Not merely a strange place, but the home of strangeness,

the land stretching away west to vertiginous

spaces beyond the imagination.

Philadelphia first,

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

                                                           in Elizabeth.

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

going, gone.

And Nancy bears him a son,

a last child, christened Charles Grahl

da Ponte

                                                           (Lorenzo will always call him Carlo).

What to do to eat?

                                                           Teach perhaps?


Maybe Latin?

                                                           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?

                                                                        Their scent?

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 reference,

                                 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,

but tolerable.

                                                           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,

spices, medicines?

                                                           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,

only two,

       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

and gone.

       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,

                                                           distract him,

                                                                        offer him solace,

hands him a copy of Byron’s recent piece,

in terza rima

                  (in English!).

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,

A wanderer,

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

the Countess

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,

an acknowledgment.

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

a street

                  the Via da Ponte.