Nicola Vulpe

Nicola Vulpe

Nicola Vulpe was born in Montreal. He completed a doctorate in philosophy at the Sorbonne, and taught English literature in Spain before returning to Canada. He has published three collections of poetry: When the Mongols Return, Blue Tile, and Insult to the Brain, with a fourth, Through the Waspmouth I Drew You, scheduled for 2021, as well as a novella, The Extraordinary Event of Pia H., who turned to admire a chicken on the Plaza Mayor, and essays and articles on subjects as diverse as the twelfth tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the afterlife of Norman Bethune.

 
SENTIMENTAL POEM FOR MAHA

You’ll just have to imagine
this is a love poem,
just have to look in your own
heart. You know
I’m no good at that sort of thing,
no good at love poems.

I wrote a few, sure,
but that was long ago,
was another time,
another life, that was …
something that wasn’t.

And you would want a real one,
a real love poem, something
perfumed, polished,
intricate as a ghazal,
as the tile-work on a Persian mosque,
smooth as the inside of an oyster shell.

So you’ll just have to imagine
that this is a love poem,
that it’s like a Fairouz song,
like her best, for Beirut,
only more so.

The longing, the nostalgia
unadulterated by music, untouched by voice,
by an aging singer,
by violinists sweating through yet another encore,
their thoughts already on a nargilé,
on a glass of arak.

You’ll have to imagine the words –
where the words take you,
an olive grove, a night among the cypresses,
a stone village.

You’ll have to imagine
the barred courtyard of your school,
your grandmother outside.

A ripe watermelon
the blue blue Mediterranean –

(Blue Tile, Ottawa: BuschekBooks, 2004)

 
CÓRDOBA

This being Córdoba, you’ve every right to expect
the Great Mosque, Maïmonides,
a borrowed lament for the decline of Islam
and the expulsion of the Jews.

At the very least Lorca,
oranges and olive groves and guitars.

But this being Córdoba,
I can only tell you how cold it was, how dark
and how we bluffed our way about the streets
looking for a place to feed the poet
and the ambassador.

How we doubled back – twice – and were glad
they understood less Spanish than they thought.

We lighted at last on a suitable place.

And this being Córdoba they both chose fish:
the one haddock, the other hake,
and laid back the wine.

The one preferred red, the other rosé
and demanded the resurrection of tradition.

The first loathed tourists, and had no dessert.

And this being Córdoba there was a Basque girl,
as foreign as ourselves.

And the walk back was confusing and lonely.

But this being Córdoba
we made arrangements for their breakfasts,
then saw them to their rooms, the poet
and the ambassador.

And ourselves to ours.

And this being Córdoba,
in the morning at the AVE
I bought a paper and a guidebook.

And this being Córdoba
in the year 900 Abbas ben Farras
learned the secret of glass.

And the year following came to grief
with his flying machine of feathers and wind
at the foot of the great tower
guarding the Guadalquivir.

(Blue Tile, Ottawa: BuschekBooks, 2004)

 
A HOTEL IN ALEPPO

In a hotel in Aleppo
by a window upon a courtyard

In a hotel in Aleppo
under a fan idly circling,
and someone outside
coughing or crying

In a hotel in Aleppo
within sight of the citadel
and the mountain

in a room

In a hotel in Aleppo
we pulled back at last
the sheets of our years

Worn and wrong to the touch,
soiled with love
and anger and ennui

In a hotel in Aleppo
in a room

With a fan idly circling
and someone outside
coughing or crying

We said,
“It’s time to go.”

In a hotel in Aleppo
by a window upon a courtyard

the night swollen with jasmine,
the moon in a fountain.

(Blue Tile, Ottawa: BuschekBooks, 2004)

 
IN ALEXANDRIA

for Constantine Cavafy (Alexandria, 1863 – 1933)

Look: torsos and noseless busts,
a handful of worn coins under glass.
Here, the gods grew old.

They gather, a week’s stubble on their cheeks, in slippers and shirtsleeves,
to sip sweet tea and toss dice across a table, or smack down dominoes.
They puff at old-fashioned cigarettes in yellow paper.

A greasy fan turns overhead.

Their exclamations, no one understands anymore,
when one or the other turns a cataracted eye inwards and sees
how he bent over his oar at Salamis,
how he stood beside his shield, naked, at Thermopylae

And here, as the sun sets, measures the earth,
throws into the sky: names for the unnumbered stars.

(Insult to the Brain, Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2019)

 
TRIESTE

for Umberto Saba (Trieste, 1883 – Gorizia, 1959)

We were warned about the wind.
You’ll be swept into the stones, or worse.
They put ropes across the great square. Hold on!

The flags, mostly red and green,
registered hardly a quiver.

We were warned about the heat.
July, we were told. August!

At sundown we sat on the long quai,
the sky was still, immaculate, pink.
And the water so very pleasant around our feet.

What kind of city, this? we asked.
Who does it belong to?

No one, came the answer.
Everyone. Itself.

But, listen. Be wary of Opicina, the cliffs.

(Insult to the Brain, Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2019)

DREAMLESS

for George Seferis (Urla, 1900 – Athens, 1971)

I awoke and there was nothing in my hands.
No marble head, its white curls, its dull, unseeing eyes,
the silent, stony lips – nothing.

How I would have wished for such a gift,
an old stone to weigh down my arms. A broken torso,
a spearhead, a greave or blade grown foamy with time,
a single coin struck by an obscure tyrant –
he ruled from his promontory a rock-strewn sea-lane.
A ragged bit of papyrus.

But no! I opened my eyes, and nothing.
Snow drifting onto the dark waves,
the sea stretching eastward into night.

(Insult to the Brain, Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2019)

 
Poetry in this post: © Nicola Vulpe
Published with the permission of Nicola Vulpe