Birth of a Poet 7: Gulf of Poets
Continuing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…
MONDAY 27th APRIL 1998
A policeman woke me up, a la Saturday, & went to the usual spot. Jesse was there snoring & Kapitano went off to get stoned. Slept another couple of hours, then went for one last walk around Pisa. Found out last Saturday’s football scores – its an Arsenal championship & touch & go on Burnley’s relegation issues. Then I said goodbye to the gang & actually broke free! I’d never expected to spend ten days in Pisa, but I did & they were mentally funny!
On the way to the stazione I had a bit of wine with a Yugoslavian who had escaped from the civil war in 1991, who very kindly taught me a little Italian. After this I bought a new writing book (4500 lira) & a pencil (500 lira). I was going to steal them, but my good angel took over. I’ve got some important poetry to write & its better I do it with a clean karmic conscience.
I had a couple of hours or so to kill before my train to La Spezia, so I made out an itinerary & sorted my bags. In short, I have a few day’s food, very little money – my emergency tenner plus 3,800 lira including 3000 from Kapitano as a parting gift – & a desire to write some beautiful poetry!
After 10 days’ skill rust, the train jump was touch & go at moments, but successful in the end. The journey was cool, sticking my head out of an open window & feeling the intercity wind rush through my hair. The sky was severely overcast, the mountains obscured in a rolling sea-mist, then I sensed it was time to hide in a toilet. I timed it wrong & emerged face-to-face with the conductor. He went ‘uh’ & pointed to his ticket. I went ‘uh’ & gestured down the carriage, in which direction I went before hiding in another toilet. This made me edgy, so I got off one stop early.
It was now beginning to rain. I bought some water, but pinched some vegetables, & caught a bus to La Spezia. The ride was OK, & allowed me to absorb the scenery. Then, as I caught my first glimpse of the bay – the Gulf of Poets – I felt a mad, poetic rush tingling thro’ my body.
The bus wound along the coast, thro’ Lerici & its ‘Hotel Shelley’ & into busy looking La Spezia, where I quickly caught another bus for Portovenere, my main destination on this leg of my writing tour. This new bus wound around the northern curve of the bay, which was looking really cool. The scene was spoil’d a little by the modern docks, altho’ the warships were charming.
Eventually we arrived in the ‘centro’ of Portovenere, where I hopped off the bus into a shower. I quickly sprinted to a dry-spot, full of rubbish & stray cats. At this point I was definitely NOT buzzin’ off my excursion. The rain stopp’d soon enough, however, & I took my first look at the town.
Portovenere – Port of Venus – is an old wall’d place, the main street being about 10 feet wide, if that, & lined with shops. The place was very quiet, & after a couple of minutes walking I arrived at an old church & medieval ramparts. It was all very poetic & I was moved by the colour of the place – the most violent greys I’ve ever seen. At the end of the village I look’d out over the sea, where angry-looking folding clouds beckon’d more rain.
I scrambl’d down to some rocks, where I ate a small meal while watching the sea roll & thrash its wild sprays as it crash’d against the rocks. I then climb’d some more rocks behind me to the right, where on a jagged promontory I sat like a wizard inspired, rattling thro’ a new stanza for ‘The Death of Shelley.’
Having chang’d my mind about sleeping by the ocean (I was bound to get wet), I made my bed in an old building, dry & windproof, then took a little stroll along the boat-lined seafront. Out across bay the scatter’d lights of various settlements marked mankind, including a largish island just off the coast of Portovenere. I think I will swim across. According to a plaque at a place called ‘Byron’s Grotto,’ the poet swam the width of the entire bay once. The Gulf of Poets indeed!
I had a quick cappuccino & work’d out my stay in the area would be three days -’til the end of this journal & the end of April – & perhaps my money! I then return’d to my bed where, after a scare with a screaming cat, I fell asleep to the wish-wash of waves.
THURSDAY 28TH APRIL
A busy day indeed! Awoke quite rough in a dusty place – I could have pick’d a better spot actually – & breakfasted on one of my pre-prepared butties. A was almost on auto-pilot as I blindly got on a bus to La Spezia, half-asleep & bleary-eyed.
On re-arrival in La Spezia, I asked a couple of folk & discovered where Shelley’s final home was – San Terenzo. I also did a spot of shopping; some lovely bread & few eggs, two of which would smash before the end of the day. Back in Portovenere, I spent the afternoon wandering about, climbing the steep steps of Portovenere a thousand times, & found these amazing caves just along the cliffs. I proceeded to move all my stuff there, intending to sleep there come nightfall.
