Birth of a Poet 5: Working Livorno
Continuing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…
Monday 20th April, 1998
Woke up with the sun streaming into my face! Put on a clean t-shirt given to me yesterday, turn’d up the collars like a genuine romantic poet, got 2000 lira off Kaptiano, then went off for a cappucino. En route I saw Ariel the sax-player – who was having a sneaky wash at a street fountain – & captured another stanza as I strode. The pace of the poem is quite slow, actually, with me having to squeeze in moments of inspirations between floods of madness.
After lunch the day took off. I borrow’d Megadeth’s bycycle, bagg’d some food, a bottle of water, my blanket curtain & a couple of books (my Shelley & my notebook), slipp’d on my shades & shorts, left my bags with Kapitano, & set off on my bike ride. My spirit soar’d as I broke free of the mad Pisan hustle-bustle streets, & took to the open roads. My destination was somewhere in the mountains that loom’d over Pisa, & I literally headed for the hills. As I rode along the right side of the road (wrong to me), the countryside was rather flat. I noticed pretty flocks of wild flowers by the sides oft he road as I pass’d through idyllic villages. At the start of the mountains a tower topp’d a huge cliff – but it was a little off-track & I made a mental note to visit at some later date.
The road started to climb into a sort of loop of mountains, with houses stretching up the sides, & lots of olive groves on level platforms, like steps. I stopp’d for water in a peaceful cemetary. Each grave was well-tended & blooming with flowers, like a garden of graves. I’m sure this image will infiltrate my poem at a later date.
Back in the saddle, the road wound thro’ the loveliest houses, always uphill & very sleepy. The people hardly notic’d me pass them. I eventually could ride no further, & chain’d the bike to a bridge over a gurgling river, from which point I started an ascent of a peak. The sun was blaring down (about time too), so I took my shirt off & bask’d in the Italian sun. I first came across an old barn, then pick’d my way up thro’ a piny forest. It was quite weird, really – all the trees seems burnt, cover’d in black charcoal.
After a while, I climb’d some rocks & got my first serious view. It ran all the way down to the valley. It was great, but I knew there was more to come. I pick’d up quite a firm a stick & made my arduous way to the first ‘peak,’ where to my delight the the mountain sloped onwards to its proper summit. So I carried on, & the view kept getting better. I only had a pair of pumps on, tho’, but apart from standing on a couple of snapp’d off trees, a thistly brush & one rocky bump, I made it thro’ the day quite well.
Not long after I climb’d up the hardest part of my ascent (scampering up a rocky formation) I was greeted with my prize – the most amazing view I’ve ever seen. I made my camp at the peak & buzz’d off the panorama which stretch’d from Livorno to Le Spezia – my poem’s entire stomping ground. As snakes & lizards, insects & wild flowers all did their thing, to the ringings of church bells echoing thr’o the valley, I fully embraced the view. I could see Pisa & its tower embedded in a completely flat plain, thro’ which the river Arno wound a meandering course lazily to the sea. From the peaks Pisa appears as a small town, its white leaning tower a tiny bristle on its face. The city is not that big at all, rather like Chichester in Southern England, & it is amazing to discover that in its hey-day the city once ruled a widely-scattered Meditteranean empire. Now, the sea has retreated from this fading maritime jewel, leaving only the tower to draw the attention of the world.
Across the valley the mountains were amazing, & I was almost as high as the clouds, which stretched all fluffy & puffified. I bellow’d a great ‘hellloooooo’ to a hang-glider rising on the mountain air currents, then spread out my blanket & tuck’d into my food stash. This consisted of a sandwich, cake, 2 oranges & an apple, curtesy of the nuns. I also worked on a little poetry, but could only manage one stanza; I couldn’t really settle with the place being so cool.
After a while it was time to descend, this time by a different route, following a road that wound through an (unburnt) pine forest. I pass’d by the most picturesque houses, all surrounded by olive groves, & thoroughly enjoying – so it seem’d being sited in the bosom of the mountains. An idela retreat from the follies of mankind.
As I zoom’d downhill I whistl’d Honky-Tonk Woman by the Rolling Stones. I also had a better look at the tower I’d seen earlier. On closer inspection the cliffs were actually quarried slopes, & the tower was full of grafitti. The alternate view of the plain it commanded, however, was extremely relishable.
On my return to Pisa I got a bit lost, via a mad 15th century viaduct, but I eventually managed to give Megadeth his bike back & rejoin the gang. I bought a new string for 3500 lira, leaving me 50,000 lira & £10 sterling left. Ate ravenously at the stazione, then busk’d for an hour before I collaps’d unconscious over my guitar – drunk, ston’d & exhausted.
Kapitano is talking about fruit-picking & drug-selling in the summer; I shan’t be with him, but its interesting to see how he survives. It appears we move to Livorno tomorrow, which is good timing for my poem. Today’s ride really help’d stir things up in my mentalities – the Muse is coming calling – its a wondrous thing!
Tuesday 21st April, 1998
Usual routine in the morning, but woke a little earlier & managed a couple of stanzas. I’m really getting into the swing of things now. It turn’d out that we would be leaving for Livorno in the evening, after stazione pasta, so we spent the day basking in the sun, & for the first time didn’t drink wine! I felt satisfied just to be kicking back tanning my skin into an improved, blackhead-free complexion, while at home everyone’s a bit chilly, like!
The day pass’d quite dreamlike – I got a couple more stanzas & even managed to sketch the leaning tower of Pisa! Art is always a hit or miss affair with me – mainly a miss – but it turne’d out quite good, I think. Even Kapitano was impress’d.
