By IAN SEED.
1.As we walked along the Seine, I was looking forward to showing the poet Jeremy Over around the Shakespeare bookshop. When we arrived, however, the tall thin man at the till apologised because all the shelves were covered in a yellowish plastic sheeting to protect the books from leaks in the roof. Nevertheless, he was kind enough to lead us to the ‘New York’ section, telling us that for just a few minutes we could lift up the sheeting. I whispered in Jeremy’s ear that I believed the man was none other than the famous Ron Padgett, although he must have fallen on hard times to have to make his living in this way. Jeremy smiled. ‘I know all about that,’ he said. And then, in an almost apologetic tone: ‘To be honest, he’s invited me to do a reading here in a few days’ time.’ Yes, of course. Why did I imagine that Jeremy had never been here before? Indeed, now that I thought about it, I remembered he’d once told me that his own books were on sale in the shop, and that he’d already met Ron Padgett on several occasions. ‘A few years ago, I did a reading here myself,’ I told Jeremy, remembering as I spoke what a dismal affair it had been.
2.Making a mental list of all the things I would do in my new life, I walked over the bridge to the Academy on the other side of the river. As I climbed the flight of steps to the entrance, from behind a narrow window a man with a face so white it looked as if it had never felt the sunlight watched me approach. How dared I imagine I was worthy of entering the Academy after all the upset I had caused over the years? I would have to explain that my making fun of the authorities had not sprung from any malice, only from a youthful sense of irreverence, which unfortunately had lasted well into middle age. Now I was going to make amends. When I pushed open the ancient door, I was surprised that no one was there. Yet as I wandered dark, deserted corridors, I could still feel the weight of the man’s eyes upon me.
3.In the French restaurant, there was a sophisticated array of dishes to choose from, but I didn’t know what most of them were. I chose soupe à l’oignon as a first course, unsure whether to pronounce the ‘s’ as more of a ‘z’. The French restaurateur looked at me with disdain – the typical lazy choice of an Englishman. So for my main course I pointed at a fish dish I’d never heard of. The restaurateur made a smacking sound with his lips. A perfect choice, he said: the fish came from an area where the volcanos gave it a unique flavour. When the fish was brought to me, all I could taste was ash. It lingered in my mouth for days.
4.When the poet P. and I stopped our hike for a break, I couldn’t resist opening my rucksack and taking out the first few pages of a long poem in progress. But as soon as I started reading it to him, his perpetual frown grew deeper, and I realised I’d made a mistake. It was like someone exposing a film too soon to the light. We were sitting on the side of a mountain. The sun would go down before we knew it. There was still a long way to go.
5.When the train arrived at Ivrea station, the train doors wouldn’t open. The guard came hurrying through the carriage to tell us that because of a technical hitch we weren’t allowed to alight; the train would have to go on to Aosta, the next station. Aosta was in fact the previous station, not the next one, but the guard had already passed through to another carriage before I could ask him what he meant. We waited for the train to start moving, but nothing happened. It was starting to grow dark and the lights in the train weren’t working. My companion, the poet P, didn’t seem to notice. He was telling me about a famous Italian author he’d had an affair with on his last trip here. ‘She doesn’t put on any airs and graces,’ he said. ‘What’s more, she understands the value of silence.’ I wished the same could be said of him. He hadn’t stopped talking since that morning, when we’d climbed a hill together and he was too out-of-breath to speak.
6.Free now, I wondered where I could live without being thought of as useless and strange. Perhaps in Rome I would find work explaining to foreigners the meaning of pictures for sale along the river embankment, some of which had been painted by an Italian friend before we lost touch. To be sure, having cut all ties, I would be drifting for however long it took towards my death, no longer believing in the promise of the new life I used to dream of.
7.My old school-friend found out where I was living abroad. He sent me a card inviting me, the next time I was in the country, to visit him at his farmhouse. It was starting to get dark when I arrived at the gate. I could see him through the kitchen window, setting the table where I used to sit and drink fresh milk from the farm with him. He still moved with a farm boy’s agility, and had the same curls in his hair, though all its brown had gone. I so much wanted to hear the story of his life, and to tell him the story of mine. Yet I remained at the gate, afraid we would no longer be able grasp what was true just by looking each other in the eye.
Ian Seed’s collections include New York Hotel (2018), nominated by Mark Ford for TLS Book of the Year; Identity Papers (2016), and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014), all from Shearsman. His most recent chapbook is Distances (Red Ceilings, 2018). Translations include Bitter Grass, from the Italian of Gëzim Hajdari (Shearsman, 2020), and The Thief of Talant (Wakefield Press, 2016), the first translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Le voleur de Talan. Ian Seed is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Chester.