ABOUT THE DEATH OF LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI AND THE LOST SPEECHES OF QUINTUS HORTENSIUS

When I heard about Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s death last week, I was checking news items on my phone after digging over the boggy, rain-saturated ground at our land ready for this year’s vegetables and hoping for a dry spell soon. I went home and read again the poem of his I have enjoyed more than any other, The Old Italians Dying, and sat and thought awhile on Ferlinghetti’s fame and long life. The Old Italians Dying was first published in the Los Angeles Times but I first read it in Landscapes of Living & Dying, published in 1979, and then again in Wild Dreams Of A New Beginning, which this morning I settled to read in full over a strong coffee as I forced into nothingness a night of complicated, exhausting, travelling dreams filled with people I recognised and some I did not. I’d forgotten the details of the dreams but not the experience of them. I took three cups of coffee before my toast with honey and bowl of porridge and the pills that help keep me alive. Then I fed and watered the hens, and talked to them a little to see if they had anything to say about the way the world is and how it was for them in the darkness. Frankly, they were more interested in their food, though a bantam cockerel, an Ancona from Italy, took time out to curse me first.

Later after the practical stuff of the day, necessary conversations by phone and email, and other less relevant interruptions, I sat with more coffee and saw beyond the window two magpies chase off songbirds as a pigeon on the grass watched in the way that pigeons watch most things. Motionless. Without comment. And out of nowhere came a thought of the orator Quintus Hortensius – how his opponents sneered at him as he held his audience’s attention with his words and an extravagant swirl of his toga, how in retirement he bred fish, how he persuaded a very young woman to divorce her husband and marry him and how all of his great speeches are now lost. Ancient Rome doesn’t particularly interest me but occasionally I experience a flimsy connection to ancient civilisations as if the human chain really does sometimes reach out and pull me back through the generations to think of these lives so full and impassioned but so long gone.

And then on TV came the latest news on the virus and I thought as usual of the lives that have gone out over the past year. It’s a sad, difficult time for so many. I gave thanks yet again for life not only because the ‘anniversary’ of my first heart attack is approaching once again, but also because I was born almost dead. My flesh darkened by lack of oxygen, the midwife breathed into me long past the moment most would have given up until they say she felt something move in my chest and I lived. My father put an Easter egg in my cot, for it was Good Friday. If I’d died what would I have remembered that I don’t remember now? Darkness. A sense of light. Sound? Fifty years on, four thousand miles away, our daughter, a midwife, breathed into a child long past the moment most would have given up until she said she felt something move in his chest and he lived. His father’s lament changed into a dance of joy, his mother in her chair came back from numb grief to hold her living, breathing son. What will he be told? What will his memory hold on to? Will he remember darkness. A sense of light. Sound ? I hope he has as good a life as I have had and hope to continue to have.

After going out to dig the ground again and finding it drier, after shutting the hens in for the night, I came home, dug about on the shelf and found A Coney Island Of The Mind, the title of which Ferlinghetti took from Into The Night Life by Henry Miller. I noted for no good reason that my copy cost me around eight dollars if you added tax. So I settled to read it again, remembering also my pilgrimage to City Lights long ago when I’m pretty sure it was that I bought A Coney Island Of The Mind and when the young man who took my money and wrapped the book in a paper bag seemed gentle and happy, even genuine and kind.

There will, of course, be lots of poems and reflections written about Ferlinghetti. Some will want to discuss what he means to poetry, some will talk of technique, some will confine themselves to his long life and great friendships, of his background as a journalist, some will pay tribute, some will denounce. It will be as it always has been. I think on the fact that at least, unlike Quintus Hortensius, the great speeches of Ferlinghetti’s very long life will not be lost.

Outside, now, the trees move in the warm wind. The magpies have gone. The songbirds are back. The pigeon watches. Not a great deal of any of this will matter for long.

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