A vanishing world.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake, wrote poet Wallace Stevens. And if the lake is too far, step into the poetic world of Steven’s ardent devotee Barbara Del Mercato.
One evening The Delhi Walla enters Ms Del Mercato’s home in Venice to see her private collection of books, most of which is composed of poetry. She shares her apartment with her school-going daughter who is accomplished in guitar and fencing. Ms Del Mercato’s architect partner lately moved to south Italy to reinvent himself as a cook.
The book-filled home is perhaps the only apartment in this dreamy city where you don’t feel the urge to look out at the beautiful window views of Venice. The lovely wooden staircase, for instance, is a greater distraction. The latest New York Review of Books lies as casually on the creaky stairs as if it’s the today’s edition of Daily Mail. “The subscription was gifted to me by a friend,” says Ms Del Mercato.
The shelves on the staircase’s walls are filled with Italian, English and American poets. William Blake and Alexander Blok are neighbors because they share the first letter of their last names. Elizabeth Bishop is dressed in a light brown paperback. There is also Letters of Wallace Stevens. (Ms Del Mercato is so fond of Stevens that she keeps the hardbound of his Collected Poems in her bedroom. Apparently, she sleeps with him.)
A set of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is also here, in Italian. The French novelist is a particular favorite of Ms Del Mercato’s father, who lives in a town in the south of Italy, not far from Naples. The novel’s last volume is missing. “My partner is reading it,” she says.
Ms Del Mercato’s passion for poetry came down to her from her grandfather whose only remaining letter to her grandmother is one of her most beloved possessions. Her path to poems, though, was not straight.
Sitting down on her reading stairs, she says: “My grandfather, Giancamillo, used to recite poems while driving in the car, and I hated it. At that time I had no feelings for poetry. That changed when I became a student in Venice University and started to live alone without a TV… that made a lot of room for the verse in my life. In fact, one Woody Allen movie played an important role in it. I was watching Hannah and Her Sisters and the scene took place between the characters played by Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey… Michael loves Barbara, though he is married to her sister… they meet in a secondhand bookstore in New York and he picks out a book for her saying that she should read the poem on page so-and-so… and so we hear Barbara reading that poem aloud alone in her home and it all looked so beautiful… for a long time I thought that the magic was in the poem but it took me a while to understand that it was for the first time that I was encountering the magic of poetry.”
Ms Del Mercato’s most prized possession must surely be a box that she brings down from her study with much excitement. It is filled with exquisitely printed or rubber-stamped poetry books from little independent presses across Canada. Years ago, Ms Del Mercato had lived in Toronto where she had written a dissertation on Canadian poets–she focused on the relationship between the community of poets and institutions that promote culture. Carefully opening the box, she picks up the little books inside one by one. “I would go to fairs held by small presses in Toronto and collect these books from there, but the majority I received as gifts.” Opening an envelope and taking out a handwritten letter, she exclaims, “Look… it could drive you to tears just because of my friend’s handwriting.”
Ms Del Mercato’s daughter returns from her fencing class. She sits down on the sofa and starts to play the guitar. Ms Del Mercato begins to prepare the dinner. (It’s pasta with ricotta cheese tonight.)
Late, alone in her bedroom, Ms Mercato would pick up poetry, as always.