Not merely a strange place, but the home of strangeness,
the land stretching away west to vertiginous
spaces beyond the imagination.
then New York, where Nancy is living.
The Grahls have done well, chemists, merchants, physicians.
Lorenzo and Nancy cross the river, settle
in Jersey, open a grocery store
He writes how he laughed,
“every time my poetical hand weighed out
two ounces of tea, or cut a plug of tobacco
for some cobbler or carter.”
Thus amused, he never notices how
people cheat him, take his kindness as weakness
and him for all he is worth—
seven thousand dollars
And Nancy bears him a son,
a last child, christened Charles Grahl
(Lorenzo will always call him Carlo).
What to do to eat?
Something will turn up.
There may yet be something good around the corner.
He sells the house
and they return to New York.
There are more corners there.
You wake from a dream you cannot remember,
try this setting or that, make odd suggestions,
but nothing speaks.
That wasn’t it. The kernel
of meaning is gone, and you are the empty husk.
What was there?
The color of lilacs?
You let your mind go blank but all you have
is a blank mind,
which is all you deserve.
In a bookstore on Broadway . . .
If he has any church or synagogue,
if he believes in anything, feels at home
anywhere, it would be in bookstores.
In a bookstore then, on Broadway, where he is browsing,
he enters into a casual conversation
with a younger man, a stranger.
An idle remark,
an answer, a joke, perhaps, and then an allusion,
a password . . .
It is Clement Moore, the poet, later famous—
he will write “The Night Before Christmas.”
They talk of books,
even Italian books and writers. Moore,
in his late twenties, is charmed by the foreign man
in his middle fifties.
His father. Bishop Moore,
is President Moore
of Columbia College.
Clement brings da Ponte
home, and they start a class there in Italian
language and literature.
It’s a job,
a respectable calling. He is the caro maestro
bringing culture, tradition, refinement,
to these eternally young, impossibly eager
This is not what he wanted,
nowhere near what he knows he deserves,
An end, at least, to the torments
he hasn’t deserved either.
A remission then?
Stay there, settle, be content,
we tell him, looking back from the future’s heaven
where we know what the gods know.
He won’t, can’t,
has no idea who he is, what he ought to do,
what he should settle for.
This was the loss
back in Ceneda, that wrenching him from the name
his mother called him.
Why not take the suggestion
the country offers, however absurd? The country
is large, limitless, strange, a great slattern
welcoming any and all. His in-laws have moved
to Sunbury, a Pennsylvania town
but frontier still, on the Susquehanna River.
Why not go there, trade, sell liquor, grain,
The woods are rich in game,
the water clear as Como or Garda. They move,
to start a new life in a new place
to put down roots and end,
these vicissitudes, this endless turning over
of new pages.
The book still reads the same,
a brief prospering, then the slipping away
of gains, the always innocent lamb
swindlers recognize as a gift
from God or the devil for them to fleece.
A terrible businessman! He folds,
goes to Philadelphia. She sells hats;
he teaches, or tries to,
finds two pupils,
while a stern landlady drills
for the rent, the rent, the rent.
Nothing is changed.
Soon he is selling his books again,
his clothing . . .
A letter comes
from Moore, in New York, a reprieve, an invitation
to come back, teach there.
He has learned and accepts.
Or is it a temporizing, a compromise,
a tactical, provisional retreat?
It is hard to say what’s in his mind, but he stays,
lives in New York for another nineteen years
and dies there.
But all the time, in his heart
is the feeling children have
that none of this is real, or if it is
then only for now. Something will happen, new
teeth will come in, bones grow, hair will grow,
there will be changes: a real self, a real world
will emerge in which I will be no longer a stranger
even to myself.
It is 1819.
He is sixty years old.
That adolescence children wait for
in snug cocoons of latency has come
There are only disimprovements now
in body and spirit, a settling
for what is,
a recognition that this ill-fitting garment
is what the wardrobe holds.
There is nothing to grow into
but a shroud.
We learn to bear even this, settle, accept,
who have never scribbled a clever verse and heard it
set by Mozart . . .
A gift, but also a burden.
This is what God would demand, if there were a god;
this is your authentic self, your talent,
your spirit’s heritage.
Weep, then, weep, and dream unbearable dreams
of that life you ought to have led, the amazing work
you ought to have done, the gift you betrayed, and still,
with every breath betray, deny, dishonor.
Look to an empty sky, leaden and low,
and wait for some sign, hope for a dispensation
that has come before and could therefore come again.
It will not come to you.
You have had your chance.
But Byron’s poem.
Da Ponte’s son Joseph has died,
at twenty-one of consumption.
Prostrate, all but maddened by grief,
Nancy goes into a deep depression.
is not in much better case.
One of his students,
hoping to cheer him,
offer him solace,
hands him a copy of Byron’s recent piece,
in terza rima
It is a curiosity
that speaks deeply, curiously, to da Ponte’s
“The Prophecy of Dante.”
This poem, Byron wrote in Ravenna, where Dante’s
tomb is “one of the principal objects of interest . . .
both to the native and to the stranger.”
An exile from England,
Byron had been drawn to Dante’s plight
in exile from Florence.
The wars of griefs and angers, Dante’s and Byron’s,
da Ponte knew, how
“sometimes the last pangs of a vile foe
Writhe in a dream before me and o’er-arch
My brow with hopes of triumph—let them go!
Such are the last infirmities of those
Who long have suffered more than mortal woe,
and yet, being mortal still, have no repose . . . “
The feeling Byron had of being cheated
of what he deserved, by rank and talent, he gave
to Dante, but da Ponte could claim for himself
a little of that. At his tomb, too, would
“pilgrims come from climes where they have known
The name of him, who now is but a name.
And wasting homage o’er the sullen stone.
Spread his—by him unheard, unheeded—fame.”
He’ll do it! He’ll do . . . what? Translate the thing
into Italian, into what terza rima
ought to be. He’ll claim the piece for himself.
And does, throwing himself into the work,
and writing with tears streaming down to blur
the words on the page:
“to die is nothing; but to wither thus,
to tame / My mind down
from its own infinity, / To live
in narrow ways with little men,
A common sight to every common eye,
while even wolves can find a den . . . “
Oh, yes, o si, si . . .
He publishes, and at length receives a letter
from Giagomo Ombrosi, the vice-consul
in Florence, who says a copy was given to Byron
in Leghorn, and the poet
(having taken a villa there for his friend
Teresa Guiccioli) received the book
“with much satisfaction.”
He becomes, in 1825, Professor
of Italian at Columbia College—no
stipend, but the title is useful. He can
take in pupils, to Nancy’s boarding house,
and make a dollar—
he’ll lose, of course, as an impresario, bringing
an opera company over to New York.
In 1828, he becomes
a citizen—a gain, and also a loss,
Nancy dies in 1831. Da Ponte lives on
to 1839. Nearly ninety,
he fails, fades away, sends for a priest,
for form’s sake at least.
They keep it quiet
that he, too, is a priest.
“I dreamt of roses and laurels,” he wrote,
“but from the roses I had only thorns,
and from the laurels bitterness.”
Back in Ceneda,
by now merged with the neighboring Serravalle
into Vittorio Veneto, they name
the Via da Ponte.
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