Birth of a Poet 8: Rome, then Home

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Byron at the pyre of his friend, the poet PB Shelly

Concluding the 1998 European adventure
Which made Damian Beeson Bullen a poet


I am writing this in 2019, from my memory rather than typing up journals ad verbum. I will perform some of the telling with those stanzas of Ottova Rima I composed in Portsmouth, through the summer of 1999, as in them are my brightest recollections. As a general outline to my next few weeks on the road, from Le Spezia I first called in at Viareggio, a few miles down the coast, to the very spot where Shelley’s corpse was washed up & burnt, the painting of which began the whole ‘The Death of Shelley’ quest in the first place. I slept in my sleeping bag & built a little fire if I recall.

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These were the very waters in which Shelley had drowned. He had been caught by one of the freak, sudden, snap-storms which lash this portion of the golden Tuscan coast. One of their number had consumed Shelley & his two companions, leaving forever a poet’s watery shrine. Shelley, in fact, had never learnt to swim. He was also an extemely proud individual & his turning away of help from the Italian fishermen while in the middle of the storm sealed the fate of himself, Edward Williams’ & the young Italian lad they had taken with them. These two factors had combined once before, upon Lake Geneva in 1816. Then, it was Shelley & Byron who were out sailing & caught by a sudden squall. Ther boat began to sink & Byron, being a swimmer strong enough to swim the Hellspont between Europa & Asia, offered to rescue his friend. But Shelley was adamant he would not be rescued & determined himself on going down with the boat. It took Byron’s invocation of Mary Shelley’s name to compel Shelley to consent to his rescue, but once on dry land he would never really get over this abashment of his pride.the-death-of-shelley-2.jpg


(from) THE DEATH OF SHELLEY (1998)- Canto 3

Twas Leigh Hunt who came on O so fast,
Bringing bad news to below Byron’s window,
By George, George, we have found him at last,
Wash’d up on the sands of Viareggio,
The anxious waitings of these ten days pass’d,
Bares sad fruit as his fate we now now!”
“Very well,” said his lordship, “We sleep here tonight,
Then tomorrow we rise & ride with first light.”

Onwards, onwards, onwards rides the plot,
Soon all of the players shall be in their place;
Past the hovels of Viareggio two horses trot
As tho’ drawing a hearse at a funeral pace,
They reach the long beach, ever humid & hot,
Today the sands lie like a dead, desert waste,
Then stride to the side of the shimmering sea –
Awaiting with handshakes is grim-faced Trelawney!

In the minute of which a lonely lifetime lasts
The swollen sands are stack’d into a heap,
Hunt stands agape, Byron stands aghast
As Shelley is unslumber’d from his sunken sleep
In horrid exhumation! his life’s light has pass’d,
Leaves a crack’d & blacken’d corpse where rotting flesh-things creep,
“Is – is – that a body?” Byron whispers, bleeding white,
“Aye!” sighs Trelawney, “Tis not a pretty sight!”

With quickening quiet comes the onrushing roar
Of the hush’d seawashes in violences,
Shelley’s featherlite frame two young brutes bore,
Carried to the pyre amidst silences,
& crown’d! Hunt begins to over him pour
Frankincense & other oily essences –
A poet soon burning upon the gutted gyre,
His soul to the stars, his body to the fire.


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From Viareggio I spent a few more days in Pisa with the boys & my music, while hurtling thro’ canto 2 of my poem, which took only a week. Pisa is a perfect size, with everywhere walkable in about half an hour or so. The legacy of its empire is notable in its many noble buildings & beautiful churches. It is no wonder, then, that Byron & Shelley chose it as their place of residence. During my own stay I would often sit outside Byron’s old house & watch the sun set into the Arno, with its delicious blend of colours. Then, as I concluded the canto by Byron’s house, I was ready to go to Rome.

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Heading down south on the click-clack train track
Its two AM, the conductor finds me
With a bag of books, the rags on my back
And in my hands a copy of Shelley.
I expect a Hampshire inspector’s flak
But he hands me his poetic pity –
Six hours later, the twilight before dawn,
I walk the streets of Rome awaitin’ morn.

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The poet in Rome, 2012

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I had chatted to Megadeth previously, who gave me two addresses – one for free nun’s food & another for the Forte Prenestina – a place where I could & has always been an oasis for me at the heart of the city ever since. I was only there last October reviewing a play, for example. I also went to see a play not far from the fort which starred a beautiful young actress I’d met on the lawn by the tower of Pisa. A delightful experience which found a way into my poem & my heart. On what was to be my last full day there I met a gorgeous young actress named Manuela, & we spent the day in perfect harmony. She was travelling with a show & had performed in Pisa the previous night. On discovering we were both bound for the capital the next day, it was agreed that I would come along to see the play. Here is a stanza I wrote to remember the occasion.

