I wake and feel the fell
of dark, not day,
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
� 1 �
The evening breezes brushed against the ivy curling around the fir trees near Deady Hall. Sitting on the cold stone steps, indistinct in the growing darkness, Artie Crenshaw gazed absentmindedly as the ivy, awakened it seemed, clutched the bark tighter, pressing its flat leaves against the trees� roughness. Around him on the campus, the wide-leaved oak, the madrona, the thin fir and sharp pine began to rustle. The faint hint of a rainstorm breathed in the wind.
At his back, the windows of Deady Hall glowed through the shadows; the old history building still hummed with energy. Occasionally he could hear the doors of the examination room open and close, followed by the sound of muffled voices�and then a few tired students would walk down the steps and away into the darkness.
With a summer of work ahead, he tried to absorb the last impressions of freedom. His first year at the university in Eugene was like an escape from prison. Last night � last night was a silent farewell. He�d walked into this same darkness, down the tight asphalt alleys of the city. From haggard brick walls, from water seeping down garbage-strewn gutters, he�d slipped into newer, winding streets, lawns stretching indefinitely, houses large and white with windows like gray puddles. As the houses thinned, he�d felt his spirits rise and breathed deeper, taking the night into himself, and when he reached a field of last year�s uncut hay, matted and bleached by spring rain, he sprawled out on the earth like a dog, while his mind ran free.
Youthful fantasies! Charging through trees, sylvan, hairy-hooved, he�d trumpeted and thundered, half man, half beast. Again he leapt, bounded like a startled deer, soared. Suddenly, he saw Spring slip off, naked, running through the forest�and he was after her, exuberant, excited by his quickened pulse, the crashing cascade of blood in his head. He chased nude flickerings (no aery costume of a Phrygian courtesan for this beauty), buttocks gleaming between tree trunks, and then she fell, gasping in the sand at the water�s edge, melting away before him in the cool sea.
You�ve been reading too much D�Annunzio, he said to himself. And that brought to mind his honor�s thesis and the grilling he�d received in his oral exam.
• • •
The Department Head started it. By the way, where is Mount Verna?
Do you mean La Verna?
Hesitation. A stumble. I’m not, ah, not really sure specifically (the earth was now cold, wet, sucking). I tried to find it on an Atlas but it wasn’t there (innumerable needles of dry grass now prickling). I figured out it must be somewhere between Marradi … (the voice of a drunkard destroying) Firenze … (destroying the immensity of the night like stars destroying the vast blackness of space) Faenza (pearls but also grit beneath the shell) and Bagno di Romagna. Somewhere in the Falteronas, I guess.”
Man, channeling Dino Campana there.
The fat man with the bald head who always wore a blue silk suit and delicate gold spectacles chuckled. It may not be on the physical map but you’ll find it on the spiritual map, won’t he professor?
Professor Allisino, sitting forward like a broken straw, laughed but said nothing.
Do you know what La Verna is noted for? The department head again.
He shook his head, honest ignorance, shrugging. Wondered if Allisino with his puppet grin knew.
Well, why did Campana go there? Why did he make this trek back into the mountains of Campigno and Falterona?
I never could find out. (Remind yourself that this man humiliating you now, this man asking the most minor of questions, this man picking the smallest point where he sensed hesitancy in your thesis, this is the same man who…) I knew there was a monastery there, but I couldn’t find anything in dictionaries or other reference works about La Verna (this is the man who told you to change your topic on the Fulbright application—yours was too specific, too detailed, too probing and difficult for a student your age, a Freshman. The problem you suggest has never really been studied by others and it’s best at this stage for you to expand on what more advanced scholars have already put forward. Why don’t you just put down that you want to go to Italy to study the language. Impress them with your love of Italian, its poetry. After all, no one really wants to go there at your age to study something like this. They’ll think it was formulated by one of your professors.
So you had written a sentimental little piece on how you wished to develop your control of spoken and written Italian in order one day—maybe— to become a teacher. Later you found out the person the department head had really sponsored was a prize student of his own. The student who had taken the department head’s course on Dante and his seminar on Ariosto and Tasso. You, unfortunately, as a Freshman, precocious as you might have seemed, had not weaseled your way into the good graces of this guy. After all, you’d been too busy studying. But … pay attention. You’re going to screw this up.)
My dear fellow (sarcasm now?), La Verna is where Saint Francis received the stigmata (he’s making you feel sorry you didn’t study medieval Italian lit, that you’d picked some minor poet of the early twentieth century for your honor’s thesis). This was a spiritual journey Campana took, not, as you imply, merely a journey to find himself at one with nature (but what about my statement that this was an ‘interior voyage’?).
And it went on like that for one miserable hour and now, when he finished going over it, his head burning, he could hear, louder than ever, the voice of a drunken student singing some unintelligible song.
The bad memory faded as Artie waited on the cold steps for his best friend, Phil Lockfall, to finish the history exam. Footsteps behind him announced the major horde of test takers. Scuffling by, some chattered and gleamed in glory for inspired essays; others drifted past, pale, but happy the torture was over, retreating with sighs of relief.