That August night in 1328 Luigi Gonzaga brought to Mantua an ache the size of a city and a dagger for Rinaldo Bonacolsi. Gonzaga had a mission: he saw nine hundred gilded rooms he and his line must build and fill with all of Europe’s art – a model city floating on four lakes, a Mount Olympus rising from the flatness of the valley of the Po.
We only ever truly see what we are missing.
Today we visited Gonzaga’s vision: the palaces, the frescoes, statues, tapestries, churches and squares in all their glory and grandezza. I was appreciative – but I’m afraid it did not touch me. We’d brought a different emptiness to Mantua; and since it’s true we only ever see what we are missing –
Nobody seems to know why the Vikings came
to L’Anse aux Meadows. Surely not
for the meadows (no grass here), nor
the grapes the Vinland of the ancient saga
conjures up (no grapes). I blame
the boredom of interminable winter night,
the Norse testosterone egged on by mead.
Maybe they didn’t come at all –
the experts differ. But here we stand,
stooped in a spick and span,
faithfully reconstructed sod house.
The Basques, though,
they were here for sure,
across the Strait in Labrador.
A hundred years of slaughtering
the Right Whale, pouring him in barrels
to illuminate the salons of old Europe.
We visited the traces of their trade
in Red Bay, and saw a few survivors
(whales, not Basques: they all were home
by sixteen hundred.)
So were the Portuguese from Bonavista –
more canny than the Irish and the Welsh,
the Dorset men and those from Devon
who kept returning season after season,
then left their homes for good,
built shacks, a fish flake to eke out
precarious livings salting cod
until the fish was finally gone
from Newfoundland –
and now it was the outporters
themselves who were hung out to dry,
uprooted once again, their salt box homes
abandoned, shattered windowpanes
inviting in the fog… Fuck Off ’s the message
globalisation sends to Newfoundland,
and those who have a soul to sell jump ship
to drill for oil in Fort McMurray.
For those whose soul’s not marketable
there’s a shop in Water Street, Fog Off,
that sells cool sweaters to keep tourists warm
and gives a share to charity:
for those whose minds fog up
with alcohol, with drugs and
homelessness in a lost land.