I then made a visit to Le Grazie, the wee bay before Portovenere, where I bought wine cigarettes & had a very enchanting walk around an old Roman villa. It was then back to Portovenere & my swim to the island I saw yesterday. The waves were quite powerful, but I made it there & back, where I was greeted by screaming Italian schoolgirls.
The physical effort had left me craving sugar, so I went to the local shop on the edge of town to pinch some chocolate. I got out OK, & sat outside chomping it over the sea a little too blatantly. Suddenly the owner appeared on my shoulder & order’d me to pay – fair enough, & he could have given me to the cops.
By late afternoon I was busy preparing an evening’s fire. The caves were cool; a rocky quarry with lots of nooks & crannies to explore, plus a center-piece rusting truck. I also had a magnificent view of Portovenere & the long expanse of the Mediterranean, when to the crash of waves of rocks I was fill’d with the spirit of poetry.
I prepared everything I needed to cook a meal that night, then with about an hour or so of sunlight left I decided to make for the highest cliff I could see. I had arm’d myself with a pen, a book of Shelley’s poetry to read & also write in, plus the all-important wine.
Shoving everything down the back of my pants I had a great time climbing up the rocky cliff, when at any time I could have fallen to my doom. It seemed like a wall of vegetation had been thrown up to keep out humans, but I defied it & got through with only a couple of cuts. My jumper kept out the rest.
I wander up the coastline for to muse,
Set up my camp in the cliffside quarry,
Resplendent in luscious blue sea-side views,
Round the chapel of Portovenere,
For here, tonight, my life & art shall fuse
& I, awakened to my destiny,
Prepare for the sun to set ‘low the line,
By buildin’ fire, entrin’ town, stealin’ wine.
With topless bottle of red in my hand
Up the cliff-face I scamper with the might
Of some fabled hero from Plato’s land.
I claim the top, where gulls in freedoms flight,
Silhouette the settin’ sun, a wide band
Of gold spread cross azure seas, from this height
I muse on the rippling sea meadows blue –
This evening gives birth to a poet true.
I pause to reflect on the life I knew,
Nice house, nice job, nice girl, nice skunk, nice deal
& compare it to these skies & seas of blue
And this sense of assurity I feel.
At joinin’ the elite, select brave few
No more a cog on the soul grindin’ wheel.
Besides, England does my fuckin’ brain in
& I bet, as I write, it is rainin’.
When I could go no further I found myself on a ledge about 300 feet above the sea, watching the gulls swoop & the sun going down. I was in perfect solitude & thoroughly inspired, & flew thro’ a few new stanzas. In the ever-fading twilight I set off back, but came across a path that led upwards & onwards over the cliffs for miles. So, in search of adventure & poetical ascension I too the way.
I pass’d some abandon’d buildings – how they got the stone up there I’ll never know -, then reach’d a TV ariel station thingy. I leapt a few feet onto its roof & took in the panorama. The whole Gulf of Poets was lit up, with a sailboat lit up quite splendidly at its center, & I could even make out the lights of Livorno, way down the coastline.
By now it was almost dark, so I descended back down along the path, gaining another stanza en route. I enter’d Portovenere tipsily singing, “COME ON YOU CLARETS!”, which echoed around the mountains & disturb’d some dogs. I nestled at the foot of the castle for yet another stanza, before plunging into town for even more composition. It was then that my pen finally ran out, so I made my way up those bloody steps one last time & back to my cave.
I lit the fire & cook’d up some noodles, veg & an egg. Another egg & a sandwich had mysteriously disappeared! It tasted gorgeous, & was topp’d off with cake & chocolate & the rest of the wine. A suitable, celebratory feast for being a poet & being alive!
In the firelight I manage to finish off the first canto of my poem. It truly was a magnificent night & made me believe that the life I have chosen is a worthy one. Poetry contains the essence of life itself, & a life of poetry is a life well lived. With this in mind I went to bed satisfied & fell into a sound, profound slumber.
WEDNESDAY 29TH APRIL
Woke up in quite a good state, & just lay in my makeshift bed for a while, staring at the cavernous ceiling. I then emerged & spent a couple of hours writing up neatly last night’s work, which I read aloud on the clifftop to the roar of waves. The day was hot & cloudy, & about 2 in the afternoon, after a quick sketch of the church, & packing up all my stuff, I made my way to the bus-stop. It was time to leave Portovenere.
