Australia | 2010, 2014
Emma Jones is from Sydney. Her first book, The Striped World, was published by Faber & Faber in 2009, and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Collection, and the Anne Elder Award, and was short-listed for the Kenneth Slessor Prize, the John Bray Poetry Award, the Judith Wright Prize and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, among others. She has held writing fellowships from Cambridge and from the Australia Council, and was poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust from 2009-2010. She also held the Baltic Writing Residency at the Hotel Bergs in Riga, Latvia, and was a fellow at the Santa Maddalena Foundation for Writers in Tuscany in 2010. Emma currently lives in Rome.
I came to Santa Maddalena on a six week fellowship in the autumn of 2010, weighed down with bags and with months of travel, not to mention some persistent doubts about the direction of my work. I had some idea of what to expect: a good friend of mine had been to Santa Maddalena, and I’d heard some stories. But I was apprehensive. The first glimpse of my rooms told me I was in a sympathetic place: I saw a large, light-filled bedroom, with views of the hills and a faux-Moorish castle, and Ottoman art on the walls, and a great brass ceiling lamp that at night cast the room with printed stars. I had a bathroom mirror ringed by light bulbs (it was fun to feel like a noir actress or cabaret act for a few minutes each day). And I’d been given a studio whose slim desk and arab calligraphy and generous divan made me feel enclosed in a world of happy symmetries. It would, I thought, be a good place for poems. I felt at once that I was in one of those rare places where the outer world corresponds to and magnifies the best, glinting bits of inner life, which is what I suppose the Italians partly mean by the term simpatico.
I wasn’t wrong. I left Santa Maddalena six weeks later with my work invigorated, thank god. What a kindness, and what a relief. Santa Maddalena is of course the home and brain-child of Beatrice Monti Della Corte. It is, quite simply, a staggeringly lovely place. And having spent time with Beatrice over those six weeks, and having heard her (also quite staggering) casual anecdotes, I thought a) I would have loved to spend a day with her in sixties Milan, and b) it seems natural that she should have built a place like Santa Maddalena, which is dedicated to feeling without sentimentality, elegance without showiness, intelligence without posturing, and art without tricks. Her aesthetic eye is unwavering. It makes beauty — genuinely interesting beauty — an unapologetic priority. And beauty is everywhere at Santa Maddalena, inside and out, from the natural sky to the painted sky, from the wisteria on the walls to the twisted stems of the Turkish coffee-spoons. There’s nothing twee. It’s sheer pleasure to be sentient, to open your eyes at Santa Maddalena. And the effect of all this rigorous loveliness — on me, at any rate — was to create a sort of miasmic drug-haze of dumb aesthetic bliss. (That isn’t an overstatement — a testament perhaps to my silliness). I felt like one of those bees at my window, drunk on honeysuckle. I had the same slow avidity and golden drone. Luckily for me, the stimulus of the beauty outweighed any tranquilizing effect. The stimulus of the talk, too. I was saved from getting glutted. I wrote and read. My writing-mind went happily nuts, and I got busy.
The wide hours of the afternoon were particularly productive, when my only interruptions were the sounds of those bees and the tom-tom of the hunter’s guns in the valley below. And when I felt like a break from the studio there were always the woods, the hills and the valley for walking. I remember, in particular, the road up to Vallambrosa (it was October then, and the leaves by the road gave off that strange, autumnal, sourceless sort of light); a stream, with small waterfall, girded by flat stones, in the woods between Capello and Tosi; the roadside shrines, stiff with roses; a Mobil petrol pump that lives strangely in front of a graven war memorial. Other good memories: hours spent gathering mushrooms, only to be told by Carlo, the funghi doyen of Donnini, as he peered into my basket, that all I really had there was an impressive choice of painful hypothetical deaths (he kindly gave me, then, some of his own non-poisonous mushrooms, known after that as Pity Porcini); Sundays spent in Arezzo and Siena with the delightful and irrepressible Francisco Goldman and the clever, kind Ted Hodgkinson; wine-addled evenings spent with the same and with the intense and intelligent Chloe Aridjis; a bare, blazing church in Cascia; paintings; pizza; and, in a little museum in Monterchi, the pregnant Madonna of Piero della Francesca. These were the satellites and small orbits of which the hours in my studio were the quiet and indispensable centre. I’ll always be grateful for the time I spent in that room.
So: freedom, and the freedom to be industrious, and a rare sort of surrounding richness. This is what Santa Maddalena gives. It gives the comfort and kindness of a home with none of the elements that can make a home a suspect thing. And I’m very mindful that none of this happens magically. It’s all underpinned by the work and the truly excellent company of Beatrice and her staff, especially gracious Brigida and generous Ted. And of course of the domestic staff: Nilmili the Patient, and lovely Nadia, whose expressive face and carnival hands always put me in mind (in a Ukrainian way) of Giulietta Massina in La Strada.
Of course, dogs are the household gods of Santa Maddalena, and deserve the final mention here: my love to lumbering, kindly Teddy, and to Queen Alice. And special love to you, woolly little Paride: a cartoon dog, and my pooch amour. You’ll always be my
my stumped signor.
So — much gratitude and affection to the people and pooches of Santa Maddalena, from this itinerant Australian poet. Grazie, grazie! And ciao, bow-wow.
A sad postscript. Things are over between me and Paride. He’s taken up with a russet-coloured shiny-eyed leggy young pooch called Giulietta, recently adopted by Santa Maddalena. I’ve been sent the photos. I’ve decided to respond appropriately. And that will involve public disgrace for you, Paride – let every incoming writer see you for what you are – let them all read my final message to you, so they won’t be fooled by your stupid bouffant and your Disney frolics, you fluffy Valmont. All I have to say is this:
You bastard. Don’t make excuses, I don’t want to hear it. No, be quiet, I said I don’t want to hear it. You’re so fur-deep in lies I don’t think even you know what the truth is any more. Don’t call me, don’t write me, don’t skype me with your big luck-dragon eyes and your funky electronic collar and think that the whole glam-rock androgynous thing you’ve got going on will cut it this time. It’s over. Capiche? And you can tell Julietta that it’s only a matter of time before you do the same to her. She can get all the collar-accessories she wants (doesn’t it bother you that you have to make everyone in your own image? you creepy narcissist), she can do the whole chase and fetch dog thing, she can play the winsome shelter waif, but at the end of the day you’ll always be on the lookout for the next wagging tail. I see that now. I’m just glad I didn’t waste more time on you. So, before I sign off forever and never speak to you again, just a couple more things: 1) the clothes I’ve kept at your place – give them to Ted, I don’t want to see you 2) a real man can’t be stopped by an electric shock 3) I’ve met a burly Italian bulldog called Zeno. That’s it. Over and out.