Hoping to twig from what we are not what we might be next

W.H. Auden’s Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno. The mezzogiorno – literally midday – is the name for southern Italy taken altogether.

Out of a gothic North, the pallid children
Of a potato, beer-or-whisky
Guilt culture, we behave like our fathers and come
Southward into a sunburnt otherwhere

Of vineyards, baroque, la bella figura,
To these feminine townships where men
Are males, and siblings untrained in a ruthless
Verbal in-fighting as it is taught

In Protestant rectories upon drizzling
Sunday afternoons no more as unwashed
Barbarians out for gold, nor as profiteers
Hot for Old Masters, but for plunder

Nevertheless some believing amore
Is better down South and much cheaper
(Which is doubtful), some persuaded exposure
To strong sunlight is lethal to germs

(Which is patently false) and others, like me,
In middle-age hoping to twig from
What we are not what we might be next, a question
The South seems never to raise. Perhaps

A tongue in which Nestor and Apemantus,
Don Ottavio and Don Giovanni make
Equally beautiful sounds is unequipped
To frame it, or perhaps in this heat

It is nonsense: the Myth of an Open Road
Which runs past the orchard gate and beckons
Three brothers in turn to set out over the hills
And far away, is an invention

Of a climate where it is a pleasure to walk
And a landscape less populated
Than this one. Even so, to us it looks very odd
Never to see an only child engrossed

In a game it has made up, a pair of friends
Making fun in a private lingo,
Or a body sauntering by himself who is not
Wanting, even as it perplexes

Our ears when cats are called Cat and dogs either
Lupo, Nero or Bobby. Their dining
Puts us to shame: we can only envy a people
So frugal by nature it costs them

No effort not to guzzle and swill Yet (if I
Read their faces rightly after ten years)
They are without hope. The Greeks used to call the Sun
He-who-smites-from-afar, and from here, where

Shadows are dagger-edged, the daily ocean blue,
I can see what they meant: his unwinking
Outrageous eye laughs to scorn any notion
Of change or escape, and a silent

Ex-volcano, without a stream or a bird,
Echoes that laugh. This could be a reason
Why they take the silencers off their Vespas,
Turn their radios up to full volume,

And a minim saint can expect rocket’s noise
As a counter-magic, a way of saying
Book to the Three Sisters: “Mortal we may be,
But we are still here!” might cause them to hanker

After proximities – in streets packed solid
With human flesh, their souls feel immune
To all metaphysical threats. We are rather shocked,
But we need shocking: to accept space, to own

That surfaces need not be superficial
Nor gestures vulgar, cannot really
Be taught within earshot of running water
Or in sight of a cloud. As pupils

We are not bad, but hopeless as tutors: Goethe,
Tapping homeric hexameters
On the shoulder-blade of a Roman girl, is
(I wish it were someone else) the figure

Of all our stamp: no doubt he treated her well,
But one would draw the line at calling
The Helena begotten on that occasion,
Queen of his Second Walpurgisnacht,

Her baby: between those who mean by a life a
Bildungsroman and those to whom living
Means to-be-visible-now, there yawns a gulf
Embraces cannot bridge. If we try

To go southern, we spoil in no time, we grow
Flabby, dingily lecherous, and
Forget to pay bills: that no one has heard of them
Taking the Pledge or turning to Yoga

Is a comforting thought in that case, for all
The spiritual loot we tuck away,
We do them no harm – and entitles us, I think
To one little scream at A piacere,

Not two. Go I must, but I go grateful (even
To a certain Monte) and invoking
My sacred meridian names, Vico, Verga,
Pirandello, Bernini, Bellini,

To bless this region, its vendages, and those
Who call it home: though one cannot always
Remember exactly why one has been happy,
There is no forgetting that one was.

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