In each issue of Fifth Wednesday Magazine, a different poet is featured. In the past, some of these poets have included Sterling Plumpp, Roger Reeves, Laurence Lieberman, and Elise Paschen. This writer’s work fills several pages of the issue, and s/he answers questions in a series they call “Poetry Around Us with James Ballowe.” In the Fall 2014 issue, Richard Jones’s poem, “Ten Cantos from Italy,” guides the reader through the landscapes of Rome, Venice, Chicago, and a Franciscan monastery. The immersion into place is made immediate through images of “glistening cobblestones” and “the cavernous Termini,” and holds the reader through the poem’s 310 lines. Regardless of whether it is in memory or in the immediate action and reflection of the narrative, Jones offers imagery ripe with season and weather, texture and shape, size and line. What Jones does so well is to explore the insistence of aloneness. In family, in place, in thunderstorm, in writing, and in self.
Rome, where we begin, is desolate as Jones emphasizes the theme of loneliness that is central in the series. Here in Rome, the speaker and his wife, Laura, come together and part geographically throughout the poem, so that even in their partnership there is aloneness. The busy city, too, conveys the same paradox in its portrayal:
Rome was sleeping.
Church domes shouldered the night sky filled with stars.
Over Vatican Square, the statues of the saints
stood at rest. The piazzas were still.
Here the paradox of the city of people that appears to be empty serves to help the reader understand the sense of aloneness and reflection the speaker deals with throughout his journey. From this moment in Rome, Jones moves back in time, one year prior, to explain how he got to Rome, while his wife is in Venice. We return with the speaker to Chicago where his wife first proposes the pilgrimage:
Laura had seen this same pattern many times –
had seen me going into myself.
Writing and not writing had made me soul sick,
as if writing could save me.
She had seen that brand of madness in me before –
a cold sun over a frozen sea. One night,
the dishes done and the children gone to bed,
she suggested something she’d never considered before –
that we go to Italy without the children.
To cure the speaker’s soul sickness, the trip takes him away from Laura and into the monastery where – in six of these cantos – he connects with himself and his home. It is seamless the way that Jones does this. He finds “solitude both dreadful and sweet,” and in this space he repeatedly fantasizes a narrative of what his wife is doing in Venice, also alone.
The third canto takes us to a description of the monastery where most of the poem is set. It is again a reminder of how important setting is in this poem, as well as a part of what the poet seems to remind us throughout, “‘All the world is holy ground.’” To each piece can be attached a setting, each tonally similar but often with oceans’ distance between them: Rome, Chicago, the Italian monastery, the monk’s cell, the speaker’s childhood home, vegetable gardens and stables, Virginia, a chapel, and fields of sunflowers. In our introduction to the monastery, Jones forges a connection between the manual labor of the monks and the writing that the speaker will do at the monastery – both rituals almost like prayer under “high walls, tower, chapel, / and cloister stones […] quarried from the mountain.” This landscape resonates with how small each of us is – monk, wife, mother, father, sister, speaker, and reader alike.
We zero in then on the monk’s cell where the poet resides. This is a testament to the impossibility of being anything but alone. From this seclusion, the speaker imagines again the small moments of his wife’s day in Venice, connecting to her despite the loneliness. This broadens when he connects his vision of Laura in Venice to one of her in Chicago, imagining her as being “just as attentive to the crumbs of Venice / as to the crumbs in our kitchen.”
In the next section the setting is the monastery’s dining hall, but is dominated by the speaker’s memories of his father’s inability to communicate about anything but the weather, leading us quickly to the understanding that such speech may have always been metaphor, but that the distance this sort of communication created necessarily created a distance between a son and the wisdom he sought from his father. In the next canto, the speaker recalls from his childhood arriving home one autumn to find his mother alone in the kitchen ironing shirts, her dining room table set for dinner but no one else in the room and “‘from all the kitchen cupboard knobs, / a dozen white shirts hanging silent as ghosts.’” The speaker’s mother serves to illustrate a history of loneliness; the image of her husband’s oxfords replicating one another emphasizes not only the emptiness the characters in the poem feel but also the inescapability of a lineage of loneliness.
The seventh canto transitions from his mother’s dining room to his sister’s home, the home where she watched her son drown. In this scene we are walked through a hopeless search for a hiding boy whom we know already is gone, and then we confront the mother confronting the water, at a moment where she is able to say goodbye to her brother who is leaving the country and also connect for him all the world in its holiness.
The lines “and empty bed, / and empty desk” in the eighth canto illustrate the highest point of solitude the speaker reaches in the poem. In his last night at the monastery the loneliness becomes so clear that even the speaker’s self has left him alone, as he sees his own room empty of everything including himself. In the ninth, the speaker shares the last scene from his pilgrimage from the chapel, where he leaves his writing on the altar as an offering.
I walked down the aisle to the altar
and placed the bundle of poems there,
the only thing I had to offer,
the lightest thing I’d done in months.
“Straw for the fire,” I said.
That, and so much more, now understood.
Then I walked out of the chapel,
stepping over the door’s high threshold,
back into my life.
This life that the speaker steps back into is one that we have seen glimpses of in the memories he sorts through while at the monetary, and this offering seems to be one that will allow for the stepping back, the work of the poet’s words and the act of leaving them freeing him to return to America and to his family.
In the first line of the final canto, the reader enters “fields of sunflowers,” the image notably brighter than most in the poem. The speaker here imagines what his wife, Laura, is seeing as she is on her way to reunite with her husband and imagining this reunion. The mood is significantly lighter here, though still deeply pensive. The images offer positive connotations leaving the reader with a sense of hope: “daydreams,” “Grand Hotel,” “sleek black gondolas,” “Spello shines golden,” and “content and at peace.” This eases the reader out of a sequence that has confronted deep solitude and thought, and allows the reader to soak up a bit more of the landscape that has hypnotized him through ten pages.
The poet’s ability to connect the landscape of the Roman monastery to the landscape of his family’s home to that of his childhood home to that of where his wife is in Italy to that of his sister’s home is a beautiful way to increase the reader’s sense of isolation. The ten sections compose the narrative each stands alone quite successfully. These cantos stand out in that the scenes stay with the reader and echo so clearly the lives of the speaker and the people he offers portraits of, such as “The monk’s leathery face / and halo of wild white hair.” It’s nice to find in a literary journal a series of poems with such continuity, with image that is memorable, and with something at stake that is universally understood.
In addition to this well-crafted, well-organized narrative poem, you can find in this issue of Fifth Wednesday an interview with Jones, who is the author of seven collections of poems including A Perfect Time (2000) and The Correct Spelling and Exact Meaning (2010), both from Copper Canyon Press.