Poem Friday: Cliff Fell’s ‘Once’ absorbs the pitch and shfts of Dante




Once when I was living in Florence

cycling home in the early hours

I heard an owl high in the campanile

and took a wrong turn down a wooden ramp,

an excavation in the Piazza Signoria—

and found myself in the city beneath the city

cycling between small ancient houses,

through alleys vaulted by the world of light

and the paving stones I knew.

They say we go into the ground

to know where Death will take us,

but I had entered this other world

in lively wonder— for I was in love with poetry

and the spectral light it casts over

the past and present and perhaps even the future,

though it is hard to say for sure what light

poems will cast over the time that is yet to come

or even that they will survive.

I only knew and cared that I was alive

in the catacombs and tumble

of a lost city, and that what I thought an alley

was really a thoroughfare leading to the river

between small shop fronts

such as you might find today

in cities like Herat or the Byculla backstreets

of Bombay— Mumbai as we must say.

Now I had to dismount to push the bike

and it seemed I had been heading

somewhere beneath the Uffizzi

for I had come to the waterside, though still

on a stratum below this world—

I could hear cars moving above me

on the via Lungarno,

the swish of their tyres on the cobble street,

close to the corner of Pontevecchio

and the nook where Dante once waited, alone and forlorn,

hoping to catch a glimpse of Beatrice,

as the pall-bearers carried her away.

Nothing ever happens twice,

and yet as I stood in the dank and must

of that underworld scene,

in what was once the Etruscan city,

I felt those old stones tensing up,

as though they could sense the poet in the shadows

waiting for the cortege to pass him once more,

and then to pass again.


Cliff Fell lives near Motueka. His latest publication is the illustrated poem, The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet, which is available in good bookshops or through messaging him on his Facebook page.

Cliff’s note: I can’t remember now exactly why or how I came to write ‘Once’,  but I think it must have been after a trawl through old notebooks and finding an entry from my Florence diary, where I lived in 1983 and ’84. I know it all sounds imagined, but in fact it’s based on a real event. I really did take a wrong turn on a bicycle down an archaeological excavation ramp in the Piazza della Signoria and find myself in the Etruscan city. Perhaps I didn’t get as far as the river, though. And there was an owl, too – but that was in the Piazza San Carmine, where I lived in my little car, an Allegro, through the autumn of 1983.

Paula’s note: Reading this poem I was taken right into the throbbing heart of Firenze with the shining detail of place, but I was also taken into the heart of Dante’s Inferno. It as though the narrating voice has absorbed the pitch and shifts of Dante as he (whichever) journeys deep into the underworld. This air of another poem accentuates the way Cliff’s poem is rich in strata. It is a physical journey located in time and place, but the poem also layers other travels. The old poet standing in the shadows awaiting his Beatrice is companion to the new poet on his bicycle (new world, contemporary time, young, alive). There is the way the movement into wrong turns and unexpected places yields mnemonic connections, and the way this physical and cerebral movement can be likened to the process of writing. The writing trope fits the poet perfectly (and I am also reminded of the freewheeling link between cycling and writing a poem). The way when you write a poem you stumble, take wrong turns, enter dark and light, emerge from dark and light, notice that things are not always as they initially seem. Each line of Cliff’s poem is handled with a deft touch, and each line takes you into the translucent sheen and surprise of the world with one stroke and into the lyrical beauty of Dante with another.

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