She is to me as the first star of eve
With ocean eyes & smile of teeth pearl white,
And breasts & bum like you wouldn’t believe,
My heart melteth at the sensual sight
Of beauties first essence, which I receive
In raptures, as we, by the Arno’s flight
Are as one with the sweet serene sundown –
“Meet me in Rome,” we kiss & she leaves town.

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DBB & Victor Pope, visiting the Fort, 2011
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Inside the Fort, 2011
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DBB still composing poetry at Shelley’s tomb, 2009

As I completed ‘The Death of Shelley’ in the Protestant Cemetary in Rome, on my beloved grandmother’s birthday (16th May), after two months of travel I was seriously ready to get home. I was penniless at the time, except for the emergency ten pound note which I had held in reserve, plus a tin of Hungarian beef I had been carrying with me since Budapest. After cashing in my money I immediately bought an ice-cream, reducing my funds by a further pound. Obviously this was not enough to get me home, but I had dodged the fares on trains from Belgium to Budapest & all the way to Rome, so felt confident of hitting the Channel coast at least.

I cash’d in my emergency tenner,
& with canned beef I bought in Hungary,
To busk up a little extra lira,
I hunger’d up the length of Italy
Whereon my last evensongs of Pisa,
Already it all seem’d a memory,
For Kapitano had moved on to France
To work the World Cup with a beggar’s dance.

I managed to jump trains all the way to Turin, stopping off in Pisa for one last romantic night of busking. From Turin my plan was to catch a train to the French border & from there make my way to Calais. However, things did not go to plan, for as my next train pulled into its destination, I was surprised to see, not a small border station, but tall statues, gorgeous pillars & a vast marble floor. Then in huge letters above me I read the words MILANO. I was now over two hundred miles off course in completely the wrong direction.  Cursing my stupidity & sheer bad luck I got out my map & worked on another plan. The quickest way home was north through Switzerland & Germany, so I caught the last train that night toward the Swiss border.

So leaving gentle Arno to her flow,
Jumping trains to an uncertain future,
I once again view’d Viareggio,
Le Spezia, then pass’d thro Genoa,
Spent sunset in the streets of Torino,
Then caught a sleeper to the French border –
But travel does not always go to plan,
Somehow my train had landed to Milan!

The atmosphere on that journey was surreal, tracing the outline of the Italian alps as they sat black against the moonless gloom. It was sometime after midnight when I pulled up to Switzerland, & cheerily made my way to passport control. Unfortunately, when asked how much money I had I could only offer a few lira & a tin of Hungarian beef, & was promptly refused entry. The policeman planted a no entry stamp on the back of the page which sported my signature & address in Britain. Then he walked me to the border & tossed me into Italy, past a number of curious Italian police.

I was now sev’ral hundred miles of course,
& how it happen’d did not understand,
But youth is driven by a hidden force,
& made me jump a train to Switzerland
At whose harsh border found a smart resource
For they had rejected me out of hand –
I look’d like a tramp – past midnight grew tense,
Until I found a hole shewn from the fence.

Being twenty-one at the time, & in no position to be stuck at the border, I proceeded to tear out the page with the no entry stamp, find a hole in the fence & sneak into Switzerland. I made my way thro the empty streets like someone who had just escaped from Colditz, returning once again to the train station. There, while looking on the times of trains, I suddenly heard a “HALT!” & turned to see the same Swiss policeman who had thrown me out fumbling at his holster for his gun, which was soon trained on me. It is a strange sensation to have a gun aimed at you & so I thrust my hands in the air & awaited my fate. This was an ignominous kick up the ass, literally, back into Italy past the laughing Italian gaurds.

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This was the final straw for me, & so once again returning through the hole in the fence I travelled into Switzerland for another five miles to the next station & waited for a train. The sun was just beginning to rise at this point, with dawn ever brightening the scene. Unluckily for me this made me visible & I began to worry as a police car suddenly began to drive toward the station, park up & eject two burly looking men.
“Your passport please?” they asked on discovering my nationality. I could tell they knew something was wrong, but looking through the passport could find nothing. It was very difficult to hold back the cheer as they gave me back my passport & drove away. However, that cheer did come when the 5 am train arrived & whisked me North.

