(revised 9-11-99)
(revised again 9-15-99)
(and again 12-18-00)
(and again 10-24/25/26-01)
(and again...)

"I've been there" --
it's an expression the kids use:
"I've been there!"
Meaning more: "I've experienced that!"
"I know that feeling," than that one has
bodily been to Bolgheri.
Let the accents falls where they may,
the meaning remains:
"I've known that state of being."
However, I did not know
until I got home that year
-- 1979 --
that I had been driven down
-- up and down, a number of times --
one of Italy's most famous avenues:
the five miles of cypress at Bolgheri.
Farm land.
Near Livorno.
Anna, the friend I visited,
told me,
and Toni, my Italian love,
was one of the great feudal estates
-- still owned, I believe, at that time,
by the ancient family, Gherardesca,
at least the central,
shrunken core,
the castle
round which we drove
on our way to Anna's
farm house
(mansion in American terms)
stone and old, high-ceilinged, many leveled,
its walls -- like Italian pottery --
painted with arabesques,
vines, flowers, birds, bees
hovering humbly above flagstones' clip-clop.
It contained a claque of witty,
merciless, sadistic children
of the Italian jet-set,
more articulate,
than I would ever be.
My heart shrank
hour by hour, fearing
that, scenting blood,
I'd be skewered by their next
I had caught a cold in Barcelona.
Ill at ease and out of place, with
a glamorousless runny nose,
I felt saggy-cheeked and dour
beside Anna and her trim, sleek,
fast-gobbling friends
-- all of whom spoke English,
and reverted to Italian
upon noticing Anna's odd, silent,
sniveling, American
failed to join the sniping.

After a day or two,
they all went some place
Anna was sure
I didn't want to go.
And I didn't.
I was too afraid I'd say
even less on a delightful excursion --
even if my nose had been dry.
They left me with the cook
and children.
The cook, mean or old or both,
deliberately or accidentally,
to understand that I,
got hungry.
I had no idea how to cook an egg
or boil water
with one of the instruments hanging
above the wood stove
where the cook held sway
in the great stone vault
in one of the International Set's
modest, play-pen kitchens.
The children taunted their own special guest,
the concierge's son from home (Milano),
and remarked upon how little I ate.

Eighteen years after being driven
up and down, up and down,
the famous
five miles [4.3 km] of cypress
from Bolgheri to the ocean
and back again
and back again,
I saw a movie:
awesome, beautiful,
overwhelming in its grace,
its evocation of the magic of love,
the wonder of place,
the sensuousness of restraint.
Its envy-stirring relentlessness
showed fate stalking the rich,
beautiful, war-torn,
of devotion, joie de vivre,
who bought aeroplanes
before the war
to play above the world
-- or to spy.
Though they never had enough money,
food turned up
and they never had to work.
In a ruined monastery, they dropped out of the war.
Still, life came streaming in at the door
though they pushed and pushed to remain
I am awed, amazed by biographies
of the famous loners
who were never alone:
Alexandra David-Neel had her Yongden,
did not acknowledge as a human being,
his wife,
who cooked and ministered to his isolation.
Van Gogh, perhaps, qualifies --
quite alone,
he sliced off his ear.
Imagine the pain,
the astonishment
of that!
Blood spurting over his collar,
down his cheeks, onto his hands,
no way to stick the stiff, bloody thing
back on.

I, too, have spent time
in monasteries,
full and empty,
the stone walls resounding
to my singly beating heart,
hearing the coy
attempts to conceal the noises
of would-be monks and monkesses.
I have been alone most of my life.

As I look back now, I see
it may have been along
that five miles of chiaroscuro
that, in the depths
of the cave that is my soul,
I decided
to stop
trying to project
as my life.
Too shy, in those days,
guised as myself,
I was, in fact, just beginning to shirk
the burden of being a Star:
clever, caustic,
capable of crucifying any topic
among my own set.
I was not, of course, like
so many
movie stars
in the flesh

-- who are, often, dowdy,
just like thee and me --

but as they are displayed
on the high, wrap-around screen
where one ensorceling moment
follows heel/toe
upon another;
one memorable remark
is cloned by its twin;
unique angles are explored:
an eyelash of the heroine,
fluttering, comes to rest
on the gentle tip of the rough-hewn
finger of the, up to that moment,
taciturn lover.

