabble games with Jack, my friend now for forty-seven years. Week after week Aldo and Fabio cleaned and joked and cooked. (Aldo's crostini are the best in Tuscany.) Natasha wrote a play, picked figs, and posed in Groucho glasses, moustache, nose and red bikini. A Greek stood for a photograph before the house, smiling among the burgeoning April irises. In an open spyder with snowy Guinivere -- ears flying -- beside her on the leather seat, Eva came bumping down the hill for lunch, Garbo or Dietrich traveling incognito. The vivaio is for plants and animals, for a man who might have perished without its nurturing. For far too long a time I had to use my nursery to help me toil back up from the frozen core. Sometimes in the kitchen or playing cards or kneeling on the graveled terrace pulling weeds I had moments when I needed nothing more-- stripping crab-grass from cracked, gray stones my undeserved blessed vision of beatitude. There were magpies, black-and-white -- that never stole and nightingale arias in the middle of the night. Cuckoos without arithmetic struck twenty times like kitschy Swiss clocks gone berserk. For centuries contadini worked Italian land, but nowadays farm laborers are salaried. They live in condominiums in nearby towns and roar on Vespas to the sheds where Fiat tractors wait. Houses that gave four generations a home, a place to work, are roofless, falling down, or used, like mine, by dilettanti of begonias. When I remember all those years in Italy, Casa Vivaio is what I miss the most-- friends there -- some now are dead-- and Cleo -- funny, jealous, smart, obsessed by love. When thwarted or ignored -- betrayed -- she ate shoes, sofas, rugs, and rivals' photographs. I have no idea who writes the rent checks now. I still like to recite the owner's name: Maria Caterina Passerin d'Entrêves e Courmayeur. By writing small I could get it on one line. The Contessa lived in an L-shaped medieval pile called Villa del Cantuccio -- Corner House -- a nuncupation meagre, I thought, for the ancient seat of one with such a lovely plethora of symphonious syllables. Whoever they are who live there now, I hope they've learned That cracking the doors will make the chimeys draw. I wonder if they pick lilacs and irises, the ones I placed together every spring in a big blue crock on the battered chest inside the kitchen door. Voices around the terrace table on moon-lit nights and fireflies flickering through the rows of vines-- I'm still surprised someone like me, who could get lost on country roads near home, in Dallas county, Arkansas, can still arrive in dreams at an old Italian house where every chair and picture, cushion, spoon, soap dish, and candlestick is still in place. From its windows, in all weathers, I look out. I remember the feel of the slanting treads of the stair.© Carl Selph, 1990 (A prose version was published in Atención San Miguel)
Editor's Note: Two of the friends remembered here were dogs: Guinivere and the unforgettable Cleo.
How to Get to My House in Mexico
Once you've crossed the world's highest speedbump, turn left and you're almost there. In just a little way you'll spot seven assorted dogs horsing around under a jacaranda tree and then a little farther on an old man wobbling along on a bicycle. When you have to slow down for the two women passing the time of day in the middle of the street, you're getting close. They won't move so you'll have to go around. Where thd kid's walking along dribbling a basketball you'll see a building being painted a color they haven't quite decided on yet. Go left again and that's Calle Orizaba, the street where I live. You can't miss my house. It's the one with banana trees waving on top and a small black poodle standing in a pot of pink geraniums on a ledge three stories up and looking down and barking because she's so glad to see you.© Carl Selph, 1999
Mexico, La Noche
The purple and persimmon fade, The grackels home in from the sky, Stars glittering through the mauve and jade. A clangor now of bells, a burro's cry. The roof-top dogs confront the dark With raucous challenge: "Villain, come! My bite's more vicious than my bark!" An old man waits -- fragile, enduring, dumb -- His wares a bowl of pumpkin seeds. A lighted moon shows night's begun. A rooster strutting through the weeds At four will brazenly arouse the sun.© Carl Selph, 1999
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