2006-07-13

Hills of Trieste (song for Jan Morris)


woke up this morning
made my first mistake of the day

every cell in my brain

has seen better days

it usually pays
to look the other way

i remember


What do I remember?

I remember sitting alone one night in the Cafe San Marco and there was a girl in there who looked like Louise Brooks. The Cafe San Marco, cream walls and high ceiling separated by brown stucco leaf trim, long, dark wood bar in an L-shaped room, three large pillars in the middle of the main room which was lined with bookshelves and newspaper racks. Hardwood floors, black leather benches and heavy, wrought-iron tables with marble surfaces, gold-plated hatstands and and stand-up silver ashtrays scattered along the bar and around the pillars. The place had history, cheap wine and good coffee. It was dark, warm and enclosed, more Viennese than Italian.

on the hills of trieste
where the wild cats run free

so carelessly blessed

in my mild misery
on the hills of trieste

where it's no curse to feel alone

between the shining deep blue sea

and the harsh red stone

i remember


She didn't really look like Louise Brooks, she just had a Louise Brooks hairdo. The girl in the black helmut is what Kenneth Tynan called Brooks when he wrote about her. My Louise was hanging arty type fashion photographs of herself on the San Marco walls. Two chess players fell silent as she leaned across them to straighten a picture. She had a friend with her and they were both in skin tight black but Louise had a red scarf with white threading interwoven and her friend had a leopard skin scarf. They certainly had style but the photos weren't very good. Why should they be? Trieste is a small town and anyone with real talent and ambition leaves early for the big city, eager to conform to the current heat. Those who stay behind live in a certain kind of past where everything's good or, whatever isn't good isn't remembered. Not much.

on the hills of trieste
and the cafes at night

on my knees i confessed

i got drunk and felt unwell

with the devil in my stomach

cleaning his nails

everyone's drinking something red

i only remember
all the false things i said


Tynan tracked down the girl of his silent, black and white past dreams to a small town in New York and found an old woman, living off a rich man's allowance but she was no one's Marie Provost. She'd written about her contemporaries in old Hollywood and she was a good writer. Her articles were published in magazines like Film Culture and Sight and Sound and were later collected into a book, Lulu in Hollywood.

girls at the bar
crossing their legs

girls at the bar

uncrossing their legs

sun sinking down
into the wrecks

under the waves

sun sinking down
and taking me with it


A lot of people might know about Trieste because James Joyce wrote Ulysses there. Joyce exiled himself from Ireland, wound up in Rome working for a bank but an English language school had an opening in Trieste, so he went there with his pregnant wife Nora. On arrival he told Nora to wait in a small park opposite the train station while he got the lay of the land. When I went to that park there was builder's rubble everywhere, lots of roped off areas. While he was exploring the city Joyce tried to mediate in a quarrel between some sailors and prostitutes. The scene became aggravated and the cops were called. They threw the sailors and Joyce into the back of the paddy wagon and Nora had a long wait, alone, in a strange city, not knowing the language.

on the hills of trieste
they make fireworks every day

for every night of the week

except when it rains

on the hills of trieste

across the harbour scene

every colour in the night

and every dream

i remember


Ettore Schmitz worked in a bank too, in Trieste as it happens, but he married the boss's daughter and did well for himself (I might have confused this with one of his novels). Once Joyce got out of jail and took up his teaching post, Schmitz became one of his students. Joyce noted the Triestian class system- Schmitz's wife blanked Nora in the street. Earlier in his life Schmitz had literary ambitions, writing and publishing himself, two novels, Senilita (As a Man Grows Older) and Una Vita under the pen name Italo Svevo. They weren't well received, the Triestian dialect proved distasteful to Italian lit snobs and the books didn't sell either. Schmitz stayed at his bank job and put his novels in the furthest bottom drawer. But, after many years, he showed his unloved novels to Joyce, who read them and said he liked them, compared them to Anatole France. Encouraged, Schmitz took up writing again and that's how we came to have Zeno's Conscience, also known as The Confessions of Zeno, wriiten once again by Italo Svevo, the novelist of Trieste.

on the hills of trieste
and the girls in their jeans

between the thrill of the moment

and the lifelessness of routine

on the hills of trieste

where your name is not your own

i couldn't have guessed
my direction home

i remember


girls at the bar
crossing their eyes

boys in the back

practicing lies

sun sinking down

into the wrecks

under the waves

sun sinking down

and taking me with it


Zeno's Conscience tells the story of Zeno, his youth, marriage and business career. It's told by Zeno himself in the form of three separate pieces addressed to his psychiatrist. He's trying to give up smoking and is constantly announcing his last cigarette after making some crucial, life-changing decision. Zeno's Conscience wasn't received any better than Svevos' other books but Joyce worked up a few French critics on its' behalf and the Italian literary establishment had to think again.

on the hills of trieste
and in my rented room

i got up and got dressed

i got sober and felt unwell
with the angels around my heart

singing a song

about the life we used to share

can't even remember
if i was even there


In the Public Gardens of Trieste, just up the road from the Cafe San Marco there are small, sculpted busts of the city's great and good, arranged around the park, each on its own small plinth. The poet of Trieste, Umberto Saba, is there and so are Svevo and Joyce, not too far from each other. You could go there, buy an ice cream, sit on a bench, watch the kids chase the ducks around the pond, look at Svevo and Joyce, have a smoke.

on the hills of trieste
where cigarettes are sublime

and the science of laziness

has no sense of time

on the hills of trieste

reliving my dreams

i felt a pain in my chest
in a moment so serene

i remember


Svevo died from injuries suffered in a car crash. It was rumoured he asked for a last cigarette in the hospital. He didn't die in Trieste, he didn't even die in Italy. He crashed his car in France, running from the fascists. It is said that Joyce used him as the model for Leo Bloom (not Mel Brooks' Leo Bloom, a different one). Kenneth Tynan wrote about Mel Brooks in the same book that he wrote about Louise Brooks, Show People. All leads to nowhere.

man on the pier
smoking a fag

worm on a hook

taking a drag

sun sinking down

into the wrecks

under the waves

sun sinking down

and taking me with it


girls at the bar
crossing their hearts

boys in the back

just seeing stars

sun sinking down

into the wrecks

under the waves

sun sinking down

and taking me with it


Jan Morris' last book, the last book she says she will ever write, is all about Trieste, The Meaning of Nowhere. Does the meaning of nowhere in relation to Trieste mean that once there, you are constantly thinking of elsewhere? The capital city of a certain neurosis- drifting, evasive living.

woke up this morning
made my first mistake of the day

every cell in my brain
has seen better days

it usually pays

to look the other way

i remember

You could go to Trieste looking for James Joyce and end up finding Louise Brooks.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home