PLEASE RESPOND –
Elaine sends me her new book Women in Public. I open it up to the poem “Goose,” where she writes: “Speak plainly of things public. It is beautiful. It is the square of beautiful. Contrite and metal. Figurine.” Contrition is what I feel when I think about Venice, a place that has always seemed both “dreamy” and “literary”—Shakespeare, Mann, Proust, men seeking something sad—and also like a trap of bad taste, a prismatic spectacle for tourists seeking a place, the “Queen of the Adriatic,” that never existed. Or that exists now but only in cheap form, “tacky,” “boring,” “no gay bars,” like the New York at Paramount Studios in LA. Venice is like TV: a broadcast of and from no-place, a signal emitted from a studio set, half-submerged in the sea.
I want to write to Elaine about her book but nothing comes to mind. I think, Maybe I’ll take it on a trip and something will finally come to me. Later in the book she writes, “Water is the supernatural / I wade in,” and I get stuck on those lines because it’s exactly this property of water I think about most when I’m in a city near it, like New York (where I wonder about the people who have disappeared into the rivers) or Venice (where people seem to lapse into the sea, slowly). Certain bodies of urban water are unapproachable and have taken on a literal supernaturalism. The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, for example, has been so thoroughly polluted that things that would naturally be there, aren’t. Instead, it’s a slush of disease, a gooey tributary to the East River where somewhat recently a dolphin became trapped and died from the toxins in the water. Like when you pass by the Canal the idea of a dolphin dying in it sticks with you.
I wade in—as Venice slowly wades in. The famous condition of the city is that it is sinking. This seems OK to me because a universal condition of everything seems to be that it is, in some way, sinking—into the earth, into the ocean, into debt, into violence, into sleep, into feelings of contrition. “Contrite and metal,” the pull toward the water, Catholicism, Elizabethan drama, the years as drainage, the years as letters, the years as unfinished books, spotty wi-fi, the doge, subsidence, acqua alta beginning in 782, recurring again in 840, 885, 1102, increasing in frequency in the Middle Ages, especially 1110, when the Metamauco was destroyed, increasing dramatically in the 20th century with the highest tide occurring in 1966, other exceptionally high tides being recorded in 1936, 1951, 1960, 1968, 1979 (twice), 1986, 1992, 2000, 2002, 2008, 2009 (twice), 2012 (twice), and 2013. I’m sure you follow. Elaine: “I scrawl and scrawl yield nothing.”
– Andrew Durbin