The bus took me all the way around the bay – through Le Spezia & into wee San Terenzo. On arriving I stash’d my bags on a sloping, forested hill – there was nowhere else to do it – for houses filled all the flat terrain. I took a stroll to the seafront, quite pretty but not rivetingly amazing. I can see what Shelley saw in it, tho’, its very relaxed out of the way.
The bay here is quite small – I could see Portovenere in the distance, & Lerici just along the coast. The best bit, of course, was Shelley’s last house – still standing. The Casa Magni was very enthralling, & I read the plaques & chilled in front of it for a while, in the sun, feeling pretty good about myself.
I decided to prepare for another night of poetics, & walk’d along the bay to Lerici – a similar place to San Terezno, but a little bigger. I bought bread, fags & more 30p cartons of wine, & stole some veg, leaving me 13,000 lira. This part of the Gulf of Poets was thick with small sailing boats, & extremely quiet – not as resorty as Portovenere, but I guess it might my way back to busy up in the Summer.
I made my way back to the place I stash’d my bags, a quite pretty spot surrounded in snowdrop like flowers. I prepared a fire, played my guitar & then, just as the sun was gradually falling, I went on an appetite-building walk. I found a lovely & secluded sandy beach where I chill’d for a while thinking about my poem, then returned to my ‘site’ to light the fire & cooked up a crude but hearty ‘woodman’s slop.’
I then made up a bottle of wine from a carton & went back to the house to write some poetry. Alas, soon after I arrived it began to rain, so I ran back to the site, grabb’d my stuff & moved to a hut near by which I’d scouted earlier in the day as a potential sleep-spot. This turn’d out to be a good move as the rain began lashing it down, belting off the corrugated roof. It was, however, all proper buzzin’ as I drank my wine & composed poetry – the first two stanzas of the second canto of my poem.
THURSDAY 30TH APRIL
This is my final entry in this journal. A time to reflect on what has been quite an interesting month; my first foreign holiday for years & my first ‘real’ traveling experience. I have visited five countries, sampl’d many cuisines & alcohols, got stoned more than a few times, created literature, jump’d trains with some proficiency, & ate like a king.
I awoke in the woodshed to a world still raining severely. I snuggl’d down in artistic defiance spent a few hours writing, reading & completing last night’s sleeping. The rain just kept on coming all day – never really stopping til 10PM. I knew a full day in as shed would not be very good for the muse, so at about 2PM – in a relatively brief lull in the weather – I braved the outside world.
I began to hop on & off busses, riding around for a bit & composing poetry on cardboard with a blunt pencil crayon, until I reach’d Sarzana. I look’d at the places the trains went to & saw that Luni was only a few minutes away. Apparently there was an ampitheatre there, which I’d read in a visitor’s guide I’fd pick’d up at La Spezia. So I got myself there, admiring my very fine – if a little patchy – new beard in the toilet.
On arriving at Luni it was still raining, but I trudged the half mile to the site, climb’d over the fence & chill’d out amid the impressive ampitheatre. It always amazes me how civilized the Romans were – but if their society can break down, so can ours!
On the way back to San Terezno I pinch’d some bratwurst from a supermarket, along with wine & bread which I bought, then prepared for a long wait at the stazione. It was one of those two trains a day, middle of nowhere places, but to my surprise a train duly arrived in just a couple of minutes, & a few minutes later was back in my shed! All my stuff was still there, & only a little damp!
I changed shows & headed straight back out – I had the muse – for La Spezia, arm’d with wine, a new pen I’d pinched from a lottery place,& some proper writing paper. I wander’d about the city for a bit, writing away by the palm-tree lined, boat-congested harbour, then in the peace of a park.
I was taking my poem to the height of imagination – Xanadu. Coleridge had had a glimpse of it once. In another of those trippy moments that occur in my life, just as I got to the stanza that describ’d a poet’s heaven, I arrived at a bus-stop & there on a poster was the word, XANDAU. Trippy, eh?
I was soon back in my shaky, comfy shed, eating a hearty feast of bread & a tin of tomatoes, which I’d laced with soy sauce & pepper. And so, reflections on April – there are too many & I am too drunk. Ciao April 1998, we had a good ‘un.
THE BIRTH OF A POET
Chapter 3: Florence Nightingales