At about 7 we got the evening’s wine in (4 litres) & watched the sun go down by the Arno. It was very pleasant, my last sunrise in Pisa, the houses silhouetting against a vibrant, violet sky. I even penned an ode, I’d never done one before, but was very pleased with it;
“You are always writing – writing, writing, writing,” noticed Kapitano every day.
“I am a poet,” I would reply before buring my head once more in my notebook.
Once the sun had set we busk’d up a little cash, then had our food at the stazione, with me stocking up on loads of goodies just in case. It was time for the train to Livorno, a journey that would only take 20 minutes. Kapitano was a natural train jumper (of course) & we had arrived for free. I rang up Ruth, a bit too drunk, & have vowed not to do it again. Plus I can;t afford it, I broke into my 50,000 lira note to do so, & I’m also vowing now not to spend any more non-essential, non-survival money.
Soon I am back in bohemian swing
Musin away, one long mellow daydream.
By the side of the Arno sometime sing
Or bathe in the sun embracin ice-cream
Or busk to the world as a poet-king
Or party hard with Kapitano’s team.
How life is forever tender to me
Now I’ve tasted the breath of Italy.
We trudged thro’ the port city of Livorno, which was a pain as I was weigh’d down by ALL my stuff. Its a lot different to Pisa – wide streets & a heavy atmosphere. Ah well, at least I made it here & I’m up to the right place in my poem to be writing about Livorno, so maybe its just fate!
Livorno is also the place where my poem, ‘The Death of Shelley,’ begins. The year is 1822 & Shelley has just been to visit Lord Byron in Pisa. The previous year what amounted to a poetic colony had existed there, but time had fragmented their group & now the Shelleys had set up home further up the coast at Lerici, near La Spezia. Their small yet enchanting villa was lapped by the sea & the poet intended to sail there with Edward Williams, the friend who co-habitated with him in their idyllic home. Their wives were expecting them & indeed they were both looking forward to returning home.
In my world, we found a church to sleep next to, with Kapitano putting out his hat for money in the morning, & I settl’d into sleep in my different, stone-matress’d bed.
Wednesday 22nd April, 1998
Woke early in Livorno, about 08.30, so went for a little stroll to the docks. It was mostly uninteresting, not as pleasanat a vibe as Portsmouth, but I did get a rather fine stanza, & being on the spot really help’d the flow.
When the others awoke, we went to a church, where after registering I got a shower (aaaaahhhh!) & some new clothes (double aaaahhhh!) & a meal ticket for 3 days! Free food, stuff & sunshine – Italy is wicked! We then went to a launderette for an hour to watch some Italian music channel – quite a silly thing to do, but I did manage another stanza.
Next was a park for a chillout by a church, where Kapitano did his normal ritual of pouring out a bit of wine on first opening, for his dead alcoholic pals back home. It was now 6PM, when we trudged back to the first church & got a magnificent meal – sausages, bread, beans, biscuits, coffee, etc! We ate it in a room full of Italian drop-outs – Down & Out in Livorno & Pisa!
Feeling quite bloated, we went into Livorno’s shopping area to busk (Jesse had wandered off somewhere else), but had little luck. Unlike Pisa, where everyone is chanell’d down one street, Livorno is much larger & more spread out! We did make enough for some more wine, however, which me & Kapitano drank in a friendly little bar while watching the Italy v Paraguay game. Next up was the Cosby show dubb’d in Italian, yet still, if not even more so, funny!
We eventually went back to our original starting point to got some sleep. Kapitano says we go back to Pisa tomorrow & I’m very glad about it. Livorno’s a bit, well, dull, far removed from what I feel is the real Italy. Too modern & too ordered, where overmanicured women wandered the fashionable high street shops & visiting sailors buy sunglasses for the girl in the next port.
Thursday 23rd April, 1998
I woke up & found Jesse had rejoined us, sporting his own guitar. Kapitano said, ‘lets go,’ almost straight away, & like a sheep I follow’d, hiding in the train toilets. It felt a little weird coming back to the same stomping grund, a bit poetically restrictive perhaps, but I don’t spend any money in Pisa so I shouldn’t complain.
We spent the day outside a different church, & slowly but surely I got piss’d & began to busk. The best time was after 6PM, when the locals had finish’d their prayers, with Jesse waiting outside the doors while I sang Oasis – what a team!
After all the religiosa had left, I turn’d the notch up via some supervino energy, Jesse jamming eccentrically on lead guitar, Maximillion (i.e. Megadeth) on oooos & aahhs, with Kapitano also getting into the performance stride like a shaman, we turn’d the streets into a massive party! The boys were back in town & it must have looked really wild to the passers-by, especially this middle-aged American couple who pass’d us at our wailing banshee peak.
While the woman whose shop was right next to the door looked on in disbelief, the money began to pour in. Then it was time for food at the stazione, more wine, & even a new pair of shoes from the nuns, before we trundl’d back into town for one last bit of busking. On the way to the centre I met an interesting American girl from Brooklyn who play’d guitar & sang quite well. I also enjoyed speaking English for once – its healthy for the soul.
We busk’d for a while, until about 2AM, when we decided to go to the macanera. As we trudg’d there we bump’d into Megadeth, but the place was unfortunately shut. So Kapitano disappears into some bushes & starts snoring almost at once – so me & Jesse found the same place from last week where we slept, & collapsed into a drunken dream.
THE BIRTH OF A POET
Chapter 3: Florence Nightingales