Things would soon take another curious turn. I made Zurich safely enough, & pottered around on the trams for an hour or two, before catching a train to the capital, Bern. However, the mornings exertions had worn me down & I soon fell asleep, instead of jumping the train. Imagine my surprise, then, to be woken up at Bern by the conductor & two policemen, who frogmarched me off the train into a room at the station. From there I was taken to a holding cell, shared by four West Africans & a Kosovan, all in the country illegally. All there was top do there is eat the megre meals, take an hours exercise a day & watch endless reels of MTV. Fortunately for me I had a passport & it was soon decided that I would be deported.

I shyall always carry one incident with me. Not long after being locked up I desired the return of my notebooks & pen. After pouring my soul into the composition of the Death of Shelley, I wanted the manuscript close to me. The thought of it being lost by the Swiss autharities rankled me, & besides, there were a few corrections that needed making. So I began to press the contact button in order to get its return, but my request was refused. This wound me up, so I proceeded to tap out a percussive rythym on the buzzer, which I knew would infuriate the gaurds. A few moments later I had been taken to a solitary cell of confinement – & still no notebook! So I proceeded to go through the first album by the stone roses at the top of my voice, acapella style with bongo accompaniament, & got as far as She Bangs the Drums before five massively-forearmed gaurds burst in with a flurry of punches, calming me down somewhat.This I completely ignored & insisted on the return of my notebook. Finally my protestations were heard & I was given the poem & immediately fell as quiet as a mouse.

They marched me on a fancy Swiss Air Jet,
Handcuffed until the very last moment,
For I had slipped right thro their border net,
Back to mine own contree had to be sent,
On fine french wine my flight home growing wet
& thanks to their filthy rich government –
I had thirty-five pounds worth of Swiss Francs,
To sexy stewardesses kiss’d my thanks.

Two mornings later I was taken from the station, placed in a cell upon a train & transported to Zurich, where I was given twenty-five pounds in Swiss Franxcs & a seat on a swiss air jet bound for London. The cuffs were finally taken off me at the entrance to the plane, from where I found a nice window seat & helped myself to the free wine the attractive stewardesses insisted on giving me. Two hours later I had landed home in Heathrow, a little worse for wear from the wine but immensely relieved to be home. Whether it was enormous luck or not, ever since that moment I have been convinced that, if the poet will devote himself to the art, then the muses will always look after their own.

That evening I turned up at my pal’s house in Hackney and finally opened my tin of Hungarian beef. I can’t recall it’s taste too well, I think it was good enough. Maybe I should have waited to sober up off the Swiss wine to fully appreciate it!


PASSPORT POST-SCRIPT

I travelled widely following those amazing few days that whisked me from Rome to London, & had only ever had one bit of trouble with what is, in essence, an invalid passport. In 2004 I sailed through the enigmatic archipelago to the East of Stockholm & across the Baltic sea to Tallin, the charming capital of Estonia. I was making my way to the city to visit some friends of mine, & was very much looking forward to arriving. Unfortunately, at passport control I was very laisez faire about the matter & chose the rather podgy, matron like battleaxe of a woman to show my documents to, resulting in the denial of entry. I quick call to the British embassy resulted in them agreeing to get me a new one – but this would have reduced my vodka drinking funds & also given the nasty Swiss border gaurd an eventual karmic victory. With my friends waiting for me it was quickly agreed that I would go with them to the embassy & leave my bags at the port, collecting them later on when I had a new passport. Once inside the country, & suitably fortified on strong Finnish vodka, I decided to try my luck back at the port – especially as I remembered the five ecstasy tablets that I had left in my luggage!

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Talinn Passenger Port

On return to the harbour, past the leviathian soviet architecture & enigmatic Estonia city walls, I was delighted to find different members of staff in the room where my bags were. I quickly smiled, picked them up & hurriedly made my way tout of the complex, only to bump into the very woman who had denied me entry in the first place.
“So you have got a new passport,” she said.
“Ehh! yes,” I quickly answered.
“Then welcome to Estonia!” she said & I was off in a taxi in a flash.

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THE BIRTH OF A POET

************************

Chapter 1: The Orient Express

Chapter 2: The Grand Canal

Chapter 3: Florence Nightingales

Chapter 4: Invoking the Muse

Chapter 5: Working Livorno

Chapter 6: San Guilliano

Chapter 7: Gulf of Poets

Chapter 8: Rome, then Home

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