blackbirdonline journalSpring 2023  Vol. 21  No.3
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Ambulando Solvitur
translation from Italian by Will Schutt

For Dan

Just now, a berserk pigeon. I saw it rapidly advance from the ground, flap its wings, careen into the window, and then do an about-face, leaving behind a ring of condensation, like breath or sweat or dust. For a moment, I was afraid the crash would kill it, and an entirely different view would be left on the glass. Was it an omen? A minor setback at the start of a day like any other? Whatever it was, this is just how memories return to us, time and again, startling and unexpected: they fly up from a mysterious place, from some recess or abyss where they dwell, beating against the glass of consciousness, briefly rescued from oblivion.

For example, a few days ago Piergiorgio asked out of the blue whether I remembered so-and-so and his violent chisel work, the paeans to war he used to scrawl across desks, doors, benches. Remember him? Of course I did, and vividly. But I hadn’t thought about him in ages, and the last news to reach me had traveled over telephone wires years earlier. This long-lost friend had phoned from a city in the south, where he was then an important army officer, having fulfilled a dream that he may have harbored for years yet which, at the time of our friendship, back when he was writing graffiti, had been dark and distant, barred from both his waking and his dreaming life, as such dreams tend to be at that vexatious, perplexing, harried age of vague plans and plans postponed. Then, just like that pigeon, he was gone. Yet his reappearance bore—by what skies is anyone’s guess—something else with it, something indefinite and unclear. Windows shuddering at the transit of trains, the banging about of freight cars on the tracks, and above the noise the patter of footsteps, the slightly labored breathing of someone who has been walking for a while in no particular direction.

Now we are in a plain, one with no surrounding features; a bit of mist is rising off the ground, off the flat stretches of fields in late fall. The colors: dark brown, blue green, mostly gray; the terrain we are crossing is uneven, with clumps and ruts, and carpeted with burnt stubble; the trails we walk look like the banks of a river or tracks left behind by wagons or tractors, or the long-lost paths beaten by oxen and horses. We walk not knowing where we’re headed, driven by our taste or distaste for the going, or to escape something; now and again we stumble upon a narrow roadway, or an underpass of the highway that runs through these wide-open territories, or the fence of a depot or garage where a wolfhound on a leash won’t stop barking. The occasional ditch or gurgling channel, and men on the opposite bank, with their fishing poles, buckets, and hats, who never lift their gaze. Clumps, ruts in the hard earth, tussocks: all of it gives off the dull, ancient odor of rural Lombardy. Here and there the glint of a water meadow in the distance, like a mirage or ghost, hovers beyond a transmission tower, the metal peak of an oil refinery, the red smokestack of an abandoned brickyard. You cannot walk like this, through these spaces, if you have a specific aim in mind, unless that aim is the going itself. Going where? Nowhere is where. Going for the sake of going, for the physical sensation of movement and seclusion, distance and proximity. Fields and horizons radiating outward, the smell of earth and dead animals, the outline of houses that sit on some far edge of the world and the sounds of people who occupy them: everything is noted by and known to the walker, as if she were once part of the place she now walks; and everything is denied those who, for a day or a lifetime, become nomads and turn their backs on the world or commit everything to their eyes.

This, too, is what it means to walk: to abandon, to pass through, to pass the time. To recognize, with a sense of awe and nostalgia. That wood wall, that plank, the scent of something on the stove issuing from an open window, the clothesline nailed to a trunk, the messy arrangement of a kitchen garden, the odor of fig trees and rabbits. Everything’s there, same as it’s always been, like a remote warehouse of sensations in the giant body of the world. The next minute you’re elsewhere, enveloped by a fog, by the thundering sounds of trailer trucks hidden behind a scrim of haze; a chance depression in the earth, a row of poplars, is enough to transform the landscape, strip it of its shape, cancel it out. Those who walk have to abandon everything as life gradually gives way to nothing but breathing and gazing. Ambulando solvitur—it is solved by walking. Is that what another friend meant by the rueful smile to gain your confidence, not knowing and yet already knowing the little that really matters? We’ve been walking forever. Forever. Over mountains and across valleys, through plains and carparks, along roads and paths, or far from roads and paths, sometimes in the company of others, more often alone. Does walking really solvitur then? Who knows. Still, we go on walking and rarely rest. It must mean something.