It might have been then,
at Bolgheri,
that I decided to acknowledge
that I was just an awkward, wishful-envier of
all that beauty,
all that wit.
nothing but an imitator of all that
insoucient behavior.

Somewhere in the bowels of my heart,
between the shadows cast by the cypress,
and death acknowledged by the sea --

[One NET reference once said: despite the 2,500 + cypresses
-- which "came from Firenze, Pisa and Ripafratta" --
there are no shadows!* you "run completely under the sun"
Due east? -- due west?
In the sun, then? in the equatorial, unblinking sun.]

-- between the trees,
I made a decision to stonewall
the devilishly divine
beauty of the Italian imagination,
to forswear it as a role-model
for an American upstart.
I turned
against witty, caustic,
glamorous gestures,
the lives of the exquisites.
I committed
-- it seems --
to bumble through
my life as me:
stiff, awkward,
often tongue-tied,
at times mute,
terrified, hurting, hidden
-- where had I learned so much pain?
from the desire to live my life
like the stars on the screen?
from trying to be as stunningly
gorgeous as a three hour movie
full of astonishing people,
amazing angles,
the lushness of landscapes
shot from a plane,
the terror of deaths,
experienced but not real?
from the lens-framed agony of others' sufferings,
the exuberance of the imaginings of
Minghella's, Visconti's
Antonioni's, Bertolluci's minds?
Odd, isn't it, how the perceivers
of magical beauty
run to the Italian
-- as if they were all reared
in from the sea,
along that same five miles of cypress
approaching Bolgheri.

Now, after eighteen years absence from that life,
my friends,
who encouraged my manque
behavior, are dead, even
the Italian Toni.
Somewhere in the years
before he died,
I stopped dreaming,
envying, wanting to be someone.
I lost the sense of living
life as scene,
archly acted,
and re-enacted
party prattle.
I no longer wanted to
put on a performance
to get dressed up,
to charm,
excite others' envy,
stir others' wonder.
I backed down and off,
shut my mouth,
changed lives,
changed houses,
changed moods,
changed trees
sat at the edge of parties with nothing to say,
saying nothing,
and finally stopped going to parties.
The living and the dead
accumulated in my life,
and I never went to movies.

But on October 7th, 1997,
I drove again (on the screen),
down the avenue, past the cypress of Bolgheri.

[Toni had said,
they were as famous in Italy
as Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" in America.
I thought at the time that his
comparison might be a little unbalanced.
Now it's hard to remember
which way I thought the scale was tipped,]

On the screen, in the movie,
I again passed
between those trees
my life
as an envier of light and shadow manques.
I remembered wanting,
if I could not be them,
to create them,
to make movies,
poignant, beautiful,
to exploit the mighty emotions
of the human heart
with color, movement, grace,
with not a moment between the scenes
to eat or shit
or to cry for three years
after saying, like in the movies,
a gay and dramatic "Goodbye."
My mother once said:
"Life is difficult
for you because you think of time
as in a novel."
I didn't know then
that what took moments in fiction
could take ten years in reality.

But Mother was wrong, too.
Now, as I live my own life,
I find a single day
can, as in Joyce, fill a whole novel,
one voyage a whole sea.
last night,
in the stunning movie, I cried and cried
re-lived my former life,
my former being as The English Patient
(who resembled my father --
recently dying, recently dead).
I cried and cried
I no longer see life
with the eyes
of so much astonishing

Still, at times,
I hear the glass beads tinkle.
At times I see the cheese-cloth
on the bloody remains of a face.
But now, structured in time
with the chaos of life around it,
a stomach pain, a burp, a sprained ankle,
harassing obligations blend into a balanced avenue
as retreating as the
five miles of conical cypress
down which the heroine travels
from the darkness of Bolgheri
to day.


On September 11, 1999
after researching Bolgheri all day
at the Public Library
I found
the five kilometers of cypress
were planted in 1801 by Camillo della Gherardesca,
that The English Patient was filmed elsewhere,

and that Giosue Carducci wrote Davanti San Guido,
a solemn, famous, gloomy, maudlin poem
about those trees, not so different from my own,
"I cipressi che a Bolgheri alti e schietti
van da San Guido in duplice filar,
quasi in corsa giganti giovinetti
mi balzarono incontro e mei gurdar..."

We each have our memories.

Copyright © 2001 Jan Haag

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail:


* Jennifer Walker


A Brief History of Bolgheri -- in Italian.





21st CENTURY ART, C.E. - B.C., A Context