Then, that old axiom from adventure stories according to which those wandering in a forest, lost and without points of reference, tend, unconsciously, to veer to the left, tracing an imperceptible circle that inevitably leads them back to where they began, in the forgetful heart of their lostness. If that’s true, and if the kind of walking I’m talking about can’t exist without getting lost and has no final destination, then does solvitur involve returning whence you came, spinning in space, trapped in a horrible prison? Can those with a destination in mind, who march forward more than walk, who steer straight ahead, emerge from the woods and find permanent shelter? And why is it we always veer to the left? Is it the heart, the beating heart, beckoning us? Or is there some stronger pull that eludes us, a brain circuit we still haven’t identified? Having a destination requires directions, haste, preplanned itineraries, calculation. It demands we leave nothing to chance and muffle the inner voice quietly calling us. Total concentration on the route, total imperviousness to detours, deviations, and temptations. So perhaps those who pursue a destination are prevented from seeing many things. Machado’s “Caminante,” on the other hand, starts from the assumption that there is no predetermined path: “se hace camino el andar.”

Sometimes, in a vast, secluded, almost hostile landscape, far from home, in foreign countries with mysterious languages, those of us who are lost will stumble upon short stretches of familiar, unexpectedly hospitable land: a clearing, a stand of acacia trees, long rows of crops, something about the farmland or houses, the smell of tar. The detail takes us back to experience, to the blurry memory of something, a place we know by touch, a step our foot instinctively, naturally gives its weight to, a name we recognize and which, for a moment, puts us at ease. What is it if not a sense of self? The recognition of another path we walked a long time ago, a path paved inside us, the warmth of a faint memory reemerging? This, I tell myself, is what is meant by a mother tongue: a place we feel at home, the rhythm of words that have always belonged to us, the color of sounds and syllables. Not meanings, which change. Not elegance or logic but rhythm, the pulse of language, the thing that makes us veer to the left, the smell of the earth where we come to rest, the circulation of blood and flow of water. People with a destination in mind use language to forge ahead and rush down the streets of syntax. People without a destination, on the other hand, reside inside the language, wander through the language as if it were a sweeping plain or dark forest, stuttering. And when they veer left, they don’t quite retrace their steps; sometimes they find, in their lostness, a memory of themselves inscribed in the language, strange symbols on the bark of trees, signals; the awareness of their own being and of their not being there but forever somewhere else. Not there or in any place, and yet in all places equally, because being inside language may simply mean walking, joining up with others and parting ways down the road, carrying with you voices, fragments of stories, images.

Camina, camina . . . few narrative structures do more than consolidate the sense of adventure that is journeying by foot; because, after camina camina, the fairy tale inevitably proposes a twist or danger or adventure, an event or encounter that reverses the story or turns it on its head. Sometimes the caminante harbors the illusion that she knows where she is going, but the camina camina excludes certainties and betrays topographic maps. The road is time moving through and across space. It is a language that carries us far and leads us to rediscover that which we had forgotten we had lost and had stopped looking for. So perhaps solvitur involves not forgetfulness or consolation but renewed consciousness, a more intense attention to things whose true natures are only revealed to us by the slow rhythms of marching forward in silence. That magnificent maple tree that appears on the road and fills our vision. Soon the tree will disappear behind a bend. All that will remain of it is a memory, a beautiful fragment, ready to reemerge the next time we’re greeted by a radiant oak, a white birch, the silvery burst of a beech tree. If those who walk this way in language find themselves lost in a wood or desert, like the old pilgrim who traveled through the circles of the afterlife, then the faces and figures they encounter—the animals, shrubs, and landscapes—are nothing but words, the same old words, which now step into the light and invite us to look at them, as if they were resonating for the first time, or the last, and these rediscovered words gradually develop into a speech that is walking itself, the rhythmic up/down of feet as we cross the expanses of language and give words life, voice, articulation. The words actually seem for a moment capable of touch, of saying bread, skin, eye, smile; of saying flower or discomfort or fear. Language has been made word, the spark rises and fades. That is why we continue to take to the road—to look for the voice that eludes us. After all, the word road itself sprang from ancient northern woods, crossed a wild and green continent, forded rivers, waded through swamps and lakes, and somewhere along the paths and trails it encountered wayfarers and unruly armies and fugitives and hunters and mendicants, penetrated their marvelously imperfect vernacular, and inched its way toward us, carrying in one hand a lantern, in the other a walking stick.  

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